Bubbling away out of sight of mainstream French life is a rich seam of fantasy, imagination and make-believe.
Whether it is Murder Weekends, Escape Rooms, Cosplay, or Jeux Grand Nature (LARP in English – Live Action Role Play) people are spending their leisure time inventing alternative personas, and living in alternative worlds with alternative rules.
The most complex fantasies of all are ‘les jeux de rôle grandeur nature’ which are usually just called ‘GN’ for short.
French teacher Benoît Pouzet organises GN games in a world called ‘Erenthyrm’, which he and his brother Jean-Loup created as teenagers.
“We have both been hooked on GN since we first played one in Périgueux. I was about 16, and had got in to role play on an internet forum.
“I loved it because with GN you enter a world alongside strangers from all professions all over France and you don’t even ask who they are or where they are from.
“You just take them at face value with no judgements and no prejudices. I think that’s important in life in general.”
He and Jean-Loup started organising GNs in a wood near where they lived just south of Châteauroux.
In 2006, they set up www.ebenaum.fr , a portal into the secret world of Erenthyrm, along with Benoît’s primary school teacher wife Maud, to formalise the activity.
GNs are often organised in worlds invented by the organiser but some are in worlds created in manga, or books or films, including The Three Musketeers, Star Wars, or Westerns.
Drakerys (www.drakerys.org ), meanwhile, is based on the board game.
Before he announces a GN via social media, Benoît works out the broad outlines of the plot: in the peaceful land of Erenthyrm, the king has lost his sword and it must be found, there are invaders on the horizon, etc.
As players sign up, they receive the rules of the game along with instructions on how to prepare, how to build their characters, make costumes, and what equipment to bring. “There have to be rules otherwise it’s anarchy and no-one is in the same world,” he said.
“So we explain how to create your character, your back story and your purpose. Sometimes we can give people a character but most people create their own. We have written the broad outlines of the plot by that stage, but we don’t divulge it.”
Benoît’s GNs are usually for between 50 to 120 players, but he said the French GN Federation, FédéGN, lists events for up to 2,000 people.
Some GN organisations offer games suitable for children, but many are not and the same goes for beginners. Some associations have even bought their own land, and others use ‘Airsoft’ weapons – which use gas to ‘shoot’ various missiles.
The variety is extraordinary. Not all GNs focus on battles and conflict, some focus on experiencing a range of emotions, others on collaborative experiences.
“Usually we establish two campsites, a modern one where the cars are parked and a historical one within the game.
“So when people arrive, they set up camp and collect any props or other elements they’ll be using during the game, then they dress as their characters, we eat together and have a meeting just to go over the rules and safety procedures and then the game begins.
“We know that we will stage a scene at this time or another to re-energise the game but that’s all. We also have actors who aren’t players; they enact scenes we have written. Like a king who gets assassinated, for example.”
In conflict-based GNs there are very often battles but players usually use foam rubber swords, so no-one gets hurt.
“We organise games suitable for beginners, and security is very important, especially as rumours run through the game of sects and attacks and threats, so it’s important to keep everyone safe. Timings are variable. GNs tend to end when they end, or when people have to leave, but usually we stage an event that finishes the game.”
Benoît said the atmosphere changes from one GN to another. Some are very light-hearted and others are more serious. One thing they all have in common is that historical accuracy is not important. They are games, not re-enactments.
“In Erenthyrm, we stay in character. If someone leaves the arena, goes to the toilet, or returns to their car, it is accepted that they aren’t playing. And we have rules about entering people’s tents after, say, 2am. Each GN has different rules.”
Although there are a few professional companies springing up, most GNs are organised by not-for-profit associations. “It’s a lot of work but we try to find free locations to keep the costs down, and we organise the catering ourselves, too.
It’s pretty seasonal. Most people don’t get much time off in the winter, and it’s just not practical in very bad weather.”
Kandorya (www.kandorya.net ) is one of the largest GNs in France, and offers half-day events for beginners who would like to test the waters and see what it’s like.
Some GNs raise the price the closer it gets to the date of the game, but Benoît charges a flat rate of around €60 for two nights’ accommodation, insurance, catering and the GN organisation.
First-time fantasy gamer’s one regret: not having her own sword
Connexion reader Lena Roche spent an entire weekend – from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon – playing a ‘Jeu GN’ last year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“It cost about €50, which covered accommodation, food and the organisation of the GN.
“It was held in the grounds of a more-or-less ruined castle outside Lyon. Parts of the building were usable and some players slept in it; there was a rudimentary kitchen where the organisers cooked for everyone and there were toilets, but no bathrooms or showers.
“The rest of us slept outside in a kind of cave. There were 50 to 60 players, six to 10 organisers and their helpers, but no children.”
The organisation of the GN took months. “We met the guy who thought up the various storylines and discussed who we could embody – as it was my first GN I was a bit apprehensive.
“It was set in a fantasy quasi-medieval world where magic exists so I decided to be an alchemist, meaning I had to choose my special powers, strengths and weaknesses in accordance with that.”
Having chosen their characters and found their costumes, the players travelled to the castle, still without knowing the details of the game.
“We drove there in costume, so once we left the car we put our stuff in the cave (a yoga mat, sleeping bag and a torch but that was about it) and then we all met with the queen.
“There were all kinds of characters; aristocrats, lowlife, cooks, priests, monks, a bit of everything.
“All of us had our own quests: to get money or discover a new potion, find the treasure, or whatever... and to achieve your quest you had to solve riddles, follow treasure hunts, find clues, earn money by interacting with other players and, of course, unexpected things kept happening.
“That’s the point of it. It’s an adventure. You forget real life, you forget your job, you get into the fantasy world and want to figure out what’s happening and why.”
The organisers are also in character, but they have a script of how the game goes. “They tell you rumours, so you find the right clues, and they know the outline of what’s going to happen, like when we were attacked in the middle of the night while we were sleeping.”
“The swords are soft plastic but they are quite well made, they look realistic – and there was a room in the castle that was done up as a tavern, and it was really convincing, with all the goblets and stuff.
“When we got attacked I really regretted not having a sword!
“When preparing I’d decided weapons wouldn’t be necessary, but in the end I used someone else’s sword.
“Next time, I’ll definitely be a fighter with a sword!
“It’s completely absorbing. Night fell and suddenly we all had to go to a certain meeting point and there were weird bats and other strange animals (impersonated by other players).
“We had to find the priest and get an enchantment to keep the bats at bay, and at one point I got called to help the queen, who had been poisoned.
“I really needed to cure her in order to earn enough money to buy the magic potion that was my quest, but didn’t have enough potions.
“But then I remembered a bit of Harry Potter, and chucked a Bezoar down her throat. And that worked!”
Lena said she had got so involved in the game she did not have time to get any photographs. “I suppose we’ll just have to go again!”
Murder, most entertaining!
Murder parties are also increasingly popular. Often based on the board game Cluedo or themed on detective novels, people spend anything from a hour to an entire weekend solving a murder mystery. The accent is definitely on fun.
Professional actor Leslie Stern and his wife Dale run a 1901 not-for-profit association ‘Murder By Arrangement’ simply because they love it.
“We are only paid travel and expenses, but audiences love it as much as we do, which makes it all worthwhile.”
For events close to home (north-east of Nantes) he and Dale work with a small team of actors, but for events further away they co-opt members of the audience into playing various roles.
“We always know who is the murderer and their motive, but we don’t tell the people who agree to play characters in the murder mystery. They are as much in the dark as everyone else. It makes it more fun that way!”
He and Dale have a selection of storylines (think Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Inspector Clouseau and Lord Peter Wimsey) which can fit anything from an after-dinner entertainment to a whole weekend. “We can do murder parties in French or English, and with a bit of notice, even in Spanish!”
Once the murder has taken place (very often in the dark) or the unfortunate victim has been discovered, the ‘corpse’ is ceremoniously removed, and the detective summoned.
The suspects are then interrogated by the detective and other players.
Every suspect has a motive for committing the crime. “Of course, we have a limited number of suspects and everyone knows that the murderer is among them, so around 10% of the audience will always guess the answer, but if more people guess right, we change the ending to something none of them have guessed,” said Leslie.
Find an escape back into reality
Escape games began as computer games in which players were imprisoned in a room on their computer screen with various items of furniture and had to use their keyboard to move around clicking until they discovered clues – which would lead to more clues, which would eventually allow them to ‘escape’.
Today, those games are quirky relics of the past, and many people now go with a group of friends to an escape room centre (which often has a selection of differently themed escape rooms), pay to be locked into a real room and set about solving puzzles, finding clues and figuring out how to escape.
Escape rooms are camera controlled so that if someone gets ill, or wants to leave, or the players get stuck and want to ask for a clue, an operator can intervene.
Some centres offer to put single players into groups, if they want to go along alone.
Operators vie to offer new and original decors and more difficult clues, and some escape games can be played at levels varying from easy to fiendishly difficult.
Almost every town in France has at least one escape game centre and most large cities have multiple offers.
Prices start at around €20 per person per game. Find one near you with an internet search for “escape game”.
And now for something completely different...
Nationwide competition takes Cosplay to a whole new level
Cosplay (a mash-up of the words ‘costume’ and ‘play’) involves people dressing up as characters from cartoons, anime, comic books, manga, feature film, TV series and video games.
Players cannot invent their own characters, and they have to make their costumes and props entirely themselves, as buying ready-made items is frowned on.
They then enter competitions in which each person appears on stage in costume and acts out their character for a minute or two. The aim is to look, move and sound as much like the original as possible.
Anthony Michel (32) founded the Cosplay Coupe de France three years ago. “I discovered Cosplay when I was 12,” he said.
“I think I saw an event advertised in a newspaper… anyway I went along and got hooked.”
He does not play himself, but enjoys watching Cosplay competitions and has big hopes for the Coupe de France.
“Twenty years ago, people were making armour out of cardboard boxes covered in tin foil but now it’s craft foam, which looks exactly like the real thing.”
The 2019 Coupe de France in September attracted 32 finalists from all over the country.
Entries are limited to three entrants from each region and players can only represent the region in which they were born, or in which they live.
“We get funding from five different regions: Occitanie, Normandie, Bretagne, Sud-PACA, and Centre-Val de Loire, which means we can pay travel expenses for competitors.
“For some reason, there are no Cosplay events in Corsica, and we’d also like to get more entrants from overseas départements.”
Players do not always dress as the same character. Once they have been to an event wearing one outfit, they start making another one.
“The joy is in fabricating the costumes and solving problems, like when you want to dress as a character which doesn’t have a waist, or doesn’t have shoulders.
“Or a costume requiring electronics, or lights. How do you overcome that?”
The Coupe de France is for solo players only but some Cosplayers form groups and perform in tableaux.
Find Cosplayers in your area by googling “cosplay” plus the number of your department.