A Coda for the Rising Star

It is night, although within the CIC, it’s always night. But this is a dark hour, as screens flash gravitational warnings and everyone assumes crash positions. Throughout the room, the squeaking and creaking of a spaceship can be heard. The Rising Star is a medical ship, and it’s being held together by little more than desperate ingenuity, miracles, and prayers.

Even worse, it has no landing gear. The lowest decks have been flooded to act as a cushion, but nobody knows if it will be enough.

Behind the bulkhead, I sit with my computer, DJ turntables, and orange sound pads. The storytellers have informed me to give it everything I got. I turn the volume to maximum — to dangerous decibel levels.

We are on final countdown for approach, and this landing is beginning to look more and more like a terrible crash. Through the bulkhead, directly opposite me, I hear one of the technicians praying, over and over and over again.

“Lords of Kobol, hear my prayer. Lords of Kobol, hear my prayer. Lords of Kobol, hear my prayer.”

In that space between one second and touchdown, I wonder if their gods are even listening. And then we crash.

It takes two minutes to come to a full stop. When they do, the klaxons flash and the alarms don’t cease. The damage is extensive, and fires rage all over the ship.

Nobody knows it yet, but the Rising Star will never fly again.

In summer of 2013, the teams behind Phoenix Outlaw Productions and Eleventh Hour Productions united to deliver a fan larp like no other. At Dexcon 16, the first installment of Battlestar Galactica: Tales of the Rising Star came about. Back then, they had no sound systems and few props. Most of the build consisted of PVC piping and tarps, and made use of whatever tables and seats the hotel could get for the larp-runners.

In related news, it was my first Dexcon, and the Outlaws were quickly becoming some of my favorite friends. When I heard that they wanted to do this, I decided to watch through the whole, re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series in preparation. Of course, I fell in love with the pilots, so I decided to play a military character.

I still remember his name. Kit Carlow, callsign Goliath. I was the shortest guy in a BSG tank top there, but with so little, that game achieved so much for me in story and immersion, and it made it all the more worthwhile to keep going. In the madness of glee and catharsis, I thought to myself that I would love to come back and play this character.

But I also thought that it would be amazing to go into game design, to work on larps — to become the man behind the curtain.

Nine months later, when they began to plan out all the details of the next BSG game, a conversation happened. I remember virtually nothing about it. Indeed, it was by fortune of being friends with some amazing voices in larp design. But in the end, they signed me on to work for the BSG larp. My job was sound.

Now, a lot of things culminated in that single moment where I had the speakers, the equipment, and the sampling know-how to do this. I pretty much made the sound samples in a day, and for four years, I used the same basic equipment. Over four games with sound design in them, only two things really changed.

I got a new computer, and I got new speakers.

As a result, coming back to the Rising Star was always like greeting an old friend. I used the same sound board for all four games, and I never remapped any of the samples. I had a single button to loop the condition one alarms, and a single pad for FTL jumps. The rest were things like missile impacts, collisions, squeaks, creaks, and strange ambiances throughout the ship.

The speakers used for the final game. This hallway connected all of the game spaces. The acoustic echoes did half my job.

Fast forward to our final game: “Roll The Hard Six.”

Ever since the fourth session, the teams had been of the mind that this would be our conclusion. The last game. The final flight. But trust me: a lot of factors threatened to change our minds. From meeting people who owned fantastic set pieces and wanted to buy us props for this game, to speaking with players who never imagined an end and spoke the world of our work. After all, the new Battlestar Galactica series lasted for four fracking seasons.

But we also knew that all great things come to an end, and while we were ahead, we wanted to go out with a bang. Nobody wants to die with a whimper, out in the cold vacuum of space, and this is an apt metaphor for the lifespan of larps like this.

So we planned. We organized. We went in.

Like clockwork, we ran into problems during the final build.

And we had issues even before that! During sound tests in my garage, one day before we headed out to Dexcon 20, I broke a key sound cable. I spent most of that evening after work in a fury — and not the frantic kind. The demonic kind. I was not remotely pleasant to be around, but until I solved the problem with a workaround, everyone knew that they had to deal with it.

Fortunately, I solved my problems. But we ran into curious ones during the actual setup. The engine build nearly faced a similar catastrophe when one of the tubes stopped lighting up. This time, we had an ace in the hole: engineers from the University of California: Santa Cruz.

That clear tube was supposed to be blue, but the LED didn’t respond until UCSC engineers fixed it.

See, one of the benefits of running a blowout game is that you can do some really fracking cool stuff. In addition to acquiring some of the best sets I’ve ever contributed to, UCSC was doing research on wearable technology in larp. We designed a major plot around their devices, which consisted of LEDs, motors, and tiny buttons. It was one of these motors that helped them diagnose the engine problem and fix it.

While they did that, I ran my final sound tests for BSG — ever. James Fey probably summed up our pre-game mood the best: “When the klaxons went off, it sounded like we were defusing a bomb. And that was pretty stressful.”

I didn’t know if we could land the final game for everyone. But at the very least, we could give them one hell of a ride.

The wearable technology from UCSC. The green circle indicates full health. The blue light means that he consents to physical roleplay. The white lights show his NPCs mental energy. None of this tech was considered out-of-game.

We briefed our players. We began to sort out cliffhangers from the last session. You know, things such as guns to a Cylon’s head, a surrounding fleet of basestars, an impending FTL jump — “office drama.”

As I sat behind the bulkhead for the fourth and final time, I couldn’t help but think of where I was, and of course, where I started. Five years ago, I wasn’t a novelist. I wasn’t a game designer on the rise. I didn’t have a college degree and I’d only ever worked one real job. For all the consistency of my setup, a lot had changed.

Change is good, but change means that sometimes, you have to say goodbye. I firmly believe this to be one of the greatest causes of conflict on our planet. People will fight so very hard to keep everything the same. To act like nothing’s wrong, and so nothing needs to change. But to defy that necessity in humans is to deny their humanity.

Perhaps ironically, the risks of choice and change would become key themes in “Roll The Hard Six.”

“As soon as we stop acting like a civilization, we lose everything.”

During the Tales of the Rising Star, I quite literally played a man behind a curtain. Between loud sounds of impending trouble and doom, I occasionally spoke to the players as either the shipboard computer or someone on transmissions. Once, I imitated the static of a pilot’s channel after he was lost to the cosmos.

Behind that bulkhead in CIC, I heard a lot of conversations. Deep ones, hilarious ones, and everything in between. Many people didn’t know that I was behind those monitors, hidden away to do my job.

The CIC. I sat in that space between the monitors and the windows, blocked off by the black tarp.

A perfect example: during the last game, an engineer got very involved in his roleplay and accidentally started pulling out my mixing board. He had no idea anybody was back there or that he shouldn’t be that deep in. What followed was probably the funniest exchange I’ve ever had during these games:

Engineer: Oh hey, what’s this?
Me: Don’t touch that.
Engineer: Oh! Okay! Who’s there?
Me: …Don’t worry about it.
Engineer: *hysterical giggles for a solid thirty seconds*

At one point, I also took the chance to have a conversation through a malfunctioning DRADIS screen. I temporarily took control of the machine, if only because one engineer kept cursing out the thing and scolding at it to work.

And of course, the classic “Did you try turning the ship on and off, sir?

Gods, I lived for those moments.

But I also played audience to thousands of heartbreaking words and dozens of deep moments.

That one pilot who begged the Lords of Kobol to hear his prayer never ceases to haunt me.

And when they decided to flood the decks, one soldier begged CIC not to, because his family was down there.

And I will never forgot how much they doubted themselves, their democracies, and their hopes.

There is perhaps something inherently dark about knowing that you are playing the final game of a larp. You carry that anxious weight into game with you — the reminder that you will never be this character again. To a larper, every character might as well be a piece of the soul.

An engineer surrounded by soldiers opens up a Cylon unit.

“All Along The Watchtower” plays — again, just because no one wants to say goodbye.

But when new presidents are instated, funerals are held, assassinations commence, engineers blow up their own engine room, and Raptors disappear off-world, there’s no singular ending we can bring to the players. As one of our storytellers, Shoshana Kessock, moved through the rooms, she stopped all action with eleven words:

“Everybody in this room listen to the sound of my voice.”

Every time, they clung to her words when she told them to shut their eyes. She told them to think of absolutely nothing, and when they found that abyss, she asked them to think of home — where they came from, where they are, and where they now believe they are going.

I only witnessed this once, in CIC, before I stepped outside to stop other players from entering. But something magical began to happen as a result.

Everybody began to find their endings.

A tense encounter with a Cylon in the airlock,

I heard many stories, and in the days to follow, I read many epilogues. I read about engineers tossing bottles from the top of the Rising Star, shooting them out of the sky and finding peace with their choice to ground the ship forever. I heard about various individuals who hightailed it off-world and came to find Earth. I was granted the privilege to see all these incredible stories emerge, and within the realm of possibilities, there is not a single epilogue I can lift above the others.

To every player, their personal ending is a spot in the dark. A dear memory, hanging like a light bulb — or maybe, just maybe, it drifts through space like the Rising Star, which flies on in our stories.

To every larper, an ending is home. It is Mom or Dad calling you inside as it gets dark. It is the trust of sanctuary, of a roof over your head after you’ve finished playing. It is the feeling of your favorite quilt as you slowly fall asleep.

With these final reflections, a great chapter of my life has concluded, and I look forward to the next one. But I will never forget the privilege of contributing to this larp in whatever small way I could. To everybody who stood by my side on this journey, I thank you. I truly thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

And to all the players and all the staff: may your dreams be of the Rising Star, all the friends you found there, and all the hopes you carried across the cosmos.

May your dreams be of home.



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Nicolas Hornyak

Nicolas Hornyak


Nicolas Hornyak is a writer and UX designer. You can check out his UX portfolio at nicolashornyak.pro or his written works at nicolashornyak.com.