Monster Camp (2007) — When LARPing meets MMOs

“I happen to think that one of the best gifts you can give yourself is simply permission to go and pretend.”

Tom’s rating: It really should have been more about the monsters at monster camp. Two fangs ups and two fangs down.

Tom’s review: Set in the good old days of 2007, Monster Camp follows a group of LARPers (Live Action Role Players) who like to play a game called NERO. What’s NERO? It’s a game first invented by the New England Role-playing Organization, thus “NERO.” NERO was so popular that it spread across these United States and made it all the way over to the other side of the US where a group in Seattle, Washington picked it up and began running the game.

Two thousand and seven was a great time for roleplaying, not because of D&D 3.5 edition, but because of MMOs and particularly World of Warcraft. Anyone that had any degree of nerd inside them was locked to their screen playing the greatest MMO of all time. This was no different for the members of the Seattle, Washington chapter of NERO Alliance. The MMO was hailed to several times in the documentary, including a bit where one of the game masters skipped out to play WoW instead of keeping his responsibilities to the group during an event.

One of my favorite moments in the documentary focused in on a couple of loveable nerds and room-mates named Carter and Brandon. Where Brandon would go to work in the day at his job at Fred Meyer, Carter was jobless and “life-less” in his own words. While Brandon was at work, Carter would play WoW. While Brandon wasn’t at work, Carter shifted to play console games on the TV while Brandon played WoW. Both were high school drop outs that still needed to finish their senior year in high school. (I hope my oldest son never sees this as an aspirational goal.)

As the documentary goes on to explain, playing NERO isn’t free. One doesn’t simply waltz up to the Millersylvania State Park in Washington and join in the fun. All Carter and Brandon seem to be able to afford is to play as the NPCs. NPCs just happen to get beat up on the regular by the PCs, who pay the premium price and get to play the heroes of these games.

I really wish the documentary would have played up this gem of information. I think they tried to do that somewhat, but ultimately the movie is a little lost in getting into the minds of all the three faction groups of the film instead. Three faction groups? Yes, the NPCs, the PCs, and the Game Masters. The name of the documentary is “Monster Camp.” It’s a missed opportunity to view the majority of this experience from the underdogs that constantly get the crap beat out of them.

There’s one particular scene where the Game Masters decide to give the PCs a quest to find spleens from “Beach Combers.” It’s a moment of ridiculousness where you see one of the extremely low level NPC players just wandering around aimlessly near a lake waiting for a PC to come up and hit him a few times so he can give them a “spleen.” And they pay money for this experience!

I wish they would have focused on just this aspect, but instead, ultimately you watch the Seattle, Washington chapter of NERO Alliance break apart as the Game Masters get stressed out trying to constantly supply the PCs with new quests, face problems of understaffing, deal with allegations of cheating, and suffer through internal drama within the group. Drama, you say? Oh yeah, members of the group are all too willing to talk about the hookups and breakups that happen between members. Inevitably that outside of the game conflict leads to inside of the game conflict.

The documentary also does a good job of showing exactly how complex and ridiculous the rules of playing this game are. Players have to say complex spell phrases, announce exactly how much and the type of damage they are dealing, constantly track their life in a fast-paced battle, and deal with the inventory issues of an MMO in real life. One guy had 30 potions taped to the inside of his shield. One woman cut up 3 bedsheets so she could craft a huge supply of “spell bags” full of birdseed. All of them carried around pieces of paper that detailed what they could and couldn’t do and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to memorize it all.

In the end, this documentary excels at capturing the personalities of those that played NERO in Seattle around 2007. Where it fails is in not finding its soul and the best angle to present the story it so desperately wants to tell.

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