If you're a fan of something, you'll likely be able to find a convention where you can nerd out. From comic books to anime to Doctor Who to My Little Pony, the U.S. is overflowing with weekend fan events. Amongst them, Wyrd Con, which took place at the Westin LAX over Memorial Day Weekend, is one of the more unusual gatherings. It's a convention for storytellers, which makes it as general as it is niche.
Specifically, Wyrd Con deals in interactive storytelling. "That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people," says Mitch Meconi, the Live Events Director at Wyrd Con. "We've been really concentrating on bringing folks in to explain to them all of the opportunity that that new media really presents in telling stories."
This is Wyrd Con's fifth year and it's first in Los Angeles. Previously, the event took place in Orange County. Ira Ham is the chairman, as well as a co-founder, of the convention. Ham explains the concept of the convention in contrast to the typical sort of story-based entertainment we ingest. He uses movies as an example. "If you want to do something with it, you really can't," says Ham. "They're going to write their movie and then they're going to be done with it."
But what if there was more material and fans could interact with it? Ham notes that this is similar to Pottermore, the Harry Potter site that incorporates exclusive bits of story and interactive content. Still, there's a lot more that can be done with interactive storytelling. Wyrd Con puts together these ideas with a series of panels, workshops, gameplay sessions and social events.
Wyrd Con is an educational experience as well as a recreational one. The convention organizers are bringing together the experts in a variety of fields to share knowledge with those who want to learn how to tell a good story. Those lessons range from a panel on how to pitch an idea to costume creation sessions to a foam fighting demo.
Belegarth Medieval Combat Society is an international organization where people can come together for medieval-style fighting tournaments with large, foam equipment. It may not be a real sword fight, but things can get pretty intense. One participant, whose combat name is Finnish, goes through the rules before he teaches me the art of the fight. If you're struck in the arm, it's considered a loss of limb and you have to continue with one behind your back. Similarly, a strike to the leg means you have to move forward bent on one knee. Two blows to the limbs means you're dead. I ask if people protest that it's "just a flesh wound." He answers that this happens a lot. Monty Python references will inevitably seep into tales of medieval battle wounds.
After I die a few times, Finnish and a fighter known as Patraeus explain what's going on here. "I like to describe it as medieval paintball," says Patraeus. "It's a lot more flamboyant in our garb and demeanor, but it's very physical."
There's not a strong story element with Belegarth. "We don't do the role-play," says Finnish. "The farthest we get with our character creation is our fighting names and our garb, which is the stuff we wear on the battlefield." Still, it's something that could be incorporated into a story, if someone chose to do that.
In a section of the hotel's ballroom, a large group of people are about to embark on an important space mission. The future of Earth Republic depends on them. Together, they shout "Earth Republic, united and strong!" and salute.
LARP, live action role-playing, is a big part of Wyrd Con. It's storytelling at, perhaps, its most interactive, when a group of people become the characters whose tales will unfold during the course of an hours-long game. By the middle of Saturday afternoon, Starship Valkyrie is about to take off. This is a game that has its roots in Wyrd Con. Christian Brown developed it to run at the event back in 2010. The participants here seem to know what to do. The words to Earth Republic's Pledge of a Allegiance are recited without hesitation before they embark on the adventure.
Interactive storytelling doesn't have to be about large games, though. Inside a small, vendor area near the hotel lobby, a production studio called StoryForge set up shop. Based in the Buena Park area, StoryForge is dedicated to telling multi-media tales and helping others tell their own stories. Right now, they're creating small archives of world myths. A selection of Norse stories were available at their convention table as CDs. Greek and Japanese mythology collections are in the works.
Rachel Beck co-founded StoryForge with fellow storyteller Karyn Keene. Both had previously worked at production companies that focused on a single medium. But in the half a year that StoryForge has been in existence, they've done everything from webcomics to podcasts to "story jewelry." Beck is the writer for Dark Menagerie, a jewelry line that contains a "small mystery" which unfolds as people collect the pieces. The idea is to tell a story that will bring the audience together. "People can meet and interact with each other over the story," says Beck.
At Wyrd Con, the stories are the focus of the event and that leads to certain goals that may be achieved as the convention continues. One is that they want to see fans of different media mingling with each other. That's happening, says Ham. "We're gaining exposure to each other's form of art and expression," he says. "When you get that, you get amazing mixed media."
The other ambition here is that someone will take inspiration from the event, learn how to create cross-platform, interactive stories and run with the ideas. "With that in mind, you're going to have the next Star Wars come up and it's not going to be just on the silver screen. It's going to be in a story that you can personally follow throughout your day-to-day life," says Ham. "It's going to be one where your decisions affect it and you will have opportunities to live in that world."
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