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Badass Larp Talk #22: Why You’re Not Having Fun Anymore

One of the most wonderful things about long form/campaign larp is that it offers a chance to become part of a story that spans months or years of play, allowing you to inhabit your role for a length of time that would seem ludicrous to many other styles of gaming. It’s one of the things I love most about larp, this chance to weave stories over a long period of time and watch whole communities of characters mature and develop in the world, and I truly believe it is one of this medium’s most powerful strengths. That said, though, campaign play also brings with it some very real problems of its own, and I’m not even talking about more community-oriented ones like staff changes, out of character feuds, story arc disputes, rules quarrels, site troubles, or other messy circumstances that arise in any group over a long enough period of time.

No, this post is all about four of the most insidious things that many larpers wind up doing to themselves over the course of a long form game. These are ways that even great players sabotage their own fun, typically without realizing or understanding exactly what has happened and why it’s taken the fun out of a game they used to love so much. I’ve seen them happen many times over the years, at games ranging from fantasy boffer larps to White Wolf parlor games and beyond, and I’ll admit I’ve suffered from them myself in the past.

So if you’re playing in a campaign game, take a minute and run down the list. It might just help you steer clear of an obstacle you didn’t even see coming.

1) You’re Going to Every Game (Whether You Feel Like It or Not)

Seriously. Burnout is a major factor in both player and game runner fatigue. Finding a great new game can be a lot like falling in love – you can’t stop talking about them, you can’t stop thinking about all the fun you’ve had, and you definitely can’t wait for the next time. But eventually some of that feeling is bound to fade, and you’re due to start feeling a little bit fatigued. But you keep going to all the events anyway, because now you’re invested in the story and the other characters, plus it’s a chance to see friends you’ve made that it’s hard to see at other times. So you go, even though your heart’s not in it the way it was before, and don’t get me wrong – it’s still fun. But it’s a different kind of fun, because now you’re not going for the game anymore, you’re going because it’s a social expectation of sorts.

Eventually you can find yourself going to game grudgingly, or even dreading the approach of another event, because what was fun now seems more like a chore.And that, my friends, is the biggest red flag of all, because if you don’t heed those feelings, pretty soon you might walk away from game entirely – and all because you didn’t heed the warning your larp brain was sending.

The Fix: If you don’t feel like going, don’t go! Take a break. Sit out a couple of games and let your story batteries recharge. Find a reason for your character to be away for a little while if you like, but regardless, step back. Come back and play when you feel the urge to go and play, as opposed to the urge to go just to see people out of game. (If you miss your game friends, but don’t feel like gaming, arrange a night out or something instead – it’s always fun to see people outside of game anyway.) Trust me, it’ll help. Game runners, I know this sort of fix is trickier for you, but if you ask around it’s often possible to get a limited run “special guest storyteller” or someone similar to step up and handle duties for a game or two while you get some downtime. And it’s wroth it.

2) Your Character’s Story Has Run Its Course (But You’re Still Playing Them)

I know this is tricky, because part of the appeal of a long-running larp is that the story never ends (unless the game goes under). I’ve known people who’ve played the same character at the same game, continuously, for more than a decade. That’s amazing when you think about it, and more power to those folks. If that’s your style and your character, awesome! However, that combination of player interest and character longevity is a rare one, at least in my experience. A lot of larpers I’ve known get dissatisfied with a game after a while but can’t say exactly why, and when they puzzle it out, the answer comes back to the fact that they don’t feel like their character has more stories to tell.

In a nutshell, their character has essentially stagnated – sure there are new stories being told around them, but not through them, if you follow me. The town changes while they stay essentially the same. And so the player gets more and more restless, because there’s none of that wonderful thrill of character growth and exploration you have early on, and so it gets harder and harder to enjoy sessions because you’re now relying solely on external stories and events for fun, instead of also generating a certain level of your own enjoyment through character development.

Think about it this way – have you ever read a series or watched a show where you loved the main character, but after a while it started to feel like the story was going on too long?  Where you wound up wishing that the creator would simply end the series, because either the main character hasn’t changed in too long (becoming boring) or because they have changed so much you don’t even recognize them anymore (tossing out what you liked in the first place)? Most of us have experienced this at one time or another, and yet a lot of larpers wind up doing the exact same thing with their own characters, because they embrace the notion that story doesn’t have to end but miss the follow-up about how sometimes it really should conclude.

The Fix: I know it’s tough, but sometimes you have to say goodbye, or at least see you later. This doesn’t mean your character has to get killed off, though, or otherwise permanently written out of game. (Assuming you’re allowed multiple characters at the same time, anyway.) But it does mean you need to at least take a good long break from your primary character. Make a new character, preferably one with a totally different way of looking at the world or from a totally different background. Try them out for a while. Sometimes all it takes is a break from a regular role and a change of perspective to re-energize you and make you see your original character in a totally different and exciting way, and you can dive right back in with a fresh sense of purpose. Or sometimes you see that, well, your original character had a great tale, but it’s finished, and so it’s time to write them out and move on. Trust me – it’s better to realize a character’s story is over and end it the way you like than it is to keep on to the point where you’ve worn the concept down to a nub. Game runners, this goes for you too – villains, allies and other familiar faces have arcs just like player characters, and outlasting their time can be just as bad. Learn to guide them to their own finales, and let go when it’s time.

3) You’re Not Investing As Much Emotionally (Yet Expecting the Same Returns)

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but it bears repeating – all other things being equal, you get from larp what you put into larp. Period. Early on, this isn’t a problem – like I said, the first sessions of your time at a great larp are a lot like the early days of a great romantic relationship. You’re at the mad infatuation stage, where everything is fireworks and flowers and you can’t help but throw yourself into every session with all you’ve got. Even after that stage cools a bit, most of the time you enter a nice steady state of serious emotional investment – your character has forged ties with others, they’re regularly involved in plots, they know most all of the other faces in town and where they stand, and so on. A good character in a thriving game can exist in that state for months, sometimes years, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Characters are a lot like anyone else, after all – they tend to find a comfortable niche for themselves and settle into it, whether it’s badass assassin or idealistic politician or humble merchant or cheerful adventurer for hire.

But … eventually, for most players, a certain emotional fatigue sets in. Or perhaps complacency would be a better term for it. Combat, which was once a total rush, has become rote – a matter of math and rules instead of mayhem and roleplay. Other characters you used to roleplay with have been written out, killed off, or simply stopped attending – and all these new faces just seem to blend together. Games that once promised exciting installments of your favorite story that you just couldn’t wait to dive into now seem more like “Monster of the Month” episodes and everything feels like you’ve seen it before. (“How many times have we saved the world? Geez, I stopped counting at eleven or so.”) You used to be afraid to walk in the woods at night, or thrilled to duck into that secret back room meeting, but now it just feels so … remote.

Now, I’m not saying this is all necessarily your fault. Maybe the game staff has turned over, and the new stories just aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe the new players aren’t connecting with the game in the same way you do. Or maybe the quality of combat roleplay itself really has declined, and it’s not just you. But let’s assume for a moment that outside factors aren’t the problem – or at least, not all of it. Because larp fatigue is real, and it’s not just due to over attendance or a character outstaying their welcome. It’s also a matter of roleplay discipline, specifically holding yourself to the same standards you did when you started (or perhaps a little later when you hit your groove at the game). It’s easy to forget that larp is a skill that not only takes practice to develop, but also concentration to maintain during play. And if you let that slip, well, naturally things aren’t going to be as fun or exciting or emotional as they used to be, because you’re not there like you used to be, and so you’re going to be frustrated because the same things that used to thrill you won’t anymore. Because they can’t. Consciously or not, you’re not letting them.

The Fix: This problem is often the result of one of the other two problems above, so you might want to check them first. Assuming they’re not the cause, though, the only thing you can do to combat this sense of detachment is to, well, get attached. To characters, to stories, to the relationships in the game’s community, to the drama of the moment. I know that two years into a game it can be difficult to feel the same giddy thrill that you felt the first time you ventured forth into the darkened woods or down into the scary basement, but simply put, you have to try. You have to make the effort to really invest yourself back into your character, to stop taking the meta view of stats and story arcs and who’s doing what with whom outside of game, and really inhabit your role again. Characters can grow up, of course, they can become jaded like anyone else – a warrior seasoned by dozens of battles isn’t likely to have the same reaction to a fight that he did to his first, after all – but you have to draw a clear distinction between the character becoming hardened to their world as opposed to you the player numbing out the experience. Trust me, it’s a seemingly small but absolutely crucial distinction.

4) You Don’t Like the Game Anymore (But You’re Still Playing)

At first glance, this may sound a lot like #1, but there’s a fundamental difference – #1 assumes that you still like the game and want to keep playing, you just need to ease off on the play schedule a bit so you don’t burn out. But this is different. This is all about A) realizing that the game you loved isn’t the game you’re playing anymore, and B) you don’t enjoy what it’s become. There are a lot of reasons why this might come to pass. Maybe the rules have undergone major revisions, and you can’t stand the new mechanics. (Many larpers can’t even read the words “final edition of the rulebook” without uttering an involuntary bitter laugh.) Perhaps the game’s storyline has changed the world in a way you fundamentally disagree with, so much so that it seriously interferes with your enjoyment – I once played in a very traditional fantasy boffer game that decided without warning to add aliens and laser guns, for instance. Or maybe the staff has experienced significant turnover, and you don’t like the way the new crowd is running things compared to how the game was managed before. Sometimes it’s not any of those, but just the fact that one day you look around and realize the crowd you started playing with is almost if not entirely gone, and you don’t really connect with all these new players the same way.

Whatever the reason, it boils down to the fact that you just don’t like the game anymore.

And that can be really, really hard to accept. After all, larp is a big time investment, and more often than not a big monetary one as well. A lot of us wind up spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars making costumes, building props, perfecting makeup schemes and so on, not to mention the costs of “incidentals” like gas money, event food, and other miscellaneous supplies. It’s hard to look at how much you’ve put into a game and think that you might just have to walk away from it, no matter what the reason might be. And so you fight it and hang on, even as the game becomes less and less something you enjoy and more and more a collection of flaws and frustrations you can’t stop noticing, because the alternative is not going and that’s just not acceptable. Nobody likes to think that they’ve “wasted” all that time and money, even though it wasn’t really wasted if it has already given you hours of amazing stories.

On top of that, there’s the personal dimension too. You make friends at game, sometimes start romantic relationships or even get married to people you meet there. The gamers in a long form larp often create a community that’s something between a group of close friends and a rather kooky extended family, simply because as the game goes on even the most antisocial player spends months or years at a time in the company of the same people. We’re human beings – we can’t help but connect to people we know for that long, especially when we hear them talk about their lives, celebrate their victories and comfort them through the hard times. Since it is the common experience that brought you together with these other people, realizing that the game isn’t for you anymore can feel like a betrayal of sorts, like you’re letting them down somehow. Even if you don’t consciously realize it, concern over whether or not leaving the game will mean losing the friends you’ve made there can keep you in a game long after you would have stopped playing otherwise.

One clue that you might be sliding toward this state of mind, if you haven’t reached it already, is reviewing your after-action conversations and looking at the ratio of jokes and fun anecdotes to snarky comments and complaints. If you’re spending more time complaining about a game session than laughing and telling cool stories about parts you enjoyed, you might have a problem that you need to consider. Now, every game will have a bad session, or maybe just one that was good overall but you personally didn’t enjoy so much, so a negative after-action session here and there isn’t a problem. However, if you look back and realize that most or all of your post-game reports have turned primarily negative, you’re almost certainly headed in this direction. And that means you either have to re-evaluate what you enjoy about the game, or make a couple of hard choices.

The Fix: There are really only two options here: talk about making changes, or pack up and move on to a different game. There’s nothing wrong with trying to bring your concerns to the attention of the staff and/or your fellow players – after all, given the time frame of long form games, sometimes change is so gradual that other people don’t notice, and will correct the shift if it’s brought to their attention. If you’re going this route, try to be as constructive as possible. Don’t just wax on about “the good ol’ days” of the game or dump on how bad or wrong you think it is now; neither tactic will earn you any points. Just talk as politely as possible about what you think needs changing, and why. Offer suggestions – not mandates, suggestions – about how this might be done, and be ready to discuss it rather than get huffy and defensive if others have different ideas. Games are communities, after all, and it might be that the desires of the community have changed, and made the game fun when you began playing isn’t what makes it fun for the players now.

Which brings us to the other option, namely leaving the game. Obviously this isn’t ideal for most people, but at the same time remember the very first principle of gaming – games are supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, why put yourself through it? And for that matter, if you’re not having fun, why spoil the fun for others by hanging around in a game you can’t enjoy anymore? Again, politeness is key. As tempting as it might be, try to resist the urge to burn bridges, and don’t go out in blaze of petty spite and sour grapes. Even if you don’t care for the people there anymore, it’s not worth tarnishing your own memories of the game to leave it on a sour note. Just bow out, remember the good times, and focus on keeping ties with those players you still want to see outside of game. It’s better for everyone in the long run that way.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk #21: 4 Backstory Boosting Mini-Games You Can Play In the Car!

One of the most difficult – but also most rewarding – parts of larp is coming up with a good character backstory. A sense of a character’s history often gives great insights into how to play them in the present, for one thing, not to mention shines some light on what you’re For some people this comes easily, but for many others it’s a bit more of a chore, especially if you’re new to a particular game or to gaming in general. Fortunately, coming up with a fun, interesting backstory (and accompanying character depth) doesn’t have to mean nights of staring at a blank Word document, waiting for inspiration.

I’ve spent a lot of time driving to and from larps over the years, often with 2-3 other people along for the ride, and when I realized that some of my best character ideas sprang from the discussions we had in the car, I figured it might be fun to present a few games you can play with those lovable lunatics in your carpool. Games designed not only to be entertaining and help make the drive a little easier, but that also offered up a host of sneaky ways to develop all of your characters’ backstories in the process.

So whether character histories are your best friends or your worst enemies, I think you’l find this an interesting collection of ways to build character and write history without facing down that blank white screen!+

1 – The Hell of A Hat Game

My number one favorite trick for a reason, this one relies on nothing more than what you’ve packed (or put on) for game to make it work. Going around in a circle, have each player pick one of their costume and prop pieces – not necessarily the flashy ones they might already have stories for, like signature weapons or prominent jewelry, but preferably just some little, ordinary things – and explain where it came from and/or why they still have it. One of my favorites? Boots. I play in a post-apocalyptic survival horror larp, Dystopia Rising, and I love asking folks where they got their boots. (I mean, this is a world where new Timberlands aren’t exactly rolling off the assembly line, after all.) Did they trade for them? Find an unopened box on a scrounging run? Take them off a body? (A body they created?) Did they make them? Where did any of these things happen? You’d be amazed at how creative ordinary things can make you, and how much they can tell you about your character in the moments they’re not out fighting monsters and saving the world (or damning it).

Even in a modern setting, it can be surprisingly interesting to figure out where your werewolf gets her blue jeans (and if the clerk wonders why she keeps ripping the ones she gets), or whether your occult researcher takes time to shop or if they’ve been wearing the same clothes for months (years?) on end. I once knew a vampire character who wore purple all the time, and when I asked her why, she stopped and thought about it for moment, then said it was because centuries ago when she was a mortal, sumptuary laws prohibited her from wearing that color, so this was her thumbing her nose at the past. Awesome, right? Proof that you can get great character moments out of little things like that, even if you never considered it before that moment – the devil may be in the details, but so is a lot of useful information … and motivation.

If you want to have a different but equally interesting kind of fun, start picking pieces of each other’s costuming and props, and try to imagine where they came from, what that character did to get them, etc. In either case, I recommend playing to about five or so at the most, time permitting – you don’t want to use up all their costume at once, after all, especially because this game tends to get better and better the longer you’ve played a character and the more you’ve added to and tweaked their costume.

Sample Questions: Where did you get those boots? Where do you shop for your clothes? How did you come by that ring? What’s the piece with the most sentimental value (that has no in-game worth or power)?  Who made that necklace for you? If you lost X, what would you do to get it back? Do you carry anything your parents gave you anymore? 

2 – The Polaroid Game

You can do this in character, or out of character, or a mix of both if you prefer. Ask one of the other players to give a snapshot image of your character, something they imagine might have happened at some point before your character entered play. It can be a funny image, a serious image, a mysterious image, any kind of moment at all. It doesn’t have to start off being terribly specific – “I picture your character, bloody, standing over a body while a woman cries out, ‘What have you done?’” is in many ways just as useful for this game as something like “I see your character, bloody, standing over Mary’s body in back of the Northpoint Tavern while Jodie cries out, ‘What have you done?’”

Once the basic shot is sketched, each other player adds another detail to the picture – “You’re bloody but not wearing your armor or holding a weapon” – until it comes back around to you. (Hence the name Polaroid, as the details of the picture slowly come into focus during play.) The details added don’t have to be strictly visual either, despite the name of the game – someone might add “They had just pushed you too far and you snapped” as a detail if they like, though it’s fun to try to find a way to express those visually if you can (“You can tell by the look on your face that you had just been pushed too far and snapped”).

If people have trouble coming up with these details, you can have them do it in response to questions you ask about the picture that’s developing – for example, if a player is stumped, you might ask, “Did I kill the person lying on the ground, or was that someone else?” in order to help guide them. If you’re doing it with just one other person, I’d recommend that they add up to 3-4 supplemental details, perhaps in response to your questions about the image as described previously.

Once one picture is finished, play rotates to the next player, and everyone describes a new snapshot for them. If you want to play a more guided version of this game, try having the player being depicted name a particular moment or topic they want to see- “My first kill”, “My happiest moment before the Fall”, “The moment my character realized the Truth” etc. – and see what other people come up with in response.

Now, when it comes to actually using the material the other players come up with, you can discount some of it, or all of it, or otherwise alter and experiment with it as you see fit, but hearing how other people see your character – how they imagine they’ve lived, what they might have done – can be an interesting way to shake up your own notions of who your character is and where they might have gone in the past, not to mention where they might have go in the future.

Even if it seems to be very against what you might initially think applies to your character, try to keep an open mind and you might find that sometimes the material that is most unlike them is fodder for some of the best stories. After all, maybe your character is usually so calm and collected precisely because the last time she lost her temper she wound up standing over a body, bloody and incoherent.

Sample Moments: The first time I held a weapon; the last time I ever got ripped off; the night I decided to leave home; the moment I figured out what I really was; the instant after I did what I regret the most; the first time I got paid for my work; what I do on my nights off; the time I was happiest, before all of this started; the moment I first came face to face with Them. 
Sample Follow-Up Questions: Where am I? Is anyone else around? What kind of expression do I have? How long ago does this look? 

3 – The House of Cards Game (aka Larper’s Poker)

This one takes a deck of regular playing cards, but in a car full of gamers, that usually isn’t too hard to come by. (There are also smartphone apps that can deal a random card or generate a random number you then assign to each suit.) Deal one card at random to each player, let them look it over and think about it for a moment, coming up with a short story from their character’s past as dictated by the suit of the card they received. Each suit requires a different kind of story: Hearts centers on mental health or an emotional relationship of some kind (not necessarily a loving one); Diamonds refers to stories focused on wealth, equipment and other material goods, or lack thereof; Clubs requires a story about a physical challenge, battle, illness or ordeal of some kind; and Spades refers to encounters focused around interaction with special, setting specific elements such as zombies, magic, cyberware, superpowers, monsters, etc. You may want to at least roughly define what Spades involves before playing, if it might be unclear.

Starting with the lowest card and working up to the highest, each player tells a short story based on the suit they received – these should be no more than five minutes, tops, and can be a lot shorter, as suits a player’s comfort level. (It’s OK if stories start super short – that just means you can play more rounds!) Try to stay within the type of story you’ve been given – that’s part of the challenge – but don’t jump on players if it seems like their Diamond story about their old engagement ring seems more like a Hearts story about the lover to which it once belonged. These categories are broad and may often seem to overlap, and that’s OK. The stories are the goal, after all. When everyone has told their story, shuffle the cards back into the deck, deal another hand and start again. Simple, but effective.

If you want to try some variations, deal each person a hand of five cards – player riding shotgun holds for the driver, as is their ancient right and obligation – and allow each player to pick a card for each round, to give them a bit more control over the kind of story they feel like telling. Or have the stories be connected to the values on the cards – lower numbers mean it was more of a minor incident, while higher numbers mean it was more important, and a face card means they have to talk about a particular person who came into their life (or left it) as a result of the story. Or let players hand each other the cards, so that they get to determine what kind of story their fellow players will tell (rotating so that each person gets a chance to assign a card to each other player and no one gets more than one card in a round). There are a ton of variations on this game, all of them fun, so have it.

Wait, that’s still not enough? You want the double black diamond version of this game, so to speak? OK, then!  Deal each player five cards and go around in turn as before … but each round the player must somehow continue the story they’ve started telling. For example: A player is dealt a hand of two Clubs, a Heart, a Diamond, and a Spade. They start with a Clubs story about a battle they won, then on the next round they play their Diamond and talk about how they recovered a valuable weapon in the aftermath, which in turn leads to a bitter Hearts rivalry as they fight over possession of the weapon with their former best friend (who also claimed it), followed by a Spades story about how the local seer consulted the gods as to who was the rightful owner (the player’s character), but then with the final Club we learn that the friend attacked the character and stole the weapon anyway, beating them savagely in the process. A potentially dynamic story of friendship, hardship, loss and betrayal, and it all sprang from a random hand of cards.

4 - Play/Theme/Pass (aka The Mixtape Game)

This one’s near and dear to my heart, as anyone who’s ever seen the stacks of mix CDs in my car can attest to, especially if they joined me on a drive to game. It takes a little more prep than some of the others, but pays off nicely when you manage it (and digital devices do make it a bit easier than it used to be). Making a music mix for game is a time-honored tradition – hence the ancient term “mixtape” in the name – but there’s a fun way to put a backstory twist on it. Have everyone in the group contribute a few tracks to a collective mix/playlist of music inspired by the game and its characters, and as each song plays, everyone declares “Play/Theme/Pass”.

Play means that you enjoy the song, but don’t necessarily feel it would be a song for your character in particular. Theme means that you could see that song as a theme for your character, something you’d put on a personal playlist dedicated to your character. (You can have more than one Theme, and more than one character can call Theme on the same song. It’s non-competitive that way.) Pass means that you’re just not connecting to the song in relation to the game; it doesn’t necessarily mean you think the song is bad, but you’re just not feeling it in this context.

You don’t need to explain a Pass further (and don’t insult anyone’s musical taste either), but if you say Play or Theme, try to say what about it got your attention – connect it to your backstory, to your impression of your character. Does the beat remind you of the thrill of a battle in your past? Does a line in the lyrics jump out as totally true to your character? Is the tone of the song putting you in the mood for game? Did the music capture a moment in your character’s history so perfectly it makes you jump up and down in your seat? If two players pick Theme, might it be because they shared that moment in their past? It doesn’t have to be a long, detailed anecdote or anything, just a quick image or moment or impression that it brings up as you think of your character.

The more people do this, the more amped up everyone tends to get, which is a lot of fun. Plus you tend to get a lot of awesome new music to add to your library, especially if you throw together new mixes every few events, and how cool is that?

Of course, if you’re the really competitive sort, you can actually score this game – simply tally up the points for each track and assign them to the player who contributed it. Each player who picked Theme for that track gives the contributor 2 points, each Play is worth 1 point, and each Pass is worth zero. Add up the totals at the end of the mix and declare a Mixmaster General if you like! That might be too technical for some folks, but then again, if you’ve got a 3-4 hour drive to game, you might just enjoy another way to help pass the time.

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+Note: These games generally presuppose the presence of other players, and while most can be configured to be played solitary, I believe all of them are enhanced by group play. What’s more, despite the title of the post they don’t require an actual carpool to work. You can just as easily play these games right before or after a session, or at the diner one night, or even on a game’s message boards. Of course, if you prefer to work alone, all but one of these still work just fine – the point is having fun and coming up with backstory elements in different ways than simply sitting down and writing them out.

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This post is an adaptation of a talk I was scheduled to give at the amazing Shoshana Kessock‘s equally amazing Living Games Conference. Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to illness – hence the material winding up here – but if you’re even casually interested in the many forms of larp and what people are doing to expand and innovate in the field, you owe it to yourself to head on over and check out the site. While the conference has ended, there’s still a ton of great larp material collected there, and if nothing else, the first academic conference on larp in the United States deserves attention and respect.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Table Manners: How (Not) to Talk to Gaming Professionals

Disclaimer: This is not intended as a snide dismissal of fan input, or an attempt to crush anyone’s dreams of working for a game company. It’s intended as practical advice for anyone who wishes to contact a game designer, whether it’s to bring up mistakes they feel they’ve uncovered in that designer’s games, suggest improvements they think could be made to the system in question, submit a proposal for a possible game supplement, or even to just inquire about writing opportunities with a particular company or game line in general. For the curious, it’s written from the perspective of someone with almost twenty years of professional game writing experience as everything from a freelance writer to a full line developer, who also knows a large circle of fellow game designers at companies large and small. 

Without a doubt, we’re living in an amazing era of game design. Kickstarter, viable small press distribution, improved print on demand services, high quality PDFs, and the increased ability of individuals to reach and capture the attention of the market has transformed the tabletop rpg gaming business. Part of that evolution has been a radical transformation in communication between game designers and their fans – while in the past you might have a company forum that employees occasionally replied to, or some RPG.net exchanges with a favorite designer, a lot of the time game companies of old were often hard to decipher.

Now, though, the world of game design has become increasingly transparent and approachable, with designers blogging about their latest rules or system changes, crowdsourcing advice on game design forums, incorporating backer ideas as Kickstarter rewards and so on. As a result, things like talking directly to the creators of a game about problems you have with a game, submitting a proposal for an idea you have about a possible game supplement, asking about playtesting opportunities and the like are easier than they’ve ever been.

Before we talk about how to approach your favorite designers, though, there are a few general things you need to know about the gaming industry:

About the Business

Gaming Is A Small Industry …
Make no mistake, there are still some larger outfits still out there – Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Steve Jackson, just to name a few – but a significant portion of the tabletop gaming world has moved to a different model, one centered around small design houses or even individual designers. And even the “big” companies aren’t exactly Shadowrun-level zaibatsu, at least compared to what counts as a “large company” in most other industries. With that in mind, you need to understand that most companies either produce everything in house, or bring freelancers aboard on a work-for-hire basis to do their projects. There simply aren’t “entry level” permanent positions available at a lot of gaming companies – you’re either one of a small number of permanent staff, or on a roster of freelancers they hire when they need extra project hands. How to make it on that roster? Read on.

… And Everyone Knows Everybody
When it comes to publishing games, even with the self-publishing, print on demand, and the indie explosion, you’re still not talking huge numbers of industry people, and many of them have been in the business for years. Quite simply, a lot of them know each other, and they talk. Which means that if you develop a reputation as a troll, a pest, a deadbeat, a flake, or some other sort of potential undesirable, word of that behavior will travel a lot farther and more quickly than you might expect. (Conversely, a good reputation as a polite, creative, and reliable individual goes around too, and can pay off in unexpected ways at unlikely times.) Meditate on that a moment before sending a snarky reply to a designer’s email or posting a flamebait review.

Gaming Isn’t A Get Rich Quick Environment
Like a lot of entertainment fields, game writing is not exactly a path to fame and fortune – people do it because they love it, not because it’s going to buy them a separate Gulfstream for their dog. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of successful game design professionals out there who make a living doing it! But generally speaking, the definition of successful is going to be a lot more modest for this field than, say, what we usually think of for a successful actor, athlete, or medical specialist. Be prepared about that reality and therefore realistic in your related expectations.

Check Their Application/Submission Process
If you’re interested in applying for work or submitting a proposal, make sure you read and adhere to any submission guidelines the company has posted. (If they don’t have such guidelines posted that’s usually a good sign they’re not looking for those things, though you can always check to make sure.) When I became a line developer, I was told the SOP was to destroy without reading any submissions that did not follow the posted guidelines, and I’ve since learned this is a pretty universal rule (it’s also often a legal thing). It may break your heart a bit to try to condense your 300 page sourcebook into a two page pitch, but if that’s what they want, trust me, doing otherwise just about guarantees that your submission will be deleted unread.

The Designers

Read Their Work/Play Their Games
This probably seems like the most elementary step, but when I was with White Wolf, I got more proposals/critiques than you might think that demonstrated a clear lack of familiarity with our games. If you’re going to contact a game designer about working for them or offer a criticism of their work, it’s generally best to at least read through the material once or twice, if not actually log some time playing their games. If they have a blog, that’s usually worth a read too, if only to see what they’re thinking about, learn any pet peeves you might want to avoid, and generally get a sense of who they are as individuals.

Use the Proper Channels
A lot of game designers are easy to contact these days – many have public email addresses, not to mention things like Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and so on. Try to find out how they prefer to be contacted for professional communications, and if none of their available contact information is tagged as such, it’s generally best to send your first message with a “Is this the right way to contact you about X?” message. Sometimes it will sort itself out, of course – if they only ever use their Twitter feed for joking with friends and sharing pictures of their dog doing hilarious things, it’s probably not their preferred business communication tool.

Be Polite, Precise, and Concise
If you’ve never spoken to a particular game designer before, keep your communication as brief and to the point as you can without being rude. A simple greeting, a quick explanation of what you’re interested in – “I was wondering if you’d like my thoughts on X” or “Are you looking for any writers on Y?” is fine, for example – and a thank you for their time is a lot more likely to get a response than a rambling three page breakdown of all the errors you’ve found in their game so far (or worse yet, the unasked-for resume).

If you’re approaching a designer in person, say at a game convention, these rules still apply! Try to judge if it’s a good time to approach them – if they’re drinking with friends at the bar or slammed with a line of customers at their booth, it might be best to try starting your conversation later on. If you think there’s an opportunity, introduce yourself politely and ask if they have a moment to talk about what’s on your mind – if they do, great! If they don’t, they might give you another time that would be better, and they’ll remember you as being polite regardless (sadly it’s often rare enough to be memorable). This is also a great time for business cards, as you can often hand one over even if they’re not able to talk at the time, and it gives you a natural way to contact them in the future.

Remember, Designers Are People
When you talk to a designer, remember that the game you’re discussing is the product of hundreds if not thousands of hours of their effort and care, not to mention expense and often frustration. It’s a reflection of their creative desire in dreaming it up as well as their personal discipline in seeing it through to completion, and in many cases their ability to work with a number of other professionals – artists, editors, layout designers, playtesters, etc. – in order to realize their vision. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their work, but it’s important to remember that personal dimension. I’ve seen otherwise apparently well-meaning gamers cheerfully tell designers that their games sucked, the rules were totally broken, they didn’t like huge parts of the setting, etc., and then turn around and complain that the designer was being a jerk or a wuss for not wanting to talk to them anymore. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism – the former isn’t shy about addressing problems and complaints, but does so from a position of respect, while the latter is insulting and dismissive.

If you’ll forgive an odd extended analogy, walking up to a game designer and telling them you want to “fix” their game is a lot like walking into someone’s house and telling them you want to “fix” their decor. Sure, it might not be arranged to your taste, but they probably have plenty of reasons everything is the way it is – maybe that area rug you don’t like is covering a stain they just couldn’t get out, and so removing “just that one little thing” would actually mean reshuffling their entire living room arrangement to compensate for the alteration. Or perhaps the sofa configuration, which looks odd and impractical to you, is set up for an ideal surround sound experience for their home theater system. Or – and this is valid too – maybe they just like it that way, which is fine because after all, it’s their house. And even if you’re absolutely, objectively correct about how something is “wrong” with their decorating scheme, and they know that you’re right, it doesn’t make it any more obnoxious for a stranger to walk in and loudly declare it when a quieter, more polite way would also have sufficed.

Again, this does not mean that game designers are some special genius/martyr social caste that is above the reproach of lowly common gamers. It certainly does not mean they are infallible – I’ve had people point out mistakes in my own games plenty of times, and I happily signed on writers and approved book proposals that resulted in better ideas than what I would have come up with if I was given the same projects. I’m the first to admit my books had problems ranging from the merely hilarious to the totally tragic. I’ve been taken apart on forums, by email, and in person, and I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t most some of the most technically scathing critiques because they were presented constructively, while other relatively minor points drove me to distraction simply because people presented them in rude and insulting ways. I’ve got a pretty thick skin – necessary adaptation to working in this field – but that doesn’t mean etiquette and presentation don’t matter. I’m much more likely to listen to someone who’s polite and presents their points constructively, or who submits their proposals in the proper format and through the proper channels. That’s just human nature. If you’re rude to me, I react accordingly, while courtesy elicits the same in return. Simple as that, and yet a step that eludes a lot of folks when they post game reviews or detailed rules breakdowns – they forget there are people behind those rules, and thus lose a lot of any potential they might have had to effect real change in the process.

Ultimately it’s important to remember that just about all game designers were regular old gamers long before they designed a system – their passion for the hobby is what drove them to want to make their own games in the first place! (And when they’re not designing’ games, most creators are still avid players.) I’m stressing this because it’s important to remember on both sides – that designers and fans are far more similar than they are different. You’re talking to an industry professional, true, but you’re also talking something that is intensely personal to them. The more you remember and respect that, the better your interaction with them will be, whether you’re offering game feedback, proposing a book or asking if they’re looking for talent for future projects.

Seriously, Courtesy Counts
I’m not exaggerating when I say that pretty much all gaming industry professionals have a thick file of stories involving times when people trashed them, their work, their dubious parentage, etc., whether electronically or in person. More amazingly, these people often don’t actually realize what they’re saying is seriously rude, or at least, that they phrased what might otherwise have been an interesting point in the most insulting way possible. I had one guy send me a very personal and highly insulting two page email detailing at length all the faults he’d found in my various publications, then turned around and – I guess having figured he impressed me with his superior intellect? – ask me to hire him for future projects. I had another person tell me “yeah well no offense but those rules are total shit” and then act completely amazed that I might take issue with his wording, as though “no offense” was a magic incantation that warded off my ability to be insulted. The list goes on, but the point is not that everyone who talks to a game designer is a jerk – just that sadly it happens enough that politeness really makes an impression. If you’re polite, professional, responsible in making contact, you’re ahead of the game. Why not get off to a good start?

Final Thoughts

So that’s pretty much that. I can’t guarantee that following these steps will mean game designers take your feedback into account for future rules changes or hire you to write that book you’ve been thinking about, but it certainly won’t hurt your chances – and in many cases, might improve them dramatically. Above, always remember that game companies are composed of people – gamers a lot like you, in fact – and that being friendly, constructive and respectful will go a long way toward developing positive relationships in the game design community.

We’ll see you at the panels!

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk #20: 5 Popular Boffer Larp Mechanics It’s Time to Re-Examine

BIG DAMN DISCLAIMER
This a post about game mechanics that are common to many larps around the country (if not the world). I am not saying that any game with these mechanics is terrible, and I not calling someone a bad game designer for putting them in their game. For one thing, I’d be condemning about 95-99% of the boffer larps and boffer larp designers out there, since most of them use at least one of these systems, and that’s not my intention or my assessment. I’ve been a boffer player for 14 years, designed and run my own boffer game, and helped write rules for a few others here and there, including systems that used some of these very rules. I love boffer larp. No, think of this more as a call to examine some of the practices that I think the genre may have outgrown, or at least may need to re-assess regarding the cost:benefit ratio surrounding their implementation.

If it helps, think of it like D&D community assessing the utility of THAC0 when the time came to transition to D&D 3.0 and onward. While it’s not the worst system by any means, the designers took  a look at the system and said “Are we using this because it’s the best, or just because it’s the rule we’ve always had and it does well enough?” Though it met with some resistance, including a surprisingly sentimental amount from folks like me who grew up with that system, ultimately the attack system re-design resulted in what I think many players agree is a stronger system overall. Even the diehards who stuck with AD&D and the THAC0 system had a chance to compare it to some new ways of thinking and decide if they wanted to improve anything while still keeping what they were used to using. It was a win all around.

Just to recap: I am not saying your favorite game sucks. I am not calling anyone a bad game designer. I am saying that maybe it’s time to take a look at some of these mechanics and see if they’re still necessary, at least in their current forms. Your answer can certainly be “No thanks, what we have works for us!” and a cheerful wave, and that’s fine! If your game is working and everyone’s having fun, then great, by all means keep on doing what you’re doing. Having fun, after all, is the ultimate goal of any game. Just wanted to make that clear.

That said, let’s have some fun taking apart some rules, everyone.

#5 – The Card Check
The Theory: Keeps players honest.
The Problems: Needlessly breaks immersion, does little to prevent abuse.

There are lots of little variations on this practice – some games use rings of tearaway strips, others have plastic chips players must carry, some use multiple character sheets, and so on – but the basic idea is the same: At certain intervals, the game staff will come along and check your character card or what have you, do some math and make sure that you’re not cheating (using skills you don’t have, overspending for those you do, etc.). It’s also not uncommon for games with these systems to require players to write down things like skill use, resource point expenditures, and so on during play, so if say a crafter is forging a magic sword then he must take a moment or two during the process to write out what he’s doing on his character card. A good player will do this as unobtrusively as possible, but even so, the fact remains that according to the system it needs to be done.

Like most things on this list, it’s not necessarily a bad practice in theory, or when it comes to rare or permanent changes to a character – religious baptism, joining a secret society, forging a powerful item, taking a death in a limited death system, etc. – but when it’s required for more commonplace activities it simply becomes a needless hassle as people break character to sit down and do math after exciting scenes. (Or you make defacto cheaters out of the players who don’t bother or remember to do so.) The great thing about larp, and especially boffer larp, is that the action is supposed to unfold in real time as much as possible. Copying down expenditures on a card is pretty much the exact opposite of that, as it breaks the momentum of the moment and forcibly reminds players that they’re playing in a game.

The other main argument for this practice is to prevent cheating, but honestly, it’s extremely rare that it catches anyone on its own. Like it or not, larp is pretty much entirely an honor system. There are too many players spread across too much territory to watch everyone. If someone wants to lie about what they can do or how often they can do it, they won’t be caught by checking their card math; if they’ll lie about using a skill, why would they be any more honest about their record-keeping? No, serious cheaters will be caught when a marshal watches them break the rules and calls them out directly, usually after other players or NPCs report their suspicions to staff. And you know what? You don’t need a card call system to catch people that way.

Suggestions: Don’t worry about minor expenditures and commonplace actions, but develop a system for recording and monitoring skills and powers that create items, alter characters in a permanent way or otherwise have a lasting impact on the game or significantly affect the game’s economy. Requiring players to report to a central location – typically the NPC staging area, or somewhere nearby – with any required resource cards or other materials is a good way to do so with crafting skills, as it lets staff verify that the proper procedures were followed for important skills and that no one is making items without the necessary resources. Ditto recording significant game events like baptisms, deaths, marriages, etc. But the “everyday” stuff like combat skills, basic healing, and so on? It’s not worth the interruption in play to make people record them. Rely on alert marshals and players to bring possible cheaters to the attention of the staff and leave the little things on the honor system.

#4 – Narration
The Theory: Adds colorful details to the world that are not easily simulated with props/makeup/set dressing
The Problems: Breaks up the game, strains the imagination of an already taxed player base, can lead to problems if people enter the scene after missing the initial description

Let me be clear that I don’t think a little narration now and again is such a bad thing. We are playing a game that relies on the power of imagination, after all, and I certainly don’t mind using mine. I’ve looked at a single wooden wall and been asked to imagine it as simply the front gate of a whole castle; I’ve watched a friend’s apartment become the literal Underworld with nothing more than some candles and dripping water sound effects; I’ve had a hook turn to my group and tell us that the network of candles and Christmas lights on the ground ahead represents a maze with walls of shifting light. Not to mention that I can look at my friend Frank with brown facepaint and tied on horns and see a minotaur instead,  or mentally edit out the feet of the NPCs operating the large Chinese dragon-style monster and instead focus on the fact that the mouth part is actively trying to devour me. It’s all part of the game.

Here’s the thing, though. If you look back at those examples there, all of them have one thing in common: in each case the staff combined narration with the power of even just some basic setting preparation, so that the narration at least had some sort of foundation for my mind to work with instead of just declaring something existed by narrative fiat. I wasn’t just told “there’s a castle there” – the NPCs actually built a single wall with a gate so that we had something to focus on, and that single wall still makes it a lot easier to imagine the rest of the castle than conjuring it entirely in our minds. The hook didn’t just declare “OK, you guys are in a maze now”, but actually laid out a maze on the ground in lights, forcing us to navigate it while solving puzzles and battling monsters. My friend Frank could’ve just narrated “I actually look like a minotaur”, but instead he put on makeup and added some props to help create the image our imaginations could finish in full minotaur form. The key is creating as much suggestion as possible with props, makeup, costuming, set pieces, and so on, so that the narration is simply adding to what the players see in front of them, not conjuring something out of nothing when it can possibly be avoided.

This may seem an odd bone to pick, but it stems from the fact that boffer games are supposed to run in real time as much as possible, which makes WYSIWYG a crucial standard to keep the game running smoothly. If I see an orcish tent encampment in the woods and plan a raid accordingly, it’s more than a little bit of a pain in the neck to have a timeout called as soon as we come crashing out of the trees “because this is actually a castle and you can only enter through the gate, which is those two traffic cones there” and be forced to into a do-over.  (And yes, that sort of thing has happened.) Likewise, if an NPC walks up to me, throws up an out of game sign and says “Oh, by the way, I look exactly like your character’s old friend who betrayed him”, it’s anticlimactic to say the least. We’ve lost all the fun of me recognizing them from across the room and reacting accordingly, whether it’s cursing their name and pulling a sword, running and hiding, or whatever else I might want to do in response. Instead he’s right in front of me and now I have to adjust my reactions accordingly, when I might have never let him near me if I knew it at a glance.

Bottom line: The less you can trust your eyes to at least give you the basic story at a boffer game, the less immersive it will be, and the more prone to frustrating mistakes and missteps based on players missing crucial narration. (Nothing like walking in a few minutes late and quipping at an NPC dressed in basic blacks, only to be told “Um, that’s actually a fire giant” and spending the next few minutes arguing about whether or not you can take back what you said because you didn’t know what the NPC was supposed to be. Good times.)  And that’s just not ideal from a game point of view.

Suggestions: Like I said, a little bit of narration isn’t so bad from time to time, but it’s best when it’s paired with some real elements that help maintain the reality it’s creating. Players are amazingly adaptable and will work with most any setup you give them, but you’re doing both sides a favor if you use setting elements to reinforce your narration. I remember a great fantasy adventure that started with the hook bringing our adventuring group to a little cabin in the woods, turning and telling us: “OK guys, this building is a cave, and the black tarps are the cave walls, so you can’t attack through them or cross under them, and for story purposes it gets hotter and hotter as you go in. Any questions?” Sure enough, the inside of the cabin was set up like a tunnel system, complete with low tunnels set up under tables that we had to crawl through, and it was a blast. A little basic narration combined with some great setup turned into something truly memorable.

#3 – Prestige Classes

The Theory: A special reward system for dedicated, long-term players.
The Problems: A favoritism minefield and an escalating unbalancing factor in large games.

This is one of those hot button topics that can easily tear apart long term games, or at least lead to a lot of bitterness and burnout in the veteran player base, and yet it’s a very common phenomenon at many different games. As usual, at base it’s not a terrible idea – rewarding dedicated long-term players by allowing them access to special “prestige classes” that bestow powerful, high-end capabilities on their character. The actual term for these special roles varies, naturally, but the basic concept is the same – after accumulating a large amount of experience and/or play time, as well as completing certain in-game tasks, a character is granted a new set of powers or given access to a skill list not available to other characters outside of this new prestige class.

The problem here is two-fold: frequency and favoritism. Frequency is simply how often these special rewards are approved – in order to retain their special impact, many games grant these rewards sparingly, elevating a handful of players a year, perhaps a dozen at most. Which can work in smaller games, where that might represent a significant chunk of the player base, but as the size of the game increases it may cause problems. Bestowing prestige classes on 6 players every year in a 60 person game is probably fine, but in a game of 300 players there are going to be a lot of unhappy players at the same level of XP/time invested grumbling about not being picked.  Which brings up the favoritism problem – whether it’s just sour grapes or actually might have some basis in truth (intentionally or not), accusations of favoritism are a serious concern for games that use the prestige class system. This is especially true when you consider that many prestige classes have exceptionally powerful or useful abilities, which can make even veteran players feel frustrated if they feel they are being continually passed over for this reward while also watching rivals or enemies acquire these capabilities.

Suggestions: If you decide to use a prestige class system of some kind, transparency is your friend. Even if it’s surrounded by multiple levels of in-game secrecy, as far as the players are concerned it should be clear when a character becomes eligible, how they can apply for one of these classes, and what if any selection restrictions are in place (as well as whether re-submissions are allowed if they don’t get picked up the first time). That may sound a bit mechanical, but the more the system relies on “personal judgement” by staff, the more you’re opening the process up to accusations of favoritism and encouraging bitterness and unhealthy competition among the player base as people gossip about why one player got their special reward while others got snubbed, and so on.

#2 – Big Numbers
The Theory: Large numbers make things epic!
The Problems: Large numbers are a pain to track during play and often make new players feel pointless compared to veterans.

A lot of boffer games are addicted to big numbers, with players tossing around damage totals in the hundreds and facing down enemies with thousands of hit points. Big numbers sound impressive in theory, but really, from a live action point of view, they’re rarely anything but a totally avoidable disaster in practice. Sure, it sounds awesome to swing for 150 damage, especially if you started out swinging for 3 back at your first game. I’m sure it does make you feel a little bit epic. Cool! But let’s think about it for a second – when numbers start rising, is the challenge of the game actually becoming greater, or simply the associated math?

Let’s say we’re both badass veteran warriors at our respective games, but you’re in a high math system and I’m in a low math system; you swing for 50 damage each hit, and I swing for 1. In your game, a nasty troll has 1250 hit points; in my game, it has 25. Both of us will need to land 25 hits on that enemy to put it down. (Let’s leave spells, skills, and special attacks out of it for the moment.) So far it sounds the same, right? Except at my game, a new player also swings for 1 damage. So it’s 25 swings for him too. But at your game, a new player swinging 3′s will take 417 swings to put down that bad guy, or in other words, he won’t, at least not without developing a wicked case of tennis elbow in the process.

In order to combat this problem, many games adopt a “scaling” practice where they openly divide the player base for battles and adventures based on character level or the equivalent, so that new players don’t fight things they can’t kill and veterans don’t get bored obliterating nuisance threats. In other words, in a scaling system you might not be able to go on anything designated an “Epic Adventure” unless you’re level 15 or higher, that kind of thing. Which is all well and good when you can easily divide players, such as when you have hooks taking a pre-determined number of players on a structured adventure in a designated area, but it can be very difficult to preserve the concept in sprawling melees, night ambushes and other more freeform situations. And it’s not much fun to be the new players who stumble across the Unkillable Lich Minions and are carved down without even the slightest hope of winning. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that every enemy should be a cake walk for new players as well as veterans, and I know full well that many larpers will stubbornly insist on fighting when they probably should run. But there’s a big difference between “probably a good idea to flee” and “there is absolutely no hope at all” and I know which one sounds more fun and dramatic in the end.

Now, I’ve also heard this practice defended with logic along the following lines: “Well, a 1st level D&D character can’t expect to fight a 15 Hit Die dragon and win – why should it be any different in larp?” And I suppose that’s true if that’s the model you want to follow, but in response, let me answer with another question – is a math-heavy tabletop gaming model designed for a small group of friends necessarily the best basis for a real time live combat game with dozens or hundreds of players? I know fantasy boffer games started up with the general idea that it would be like playing D&D in the woods, but it’s been more than 20 years now. Boffer gaming is its own form, with two decades of innovation to make it so. We can imitate tabletop standards if we want to, but we certainly don’t have to do so anymore.

Suggestions: Obviously, this is a difficult thing to “fix” in an existing game without overhauling the entire system, so if the game already uses large numbers and adventure scaling, it might be more of a question of just understanding the problems the come with that kind of system and trying to minimize them. Make sure the new players feel valued, spend equal time and effort designing content for the different levels of players, find other ways to make things challenging than simply adding more numbers to them.

#1 – Calling Damage Every Swing
The Theory: It helps keep combat math straight.
The Problems: It kills combat roleplay, makes large battles extremely confusing, and renders ranged effects difficult to downright useless to land successfully.

This is the absolute number one thing that I find frustrating about fighting in boffer games. Anything larger than a small skirmish invariably becomes an escalating shouting match as everyone tries to make sure their target can hear them clearly, creating a battlefield din that can make it difficult to tell which numbers are directed at which target. Not to mention the difficulty people have in adding up the numbers coming at them – it’s hard enough to add 35+11+7+7+14+25 in a hurry, let alone while you’re also shouting your own numbers back. Which leads to a lot of boffer combatants essentially giving up on doing the math and just taking their best guess at when they should fall down – and if pragmatism means more or less everyone does that, what’s the point of calling damage supposed to be, again?

Another casualty of constant damage calling is ranged combat (including spellcasting and similar mechanics) – I’ve watched spellcasters of power great and terrible throw packets into these cacophonous rugby scrums and scream themselves hoarse trying to be heard by their targets, even giving up in frustration at times. Bow and crossbow users sometimes do a bit better, especially in systems that use padded arrows instead of packets – it’s a lot harder to miss being hit with an arrow than it is being hit with a tiny bean bag – but as someone who plays a game that uses nerf guns to simulate real ones, I know well the frustration of landing a perfect shot only to realize after four tries that my target can’t hear my damage because they’re heavily engaged with three people in melee and all four of them are yelling numbers of their own. Nobody’s cheating – they’re not ignoring my shots on purpose or anything – it’s just that with all the loud math in the air, my target literally cannot hear me over the din. And if I have to run up close to make my skills known, I tend to lose a lot of the basic point of being an archer/gunslinger/spellcaster, namely that I’m supposed to be able to destroy rude strangers from a distance as opposed to getting right up in their faces.

To be fair, a lot of my frustration with this problem comes from the fact that I started out playing in one of the very few boffer games that didn’t use damage calls every swing. It had a very simple system – a one-handed weapon did 1 damage, a two-handed weapon did 2 damage. If you couldn’t tell what hit you – say you were struck from behind and couldn’t turn around to see what did it – you assumed the higher number. If you used a special skill to increase this amount, you called that extra damage, and if your weapon had a magical quality, you called it once or twice the first couple of times you attacked a target, just to see if it had a special effect (or was totally ineffective), but otherwise you didn’t need to call anything while you were fighting. And you know what the best part of that system was?

We could fight and roleplay simultaneously.

Instead of having to pause our combat damage calls in order to say something to our companions – yell for help, a rallying cry, pray to the gods, insults for our enemies, whatever – we could swing our weapons and talk at the same time. It made for a  very dramatic combat environment, where we could continue our character roleplaying and interaction the entire time. Now, I know from experience it’s certainly possible to intersperse roleplaying and combat in systems that require constant damage calls, so I’m not saying such systems eliminate combat roleplaying, but they certainly don’t encourage it to the same degree as a system which has few if any damage calls. When you take out the constant math calls, you not only encourage combat roleplaying but also make it far more likely that spells, ranged attacks and special abilities are properly noted, since those are the only rules calls that will be made during the average fight. It’s a win all around.

Suggestions: Like big numbers, this system is hard to remove from a game without completely overhauling the combat system, but there are some work-arounds that different games have used in the past, and not just the very simple “number of hands = damage inflicted” mechanic I discussed previously. Some games color-code weapons, for instance, so that if you’re hit by a blue weapon you take 1 damage, a green weapon does 5 damage, a red one does 10, etc. At night or in other situations where it might not be obvious, you simply call the color a few times as you swing – “Red! Red! Red!” – until your opponent knows what you’re swinging. This system does rely on learning a color code, requires a handful of standard weapon damage settings to correspond to those colors (typically increments of 1, 3 or 5), can be limited by the practical availability of properly colored duct tape or fabric sheathes to mark weapons, and can be quite noisy at night when colors are hard to see, but it remains a potential alternative. Other games use hit location systems, where weapons don’t inflict damage numbers, they simply render body parts useless after a certain number of hits to that location (potentially modified by armor on that location). This too can have some problems, as it can encourage extremely rapid striking and is often quite brutal compared to other games, but it does eliminate a lot of damage call mechanics a game might dislike.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk #19: Bias Cut

The Appropriation Conversation
This is one of those posts that I’ve started four or five times, but had trouble finishing each time, because while I think there’s something that needs to be said on the subject, I’m not sure right now if there’s a solution as such (and if there is, I sure don’t have it). So what I have to say may not add up to more than a longer version of “Hey guys, this is a thing, you should consider it when designing your games” – but you know what? The hell with it. I’ve had the itch to write about this long enough, it’s time something got said, even if I don’t have as many answers as I’d want.

Whew. Here goes.

There’s a lot that can be said about race and culture in the context of gaming in general, but to the surprise of nobody who reads this blog even semi-regularly, I’m going to choose to focus on how it applies in larp. Not just larp, even, but primarily in live combat or “boffer” games, as they seem to be the biggest examples of what I’m going to be talking about in this post. They are not the only ones who encounter these subjects, particularly with the rise of many experimental freeform and Nordic larp games dedicated to exploring issues like race, culture and identity, but once again I’m going to try to stay within my wheelhouse here, and I’ve been doing boffer games for almost 15 years now. The issue, I think, is best phrased as the following question:

When do real world analogs and their resulting cultural appropriation cross the line from inspiration to insult?

Let me explain what I mean by cultural appropriation, here. In many games, the various fantasy cultures, kingdoms and even races that players portray are based at least in part on actual peoples and cultures from real world history. It’s a fairly rare fantasy boffer game that doesn’t have some kind of Norse analog, for instance, not to mention a Celtic one and often a loosely defined “you know, like, Asian” one. These cultures are often called different things in the game, naturally, as befits the fictional nature of the world, but players are directed to use their real world inspirations to guide their costuming, makeup and prop choices, sometimes even encouraged to attempt accents or speech patterns based on these cultural touchstones. (Some games even borrow religious or cultural language from these cultures directly, like a fantasy game with Thor as one of the deities or using a term like ronin in their otherwise entirely new fantasy culture.) When I was younger I took this in without thinking too much about it – it was all make believe, after all, and anyway we weren’t actually supposed to be real world individuals, we were just borrowing parts of the real world to help give this fantasy one a solid foundation. Now, though, I look on them with a bit of hesitation, because sometimes I’m not sure we’re putting our best foot forward as a community.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As a designer and a player, I have to admit I’m torn.

On the one hand, I totally get the advantages of this sort of world-building – rather than try to build something as complex as fashion, language and culture from the ground up, using real-world analogs allows a designer to focus on the parts unique to their game world and gives players to an easy way to handle what they’re being asked to portray. This is often crucial for new players, particularly those new to larping altogether. After all, it’s already fairly taxing for them to try to take on the imagination load of being another person in another world surrounded by other imaginary people, but chances are they know what a Viking is, so imagining that they’re a Viking-type person makes it just a little easier. Not to mention that it’s easier to construct costumes and props, since there are already a lot of references and patterns available. Using an existing culture as a reference point is therefore a good way to help people identify with the game world more quickly and easily, which in turn helps them engage with the stories going on there.

It can also be a lot of fun to do some culture-and-genre mashing, as far as more advanced designs go. For example, in the past I played a game with dark elves, who are long since a staple of modern fantasy gaming, but gave them an interesting twist by combining standard dark elf makeup with feudal Japanese costuming and etiquette, rather than sticking with their traditional vaguely Western European dress and matriarchal organization. They also had a regal culture that combined elements of Victorian England with ancient Rome, which sounds like an utter sartorial train wreck but actually hit a lot of great notes conveying a sort of instinctive sense of power, dignity and imperial superiority (for better or worse), which is exactly what they were shooting for when they created it. I love these sorts of mashups, because when they’re done well it can breathe new life into what might otherwise be all too familiar territory, and let’s face it, fantasy games in particular often cover a lot of very familiar territory.

Just to be clear, then: There are definite upsides. I get that, do not deny it. In fact, I think real world cultural analogs can be powerful tools for designers who think them through and use them respectfully and deliberately. After all, it is certainly possible to create a fantasy setting that uses elements inspired by feudal Japan without venturing into caricature and stereotype – Legend of the Five Rings certainly did so very ably and respectfully, after all, in both tabletop and larp form.

That said, there are the parts that start making me a bit uncomfortable. Because while a lot of these cultural appropriations are harmless or nearly so, there also quite a few that are at best rather painfully simplistic and at worst, well, extremely insensitive and offensive. I think the main culprit here are the “vaguely Asian” cultures I mentioned earlier – they are common to a large number of fantasy games, and all the more striking because while many games have a number of very distinct cultures drawn from various European roots – Norse, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Elizabethan English, etc. – those same games then turn around  and simply hand-wave everything east of Transylvania or so into one big catch-all category.

Now, I understand where this is coming from. While the gaming community is thankfully becoming more diverse, games still tend to have a player majority drawn from various varieties of Western European descent. So that’s the historical and cultural backdrop they know best, and therefore they’re more aware of the distinctions in those real world cultures than they are of Asian, African or South American cultures. Doesn’t make it any less simplistic and potentially insensitive, but I can see the why, if that makes sense? Still, it’s rather shockingly patronizing when you step back and take a good look at it.

I mean, let’s try a little thought experiment here: Imagine if you described a game culture as simply “European” and left it at that. You’d have players asking questions about exactly what that’s supposed to mean, how the designers could possibly lump the Greeks with the Spanish and the British, do they think Vikings are the same as Roman centurions, etc? And yet that’s pretty much exactly what’s being done in a lot of these game cultures that simply say “Asian” or “African” then dust off their hands and walk away.

When I first started boffer larp, I played at a game that has one of these “we-say-Asian-but-we-really-mean-Japanese-and-a-few-things-like-tie-shirts-we-think-are-Japanese-but-are-actually-Chinese” cultures, and looking back it makes me cringe to think of just how staggeringly insensitive it was. The name of the culture was simply a real world Eastern culture with r’s substituted for the l’s – get it? – and players were encouraged to use the sort of thick “Asian accents” you don’t hear anymore outside of old time race comedy and the worst sort of hack stereotype characters coughed up by Hollywood. Looking back I just want to facepalm myself into unconsciousness, or perhaps better yet smack the designer on the back of the head. That’s probably the worst example I’ve encountered, but there are quite a few other games that come awfully close to that same line, and really there’s just no excuse for it – not then and certainly not now. I mean, if nothing else, this is the Age of Search Engines. You don’t have to say “Asian” anymore – you can tell people to reference the Edo period, the Boxer Rebellion, the founding of the Joseon Dynasty or any other specific country and era you like, and references are just a few clicks and an image search away.

Speaking of lines, this is just a friendly heads-up for the gaming community at large: inasmuch as one can say an entire culture agrees on anything, generally speaking the Romani consider the term “Gypsy” more than a little offensive, essentially tantamount to using a racial slur. I didn’t know this myself until a few years ago – it’s so pervasive in our language and the Romani are such cultural outsiders that it’s unlikely to change any time soon – but still, now we know, and knowing is half the battle, right? I’m not asking anyone to give up their game cultures based around a nomadic people dressed in bright colors, but maybe we could stop using a racial slur to refer to them? I mean, if you want to use the culture as the basis for a culture in your game, try referring to the Romani instead of using the term Gypsy. Take it from a writer who has his own flamboyant “Gypsy cavalier” larp character in his back catalog and did a big Vistani writeup for Ravenloft back in the day – it’s not any harder and you get to be less offensive too. Win win.

Now, I know that there are probably at least a few people out there saying something along the lines of “Wait a minute, I’m of Scandinavian descent and I gotta tell you, I find some of these ‘Norse’ game cultures pretty damn offensive too – why don’t you say something about that?” Well, for one, consider it said. I’m not disagreeing with you – I’m not saying it’s only non-European cultures and ethnicities that can be appropriated in offensive ways. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are proud of their heritage, take one look at fantasy game “Celts” and want to throat punch everyone with a terrible Lucky Charms accent. Insensitive is insensitive – just because a lot of gamers are of Western European descent doesn’t mean they can’t be just as patronizing and clueless about those cultures too.

So … What Do We Do About It?

Before anyone accuses me of trying to launch some sort of witch hunt or anti-fun crusade, bringing games to their knees with political correctness run amok and whatnot, let me stress that when these offensive things are done at a game, I’d say about 99% of the time it’s done out of ignorance, not malice. (It certainly was in my case.) People are playing a game to have fun in a make believe world, and because of the distance that fantasy provides they don’t always see what it might look like back in the real world, especially to people from a different background than their own. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything, but it does mean that you should look at it as a chance to educate, not harangue.

Designers and game runners, when you’re considering using real world analogs, make sure you understand what you are carrying over and what it might bring with it. This doesn’t mean that you should feel paralyzed with indecision, worried that every little move might offend someone somewhere. (Any creative project will offend someone, as the Internet will be only too happy to point out for you.) But it does mean you should stop and think through your decisions – are you using parts of a culture that will add to the game in a meaningful way, or do they encourage the perpetuation of stereotypes and caricatures? If a player starts taking one of your cultural analogs in an offensive direction – for example, showing up in an outlandish caricature outfit and speaking with an offensive accent – what will you say to them?

For example, I was at a game recently where some folks playing dumb redneck NPCs started going off on “lazy Mexican” stereotypes, which needless to say, made more than a few other players angry and uncomfortable out of game. This dumb redneck culture is part of the game, and they probably just figured they were acting in character, but at the same time there’s no question that tossing around real world racist stereotypes crossed the line for their fellow players, and with good reason. Fortunately the game staff was on top of it and addressed the problem quickly, declaring the behavior out of bounds and telling players to refrain from real world insults and stereotypes in favor of insults based solely on the game’s fictional “races” and local cultures. Still, when you draw on real world analogs, you have to realize that sometimes players may miss the point, take it too far, or otherwise cross the line, and you should be ready to handle the situation if it does.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of games now post rules about inappropriate material, and a discussion point about real world analogs is definitely considering if your game includes them. Let players know that real world elements are there for inspiration, not caricature and stereotype, and let them know the proper method for expressing concern if they feel that something has crossed a line. That alone can go a long way to making sure your game stays  a safe space for people to feel comfortable while they’re playing.

Players, for your part, remember that when a game uses a real world analog, it’s generally designed as a quick reference and a jumping off point, not as a final destination. Unless the game actually encourages you to bring over cultural and historical elements, you should look at it as more of a visual reference than a cultural mandate, and therefore feel free to take it in new and interesting directions rather than recreating what we already know of in our own world. Games are a chance to really unleash your imagination, after all, so even if a game culture has a lot of Celtic analogs, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have Gaelic sounding names or make references to existing traditions. (Not unless that is what the designer intends, I suppose.) Instead, use it as jumping off point and chart new territory.

TL;DR

In the end, I think the key is remembering to be respectful and understanding that what may seem like just good fun to one person can be quite different to someone else, especially if they feel their racial or cultural identity is being slighted by material presented in the game.  Because even though the characters are imaginary, the people behind them are not, and as our hobby grows we owe it to everyone to leave behind some of the mistakes of our past and build better worlds for the future.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk Holiday Special: A Larper’s Thanksgiving Litany

For the Staff
* Thank you to the Storytellers, Directors, Game Organizers and other community leaders who invest so much of their time, their money, their creativity and their hearts to creating the games we love.
* Thank you to all the staff members for bringing the world to life around us, whether it’s a menacing villain we spend an entire season hating or just a bit part played for five minutes.
* Thank you for all the late nights and re-writes, the prop shopping and the jaw dropping, and most of all the non-stop love you have for telling it right.

We see what you do, and we’re so grateful for it all.

For the Players
* Thank you to all the other players who join these communities and dive into these worlds alongside us, whether for a few hours at a one-shot con game or a few years of a long-running chronicle.
* Thank you to everyone who roleplayed with us, talked costuming, worked out character history details, helped us with our makeup, built us a cool prop or just shared post-game fries at a diner.
* Thank you for all the backstories and past glories, the schemes and the dreams, and most of all for the scenes we’ve shared in our stories.

We see what you do, and we’re so grateful for it all. 

For LARP Itself
* Thank you to everyone over the years who had enough faith in the power of “grown up make-believe” to make it such an awesome, entertaining and inspiring part of our lives.
* Thank you to all the game writers, the playtesters and other patient folks who build these worlds we love, from the biggest story flourish to the smallest rules fix.
* Thank you for all the epic nights and the desperate fights, the hot tears and the wild cheers, the jokes everyone hears and the joys of being in a story told right.

We love what we do, and we’re so grateful for it all.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk #18: The 4 Most Common Problem Character Types (And How to Make Them Work)

In all my years of gaming, I’ve come across a lot of different characters – and perhaps more importantly, character archetypes: the Rogue with a Heart of Gold, the Bookish Wise Man, the Femme Fatale and so on. Whether it’s a fantasy boffer larp or a horror parlor game, certain types of characters keep showing up over and over again. And most of the time that’s fine – archetypes are part of storytelling, so it’s no surprise that we find lovable crooks everywhere from drafty dungeons to cyberpunk clubs. However, there are some character types that aren’t so easily integrated, that in fact can do some real damage to the game and the enjoyment of the other players.

In this installment of BLT, we’re going to take a look at four problematic character types, what’s wrong with them, and most importantly offer solutions on how to turn them around and make them work in a way that makes most everybody happy. It’s not about calling people out to shame them; it’s about taking what are usually well-intentioned concepts that have gone a little astray and steer them into becoming awesome, well-developed characters in their own right.

Note: With this in mind, please don’t go running around your game putting labels on concepts that you think fit these roles or badgering other players about the perceived shortcomings of their characters. If you have a concern about the impact a character is having on the game, talk to a staff member about it. They might think the concept is just fine, and anyway, if it is serious enough to warrant talking to a player about changing their concept, it’s best that it be a staff member and not a fellow player who voices the concern. Wheaton’s Law, folks, always.

The Carbon Copy, aka The Cosplayer

Telling Quote: “What do you mean? My name Mel Reynolds, and I’m the captain of an old spaceship called Tranquility! It’s totally different!”
What’s Going On: 
Perhaps the easiest of problem characters to spot, the Carbon Copy is just that – an exact or nearly exact recreation of an existing character from some form of popular entertainment. The name is either exactly the same or a clever play on the source (Nathan Reynolds, Malcolm Fillion, etc.), the costuming is as close as they can make it within genre considerations – turning Mal’s signature browncoat into a brown cloak for a fantasy version of the character, for example – and the mannerisms and catchphrases are dead on. They probably have the props too, and drop references to their source material every chance they get. Now, in some specialized games this is perfectly fine, even encouraged – if we’re doing a Firefly larp and using the crew of the Serenity as characters, by all means, Mal and Jayne and Zoe to your hearts’ content. But for most other games? Playing a carbon copy of an existing character is something best avoided for a couple of reasons.

The Trouble Is: Setting Breaker
Say it again with me – there is absolutely nothing wrong with being inspired by a character from a book/movie/song/TV show/etc. Many gamers can trace the origins of each of their characters at least in part to inspiration drawn from other sources, and that’s OK. It’s more than OK, in fact – it’s a fantastic way for new players to explore the hobby, and for veteran players to draw on inspiration to make characters they identify with right off the bat. But when you try to faithfully recreate a character in their entirety rather than simply use them as a starting point, you’re missing the chance to make your own. When everyone else around you is making the effort to create something new and exciting, it can be frustrating to see someone else just playing a role other people have already traveled. Not to mention that your character can break immersion a bit as it reminds people of things that don’t necessarily exist in that world or setting – Sir Malcolm Reynolds of the Order of Serenity may tickle your fancy as you stride around in your long brown cloak, but at a fantasy game you’re basically a walking immersion breaker, because any kind of acknowledgment of the source of your character necessarily goes outside of the setting.

How to Make It Work: Spirit, Not the Letter.
Fortunately this one’s pretty easy. Sit down and write out the three or four things you like best about that inspirational character. I’m talking personality traits and mannerisms, not names and events. That’s what’s really important, and so you can focus on bringing those into your character. After all, what do most people really like about Malcolm Reynolds? His name isn’t important, nor is it the way he dresses. It’s more like his sense of honor, his sardonic humor, his loyalty, and his penchant for speaking his mind even if it gets him in trouble. If you bring those into your character, do you really need his name or his coat? Not so much.  By all means, take those characters you love and use them to inspire and structure your own creations if you like, but make sure you put your own spin on them too!

The Lone Wolf That Rides Alone, Wolfishly

Telling Quote: “…” <walks off alone, but only after carefully making sure everyone sees just how alone and uncaring they are>
What’s Going On: 
You all know the type. The moody loner character who actively pulls away from social contact, usually with a hard stare or a cryptic muttered comment about not playing well with others. They’re like a compass lodestone – whatever way the rest of the game is going, the loner is always heading in the other direction.  They absolutely refuse to be grouped in with others, and will fight fiercely to retain their independence and autonomy even when it doesn’t always make sense to do so. In my experience, there are actually two types of Lone Wolves, the True Loners and the Needy Loners. True Loners are players who are genuinely content to go their own way, even if it costs them some entertainment value now and then, and rarely complain about their lot because they’re playing the way that gives them the most enjoyment. Needy Loners, by contrast, are players who make characters that claim to want nothing to do with anyone else, but who really desperately need people to pay attention to just how cool and aloof and alone they are, and tend to complain loudly about how they don’t get enough plot or how they are excluded from certain content even though they do their best to stay apart from others, turn down plot hooks and otherwise push away from the game as a whole. As you can imagine, I’m talking about Needy Loners more here.

The Trouble Is: So Lonely
Larp is a social activity. When you create a character whose entire existence is predicated around actively avoiding social contact, grouping up and otherwise forming connections, you’re locking yourself out of a lot of the fun. Even if you’re OK with that – and as I said, True Loners generally are – be aware that by doing so you surrender a certain amount of involvement in the story everyone else is being told, as well as some ability to complain about not having enough to do or not being included in plots. At a lot of larger games, the staff is hard pressed to keep up with the demands of a sizable player population, and simply doesn’t have the resources to spare to babysit a single loner character off doing their own thing. Even in smaller games it can be difficult to justify tailoring plots for a single character, especially when it’s because they stubbornly refuse to go along with everyone else. So I’m not saying you can’t play that loner character concept, but if you stick with it, be prepared to make your own fun as a result, as well as accept what it might cost you in story terms.

How to Make Them Work: The Happy Few
You remember all those great loner characters from your favorite movies, books and TV shows? Remember what happened to pretty much all of them over time? Yeah. They developed connections to at least one or two other characters, even if only grudgingly, and those connections drew them into the larger action and also made them more interesting.  After all, being a loner only really sinks in when contrasted against regular social contact, so as much as you might want to be an absolute island beholden to no one, I recommend developing at least one or two connections with your fellow characters, even if only as business partners or some other formal arrangement. Doing so will allow you to stay involved in certain storylines or give you a reason to throw in for larger causes when necessary, while still letting you go your loner way a lot of the time as well. Because you know what’s just as common as those great “lone wolf” characters? The part where they get drawn into working with others, grumbling all the while maybe, but drawn in nonetheless. Even Logan eventually saw the value of joining the X-Men – if only to hit on Jean – and that tells you something about interesting loners.

The Snowflake, aka The Odd One Out

Telling Quote: “Every good Werewolf game needs at least one vampire.”
What’s Going On: Like a lot of problem concepts, the Snowflake doesn’t usually set out to cause trouble, but often winds up causing a lot of headaches. The simplest way to sum up this concept is that whatever everyone else is playing, they aren’t. They’re the Imperial spy in the middle of a Rebel Alliance cell, the vampire in a werewolf sept, the obvious heretic in a Dark Heresy game, you name it. Anything that is normally rare, despised, ill-advised or otherwise off-limits in the setting is like catnip to these players, who immediately decide that they must play this concept even though it goes against everyone else’s character type. Some of them do it for the sheer challenge of trying to survive in a setting hostile to their concept, others enjoy the fish out of water roleplaying, and many enjoy having different powers or even different rules than the rest of the game. And some just do it because they like standing out in the crowd, being the one character or concept that immediately jumps out as special or different. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these things, by the way, but when the concept is so far outside what the rest of the game is going with, it can be a problem in a number of ways worth discussing. 

The Trouble Is: Writer’s Burden
Even when created with the best of intentions, the Snowflake is an extra drain on the storytelling staff, who have to go to extra lengths to tailor plots and events to make sure that the Snowflake can somehow participate despite so much of the setting material saying otherwise. There are also a lot of potential problems with power balance, as the Snowflake is often resistant to things that are mortally dangerous to other characters (or vice versa), meaning that their mere presence can make some difficult challenges seem trivial. What’s more, in many game settings there are long-established reasons that different nations/races/species/factions/etc. don’t work together, and so the Snowflake presents a unique difficulty when writing storylines, as the staff is either forced to ignore a major setting element or enforce it and risk making the Snowflake feel frustrated as they are persecuted at every turn.

How to Make Them Work: Realistic Expectations
Assuming this concept is approved in the first place, it’s time to take the player aside and have a frank discussion about what their expectations are for their character, as well as what they might expect from NPCs or even their fellow PCs regarding their outsider status. Generally speaking, they should be ready to accept a certain amount of (justified IC) prejudice and poor treatment, as well as being socially excluded from certain groups and storylines. It’s also a good idea to get the player to recognize and accept that their character might have a short lifespan in the game before meeting death, imprisonment or other forms of retirement. (Remember, even if their character is sweetness and light, outsiders make great scapegoats for all kinds of wickedness.) They also should recognize that if 30 players are portraying vampires, and 1 person is playing a wizard, the staff’s obligation is to entertain those 30 players first, and so they may not have the same level of staff attention as the rest of the game. In short, the player should understand that playing a character that radically differs from the other characters means they should expect that their play experience will also be very different, and possibly a lot shorter, than those of other characters. If they can handle that, great! If not, well, a standout character like this might not be best for them.

The Diner Hero, aka The Walking Gag

Telling Quote: “Hail and well met! I’m Sir Prize! Bet you didn’t see that coming! Ha HA!” <gallops away using coconuts to make hoofbeat noises>
What’s Going On: 
Oof. Yeah. Sooner or later we all see these characters – a funny idea from a late night at the diner or at 3 AM of some marathon gaming session, which unfortunately someone turned into an actual character and now wants to play.  Some of them share characteristics with Carbon Copies and dress like famous characters or imitate their important characteristics, but the important difference is that while a Carbon Copy is usually trying to play a sincere character in the game world (if one adapted from some other source), the Diner Hero has no such intentions. They’re just there because they think it’s funny to play a gag character and see how long they can get away with it. At best it’s like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch drag on too long, funny for a few minutes but increasingly painful as it stretches out; at worst these players are actively trolling the game, breaking the world and mocking their fellow players until they’re thrown out.

The Trouble Is: Funny the First Time, But …
I’m going to assume that we’re talking about a player who maybe doesn’t realize exactly what they’re doing, as opposed to someone who’s deliberately trolling. (Troll solution: Throw them out fast, retcon any damage they did to the game before they left, and ban them from returning.) If you confront these more innocent jokers about what they’re doing, they usually respond with something like “It’s just a game” or something along those lines. What players of gag characters often don’t realize is that even the funniest gag character is a drain on the other players around them; they’re quite literally having their fun at the expense of others. Because larp takes a certain amount of serious concentration even from veterans – you have to imagine that you really are your character, that the players around you are actually their characters and not your friends in funny outfits, that the location is actually your game world and not a rented campground/friend’s apartment/hotel ballroom, etc. (Not to mention potentially adding fantastic elements like supernatural powers, differently colored moons in the sky overhead and so on.) That’s a lot to ask of an imagination! And it gets harder when you have someone whose very presence breaks the game, let alone whose behavior is constantly pushing the boundaries of IC/OOC humor and taste.

How to Make It Work: Seeing Past the Punchline
This one can be tough, but if the player isn’t trolling on purpose it can often be done. Take the player and explain to them while you appreciate the fact that they’re enjoying the game, there’s a difference between IC and OOC jokes, and right now their concept feels too OOC to work in the environment. If they can see that, talk about what needs to be changed to make the character feel less like a gag; sometimes it’s as simple as a new name and a few different costume pieces, while other times it’s a more extensive overhaul. If the player’s onboard with what needs to be changed, great! If not, well, it might be time for a new character. Hopefully that’s a last resort, to say the least, but if it seems harsh, remember that larp is a group activity – one person’s fun should not take precedence over the fun of the troupe as a whole, especially if it’s not for strong IC reasons.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

After Watchmen: Comics 101

After Watchmen… What Next?
I was on a panel at Philcon earlier today, and I promised the audience that I would post the list I’d made up of some of my favorite comics (since I forgot the handouts I’d made to bring). So hello Philcon attendees, and anyone else who’s looking for comic recommendations! Welcome, and enjoy!

Understanding Comics & Reinventing Comics
Written by Scott McCloud. Perhaps the most definitive works examining where comics came from, how they work their special brand of magic and where the medium might be heading. They are fun and easy to read, yet also quite scholarly and informative.

Sandman
Written by Neil Gaiman. One of the most ambitious series of all time, this modern myth follows the designs of personified cosmic forces such as Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire and Despair, as well as dozens of the lives they touch throughout time and space. A heavily allusive yet very accessible and intricately plotted tale from start to finish.

Fables 
Written by Bill Willingham. Exiled from their homelands by a villainous being known as the Adversary, refugees from dozens of fairy tales band together in a small community in modern New York. A good premise executed with wit, humor and endless originality.

League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Written by Alan Moore. An arch, intelligent, postmodern examination of Victorian values featuring a “dream team” of period heroes such as Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker and Dr. Jekyll as they battle all manner of evil plots and sinister villains.

Ex Machina
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. What if a superhero decided to treat the disease instead of the symptoms? In this alternate timeline, a superhero gives up punching muggers and runs for mayor of New York. In office, the true test of his heroism really begins.

Transmetropolitan
Written by Warren Ellis. Black humor, trippy illustration and cultural satire combine in this sci-fi tale of a gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem and his quest for Truth! in a bizarre yet all-too-familiar future city fraught with idiocy and corruption.

Preacher
Written by Garth Ennis. A preacher sharing his body with a renegade cosmic force, his ex-assassin girlfriend and their Irish vampire buddy – and that’s just the first issue! This series is a bold, bawdy, bloody look at faith, loyalty, America and second chances.

Invincible
Written by Robert Kirkman. Son of Omni-Man, protector of the world, Marc can’t wait for his superpowers to develop – but when he at last becomes a hero, he learns just how hard life is under the mask. A sweet, funny and charmingly retro super hero comic.

Y: The Last Man
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. An escape artist named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, are the only survivors of a mystery plague that kills all the male organisms on the planet. Part mystery, part romance, part gender study, pure science fiction.

The Boys
Written by Garth Ennis. In a world where superheroes are the new weapons of mass destruction, the CIA keeps one group of absolute badasses around to keep the supes in line: The Boys. Bloody, profane and provocative, this series examines the human cost of superpowers and the damage they do on the human mind.

V For Vendetta
Written by Alan Moore. Set in a dismal totalitarian future Britain, this tale follows a freedom-fighting terrorist as he trains his successor to sow intellectual mayhem. A deep and disturbing dystopian tale in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World.

Scott Pilgrim
Written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. A young slacker falls in love with a mysterious girl, but before they can live happily ever after, she reveals that first he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends! A hilarious, slightly surreal tale told with lunatic charm, featuring manga-esque art and a lot of truly funny, knowing and often surprisingly touching dialogue.

100 Bullets
Written by Brian Azzarello. An old man offers select hard luck individuals a unique gift: a briefcase containing a folder full of proof that someone else ruined their life, an untraceable gun and 100 bullets. A stylishly illustrated, grim, twisting noir action epic.

Kingdom Come
Written by Mark Waid. What happens when great responsibility no longer accompanies great power? As Superman and his peers grow older, a new generation of irresponsible heroes and depraved villains threatens to tear down everything they’ve built.

Runaways
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. A group of teenagers run away from home after learning their parents are supervillains, vowing use their own gifts to bring their folks to justice. A mundane premise, maybe, but it’s executed with real humor, wit and heart. Vaughn writes teens with honesty and sympathy, and without talking down to them.

Top 10
Written by Alan Moore. In Neopolis, a city where everyone has a superpower (however minor), who keeps the peace? This smart, quirky, visually striking “cop show” comic follows the super-police officers working to keep Neopolis safe, and it’s one helluva ride. Beware the volumes done after Moore left, though – let’st just say the quality is different and leave it at that.

Sin City
Written by Frank Miller. This graphic, brutal noir series follows a number of different characters as they move through the rain and shadows of Basin City, seeking justice and vengeance, addiction and absolution. A highly stylized series of grim, hardboiled tales.

DMZ
Written by Brian Wood. After the Second Civil War grinds to an uneasy truce, novice journalist Matt Roth finds himself the lone voice for a ravaged New York City awash in martial law, militant gangs and scared refugees. Gritty, idealistic and passionate.

Sleeper
Written by Ed Brubaker. Old school heroics and Cold War espionage mix in this twisting tale of a superhero gone undercover in a league of villains, only to find that he’s no longer sure which side he’s on. A clever blend of two genres, with deceptively simple art.

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Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!

Badass Larp Talk #17: 3 Little Tricks That Quickly Ramp Up Your Game

I was talking to a group of larpers recently, some old hands and a lot of newer folks, and as is often the case when a group of gamers get together the discussion quickly turned to our common pastime. We were swapping war stories and talking a little bit of larp theory when one of the very new players asked a pretty simple question: Theory aside, what can you do to improve your larping ability, like, right away?

Like a lot of deceptively simple questions, it was actually kind of a stumper, but after thinking on it a bit these are the three best “little” tips I know to quickly boost larp experience. (Well, four really – I added a bonus one you can do pre-game to help get more in character, but the others are all tips to use during play.) So without further ado, here they are, three little tricks that can make a big difference at game:

1 – Put Your Body Into It
“Motions bring emotions.” This is the simplest, yet most effective larping trick I know for anyone looking to up their game and increase their immersion. If you put your body through the motions, the associated emotion/sensation usually follows. It’s a technique that many actors already know but which a lot of larpers don’t always pick up on, and it’s a really powerful one. If you’re wounded, hobble a little, clutch your side or make your breathing ragged, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to really feel that pain like it was your own. If you get devastating news and want to really feel the sting, slump down, put your head in your hands, curl up in a ball, sniffle a little like you’re choking back sobs. Want to feel anxious and agitated? Start pacing back and forth with tight strides, make sharp gestures, fiddle with something small in your hands over and over. Trying to feel that supreme rush of joy? Don’t just smile – hop around, wave your hands a little, throw your head back and laugh, pump your fist and say “YES!”, whatever it takes. Of course, different characters will react differently to all of these situations, no question, so naturally YMMV – but the point is that they should all react somehow.

Too often you see larpers expressing emotional reactions using only their words and their facial expressions, with perhaps a little bit of gesticulation here and there. That’s a good start, don’t get me wrong, but you’d be amazed what a difference it makes to really put your whole body into it. It quite literally changes the way you see larp, and it’s totally worth it.

2 – Learn All the Names!
Seriously! It seems like such a nothing thing to do, but it’s actually a really powerful roleplaying tool. After all, without a name, it’s hard to care about someone (PC or NPC); if you don’t care about someone, it’s hard to get invested in what happens to them; if you’re not invested in what happens to others, you’re basically standing outside of the story looking in any time events don’t revolve around you. Wild, huh? So take the time to learn names. (Or hey, make up your own nicknames for people like I often do!) It can be a lot to take in, especially at a larger game, and don’t worry if you don’t get it right all the time, but make an effort to learn everyone’s name. It goes double for NPCs too, even – perhaps especially – if they are “throwaway roles” that may not be around long.

Not only will it help you feel like you’re moving in a real world full of real people, which is a huge plus for any player, but people like to be recognized too, and referring to someone by their character name instead of a “hey you” or worse still their OOC name is a subtle but powerful bump to help them stay in character too. Everyone wins!

3 – Care
The scariest villain, the most thrilling battle, the most amazing triumph and the most heartbreaking loss – none of these incredible moments will really mean anything to you if you don’t care about your character and her world. But caring is weird and tricky, too, especially if you’re new to larp. So how to go about doing it? I don’t know how to put it any other way, except to let down your guard a little and stop thinking about your character like a lead in a movie or the avatar in a video game. Larp is unique in that you are the only thing holding yourself back from really living in that character’s shoes – for an hour, for a day, for a weekend. Not a tv screen, not a controller, not a handful of dice. Just you. So let down your guard a bit. Let your character and her world matter to you like it would matter to her.

Start small if you like, and just care about your character – what she wants, what she fears, what she plans to do that day. Then expand your circle a little and think about how she cares about her friends and allies, what she’s willing to do for them (and what she expects in return). Then expand even further and care about her rivals, her enemies, think about why she sees them as threats – and what’s she prepared to do about it. Then when you really have it down, care about the problems facing her community, even if only because they threaten to interfere with her own plans. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a complicated web of feelings, reactions and desires, and perhaps even more importantly, you’ll find yourself really caring about what goes on in your game, even when it isn’t about you directly. And that’s amazing fuel to keep you going in a long-term game.

Bonus Pre-Game Tip – Give Your Whole Outfit A Story
I touched on this a little while back with the “Hell of A Hat” contest, but it’s still a quick way to tease out a surprising amount of character backstory and personality when you might otherwise be stumped. Here’s how it works. Put on your whole costume, including any significant props that you usually carry, but as you put on each piece tell yourself a little story about where your character got it. Doesn’t have to be more than a sentence or two, but you’d be surprised how much you can find out from such simple pieces. Has your vampire been buying her dresses at the same boutique for the last sixty years? Did your post-apocalyptic survivor pull those boots off an enemy he killed? Did your character buy a pistol after her girlfriend took her out shooting? Did he cut that ring from an orc chieftain’s cold dead claw – or did he take it from one of his old companions along with a promise to return it to her family? Does she buy her shirts “I dunno, just someplace cheap” because she’s broke, saving money to buy a book of spells, paying off an old debt?

Even if no one else in game ever finds out any of these details, even if they are tiny little stories that aren’t relevant to anyone else but you and your character, it still makes them feel more real. And that in turn makes it easier to be in their head, which makes for a better experience on the whole.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk #16: A Hand to Head Disease PSA

Hello, larping.

Today I’m here to talk about a growing problem in our community, a spreading sickness that threatens the shared realities we work so hard to create. What you’re about to read may shock you, may disgust, may even horrify you, but don’t worry – there is help, and there is hope.

It’s called Hand to Head Disease.

Some of you may know it by different names – Finger-Crossitis, Headbanding, Clarificosis, HTH, and many more – but the effects are much the same no matter what you call it. A scene is humming along, everyone playing their characters as the world comes to life around you, when all of a sudden an HTH sufferer experiences an outbreak of symptoms. Right in the middle of your unfolding moment, their hand goes to their head, their whole character falls away and they vomit up reality all over everyone. Sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes it’s a compliment, sometimes it’s a reference to a movie or a book or even another game, but whatever it is, now it’s all over you and you’re having trouble wiping it off and staying in character afterward.

What’s worse is that HTH is highly contagious, with others exposed to it often displaying symptoms almost immediately, leading to more outbreaks as hands fly to heads and more reality comes up. The whole scene can get pretty disgusting pretty quickly, leaving a huge mess that wrecks the scene and a reality stink that can follow you around for hours afterward, making it hard to stay in character. Before long whole games can be infected, until it seems like no scene goes by without at least a few outbreaks, and people are spending more time with their hands to their heads than they are in character.

Unfortunately many HTH sufferers don’t even realize what they’re doing can be disruptive and unpleasant for those around them. They believe that spewing that little bit of reality actually increases the enjoyment of others, not realizing that what seems like a momentary splash of reality to them makes a total mess of the environment for everyone exposed to it. They also don’t realize that even people who can’t hear what they’re saying as still affected, as just witnessing an outbreak of HTH from a distance can still be enough to damage someone’s immersion in the world as they watch the game fall away and reality go all over the place.

But don’t worry! There are some simple steps you can take to treat HTH symptoms when you see them emerge. So the next time you see an outbreak begin, just follow these steps, 1-2-3:

Treating HTH In Others
1) Isolate the Outbreak – Try to convince the HTH sufferer to take their aside somewhere more private, quietly but quickly.

2) Explain the Symptoms – Explain to the HTH sufferer politely that unnecessary out of game comments should be saved for after game is over.

3) Dive Back In – Don’t linger, don’t scold, don’t dwell – remember, most HTH sufferers don’t realize what they were doing! Just be friendly, dive back into game and help others do so if needed.

If these steps don’t seem to help, don’t be rude and don’t confront the sufferer further – that just makes the problem worse. Instead, find a member of staff and inform them of your concerns as politely and discreetly as possible, and let them decide the proper course of treatment at that point.

Of course, that all fine and good when treating HTH symptoms in other people, but what if you realize you might be suffering from a bout yourself? Don’t worry! Self-administered treatment is effective in 95% of cases.

Treating HTH In Yourself
1) Stay Your Hand – Before you put your hand up, ask yourself: Is what you were about to say really worth shattering the shared reality of everyone around you? If not, wait on it, and skip steps 2 & 3.

2) Isolate Yourself – If you do feel something needs to be said, try to take aside only the individual(s) you need to address, and say it away from where others can see or hear you.

3) Limit Your Exposure – Say what you feel is necessary quickly and quietly, then resume play as soon as possible. Try to avoid prolonged outbreaks – if you can’t, take them away from the game until they’re over.

Just by following those simple steps, you should be able to minimize the impact of HTH outbreaks at your favorite games, as well as make sure you don’t catch the infection yourself. But don’t forget that the #1 way to prevent HTH from spreading is simple vigilance – the more you focus on staying in character and encouraging others around you to do the same, the more likely that it is you will be successful in blocking HTH transmission in your game.

Remember, it’s up to all of us to be on the lookout for Hand to Head Disease – but if we work together, we can beat it in our lifetime!

~Your friends at the C.D.C. (Character Defense Coalition)

HTH Disease FAQ
Q) Is every character break always a case of HTH?
A) No!  This is a common misunderstanding. In fact, many games encourage players to use certain gestures or phrases ask rules questions, which can look similar to HTH in action but is in fact a vital part of gameplay. Let’s be clear: Asking rules questions, raising safety concerns or clarifying vital story matters (that cannot be resolved in character) are valid reasons to drop character. However, it is still recommended that players try to make the disruption to play as brief and minimal as possible – when you can, take people aside to ask questions in private, for instance, or try to phrase it in at least vaguely in character terms so it doesn’t sound too harshly real to others nearby.

Q) So I want to share a little joke or tell someone they rocked that last scene  - what’s the harm?
A) Some people might not mind if you drop character, it’s true, but other people probably will, even if they don’t tell you so. And remember that even if you’re telling it to some friends who don’t mind, if someone else overhears you break character or witnesses your HTH gesture, you’ve just broken game for them, whether or not you intended to do so, and that’s not fair to them when the default at a larp is a continuous immersive environment. Trust me – if it really is a funny joke or witty reference, it will still be amusing later on. If it’s not, well, you didn’t need to break game for it, did you?

Q) What if something is so wrong in the game that the only choice is breaking character?
A) Apart from things like safety concerns, which as noted always justify dropping character no matter what, I’d say file that under “extreme and unfortunate circumstances” for sure. If something about the current scene is so broken – or at least, appears to be so broken – that the players have no choice but to break character to try to find some way to resolve the problem, then no, I wouldn’t hold that character break against them by any means. (“Hang on, this is a Vampire larp, not a Dr. Who episode – what do you mean the play area just fell through a time rift into the Jurassic period?!”) Just be careful not to jump to this option too quickly, though. A situation may seem difficult in game for perfectly in game reasons, and not necessarily require dropping character to resolve.

Q) Aren’t you being a little bit of a larp nazi?
A) (Hang on – do we really have to use the term “nazi” for something so trivial as larp? We do? OK, fair enough.) Well, this whole thing is more than a little tongue in cheek, so relax. Plus I want to make it clear that as much as breaking character can be disruptive and annoying, the solution is not to be obnoxious back – as noted above, I want to stress that it’s important to be polite and laid back when talking to players breaking character, not confrontational and rude. And there’s always the chance that your your game is cool with people breaking character, then hey, feel free to ignore any and all of this. Seriously!

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

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