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In Defense of Railroading Your Players

I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes it’s good to have a story on rails.

In case you might have missed it, this past week’s release of The Order: 1886 has generated a fair amount of controversy. Two of the most common objections are regarding the game’s duration, as well as the fact that it is a story “on rails” as opposed to a sandbox world of open exploration. The game’s developer, Ready At Dawn, even came out to respond to critics on the first charge, defending the game’s shorter than average runtime as being what the story required.

And I have to say, I agree. I think both objections are junk.

Let me preface my defense with a caveat – I am playing, but have not yet finished The Order, mostly due to a lot of deadlines floating around and also a deliberate decision to savor it a bit and play it in small pieces. To which some more cynical reviewers would probably respond by saying that if I played it but haven’t finished it, I must not have done more than sit through the opening credits. There has been serious howling about the fact that the game runs around 10 hours, and how this constitutes a “ripoff” for a game costing $60. A ripoff? Really? Let’s do some simple math.

$60 for 10 hours of entertainment is $6/hour.
$12 for 2 hours of entertainment (going rate for a movie ticket, not including snacks or 3D funny business) is $6/hour.

So, in effect, you are paying about the same for the game experience as you would for a theatrical movie experience. (Except, you know, it’s longer, interactive, and you don’t have to deal with the meathead in the row in front of you texting “omg channing tatum looks like legolas! more like jupiter GAYscending lol #YOLO” the entire time.) Where is the ripoff in that, exactly? Yet longer playtime is consistently touted as a good thing, with games bragging about 40 or 60 or even the occasional insane 100+ hours of playtime. Don’t get me wrong, I get that having a ton of time to bash around in a game world can be a lot of fun. I did every side mission in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series because I loved those worlds and those characters and wanted to squeeze as much out of them as I could.

But there’s also the question of how much of a game’s playtime is gripping story or involving action (or both), and how much of it is simply busywork? I consider Mass Effect 2 one of the finest games ever made, and yet I know my personal playtime was inflated by at least a couple of hours spent firing probes and collecting materials. I spent a lot of time playing watch_dogs, but only a fraction of that time was on the main story – the rest was all side missions, secondary objectives, and the odd collectible. A writing professor of mine once said “there is no greater tragedy than a novel that should have been a short story” and it’s a lesson I think the gaming industry – and its fans – need to remember. Adding playtime is only a good thing if it enhances enjoyment. Otherwise you’re just creating busywork, and unless it all ties in neatly and powerfully you might in fact actually hurt the story you’re trying to tell by throwing off its pacing and drowning it in distractions.

When I finished watch_dogs, in fact, I was left feeling like the sandbox nature of the game seriously harmed the story at the heart of the game. It’s supposed to a tightly-wound neo-noir tale of revenge, but giving the player a chance to drive all over (a very beautifully rendered) Chicago on a whim dilutes the essential drama and pacing of the story. It’s hard to take the unfolding events seriously when I get a plot update like “do this job or your nephew dies” but can cheerfully spend the next few hours driving around shooting gang members and participating in street racing with no impact at all on the main story. I felt like a terrible uncle, sure, but there was no penalty at all. A lack of urgency means a lack of tension, and a lack of tension means events feel flat or disjointed, and that makes a story that could have been a tight, compelling thriller wanders off into a series of weird, disconnected events.

To put it simply, if you try to take a 10 hour story and turn it into a 30 hour story, you’re not doing anyone any favors – not the creators, not the players, nobody.

Which is where the rails discussion comes in. One of the other major complaints about The Order is that “it’s on rails”, meaning that the player has no choice but to follow the path laid out for them by the developers. Or to put it another way, there is only one way to go through the story – the player cannot choose to go other places or do other things. Look, once again, there is no question that sandbox games can be totally awesome. I’ve played my share and loved them … when it suits the nature of the game. Having an entire world to explore and interact with can add an amazing feeling of freedom to a game, as well as fit in countless side activities to flesh out more of the setting (there’s that playtime bump again). But like a lot of design elements, opening a game up into a sandbox experience is a trade off – when players can go anywhere on the map, you lose the tighter narrative control that comes with putting a story “on rails.”

I mean, this is obvious from the textures and assets elements on up. If The Order was a sandbox game, you’d have to detail a huge playable area of London (among other locales), as well as fill it with reasons to go out exploring. That’s a ton of content that isn’t necessarily focused on or related to the main story. Sure, that trade-off is worth it to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only viable way to approach the design. I loved bombing around Revolutionary Paris in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and it was absolutely gorgeous and stacked to the gills with side content, but that doesn’t mean every game wants to invent several types of side missions, collectibles, and other activities just to justify their open world experience.

There’s also the matter that the best games “on rails” make those rails as invisible as possible – you follow the story as it’s laid out because it’s a fun, compelling plot. The Last of Us is absolutely on rails in the strictest possible sense, and it’s still one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced in gaming. I never once bemoaned the lack of an open world map, because it meant that the levels and encounters I was going through were carefully calculated for maximum narrative and gameplay impact – something you can’t do nearly as neatly or cleanly in a sandbox environment. There are great sandbox games, and great games on rails, but they are distinct styles of telling a story, and we need to stop stigmatizing one simply because it tends to have shorter playtimes. Especially considering how much complaining I hear about how pointless a lot of side content feels in so-called longer games – it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach to criticism.

As a lifelong tabletop gamer and larper, believe me when I say that my first response to the notion that a game is “on rails” is usually to recoil – one of the things I enjoy most about playing rpgs in those formats is the fact that there’s room for tremendous player creativity. Even so, I also recognize that some types of experiences – especially short convention games or other one shot formats – are best put on some kind of rails, because otherwise you have a bunch of players puttering around for a few hours hoping to bump into a cool plot. Sometimes putting players on track is not only useful, but necessary to convey the story you want, as well as lead them to certain carefully crafted and utterly unforgettable moments.

It’s ludicrous and more than a little confusing to try to say games like The Order don’t measure up because they aren’t meeting some absurd, arbitrary standards of playtime and player freedom. That’s finding a game lacking because it’s not the game you thought it should be, which is always going to be an impossible standard. If you want to criticize what is there, great – and there have been reviews that focused on what they saw as weaknesses in the finished product. That’s cool, and necessary. We just need to approach a game on its own merits, instead of applying consumer metrics that area increasingly pushing games to adopt sandbox models and multiplayer elements whether they make any sense or not, just to keep playtimes up to what gamers consider “acceptable” levels.

In the end, I’d rather have a tightly crafted 10 hour story than a bloated 30 hour mess.
But it seems like I’m more in the minority with every release.


Player’s Toolbox: The Three-Sentence Character

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petewoodworth:

Justin speaks wisdom, as usual. Why write a book most people will never read when you can do so much more in three bold sentences?

Originally posted on Justin Achilli:

I’ve spent many years of my career expanding characters into prose-length works, establishing elaborate backgrounds for them and giving them extensive histories. Because those books are intended for commercial sale, those characters are designed to have broad appeal. Somewhere in those 2,500-4,000 words is a hook almost anyone can use in a chronicle. Whether your setting involves attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or a vampire coup in Chicago, you should be able to grab a character published for your game of choice, find an engaging hook, and fit it into your campaign. It might require a little fine-tuning, but that’s okay – fine-tuning is less cumbersome than whole-cloth world- and character-building, and that’s what published source material is all about. You trade a couple bucks and save several hours of campaign engineering. As well, hobby games draw on a variety of loquacious literary traditions, so it’s…

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Hack Review: Absentia

So this movie has been in my queue for over a year, based on strong recommendations by the terrible minds behind the wonderful site Final Girl Support Group, and I finally got around to watching it. Short version? Don’t wait as long as I did, folks.

The premise is simple: A woman whose husband has been missing for seven years is about to have him declared dead (“in absentia”), and her prodigal younger sister shows up to help her move on with her life. A lot of creeping weirdness ensues, and this whole disappearance angle might not be exactly what you think.

The movie was shot on a very modest budget but wisely uses that to its advantage for the most part, employing low-key practical effects and the power of suggestion as well as a smart score to sell the scares and the growing sense of unease (and unreality). When they do employ some CG, it’s kept to flashes and corner-of-your-eye moments for the most part, and used well in that regard.

The leads are convincing – no schlocky B-movie stuff going on here – as is the supporting cast. The lone exception is Gum-Chewing Cop, who evidently studied at the Caruso School of Police Cliches and is visibly Acting! when he’s onscreen. But the movie easily survives that little disruption and the occasional bit of stilted dialogue, with the actors selling even the weaker lines throughout the film. If they’d cut one line about atoms – you’ll know it when you hear it – I don’t think I would have outright winced at a single bit of dialogue. Which is not something you say for every low budget film.

Absentia is a thoughtful, meditative sort of movie on the whole. While there are some (very good) jumps and scares, none of them are cheap stingers, and for the most part it’s a slow burn sort of film. If you’re looking for quick pacing and escalation to an over the top sort of finale, this one isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a lingering, unsettling sort of experience, I highly recommend it.

And good luck using a pedestrian tunnel for a long, long time after this movie.

Gamer Bonus: This is pretty much what the new World of Darkness is like, I think. Profoundly disturbing horrors in the midst of utterly mundane surroundings.


Badass Larp Talk #23: 5 Ways to Give Better Game Feedback

One of the amazing things about larp is that players are often in direct contact with the people responsible for the rules of the game, not to mention the setting. Even if you’re playing with an established system like Mind’s Eye Theatre or Cthulhu Live, many games still have a thriving culture of house rules and homebrew errata. Which means that the average player potentially has much more input into the rules for the game than in any other form of gaming, especially in the social media age where many game designers are friends with their players on places like Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, as Uncle Ben – the comic one, not the rice one – once said, with great power comes great responsibility. And frankly, in my experience a lot of gamers come across as a bit insensitive when giving rules feedback and proposing system changes, which can make the experience a lot less pleasant for everyone. So in the interest of helping players and designers alike, here are some quick guidelines to giving great larp rules feedback:

1 – Be Polite! (Seriously!)
Not because game designers and event runners are delicate flowers, but because if you want them to take your input seriously, you need to talk to them like they’re human beings. Before you click send, look over what you’ve written and make sure it isn’t insulting or obnoxious. And no, comments like “I’m just being honest” don’t justify being brutal in your critique. I’ve been edited by professionals for years, and I’ve had manuscripts absolutely savaged by editors who nevertheless were never any less than friendly and polite while they took my work apart down to the molecular level.

Gut Check: Would I be mad if I got this from someone else? Is my tone clear and respectful?

2 – Is It Really Better, Or Just Better For You?
One of the most common types of game feedback is what might generously be called “innocently self-serving” – players who claim to be proposing changes that will make the game better for everyone, but which would in practice benefit the player (and sometimes their friends) more than anything else. To be fair, a lot of times players don’t even realize this is what they’re doing, and that’s OK. Their perspective is based on their character, after all, so even well-intentioned players may put forward suggestions that are actually highly self-serving without realizing it. All the same, before you write in with a rules change, stop and as yourself if it’s something the game needs, or just something you need.

Gut Check: How much does the game as a whole benefit from this suggestion?

3 – Is It A Necessary Change?
I’m not saying little things don’t matter – most games are really a collection of little things, when you think about it – but it’s important to take a step back and think about how necessary your proposed change really is for the game. Is it a problem that’s seriously impacting gameplay in a major way? Or is it a minor irritation or small grace note that you just want to see tweaked? If it’s not a huge problem, it’s OK to say that up front – acknowledging that it’s not a major concern often makes it more likely to be considered, if only because you’re not claiming it

Gut Check: How high priority is this? Have I addressed that in my comments?

4 – Know the Right Time & Place
As mentioned previously, a lot of game designers and event runners are in direct contact with their player base on a daily basis, whether it’s through official game forums, Facebook pages, personal blogs, or other forms of social media. That’s good in a lot of ways, but it’s important to remember that game designers need time away from game too. One big cause of designer fatigue I’ve seen is when designers can’t seem to get away from the game. You start seeing it when posts on their personal Facebook that have nothing to do with game still get a lot of players responding with game terms and jokes, for example, or when the designer is out having drinks at a bar and people keep bringing up game when they are trying to talk about other topics, that sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with using the game as a starting point for a friendship, but if you’re in someone’s personal zone, it’s probably also welcome to talk about other things too. And if a designer has asked to keep game comments to certain times and places, respect that!

Gut Check: Is this a good time to bring this up? Is this the right place to do so?

5 – Accept That You Can Have A Great Idea (And It Still Might Not Be What They Want)
This is a tough one, make no mistake. Sometimes you might have what feels like an absolutely killer idea – for a new rule, a new power, a new setting element, whatever – and you think it will add a ton to the game as a whole. You might even tell other players about it and find they react similarly, and so you send it to the designer and hang back waiting for it to get approved. And then the word comes down that they’re not going to use it. You don’t know what to do – all you can see is how wonderful and perfect the idea is, and how good it would be for the game. So why won’t they use it?

There are a number of possible answers: Maybe they already have something similar in mind they just haven’t used yet. Maybe it actually conflicts with an upcoming plot development. And maybe, just maybe they like it as much as you do … but it still doesn’t fit what they want for their game. Because it is still their game, after all. Look at it this way – if you were in a band, you probably wouldn’t make changes to your songs, even if the person suggesting it knew something about music and was a really big fan. By the same token, it’s easy to forget that a game designer is an artist too, and might like their game the way it is just because it’s how they want it. And that’s their right.

Gut Check: Am I OK with the notion that this idea might not be used?

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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! 


Hardcore Truth: How Fans Ruin Their Own Fun

Don’t be a hardcore fan, be a big one.

Why not? Hardcore fans almost always end up ruining their enjoyment of what they profess to adore, while “merely” big fans go on their merry way, still finding new things to enjoy and explore about what they love for years at a time. Today’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer release has given me ample evidence of this notion, because while we big fans of Star Wars are debating the pros and cons of what we’ve seen (and what’s been left out), the hardcore fan response has been pretty much the same. It’s either a rapturous, no-room-for-discussion “IT IS STAR WARS SO IT WILL BE AMAZING ALL WHO DOUBT IT ARE WRONG”, or more often a close-minded rejection of the very notion that anything could possibly be as good as the sainted Holy Trinity, usually accompanied by some tired lens flare jokes and the obligatory “stop ruining my childhood” screed. Which highlights an important difference in how you, as a fan, approach what you love:

Being a big fan is a statement of enjoyment; being a hardcore one is a statement of identity.

The difference, as any psychologist will tell you, is pretty immense. If you enjoy something, but it doesn’t define how you see yourself as an individual, then that enjoyment is capable of expanding and changing over time as you find new examples of what you like and new ways to enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you automatically find every new thing in your fandom wonderful and great – I’m a big fan of Star Wars, for example, and still didn’t enjoy all the movies, let alone all the novels, games, and other tie-ins – but you are able to put the negative experiences in perspective with the positive ones.

To put it another way, I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, for example, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit when they’ve played a bad game (or season), or that I’ve decided the 1997 team was the single best Eagles team ever+ and that no current or future Eagles team could possibly be better. A big fan takes it as it comes, enjoying some things and not others, but always with an overall appreciation of what they love in mind. They recognize that Godfather III doesn’t “ruin” Godfather I & II, and that when you think about it, the very notion that it could is pretty absurd.

By contrast, when you’re hardcore to the point that you tag something as being part of your identity, whether it’s your Star Wars fandom or your love of a sports team or whatever, you become very resistant to the idea of anything about that subject changing. Because changing it now changes you, and as a rule, human beings are highly resistant to making alterations to our sense of identity. So a hardcore fan inevitably draws inward, becoming either fanatically positive about their fandom to the point of blindness and instant (often harsh) rebuke of the very notion that it could be in any way bad, or bitter and resentful about any new material to come after whatever arbitrary point they’ve decided was the “height” of what they love. They become gatekeepers, protecting “their” fandom from everyone they see as harmful to it, including other fans and even creators if they feel they have strayed from the “true” nature of the fandom.

As you can imagine, neither perspective is ultimately very conducive to continued enjoyment of what a fan claims to love, because either way you’re locked into a perspective that ultimately stifles your ability to appreciate the subject of your affection. You either won’t ever critique it and can’t accept the notion that others will, or you’ll ruthlessly critique every possible aspect of new material to the point where you’re incapable of enjoying any of it. Instead of a source of enjoyment in your life, your fandom becomes a subject to obsess over in a negative way, either because it requires you to block out and shut down any criticism you come across or because any news about it prompts a bitter tirade about how it’s been going downhill since whatever time you decided it had reached a suitable zenith.

No matter what, the hardcore fan always loses.

One particularly relevant case in point is the familiar “stop ruining my childhood” refrain that has been heard in a lot of fandoms but seems to hold a special place in the hearts of certain hardcore Star Wars fans. This is like complaining that, because they built a 7-11 where your own playground used to be, your cherished memories of playing in that park as a kid are now ruined forever. Stop and think about that a moment, because it’s both silly and a little terrifying to have that kind of view of your own identity, your own personal timeline.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to like that they built the 7-11, much less that Lucas inserted a bunch of pointless crap no one asked for in his classic films. As I said before, being a big fan doesn’t mean you can’t critique or respond negatively to things in your fandom, any more than you can’t feel a sense of loss to see something you cherished replaced by something coldly commercial. Those are perfectly normal and logical reactions, but they’re still placed within a context, a perspective – I don’t like that there’s a 7-11 there now, or that the re-releases now have pointlessly awful Jabba the Hutt CGI, but it won’t stop me from enjoying telling stories about playing in the park with my friends, or remembering all the many times I watched the original movies and had a blast.

What I’m saying is that if those sorts of things really do retroactively ruin your past – as in actually make you incapable of feeling any or all of the happiness you used to feel when you recollected those times from your past – you need to take a big step back and really separate your identity from your fandom. Because you’re clearly locked in a relationship with it that is bad for both of you. Seriously. Think about it.

Big fans? Always. Let’s spread our love of Star Wars – or Game of Thrones, or Doctor Who, or whatever else – to others and enjoy the ups and downs of following a creative property over the years.

Hardcore fans, though? Let’s let that notion go.

+Said no one ever, including me, so calm down everyone.


Hack Review – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

I am become Bro-shiva, destroyer of dudes.

OK, well, that’s probably putting a bit much of a spin on it. Especially considering how much I suck at multiplayer (more on that in a bit). But on the recommendation of a former student, I started playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare at midnight last night. And so far I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.

Understand, I’m not anything approaching a regular Call of Duty fan. Before last night, the last Call of Duty game I played was Call of Duty 2, which was released in 2005. So it’s been almost a decade since I played a game in this franchise – it was still about World War II when I left, to give a sense of perspective – and while I’m no stranger to FPS games, I generally prefer to play them on PC as opposed to a console. I’ve gotten used to console play over the last couple of years, but still find the mouse and keyboard a lot better for quick reactions. So I came very reluctantly to the decision to dive into Advanced Warfare, if only because while I thought it would be a nice spectacle on the PS4, I also thought I’d be spending most of my time lying down in a rapidly cooling puddle of blood as my poor controller skills got me killed. Repeatedly.

Suffice it to say that I’m very happy I changed my mind.

You see, I’m a military sci-fi fan. I’ve taught a course on the genre before. I read Starship Troopers several times a year, I go through the whole Old Man’s War series at least once annually, and regularly re-examine Ender’s Game. I love the breezy weirdness of Forever War and the boots in the mud grit of the Gaunt’s Ghosts books, the stark technology of Armor and the all-too-familiar modern media echoes of Embedded. And while it’s by no means the first game to mine near-future sci-fi for military purposes, it does it well and with enthusiasm. It’s far enough out there to be different and interesting, without going so far from the recognizable that it’s hard to feel a sense of visceral connection.

The writing, while investing heavily in some of the expected military tropes of the genre, is engaging when called for and knows better than to take itself entirely too seriously when it needs to be an action movie, which I appreciated. (It also doesn’t hurt that Private Mitchell is voiced by Troy Baker, who has so much character and pathos in his voice he could read half-finished Mad Libs and make them sound like the Gettysburg Address.) Kevin Spacey is exactly what you’d hope for in his role as President Frank Underwood Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons, bringing just the right amount of sly paternal affection to his megalomaniacal scheming. While I can see where some of the criticism of his character comes from, most of that stems from the lines he’s given as opposed to his performance; in his defense it always sounds like Spacey’s invested and enjoying himself, even when he’s given some over the top crazy ranting to do. I’ll take that over phoned-in celebrity voice work any time.

Here comes the caveat: I haven’t played the multiplayer. “But Pete! That’s what Call of Duty is all about!” comes the response from someone who apparently thinks yelling comments at a screen is better than typing them. All I can say is that multiplayer – especially PvP multiplayer – just isn’t a draw for me. I’ve never really been a huge fan of it in games, with the noted exception of the cheerfully addictive insanity of Team Fortress 2, and even if I was, recently a few rounds of PvP in Destiny taught me a valuable lesson:

I cannot compete with the Call of Duty generation.

Well, not on a console, anyway. Let it be known that I was so bad that I received my first-ever PS4 hate mail from a player on that first PvP team – out of our team score of 5325 points for the round, I’d managed to contribute a whole 170 points. (Not that this justifies sending a hate mail, because really, but I just wanted to emphasize that I was truly terrible.) Even though I improved to merely awful after a few rounds, I simply haven’t honed the fast-scoping, forever-headshotting, running-and-gunning reflexes of those who’ve been playing competitive multiplayer for hundreds on hundreds of hours. What’s more, I don’t really feel like putting in the time to catch up. I respect the talent and I’ve watched gameplay videos of pro Call of Duty players with real admiration for the skills on display, but it’s just not for me. So my apologies, but if you’re looking for a review of the multiplayer, this ain’t the place.

That said, hopefully it says something pretty strong about the game that I’m really enjoying it despite the fact that I’m ignoring the main reason a lot of players pick it up in the first place. I’m enjoying the story mode, as heretical as it might be, and while the price tag might be a little steep for most folks if that’s all they’re going to get out of it, for anyone who enjoys the story and some multiplayer action I’m pretty confident Advanced Warfare will deliver some solid entertainment bang for their buck.

Now if I could just figure out which stick controls the camera and which one controls the dude, I’d really be in business.

Hack out.


The Impostor

I feel like a fraud. Always have, and sometimes I suspect I always will.

Nobody likes to hear artists complain, but I’m sorry folks, this one won’t stay caged. I’ve wanted to be a writer almost as far back as I can remember, ever since my family praised a ghost story I wrote when I was little, ever since a friend of mine almost offhandedly said “This is good, you should write more” and unknowingly gave me permission to share my stuff with my friends. To step up and be that artistic writer guy, which is not an inconsiderable risk in the wolf-haunted woods known as middle school, especially for a chubby gamer kid. 

So with family and friends behind me, I wrote, pretty much all the time. With the boundless optimism and heedless ambition of the very young I decided I wanted to write games, I wanted to write stories, I wanted to write novels, I wanted to write articles in the paper, I wanted to be able to reach up on a shelf and pull down paper with my words on it and share it with anyone who’d stand still long enough. 

I have done all of these things, some of them several times over, even won a few awards here and there in the process, and yet the vast majority of the time it still feels like I haven’t done anything at all. And I’m far from alone in this. A lot of the other artists I know feel the same way, even if they can’t quite put it in words. Hell, I know it’s not just artists that feel this way, really. I know it can strike anyone, so please don’t take this as a dismissal of anyone who feels these same feelings about their own field – business, athletics, academics, parenthood, you name it. I sympathize, I truly do. If I focus on artists it’s because that’s how I relate to these feelings, not because I don’t think anyone else falls prey to them.  

So what does it feel like? It’s like running a race and watching the finish line creep along ahead of you, always out of reach, but also looking over your shoulder and seeing nothing of the race you’ve run so far. Which leaves you running in limbo, neither capable of reaching the satisfaction of finishing nor able to at least look back and be proud of how far you’ve come. I know that might sound a bit like ambition, and I think they can certainly have some things in common, perhaps even spur each other on at times, but in the end they’re not at all the same. At the core of ambition is inspiration, a dream of what you can accomplish, can become, but at the core of impostor feelings there’s only a frustrating desolation. Because any time you try to look over what you’ve done, a conversation remarkably like this one plays out in your head: 

I wrote a story!
It’s not published, though, is it?
I’m going to be in an anthology!
Yeah, well, how’s that unfinished novel?
I wrote a novel!
Fine, but it was work for hire, not your own original work.
I wrote my own novel from scratch!
Oh, and look how all those agents are just dying to represent you.
I’m going to self-publish!
Have fun getting lost in the crush on Amazon. By the way, ever finish that original game you wanted to write?
I … I don’t feel so good.
There you go.

And so on. Sometimes, just for variety, that mocking voice will take a different tactic, just so you can’t ever be prepared for it. All those accomplishments you stubbornly insist on claiming become dumb luck, favors from friends, cynical maneuvering that happens to favor you for the moment, even a sort of conspiracy if the voice really feels like running wild that night. Anything but something you deserve, something you worked for, and just as quickly dismissed as soon as possible.  

Allow me to give another example of the kind of tricks impostor feelings can play on your mind. Not that long ago, I was talking about game writing with some folks at a convention, and somebody said rather wistfully that they hoped to see something of theirs in print some day. I agreed, and another person in the conversation looked at me funny and said, “Haven’t you already been published?” I hesitated, embarrassed, and finally said something to the effect that I hadn’t published a game entirely of my own design. The others looked at me like I was being a bit of a bastard, and I can imagine why – that must have sounded like the worst sort of patronizing false modesty. A “humblebrag” to use the very apt new term, designed to call attention to my publishing resume by pretending to forget about it.  

But the thing was, when I answered, I wasn’t pretending. I really, sincerely didn’t feel like I’d written anything that qualified. Hell, at that instant I didn’t feel like I’d written anything at all. I was being absolutely genuine in my sympathy with the person who wished they could be published, because all the game books I’d worked on in the past didn’t count, because nothing I’ve done in the past counts, not for long. I answered honestly in that moment, because that voice in my brain says those books are old and irrelevant, and so I don’t even add them in my tally unless I stop and think about it.

That’s what it’s like to feel like an impostor at what you do. Not only can it poison your own sense of accomplishment, it can also make you seem like a jerk to others, which of course only makes you feel worse about yourself, and even less deserving of any sense of accomplishment. I don’t know why the human mind loves vicious cycles so much, but sometimes it seems like it was designed for little else, I have to admit.   

Let me be clear, though – I’m not asking for sympathy here, exactly. And I’m definitely not asking for people to prop me up, sing my praises, or anything like that. Most of the time I get through these feelings on my own, and when I can’t, I am lucky enough to have a wife, family, and friends who know how to pick me up and shout down that voice for a good long while. And that’s a kind of luck I’ll happily own up to, nagging whispers be damned. I’m not always OK, but I’m always alright, and for that I count my blessings most every day. 

No, the reason I’m writing this is for anyone out there who knows that voice, who feels like a fraud sometimes, and thinks it might just be them. That those feelings of being a fraud, being forever unable to cherish accomplishments or just take credit for your own well-earned competence in your field, are unique to you. They’re not. Don’t let them drag you down, don’t listen to the doubt and uncertainty – and if you can’t handle them on your own, that’s OK too. Nobody can do it all the time. Reach out and find some help, because trust me, you can do it. Because you deserve it. Because you’re not an impostor.

You’re incredible.  


If Sports Articles were Written Like LARP Articles

Football’s Final Solution to American Colonial History

A Native American Team, A Team of Colonists. What Could Go Wrong?

To be fair, the players knew there would be violence. Everything leading up to the game had warned them of loud noises, flashing lights, and of course, brutal conflict with the enemy. Bill Belichick, the leader or “Head Coach” of the New English Patriots – a football faction devoted to defending the Boston area against its rivals – had warned players repeatedly that “the other team will be out for blood. They will seek to dominate you.” In a pre-game ritual with notable similarities to a prayer circle, Belichick gathered his armored players and reminded them that their whole lives had been leading up to that moment, and that nothing else mattered to the Patriots now – not family, not friends, nothing but destroying their opponents.

Even if their opponents were the Redskin Clan of Washington, D.C., champions of Native America.  

Tom Brady, 37, originally from San Mateo, California, was one of the Patriots players who had traveled to New Orleans to participate in this year’s Super Bowl, a grand tournament of football that features the two best factions, or “teams”, in the Nationwide Football League. The game is a carefully designed mixture of absurdities: two teams take the field at a time and try to control a ball (which is actually more of an oval), and attempt to aggressively push back the enemy team until they reach the End Zone, an area that signals the defeat of the other team. With each trip to the End Zone, a team “scores” – adds numbers to a complicated electronic board overlooking the field – a variable amount of points, depending on how they reached the scoring area. The game is intensely violent, with frequent strong physical contact between players, but a referee is on hand to keep more extreme violence from breaking out, and players wear helmets and protective armor, or “pads”, in order to minimize damage. At the end of the game, the team that inflicted more End Zone damage to their opponent is declared the winner, regardless of penalties or overall performance, making football a game where the end – or End Zone – certainly justifies the means.  

In this league, 32 team factions compete in weekly battles, or “games”, around the country, as they attempt to accumulate the highest number of victories. Aside from the Patriots and the Redskin teams, some others include the Iggles of Philadelphia, represented by a giant bald eagle, and the Cowboys, a Texas faction the boasts almost religious devotion among its followers, who identity themselves by wearing prominent blue stars on their clothing. Players themselves divide into units, or “lines”, such as the Offense Line, which handles more aggressive play; the Defensive Line, which attempts to block access to the team’s End Zone; and the Specialty Team, which handles situations such as returning enemy kicks and “punting”, an act that sends the game ball high into the air to render an opposing player helpless to an oncoming charge.

“I knew it would be rough,” said Brady, a smiling brunette with movie star good looks who works in advertising during the off-season and who was raised Catholic but has since left the religion due to its conflict with football’s holy day of Sunday. “But I had no idea what was really about to happen. We’re playing as Patriots, and we had to go out there – in front of the whole world, for the biggest game of the year – and ‘destroy’ the Redskins? I didn’t think it would go that far. I really didn’t.” As a Quarter Back, Brady acts as his team’s offensive general, using a complex language of codes and maneuvers that he must memorize before every week’s battle to tell is teammates which offensive maneuvers they have to use in order to reach the enemy’s End Zone. “Then [Coach Belichick] kept stressing that we had to demolish their Red Zone defense, and I caught myself thinking – is he really saying ‘Red Zone’ about the Redskins? I didn’t expect it to go to a racial level like that.” The young man shook his head, adding that it still gave him nightmares to think about re-creating genocide as sport.

Nationwide Football League hierarch Roger Gooddell disagreed with the characterization of the Super Bowl as a racial metaphor. “You have to understand these things in context,” he stressed, wiping his brow guiltily as he made his denials. “Football is just a game. If players and fans want to take other messages away from it, that’s their business. We’re here to have fun and promote the sport.” When asked about the inescapable connection between the teams battling on the field and the parallels to American history and Native American genocide, Gooddell refused to comment.

====================================      

OK, that’s about as much of that as I can stand. 

Let me just say that this was posted in response to this article, which was written about the infamous “Coney Island” Dystopia Rising module that ran back at Dexcon 14. In the interest of full disclosure, while I was a player in the game at the time, I did not participate in the module myself. However, as someone who can claim close friendship with both the staff of Dystopia Rising as well as a number of its players, not to mention someone who helped write the live-action rulebook and some setting materials, I can tell you that my blood pressure went up steadily as I read it.

Simply put, the article is written with so many easily-corrected errors that I find it hard to take it seriously, and the sad part is, that’s the sort of standard I’ve seen time and again with reporting about LARP. Nobody seems to care if you get your facts right, when getting your facts straight is, oh, I don’t know, the entire point of journalism. It would be one thing if this article ran right after the event – that still doesn’t really excuse it, because journalism, but I could see if you got a game term slightly wrong, or if you presented a core concept of the game a little off because it hadn’t been explained to you properly at the time you participated. It’s still not right, but at least I could see it. I’m no stranger to deadlines. 

Oh yeah, and actually going out to cover events and gather material firsthand helps too. Especially if you’re going to report on something as potentially explosive as what some might call making a game out of the Holocaust. Just a thought. 

But I digress.

The thing is, Dexcon typically happens over the Fourth of July weekend. But the Dexcon referred to in this piece was held in 2011 – so we’re already at three years and counting, not exactly a good start for factual accuracy (especially when the correspondent didn’t personally attend the event in the first place.) It’s plain that some research was done after the fact, including seeking out players and experts for quotes and opinions. Which means there has been more than enough time to get the game information right too. And yet judging from the number of errors in the article regarding the game world, player characters involved, and the mechanics of the game itself, that wasn’t considered a priority. Which is baffling, because if you wrote a sports article the same way – just tossing around incorrect game terms, team names, player positions and so on – you’d be laughed out of sports journalism. But apparently it’s OK to do it with geeks and their silly games, because who cares but the geeks, right? 

Now, you might say – and with some fairness – that the purpose of the article was to talk about the game as a representation of disturbing material in general and the Holocaust in particular, and therefore the game terms aren’t important because the real focus is the social issue at hand. Trust me, I get you on that. I understand there’s a bigger picture at work here. But that doesn’t mean you get to slack on the basic task of getting the facts straight, because journalism for one, and because you never know if getting a fact wrong might also change the story. Even if you think “who can possibly care if one ‘strain’ in an imaginary world sees itself as better than others” you still have a responsibility to report it correctly, because it might actually matter in terms of creating the game experience you’re reporting on. Plenty of topics are complicated to cover and tough for outsiders to decipher – but communicating them clearly and correctly is part of your responsibility as a journalist when you take on that story. You can’t just pick the parts of the story you like or more easily understand and get them correct, then hand-wave the other stuff. As the great Lester Freamon once wisely noted, “All the pieces matter.” 

To go back to the football analogy I kicked off with – see what I did there? – if you are writing an article about the very real controversy concerning the Redskins team name, you still have to get the football details rightEven if the main thrust of your piece is about the deeper issues of racism and cultural appropriation involved in the dialogue, and you hardly spend any time discussing the game at all, you still can’t make up player positions, misspell team titles, or screw up your identification of people involved and their roles in the situation. Why not? Because journalism is supposed to care about all of the facts, not just the ones you think are most relevant to your position. When you don’t care to get those things right, it shows you care less about the facts than you do about how you’re trying to fit them together, and that’s a bad sign in a journalist. 

If you don’t want to discuss game play or mechanics, fine I guess, just leave them out.
Don’t skim them and get the details wrong.  

I do give the author some credit for going out and talking to some players as well as larp authorities before going to press. That’s more than we’ve gotten in some articles in the past. And I do think there was an honest question raised at the heart of this article – what does it mean to represent a real life horror such as the Holocaust in a roleplaying game? A lot of games include some pretty dark material, and maybe it’s a good thing to stop and check every once in a while, to see that players are OK and make sure what is presented is handled responsibly. And yet the lack of attention to details in this article makes it hard to see it as a piece that really tried to understand Dystopia Rising or its players, but rather went for a slightly more sensationalist route, and in so doing missed a chance to really try to understand all the aspects of the story.

Which is a genuine shame.  

Back in 1997, the legendary horror gaming company White Wolf published a supplement for their Wraith game line entitled Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah, which was specifically centered on how the infamous concentration camps appeared in the dark and twisted afterlife world of the game. When it was announced, an anti-defamation organization threatened possible legal action for what they saw as a trivializing of the Holocaust. The author, my longtime friend and mentor Rich Dansky, responded by inviting their representatives to come see how the material in the book was presented as well as how it was handled in play. They showed the representatives an early copy of the book, then let them watch him run a game session using the material. They came away convinced that it did not trivialize the Holocaust or exploit it for cheap entertainment, but rather helped hammer home the grim loss and terrifying horror of the situation in a way that readers and players would not easily forget. It’s an example I wish more people followed when it comes to looking at games and wondering if they’re handling difficult material responsibly.    

That is how to responsibly handle a situation like this, on all sides. 

In the end, you can debate the elements included in the module, and you can decide for yourself whether you think it’s appropriate for games to tackle subjects like the Holocaust. That’s fine, and as LARP changes and grows as an art form, I’d argue it might even be necessary. I just wouldn’t use this particular article as your starting point, because if it can’t be bothered to report the game accurately, what are the odds you’re getting the real picture?

OK. I’m done. If anyone needs me, I’ll be at home, rooting for the Iggles.


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! 


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