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.
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.
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.
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 right. Even 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.
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.
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!
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.
+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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!