Posts tagged “gaming

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

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

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

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

1 – The Hell of A Hat Game

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

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

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

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

2 – The Polaroid Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

About the Business

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

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

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

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

The Designers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

We’ll see you at the panels!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#3 – Prestige Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could fight and roleplay simultaneously.

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

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

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


Badass Larp Talk #19: Bias Cut

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

Whew. Here goes.

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So … What Do We Do About It?

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Carbon Copy, aka The Cosplayer

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

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

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

The Lone Wolf That Rides Alone, Wolfishly

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

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

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

The Snowflake, aka The Odd One Out

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

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

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

The Diner Hero, aka The Walking Gag

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hello, larping.

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

It’s called Hand to Head Disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Gamers: Hands of Fate” film review!

[Update: This review refers to the film's "Festival Cut", which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film's "Extended Edition" will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo's own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]

Full disclosure: I’m a geek.

Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters.  (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.

I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Risingbecause I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called).  I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.

[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]

The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around.  (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.

As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.)  It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.

Don’t get me wrong - Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film - Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.

For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.

Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.

Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.

(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! - and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++

Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.

And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.

As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.

Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.

So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!

+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.

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I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners - a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!

I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.


Badass Larp Talk #15: 5 Little Questions that Do Big Things for Your Character

I was talking with some friends over the weekend about the best characters we’ve ever seen at games – ours, each others’, those of near or total strangers – and as our conversations sometimes do, it wrapped around to how those characters were created. As we were talking, I realized that a lot of what everyone was saying boiled down to how the players of the characters we loved had chosen to answer a small set of questions, and I realized that sharing those could help other players ask the important questions that really shook up characters and pushed them to be more real and more engaging.  (Besides, we’ve had a lot of longer, weightier posts in the series lately, so I figured it might be time for a bit of a palate cleanser.) So here they are, five simple questions that open a lot of doors in character development!

5 – Why are you here?
Why does your character come to game events? (If she’s nomadic, why does she keep coming back?) Is she in love? Seeking fortune and glory? Out for revenge? Exploring and questioning the world around her? Settling a score? Doing good and helping others? Or just desperate for a dry place out of the rain? Ask yourself this question before every session and I think you’ll be surprised at how much the answer tells you about your character, not to mention how they’ve evolved over time if you compare it to some of your previous answers.

4 – What do you want, right now?
Ask yourself this at the beginning of every game session – during longer ones, such as full-weekend boffer larp, ask yourself when you get up every day. This isn’t a theoretical, big picture question either – it’s all about what your character wants in the short term. What does he need right now? A better weapon, a political alliance, a good fight, a puzzle to solve, maybe some medical attention? How can he get it? Setting little concrete goals is a great way to keep you active and invested in your character, not to mention keep you engaged with the larger stories at work around you.

3 – Who do you trust?
Come on, admit it. Your character trusts someone, even if they probably shouldn’t. Who is it? How far does that trust go – would they trust that person with their wallet, their safety, their heart? Why? Who do they think trusts them, and are they right? And if you’re convinced that your character absolutely does not trust anyone in any way at any time for any reason, well, how do they plan to exist that way? Do they feign allegiance and friendship, or go their own way and dare others to mess with them?

2 – What will you never do?
Even the most hardened, cynical, jaded character usually has one or two lines left that they won’t cross. (If they don’t, what do they do to avoid others finding out just how heartless they’ve become? Or do they revel in their monstrous nature, and if so, how do they get away with it?) What does your character consider the ultimate sin? Betrayal? Deception? Wanton killing? Blasphemy? What would they do if they found out someone they trust from question #3 crossed that line?  What would they do if they broke it themselves?

1 – How will it end? 
Simply put, what’s the end of your character’s story? Yes, games are filled with uncertainty and it’s very possible that you may find your character exiting earlier than expected or in ways you couldn’t imagine before they happened … but let’s put that aside for a moment. Look down the line and try to figure out where you want your character to go – and how you want their story to wrap up? It may seem a little morbid, but it’s actually quite liberating. One of the main causes of player fatigue in long term games is that the player has no clear idea of where they want their character to go, so they just kind of trudge along from game to game. By thinking about how you want their story to end, you give yourself a powerful guide to how you want to play them, where you want their story to go, and possibly even when their story has been told to your satisfaction and it’s time to retire them to start a new character.

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


Table Manners: A Very Special Geek Convention PSA

So! That last Table Manners post had some real legs, didn’t it? Wow. Y’all are amazing, I have to say. One of the responses that came up as the reactions to the post went on, though, was a call for more specific, helpful advice for gamers in general and guys in particular in order to improve or avoid some of the bad behavior that was the subject of the post. After all, these responders reasoned, if I’m going to take these guys to task for being ill-behaved and ask them to do better, shouldn’t I also do more to help them know what that means? I figured that was a fair point, so I gave the traditional Internet response – “Challenge accepted!” – and put the word out to some of the gamers and geeks I knew that I was looking for advice to help people treat each other better in the scene, then collected their answers.

After sifting through some of the responses I got, I decided to split it into two parts, spread across two posts: Conventions and Gaming. Conventions is a bit more general, and covers all kinds of cons – gaming, comics, entertainment, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, you name it. In particular, it focuses a bit on proper etiquette for approaching strangers – celebrities, cosplayers and costume designers especially – since that seemed to what got the biggest response. Gaming is a bit more specific in scope, and talks mostly about tabletop and larp gaming, though I think a lot of it applies to video games, board games and other gaming forms as well. I wanted to make them one post, honestly, but as I wrote it became clear they were each long enough to justify their own post, and I felt lumping them together would also detract from the message of each. You can look for the follow-up to drop in a day or two, promise!

It’s worth noting, of course, that these are tips and guidelines, not absolutes, and what’s appropriate in one situation might not be in another, even if they seem otherwise identical. Some cosplayers love having their picture taken, but others might decline no matter how polite you are, and even that cute couple who gladly posed for your “Dr. Who versus Pinkie Pie Deathmatch!” photo earlier in the day might just want to get back to their room and not be in the mood for pictures later on. With that in mind, as a rule of thumb I encourage you to treat each situation as its own new experience; even if you had a great conversation and photo op with a celebrity earlier in the day, that doesn’t mean you should just walk up to them while they’re talking to their friends at the hotel bar and act like you’ve been buddies for years.

Last but not least, you’ll notice that none of these tips address how to get a date, put the moves on someone or otherwise enter the sexual/relationship sphere.  That’s deliberate; I definitely didn’t want people to think this was some kind of “How to Pickup Con Hotties” or “Bringing that Elf Ranger Back to Your Place 101″ guide. Besides, I think the whole “pickup artist” scene is creepy as hell, so if that’s your cup of tea, kindly drink it elsewhere. I will say this and only this on the subject: Good manners should not be viewed as a stepping stone to or a guarantee of sexy funtimes, they’re an end unto themselves and should be treated accordingly  … but that said, good manners are also a hell of a better start to a conversation than the alternative. Just puttin’ that out there.

Convention Etiquette 101

Conventions are purpose-built sensory overload, but even in the midst of the panels and the demos and the workshops and the previews and the parties and the dealers’ room, there’s still no excuse for forgetting a few basic rules of etiquette when it comes to your fellow convention-goers, whether they’re working the con or fans like you. What follows is a series of tips to help you make a good impression and avoid the “creeper factor” as you meet people, take pictures and strike up conversations around the con. So if you’re nervous about the social rules surrounding the convention scene, well friend, we’re here to help you.

Be Nice

Yep. The Mister Rogers rule. Be nice to people. You might see what you think is a terrible cosplay and be tempted to comment on it right there, for example, perhaps even while that person is in earshot, but my advice? Save it for your blog, if you really feel the need to say it anywhere.  It’s not about censorsing yourself, it’s about taking a moment and remembering that everyone is at the con to have fun, geek out about things they love and generally enjoy their fandoms in the company of other fans for a day or two. Why take that away from someone else, just because you don’t approve of their choice of costume or favorite movie or best rpg ever or whatever else it is? You probably don’t like it when people make fun of your hobbies, so why on earth would you turn around and bring that sort of bullying and aggravation into the scene yourself?

So, take the high road when you can. Be nice to people. You’d be amazed how far it gets you.

Look, Don’t Leer

OK, I know this is going to be subjective territory at times, but let me give you a couple rules of thumb – if you’re looking at someone long enough that they look back not once but twice or more in your direction, clearly aware that you’re looking at them, then you’ve probably crossed from “looking” to “staring” (and are making them uncomfortable too). And if you’re in a place where they’re not likely to see you, like looking down from a balcony, then count Nathan Fillion credits backward to yourself: “1, Castle, 2, Dr. Horrible, 3, Serenity, etc.” If you reach Saving Private Ryan, you’ve been looking too long.  What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, have you ever been riding on the subway or walking down the street, seen a stranger looking at you, then looked back a few seconds and saw that they were still staring at you? Creepy, right? So don’t do that to someone else across the convention floor. Sure, you may mean no harm by it – but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t have to worry about the distinction.

Also, it’s worth noting that openly staring at body parts – especially the sexy ones – is pretty much automatically going to put you in the creeper category as far as most people are concerned. And yes, it is different than simply appreciating an attractive person in general. For instance, you can think a woman is absolutely stunning and still be able to maintain eye contact for a full conversation, as opposed to spending the entire chat staring into her cleavage as though a mystical formula for transmuting d12s into gold was tattooed across it. The former shows appreciation for a whole person, but the latter fetishizes a body part to the point where the person attached to it is pretty much an afterthought. Remember, you might think that this sort of body appreciation is a compliment – “I can’t help admiring how gorgeous that costume is!”, “You can’t dress up like Captain Jack Harkness and not expect people to stare!” – but once again they don’t know what’s in your head. All they see is someone staring, and it’s likely to make them more than a bit uncomfortable.

Of course, if someone is rocking a really awesome cosplay, or is the big star of everything you’ve ever liked in film and television, or wrote that game you’ve been playing nonstop for years, or has created a super elaborate costume you just can’t believe, you might wonder: How are you supposed to appreciate all that magnificence in just a couple of seconds before moving on? Fair question. The answer is that if you think you’re going to need some serious time to appreciate the person and their work, it’s probably best to actually approach them and let them know that you’re a fan or that you’re admiring their handiwork (or both). That way you can express your admiration and not just be someone creeping on them from afar, plus it gives you the advantage of possibly getting to meet a con rock star and take some pictures up close instead of furtive, stalker-y shots from deep in the crowd.

Meeting people give you a big case of the nerves? No worries! Keep reading, we’ve got your back.

Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”

Before you approach someone at a convention, whether it’s a celebrity or an awesome cosplayer or your favorite game designer, take a few seconds to see if you might be interrupting. Conventions are busy places, and people are often juggling several things at once – talking to friends, browsing booths, texting their dinner plans, you name it. That doesn’t mean you can’t approach them until they’re standing alone and staring off into space with nothing to do, but one sure way to get off on the wrong foot is to walk up to someone in the middle of something that’s really demanding their attention – eating dinner, talking on the phone, taking a picture with someone else, having a tender moment with their sweetie – especially if you don’t seem to notice that you might be intruding.

If it looks like the person you want to talk to or take a picture of might be busy, always err on the side of the caution and acknowledge that when you introduce yourself: “I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting, but do you have a moment for a picture/autograph/question?” It’s a lot more considerate than just walking up and demanding some of their time as though you were the only important thing at the con. Plus, if they don’t have time but you’re polite when you ask, you’re more likely to have them tell you a better time later if they have one available. You show consideration for their schedule, they have a polite way to turn you down if it really isn’t a good time, everyone wins.

Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything

OK. So you want to approach someone and it looks like you’ve got a good window to do so. Now, I know introducing yourself to strangers can be stressful as hell, no question, but as a rule it sure beats just walking up to someone and demanding a picture or launching straight into a discussion of your common hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, either; just a simple “Hi, I’m [Your Name Here], how are you?” is a great start. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed at how many people skip this step, which means that suddenly you’re putting a total stranger on the spot by launching right into a topic like you’ve been talking for years.

For what it’s worth, people are also a lot more likely to consider your requests if you approach them politely and engage them first, rather than just walking up and demanding something out of the blue. So even from a bottom-line perspective, this basic courtesy still makes a lot of sense. Practice it.

Ask Before You Touch

Here’s a big rule that a lot of people violate without even thinking about it, even though most of us were taught it back in kindergarten: Don’t touch other people without asking. Simple as that, and yet a lot of people forget it as soon as cameras come out or costumes come into play. So this one’s short and to the point – always ask before you touch someone. Even if you think it’s casual contact, such as if you want to throw your arm around someone for a photo – or shake their hand, or stand back to back, or touch them in any other way really – ask them first. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you so and you still come off being more polite than most; if they do care, you can avoid an embarrassing moment and possibly crossing into creeper territory. When I’ve posed with celebrities at cons, I’ve never had one react poorly to me asking them if I can throw an arm around them or shake their hand for the photo … but I have had some politely decline, and I’ve also seen them get justifiably annoyed when someone touched them without asking first.

Likewise, when it comes to costumes, props and cosplay in general, don’t assume you can touch anything without asking first; even if it’s a giant angel wing sticking three feet off their body, it’s still an extension of their person, and one they probably spent a lot of time working on and don’t want people messing with at random. Not only is it rude, but a lot of costume pieces are lighter and more delicate than they might appear, in order to prevent the cosplayer’s untimely death from sweating under 175 lbs of costuming all day at Otakon, and you might end up doing several hundred dollars and several thousand hours of damage very easily. I’m a steampunk and a larper who’s married to a costumer, so costume etiquette is more strongly ingrained in me than most, but let me tell you that few things annoy my otherwise sunny and amazing wife faster than people walking up and touching her costuming without asking. She’s likely fine with people examining the craftsmanship if they ask first, but if they don’t? It’s intrusive.

Oh, and About Those Photos

Just like you don’t want to touch people without asking, it’s also safe to assume that you should ask people before taking their picture. “But they’re in a public place!” I hear some people say. “And they’re dressed up! You can’t tell me that they don’t want their picture taken!” Actually, yes, I can. Believe it or not, not everyone at a con wants their picture taken, or wants it taken by people they don’t know, and that’s their right. A lawyer may not want opposing counsel to find pictures of him dressed as Weapon X; a woman might have a stalker in her past that makes her averse to any pictures of her showing up online; a celebrity might not want pictures taken when they don’t have their game face on or feel up to dealing with the public. Not that they have to share their reasons – all they have to do is say “No, I don’t want my picture taken” and that’s the end of the conversation. I know it might be really disappointing to come across the best genderbent Deadpool cosplay you’ve ever seen, approach her politely and ask her a for a photo only to be told no, but in the end, that’s her decision. Respect it and move on.

If you’re nervous about asking for a picture, you can also hang back a bit and wait for other people to take pictures – this is pretty likely with a good cosplay or a celebrity – and it gives you a natural moment to make your own request since others have broken the ice. Just try not to follow them all over the con or for long periods of time, or it’s going to make you seem like a creeper because they’re bound to notice you sooner or later.

Also, I’m not saying you can’t take pictures at a con without getting the permission of everyone in the background; that’s just not going to happen. Cons are too crowded to make that practical, and anyway, if you’re really just trying to take a picture of your best friend in front of the Evil Hat booth and a cosplayer wanders into the background of the shot, so be it. But there’s a big difference between taking crowd shots or candids of your friends that happen to include other people in passing, and deliberately setting up shots so that you can get a picture of someone else while pretending to take a different photo.

I mean, I know that right now some folks out there are thinking “Well, can’t I just take someone’s picture anyway, whether or not they tell me no or even ask in the first place?” To which I respond, stop and think about what you’re saying. What you’re describing – making a conscious decision to take someone’s picture in a way that avoids or ignores getting their consent – is really pretty creepy. And if it doesn’t seem creepy to you, that’s kind of scary on its own.

Be Cool with “No”

I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight. What I’m talking about is everything not covered by the above – autograph requests, attempts to share your analysis of a star’s last three movies, offering someone a free T-shirt from your gaming store if they’ll pose with it, you name it. It might make perfect sense in your head, it might be a totally innocent request, it might only take 30 seconds for them while it would totally make your year – and it their answer still might be no. And you have to be OK, not only with that being the answer, but the fact that you also might not get an explanation.  Because while some folks will offer one in the spirit of politeness, they don’t actually owe you one – you’re the one who approached them and asked for something, remember?

I’ve seen a lot of fans approach people at conventions with all sorts of requests, and you can see that they’ve played the exchange over and over in their head before they walked up, never once considering it might not work. “I just know Wil Wheaton will think this shirt is awesome,” they’ve told themselves, imagining the moment as he slips on their irreverent “Kobolds Do It In Great Numbers” T-shirt and thereby becomes the envy of the con. “How can he not? He’s a gamer! He’s totally going to wear it!” But remember, just because it makes sense to you and seems reasonable in your eyes doesn’t mean it will line up with what that person is OK with, either at that moment or in general. Maybe he has a policy about not accepting gifts from fans, or he’s running late to a panel and literally doesn’t have the time, or his first TPK came at the scaly hands of a kobold horde and just thinking about the little bastards gives him traumatic flashbacks. Or maybe – and this allowed too – he just isn’t interested in the shirt. All of these and countless more are legitimate reasons to turn down your request, and you have to be OK with that before you step up and ask.

In the end, remember that when you pay your admission, you’re not entitled to anything at a con beyond any special events you sign up for – such as a guaranteed photo op or autograph session – and even those usually have rules that you’re expected to follow.  Which means that even things that seem like no big deal to you might not be something someone else is interested in, and that’s their right.

Not All Compliments Are Created Equally

So now you’re talking to someone, and you want to tell them what’s so awesome that you just had to come over and say hi, but sadly, a lot of geeks are master of left-handed compliments, things that they think are positive but are actually mixed at best. You may mean all the best by it, for instance, but telling that game designer “Oh my god, I love your new game! It’s soooo much better than your last two!” isn’t likely to win you much goodwill. Why? Because even though you think you’re saying something nice, you’re essentially saying that you thought their last two games were terrible. You might not mean that – you might also like the other two – but that’s not what you actually said. Another classic is “You look really badass, for a girl” – well, pretty much anything with the “for a girl” phrase suffixed is probably a good example of a bad compliment. You might mean to say something positive, but all that the other person is going to hear is that you track women separately from men in the category being discussed, and unless gender’s an essential and obvious factor that’s not going to go over too well.

Another category of compliments that cause a ton of tension and aggravation are physical or sexual compliments. “You look so sexy!” is intended to be positive, for instance, but it also immediately suggests that you see the person as a potential sexual partner (or object). This is rarely a good way to make a first impression with a stranger, because the other person immediately has to wonder if you’re hitting on them, which can derail an otherwise pleasant exchange as they evaluate that situation instead of focus on a fun conversation. Again, you might know that you have no interest in them as a sexual partner, but they don’t know that, and given that you’re a stranger, they’re likely to assume the worst if you put them in that situation. I know, that sucks, but it’s the world we live in, at least until we change it.

And it should go without saying, but praising body parts – “You have amazing tits!”, “Your costume makes your ass look awesome!”, “Your feet are really pretty!” – is pretty much a bad call all around. Even if it’s an “innocent” body part, it makes them immediately aware that you’re closely studying their body, and that can make them very uncomfortable as they wonder why you’re doing that and if your interest is purely lecherous. You might feel like you wouldn’t mind if people said those things to you, so what’s the harm in saying them to others, but other people won’t automatically feel the same way. Now, if things take a particular turn and you wind up going on a date with them later on, that might be the time to tell them how their Akuma costume made their pecs look fabulous or how their Asuka suit accentuated their curves, but until then? Unless specifically invited to do so, I’d keep the body compliments to yourself and focus on costume pieces and props instead.

With that in mind, take a moment to compose a proper compliment or two if you have a chance. I don’t want to stress people out by making them go over and over their words until they’re absolutely perfect, but fortunately at conventions you often have time in autograph lines, panel crowds or other places to think out what you might say in advance. And if you’re really worried about getting it right, keep it simple – just say one nice thing and a thank you: “Thanks for your work, I love your movies,” “That costume is amazing, thanks for the pics,” “Your games really inspired me, thank you.” You’d be amazed how far a little thank you can go.

Have An Exit Strategy

I know most of us have this secret fantasy – no, not that one, the other one, the one where we meet one of our idols at a convention and wind up hitting it off. What starts as two strangers meeting becomes something more friendly and casual, and before long we’re swapping buddy IMs with Felicia Day or dropping guest vocals on that new Paul and Storm ode to the Valve gaming console that shall never be. Or maybe it’s not quite as star struck as that, just an invitation to join that elite cosplay group we’ve been admiring from afar or an alpha tester spot for a new MMO we’ve heard a lot about. Whatever it is, there’s this conviction that a lot of us have deep down that we’re just one good conversation with our heroes away from realizing our dreams – but while that might be true in some rare instances, it also tends to mean that people wear out their welcome at conventions trying to make it happen, turning what were pleasant interactions into increasingly uncomfortable and one-sided exchanges the other person can’t wait to end.

My advice? Don’t assume that a simple request like a photo or an autograph is automatically an opportunity for a long, in-depth conversation. If the two of you start chatting, great, I’m not saying you need to cut it short for some arbitrary reason, but try to gauge the other person’s level of engagement and excuse yourself when it looks like it’s run its course (ideally a little before it reaches the very end). If the conversation starts hitting some long pauses, or it circles back around to points you’ve already made, or they start glancing around a lot like they have somewhere else to be, you’re likely at the edge of your welcome, if not already tipping over. At that point thank them for their time and anything they might have done for you – pics, autographs, etc. – and just excuse yourself. It might seem a little awkward, but it makes a much better impression than having the moment stretch out out so far it finally snaps and they’re forced to take more direct action to end it.

Worried that you might have accidentally cut short a crucial conversation before its prime? Well, for one thing, if you go to excuse yourself and the other person protests, that’s usually a good sign that you can stick around a while longer – you gave them a chance to politely bow out of conversation and they didn’t take it. For another, this is the reason business cards were invented – have a batch of professional-looking ones made and offer them to people as you’re leaving the conversation. Nothing fancy, nothing too cute, just your name and some basic contact information. That way if they want to get in touch with you later – for example, to get copies of the pics you took of their cosplay – they have an easy way to do so, without requiring them to find a pen or whip out their phone. What’s more, giving them a card means future contact will be on their terms as well – they choose when and how to contact you, which is a lot less pressure than asking for their info on the spot. Plus offering a business card can result in receiving one in return, which can also tell you a lot about whether or not someone is interested in continued contact.

Speak Up

Last but most certainly not least, remember that con culture will only change for the better when it hits a critical mass of people who stand up to the jerks and call them on their bullshit. If you see someone bullying a reluctant cosplayer for a picture, speak up. If you see someone getting creepy and not taking no for an answer at the hotel bar, speak up.  If you see someone ridiculing another attendee for how they look or what they say, speak up. I’m not saying wade in with fists swinging – if you think a situation’s tipping dangerously, by all means call security or the cops – but a lot of the bad behavior arises from the fact that nobody speaks up when the jerks act like assholes, which makes them think it’s OK to be that way. If we can get enough people to make it clear that it’s not acceptable, it may not change their minds, but it will take the megaphone out of their hands and give the rest of us a chance to speak our minds instead.

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


Table Manners: Guys, We Need to Talk

In a recent post about conventions, I added a note about gender bias in the gaming community. It was a little thing, just a “hey, guys, stop assuming ladies can’t be gamers too” for the less-evolved crowd, but it turned out to get a much stronger response than anything else on that list. This post is an attempt to expand on the ideas in that post, and in doing so I found I got pretty heated myself – mostly because for every talking point I came up with I could remember some terrible evidence from my own personal experience, or which was shared with me by the ladies I know. And so I broke my normal guideline about profanity on this blog, because I think sometimes there is no polite way to express a certain measure of outrage, so I hope you bear that in mind as you read.

Let me also make a quick note for clarity: While I do address the geek community in general at points, in terms of specifics I’m addressing gamers for the most part, as that is the specific geek subculture that I have the most experience with on the whole. Likewise, when discussing conventions, I’m primarily talking about gaming cons, though I’ve spent enough time at literary, comic and entertainment cons that I think many of my points apply to those venues as well. OK! Here goes.

The Ladies Have Always Been Here (So Act Like It)

I’ve been a gamer for a long time. Not as long as some, no doubt, but as a percentage of my life it’s higher than most. I started playing tabletop rpgs when I was in first grade, and I’m in my mid-30s now. I literally have trouble remembering a time in my life when I wasn’t reading one game book or another. So while I may not be able to wax nostalgic about the glory days when the only way you got to play D&D was by picking up the original big red box – or by hanging out with Gary and Dave personally, or whatever – I do have a pretty good vertical slice of what gaming’s been like in my lifetime. And you know what? When I was a kid, it really was largely a boys’ club, no question. Yes, there were lady gamers, but they were a tiny minority. I knew two, for example, as compared to the dozen or more guy gamers I knew back then.

Then, around the time I turned 14 or so – and started playing more White Wolf games and less D&D, if you want an interesting correlation/causation possibility to ponder – suddenly there were a lot of girls in my gaming group. When we organized our first high school larp, the ratio was just about even, and while the ratio still fluctuates wildly depending on which gaming subgenre you happen to be into, it has slowly but steadily improved since then. For instance, miniatures wargaming still tends to be a very heavily male group, while larp is much more co-ed, as is tabletop gaming.

And just to be clear? I turned 14 two decades ago. 

Now, I’m not saying that everything is peachy keen just yet, and I fully recognize that this is my impression as opposed to sociological data, but it’s still significant. It’s been fashionable in mainstream media outlets to talk about women in geekdom and gaming as though it was something new, when any gamer could tell you this simply isn’t so. Instead, I suspect it’s more like “cultural critical mass” is being mistaken for “new arrivals” – that is, that there are enough women in these cultures willing to speak up about some of their inequities that they’re making headlines. Or to put it more plainly, there are now enough women who are tired of being told to put up with the same stupid sexist bullshit and are speaking up about it that they can’t be easily marginalized or ignored as they might have been in the past.

But seriously, guys, stop acting like you stepped out to the garage to get more Mountain Dew and came back to find girls where there had been no girls before. They’ve been here for a long time now, and pretending like they’re some sort of new phenomenon is equal parts patronizing and unproductive. It’s a way of avoiding dealing with gender issues by pretending they’re something new and unexpected, when in reality they’ve been around for a while and there was simply a lot of subcultural inertia holding them back. Quit it.

… You Do Realize That You’re Not Entitled to the Women You See, Right?

OK, let me make one thing clear: I’m not slamming anyone who earns some money working a convention, whether it’s in costume or otherwise. A job’s a job, especially in this economy, and I’m not gonna judge someone who decides they wouldn’t mind earning some extra scratch handing out flyers or walking around dressed as a Romulan or Red Sonja. And I’m not so naive that I don’t understand the notion of “sex sells” and its utility in the advertising world. That said … come on, people. We can do better than this. We have to do better than this. Because this shit is embarrassing.

Geek culture prides itself on being the smartest guy in the room, on being progressive and forward-thinking, and yet at every single one of the conventions I’ve been at in my lifetime, I’ve heard or seen some guy be absolutely disgusting about so-called booth babes.  It’s so prevalent that most guys don’t even notice it unless they specifically tune their frequency for it – though I guarantee you, the ladies walking with you hear it every time. (That there aren’t more “Dozens Missing, Believed Castrated As Lady Gamer Snaps After 1,517th Boob Joke In GenCon Spree” headlines is a testament to their enduring patience.)  And even worse, a lot of the guys at these cons not only expect to be greeted with an array of nearly-nude female flesh for their camera phone gratification, they’re completely unembarrassed about the kind of entitled asshole behavior it brings out in them.  They leer, they “accidentally” cop a feel while setting up a photo, they make crude jokes and sexist comments as though the woman wasn’t even there.  I once heard a guy loudly talk to his friend in clinical and exhaustive detail about everything that was right (and wrong) with the body of a girl he’d just cuddled up with for a photo at a publisher’s booth … while the woman was maybe three feet away, trying her best to smile and ignore it.  It was honestly sickening, but what was even worse was what she said when I got to the head of the line and blurted out an apology on behalf of my gender: “It’s OK, I hear that sort of thing all the time.”

No. Not just no, but fuck no.

We can do better than this, or at the very least, we have to try. I’m not so naive to think that we’ll be able to de-sexualize our advertising, but shit, can we at least agree that we’ll call people on it when they’re creepy assholes about it? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I know I wish I had the nerve to say something to that con troll years ago, and as penance I’m trying not to let that shit slide in the future. I know that some folks out there will immediately respond “this is just the way conventions work no one’s forcing them to do it” – to which my response is, and that’s supposed to make it better how, exactly? Because I can’t be the only one who finds it disgusting that geek cons still feel like they must pander to the boys in the crowd with the same level of discourse as bikini girls at boat shows. Or worse, that the bad behavior of said boys is then supposedly excused by the fact that companies are using booth babes in the first place. “If they didn’t want us to look they wouldn’t have them in the first place” is about as much of an excuse for being an asshole to booth babes as saying it was OK to steal because they left the tip jar right out on the counter where anyone could grab it. Just because you can see something doesn’t mean that it’s yours.

And for the guys who immediately jump on the “you’re just gay/a prude/kissing up to feminists” responses to this notion, respectfully, shut the hell up. It is not unreasonable to expect y’all to behave like human beings. That’s not gay, or straight, or sex-positive, or prudish, or even particularly feminist – it’s called being decent and respectful to your fellow human beings. Just because your culture passively let you get away with this behavior for a while does not mean that it’s right, and it sure as hell does not guarantee you the ability to continue doing it in the future.

There Are No Gatekeepers, Mr. Clortho, and You’re Not the Goddamned Keymaster

Over the past year or so the idea of the “fake geek girl” – and backlash against the notion of labeling people as such – has gotten a lot of attention. If you missed it, somehow, it can be summed up as follows: There’s actually a notion out there that some girls you find at gaming and entertainment conventions are “faking it”, that they’re not Real Geeks at all, they’re just there so … hell, I dunno, exactly. The actual accusations are as muddled as  Mushmouth on mescaline, ranging from crass marketing ploys to trolling to trying to pick up unsuspecting geek boys (… to do what, exactly? de-nerdify them with evil mainstream vagina powers?), but whatever they’re up to, it’s definitely Something Bad, these defensive guys can all agree. So watch out, geeks, because that cute girl in the “So Say We All” t-shirt you met at SDCC is probably just a hooker your friends hired to take your coveted viriginity!*

The notion is as obviously wrong as it is goddamn absurd, of course. Sure, a lot of people working conventions aren’t actually into the subject matter – going places and doing things you aren’t really interested in is the definition of having a job for a lot of people. (And a lot of them put up with way too much shit because of it, if you caught the booth babe section earlier.) And sure, some of the ladies who describe themselves as geeks or gamers might not have the history that you feel sufficient to have earned that title … but, and I mean this with all the love and respect in the world, who gives a fuck what you consider worthy? You, and if you’re lucky, maybe a couple friends. That’s it. Stop mistaking your personal standards for scientific constants. Because there’s always a bigger fish in the geek sea, someone who knows a lot more than you about something you like to think you’re an authority on, and if you ask them about it you will find out just what kind of sad, sorry judge of human beings you’ve really been.

Honestly, the debate over fake geek girls reminds me a lot of the endless discussions about “poser punks” back during my days in the hardcore scene. You see, according to a number of angry self-appointed punk rock authorities, there are an awful lot of “poser punks” in the scene who just like to dress up in the style and pretend to like the music, but who aren’t Real Punks and therefore don’t know What It’s All About. (Sound familiar?) How to spot these wannabes was a subject of much intense discussion, of course. I remember one supposed authority setting out some very specific advisories, like a poser punk wouldn’t know who people like the Dead Boys or GG Allin were, or that they’d bought some of their gear at that notorious poser store Hot Topic, or that they hadn’t been to any shows in church basements or dive bars like real punks attended. All of which is total bullshit, of course. Plenty of punks have never listened to the Dead Boys, they can buy clothing from wherever the hell they want, and last I checked most of us didn’t actually like going to shitty and dangerous places to see shows, so why the hell would we make it a requirement? Most telling of all, I remember going to see Rancid when I was in college, and standing near the back of the crowd in my Operation Ivy shirt I unwisely remarked about how a lot of the “kids” there wouldn’t know why I was wearing my shirt to a Rancid show. A much older punk, who looked like the CBGB’s bathroom floor in human form except not as well maintained, heard my snide comment and took my head off about how all us asshole kids were ruining his scene, and how he hadn’t seen a real punk show worthy of the name since about 1988. It was a humbling moment, and one I’ve not forgotten – if you think you’re a gatekeeper for a whole scene, think again.

The most common and yet insidious way that this phenomenon is expressed in geek culture is “the quiz” – when a guy meets another guy at a convention, he automatically assumes that guy is as into it as he is and the two start chatting happily about their mutual interests. By contrast, a lot of guys still haven’t accepted the notion that there are ladies in their hobbies as well, and so when they meet they quiz them, sometimes subtly but often not, asking questions in an attempt to determine if the woman is a Real Geek like them. Most of the time, of course, they pick the most obscure or heavily bias-laden questions they can think of, so that when the lady doesn’t answer with exactly the response they wanted they can dismiss her as a fake and feel secure in their authority and their fandom.

Because that’s what it comes down to for a lot of insecure geek guys – they feel put upon because deep down one of the reasons they got into their hobby is often that it comfortably insulated them from the gender politics of middle school and high school, but now they feel that women are invading their territory, and so they lash out in any way they can. Which is doubly sad because there is no One True Authority, not in gaming, not in comics, not in anything geek related. I mean, I guess we could come up with some sort of all-purpose Geek Entertainment and Educational Knowledge Exam (GEEKE, pronounced “geeky”) , and make everyone take it before they’re allowed to register for Comic Con or host a larp, but really, how dumb is that? And yet we let people get away with a personal version of it all the time. And it needs to stop.

Threatening Rape Is Not Just “Trash Talk”

There’s been a fair amount of coverage lately about what women endure on gaming networks like Xbox Live and PSN, not to mention MMOs and other online gaming experiences – as soon as their gender is discovered, they receive a barrage of crude pickup attempts and pornographic images/requests, or are called sluts and whores and urged to “get raped”, and called thin-skinned and worse if they can’t handle it. “Trash talk is a part of gaming,” these boys say. “If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t play.” They’re not wrong about one part of that statement – yes, trash talk is part of gaming. Always has been, always will be. But there’s a difference between mocking an opponent’s gameplay and simply spouting a litany of racist, sexist and/or homophobic language into a microphone. That’s not a matter of being prudish, that’s simple linguistics.

To paraphrase the superb Extra Credits series, who addressed this problem very eloquently some time back, the problem is right now that we’ve given the idiots the megaphone. So naturally they’re shouting into it. We need to turn the culture around, and while I’ll let folks like EC tackle the difficulties of doing so on online gaming platforms, we can do a lot to shut down this bullshit in our gaming groups and at our geek events. So the next time you hear someone talking about “raping the other team” in TF2 or how “the NPCs just totally raped us” at your larp, I recommend that you call that person on their bullshit. Chances are if they’re a decent person they’ll just apologize and not do it again, but if they object, I’ve anticipated some of the common arguments for you:

* “Freedom of speech!” BZZT. Sorry, wrong. The First Amendment only says the government can’t stomp on your speech. It says nothing about what’s allowed on corporate-owned gaming networks, or at public gaming cons, or at your local larp. Also, you are specifically not protected from the consequences of your language.  You are free to threaten people all you like, but they are just as free to call the cops on you for it, and guess who’s punished for it?

* “I didn’t mean anything by it! Chill out!” OK, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – but if it’s really not such a big deal, pick a different topic. Rape hits home with a lot more women – and men, for the record – than you know. Would you make a suicide joke to someone you know has suffered through family or friends committing suicide? No? So how about leaving out a topic that many people have only too much history with in their lives?

* “But what’s so different about threatening rape? Lots of guys say they’ll kill each other and don’t mean it!” If you ever needed an example of male privilege, you could pretty much just copy/paste these sentences into the dictionary. Let me try to keep it short, for those out there who don’t get it. Most of us were bullied at one time or another, and if so, you know the difference between a friend joking about kicking your ass as opposed to a bully really threatening to do it. We know one party isn’t a threat, but the other? Different story. Now imagine a total stranger bumps into and promptly threatens to beat you up – are you going to assume they’re kidding? Or, for safety’s sake, are you likely to take them just a little more seriously, just in case? Of course you are. Now throw in the fact that rape is not nearly the remote threat that murder is, especially for women, and you begin to understand the problem. So stop.

Oh, and Please Stop Assuming Women at Boffer Larps Can’t Fight As Well As You Can

This is a pet peeve of mine, but while we’re on the subject, guys, seriously, stop being so freaking clueless when it comes to women who can fight. I’ve been fighting at boffer larps for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is just plain sad to see how often the guys there just reflexively shoulder women out of the way when it comes to arranging shield walls, picking combat patrols and otherwise  throwing down. What’s worse is that many of you don’t even seem to notice you’re doing it, you just unconsciously leave them out of the thick of things. So speaking as the husband of a Markland heavy fighter and all-around badass, who is also friends with many other badass larper ladies, please stop embarrassing yourselves. Watch someone fight and judge them on that, not anything else. And if you don’t think you have this prejudice, check your circuits, son, you’re getting bad signals – even I still struggle with this one from time to time and I most certainly know better.

A Final Word for the Guys

I know it seems like I’m on the warpath for a lot of this post, and let’s not kid each other, in many ways I am. I’m sad, and ashamed, and more than a little pissed off by some of the standards that this scene considers acceptable, and I want to help change them. And I know that a lot of you out there probably read sections of it and thought to yourselves, “That’s a pretty big generalization – that’s not true of me.” And I hope – I know – that’s the case for a lot of you. I painted with a pretty broad brush, and I know that gets some paint on the good guys as well as the bad. For that, I apologize. But the best way we can prove these are generalizations, and not true of all geek and gamer guys, is by living up to a higher standard. Not just by not being sexist ourselves, but by calling other guys on it when they try to pull some chauvinist bullshit, whether it’s making a rape reference in an online game, or groping a booth babe, or pushing the women aside when it’s time to stand shoulder to shoulder at a boffer larp. Don’t get me wrong, either – this isn’t about saving the ladies from wicked sexists. We don’t need more white knight bullshit clouding the issue. This is just about us looking at things that are awful and unfair and disgusting, and saying, “Fuck that, it stops here” and really meaning it. We can do it. I know we can. We have to.

Or in the words of John Custer to his son Jesse, from the incredible comic Preacher:
You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.

*Because of course you’re a virgin, nerd! And yes, that is also the plot of an episode of Veronica Mars. Well spotted, marshmellow, well spotted.

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


It Was the Last of Us, It Was the Best of Us

Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.

For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:

The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.

OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:

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WARNING! WARNING! HUGE

HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
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So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.

Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.

And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.

In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.

I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.

There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.

In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.

And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.

Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.


Badass Larp Talk #13: Mind the Gap

I hate character histories.

OK, OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t actually mind when people lay out the lives of their characters, inventing whole networks of friends and family, love and loss, places been and promises to keep. There’s a ton of passion and invention in that sort of work, and it can really help flesh out a character and give them reasons to inhabit the worlds we create. That’s awesome, when you think about it. Truly, awesome.

What I hate are airtight histories. You know the type – the player with pages and pages of character backstory and motivation detailing everything that’s ever happened in that character’s life from birth until ten minutes ago. They know their character’s favorite food, the name of their first co-worker, the mascot of the high school they went to, the dress they wore to their first birthday party, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the work ethic behind such creations, but they’re closing the door on one of larp’s best features: improvising your own history on the fly.

(Note: Remember to be respectful of other players’ backstories, especially if your improvisation involves their character directly. Characters are very personal, after all, and telling other people to change theirs to suit yours can come off as very rude if not handled correctly. Ask politely, explain why you’re thinking the change would be positive for everyone, and most importantly be OK with getting “No” as an answer. While it might seem totally awesome to have your characters turn out to be cousins, they might have other ideas for the relationship, or have a clearly defined backstory with no room for a sudden cousin, and that’s fine too.) 

You see this skill used a lot by veteran larpers – players who recognize an opportunity to increase the drama and character connection in a moment by tying in their character in a way they hadn’t defined before. (I’ve picked up siblings, rivals, long lost friends and more in this way – “Hey, you wanna be cousins?”) In his great game Houses of the Blooded, master game writer John Wick talks about this exact phenomenon – the idea that you can take advantage of a gap in your character’s backstory to vault yourself right into the action. In his example, he was playing a detective character, and hadn’t really connected to the character much, when a plot about a missing girl came up.

Suddenly he just knew that his character had lost someone too, a daughter – and abruptly a throw away character became someone real and compelling, He hadn’t thought anything about children before, hadn’t really done more than sketch a backstory to get himself going, but now the plot meant something much more to him, and in turn he got much more invested in the game and had a lot more fun. It was a great character turn – and it wouldn’t really have been possible if he’d been beholden to some sort of massive Sacred Comprehensive Backstory.

I recently had a moment like this myself – game on had just been called at Dystopia Rising when one of the staff members running that weekend approached me in character asked me if was a firstborn child. (Biblical plagues are always a hoot.) I paused. I’d only just recently begun playing the character, and I honestly hadn’t thought of his immediate family much at all. I knew my character was part of a wealthy (crime) family, out seeking his fortune in the world, and I knew he had a fierce mother at the head of his family, but I hadn’t thought much more about his relatives than that.

Right on the spot it hit me – he’s not the firstborn. Of course he’s not. His older sister is the heir apparent, and his two older brothers and another older sister work under her directly, taking care of the family business. There were other kids, a boy and a girl, both older as well, but one died young and the other one was killed by a rival family. He’s the baby of the family, so he gets away with a lot, but that also means he’s not going to inherit anything either, not with that many older siblings dividing up the business and a mess of aunts, uncles and cousins mixed in too. That’s why he’s come south to the town where the game is played, because for all his bluster about how big and important his family is, he wasn’t going to get much from them, and so he knows this is his spot, his chance to make a name for himself. And I knew that his Ma missed him, her baby boy, and writes after him often, which he pretends to be embarrassed by but secretly loves, of course.

All of this backstory creation happened in the space of a few seconds – I’m sure the NPC was a little baffled at how I spaced out, sorry Josh - but it really helped me open up my character. Now, if I’d had a detailed backstory, I’d have known his birth order and his siblings, but it would have been pretty flat detail. I’d have just said “Nope” and moved on, and that part of the story wouldn’t have come alive quite the same way. But since I hadn’t worked out what was going on ahead of time, I was able to take that storyline and run with it – even though he wasn’t a firstborn, he kept keen track of the plague and how to cure it, and then immediately ran off and wrote to his big sister to tell her what to look out for if it came her way. Even though the plague story didn’t affect me directly, I was hooked, and all because I’d just invested a ton into my family that I hadn’t known even moments before.

And that’s the real beauty of gaps in a character history – they leave you room to improvise in compelling ways, allow you to adapt your character to suit the stories you’re involved in or the people you meet. It takes a little practice, but once you know how to do it, it opens a lot of doors to a lot of awesome possibilities. So when you’re writing up a character background, feel free to put in plenty of detail and motivation and the like, but leave some room to improvise too. Let some things be decided during play, as needed. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how far this technique can take you.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Mind the gaps.

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


Table Manners: Or, How Not to Be a Convention Troll

In honor of Dexcon this weekend, where hundreds of gamers are coming together for a weekend of dice rolling and debauchery, I thought I’d share a few little tips to help everyone make the most of their con (and maybe help break some bad habits at the table before they get started):

1) We’re All Nerds Here
Dystopia Rising creator Michael Pucci likes to open his larp sessions with some variation on the following advice: “Look around you. We’re all nerds! Everyone is here because they’re a geek who loves gaming! Enjoy it!” The message goes double for gaming cons: Leave the hatin’ at home, and focus on the fun instead. Try new things, play new games with new people, maybe learn some new tricks or even a new way of looking at an old game you never would have considered before. We’re all nerds. Embrace it.

2) Stay On Target
Most convention games have between 4-6 hours to hand out characters, explain the rules (for new folks), provide relevant background/setting material to set up the scenario and then actually play out a full, entertaining story, usually with a group of strangers who’ve never gamed together before. That’s a hell of challenge. So do your GM a favor and try to stay focused. Don’t be a humorless jerk about it, of course, but those long-winded war stories from other games can probably wait for the bar afterward, you probably don’t need to keep dropping character to talk about your other convention larps, and that game of Angry Birds on your iPad will still love you even if you don’t play for a few hours. You’ve only got a short time to play, so dive in!

3) Play Nice with Others
Don’t get me wrong – I know some con games thrive on PvP action. (The “everyone make characters for system X and have a huge gladiator brawl” is a storied con tradition, after all, as are the equally time-honored “let’s all make Evil characters and screw with each other” games.) But there’s a difference between your characters hating and fighting and scheming, and the players being at each others’ throats. Even the harshest PvP games are still games, after all, so the goal is to have fun. Be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat, and remember, it’s just a game, so enjoy it, and help everyone else at the table do so the same.

4) Respect the Shower Hour
I know that because of the limited convention time frame, gamers tend to maximize their playing time and minimize other needs like sleeping, eating properly and so on. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, and looking at my schedule for Dexcon right now, I’m no different in that respect.  On top of that I’ll fully admit that I’m no daisy after six hours of larp in a small convention boardroom or five hours packed around a gaming table, and my nutritional plans never seem to quite be as healthy as I’d hope. I’m not going to say that the convention needs to schedule a designated Shower Hour between gaming rounds. (Though, now that I mention it…)  Deodorant, mints, real food, a nap now and then, enough changes of clothes to see you through the weekend and doing battle with shampoo at least once a day – these things not only make you better suited to enjoy the games you’re playing, but your fellow gamers will appreciate it too.   

5) Guys. Seriously.
I hate having to write this one, but some guys need the reminder, so here goes: There are lots of female gamers. I know to some of you it might seem like they just suddenly appeared in the time it took to get another case of Mountain Dew from the garage, but believe it or not, they’ve actually been here for a long time now, and not because their boyfriend dragged them into it. In fact, at a con I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that any lady you see with a badge and a backpack is there because she’s stoked to throw down in an Apocalypse World, or to see her Space Wolves wreck on some Necrons, or because her Gangrel is gonna slit throats and seize Praxis as soon as the sun goes down. So really, stop reciting rules at them like they don’t know what they’re doing, talking over them during planning sessions, offering unsolicited advice on the “best” move to make every time their turn comes up, quizzing their “cred” like the geek SATs, or worse yet assume that sharing a table and some laughs entitles you to share a hotel room later. It’s sad and obnoxious, and it needs to stop. For all the guys who don’t need this reminder, thank you, keep being awesome, and don’t hesitate to speak up and back up a lady if you see some tool trying to pull this sort of bad behavior. For all the ladies in these hobbies, thanks for coming out despite all the crap and the cavemen and the creepers, not to mention kicking some major ass besides.  All too often we’re still like the short boys hugging the walls at the eighth grade dance, the ones that made you roll your eyes and long for the relative social graces and personal growth of high school guys, but don’t give up on us yet. We’ll catch up to y’all sooner or later, maturity-wise. Promise.

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


Badass Larp Talk #12: Five Rules for Staff Members

Hey everyone! It’s been almost a month since my last update, so apologies for the extended absence – the end of the semester caught me a little off guard, and then a succession of larp weekends and events kept me busy. (I know, I know, what terrible problems to have, right?) So, without further ado, I present a by-request edition of BLT – specifically, answers to the question: “What advice would you give to larp staff members to make their games better?”

1 – Learn the Entertainment Ratio
Wait, math at a larp? And not in combat? It’s true, folks. One of the best lessons I ever took away from the first boffer larp I played was something my friend Matt called the “entertainment ratio.” It’s pretty simple, really – for any scene you set up, how many non-player characters (NPCs) are being used to entertain a particular number of player characters (PCs)? That’s your entertainment ratio. So if you send out one NPC as an impassioned artist who winds up entertaining twelve PCs with their performance, that’s a 1:12 entertainment ratio – a very good one in most games. On the other hand, if you use twelve NPCs to set up a special module for three PCs, that’s a 12:3 ratio (or 4:1 if you like reducing things correctly). Chances are that’s a really intense, immersive experience for those three PCs, no question, but it might not be the best investment of your staff members if it means 40 other PCs are sitting around bored while waiting for staff members to answer their questions, portray crucial NPCs or otherwise make an appearance in the game.

It’s the economics of staff management, really. If you know that you’re investing heavily in one scene, you have to make sure you’re still putting out enough entertainment to keep everyone else satisfied, or at least make sure the game isn’t stalling out. Most of the best staff members I’ve ever seen grasped this intuitively, or at least learned to do so after a while, and made sure that their ratios always added up to the most fun for the largest number of players whenever possible. But if you’re new and it’s not second nature, I highly recommend that you at least consider the entertainment ratio as you’re sending out plot to the players. Don’t agonize over every little number – “oh no, those two NPCs were supposed to entertain 11 people, but they only got 9!” – but try to make sure that you have a sense that your staff is being utilized wisely.

Oh, and for the record, when your PCs are entertaining each other, which no NPCs required? (Popular examples of this are martial tournaments, talent showcases, heated internal political debates, etc.) Congratulations! Entertainment ratio = infinite! My advice at that point is to take a breather, get your staff ready for when it’s over, and enjoy the show your players are putting on for each other!

2 – Don’t Interrupt Living Story Moments
Remember when you were in school, and a class discussion totally (and often unexpectedly) took on a life of its own? Everyone got really into it for its own sake, because they were actually interested and had real things to say about the topic. If you had a good teacher, what did they do? Sit back and moderate the discussion, but otherwise let it go on a while. And what did a bad teacher do? Shut it down, leaving everyone feeling frustrated.

Those moments happen in larp too – I call them “living story” moments, because they’re those times when the story really seems to take on a life of its own – and if you see them happening, whenever possible try to leave them the hell alone. Unless it is vital for the plot, or the players put themselves in a position where they knew they could be interrupted easily – like holding their tender wedding at an unholy portal that frequently overflows with ravenous monsters, which is really just begging to have it crashed by demons - just steer your NPCs around those moments and find other PCs to entertain. Interrupting that sort of roleplaying is the larp equivalent of butting in on a serious private conversation, and that doesn’t usually end well for anyone.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that players having a tender moment should have some kind of magic anti-plot forcefield. (Those moments can be hard to spot, for one, and some players might get the wrong idea and start trying to abuse the practice if it became widely known.) I’m just saying that, assuming the plot and/or characters they’re bringing in area able to be ignored, or at least can interact with other players in the area, you should avoid interrupting scenes already in progress whenever possible, especially if it looks like the players are really engaged and roleplaying intensely. Generally you can tell when you’re approaching this sort of scene as opposed to PCs just hanging around and talking – if the PCs aren’t too engaged, they’ll usually leap at a chance to talk to NPCs and see what’s going on, but if they’re really invested in the moment they’ll barely acknowledge the NPCs and stay focused on what’s at hand.

It’s a fine line and you’ll make mistakes now and then. That’s fine. But the important thing about it is remembering that when story is happening – even and perhaps especially when it’s something the players have generated on their own – try to give it some room to breathe. You don’t have to let it go on and on – most games take place in dangerous worlds where those moments of respite are all too brief – but don’t stomp on it too quickly or what you’re really doing is telling the players that your story is more important than their roleplaying investment, and that’s a bad message to put out there regardless.

3 – Don’t Try to Play Their Characters For Them
One of the biggest traps I see new staff members fall into is the desire to play their players’ characters as if they were own – sending that PC plot that essentially makes them become what the staff member wants them to be. At a Vampire game I played years back, one of the Storytellers decided that a friend of mine should become the Sheriff of the city, which would’ve been great if my friend had shared the notion. But she didn’t, and so every time the Storyteller tried to push her in that direction she pushed back the other way. It became a weird tug of war, because the Storyteller got it in his head that this was what her character “should be”, when really that power is and always should be the player’s.

It sounds really obvious, but sadly a lot of staff members can get a little caught up in their ability to create situations that challenge PCs and try to use them to change PCs instead, taking away beloved aspects of a character or adding unwanted elements to a character. Don’t get me wrong – characters can and will change in response to stories, and games where they can remain the same in perpetuity will eventually have major problems with stagnation. But an important concept to remember is that only the player owns a PC. They are the ultimate arbiter of what that character is about, and failing to remember that is a recipe for frustration and disaster.

Now, I’m not saying that players have veto power over every possible change – if their character wanders into an ambush and gets killed, they can’t simply say “Nope!” and pretend it didn’t happen. Handling fallout from decisions is an important part of any character. But there’s a big difference between enforcing the setting realistically and actively trying to mold a character into something you want them to be. The former is being a good staff member and helping maintain a consistent shared universe; the latter is intrusive and unwanted. If I  made a character based around his beautiful singing voice, you may think it’s cool to take his voice away, and it might be very dramatic to deal with for a while. But if you do it permanently, and not as the result of actions I chose to take but because you think it would be cool to see what happens next, step back and think about what you really did. Characters can be injured, broken down, put upon and otherwise harried within an inch of their lives, without necessarily changing the core of what makes them them. So before you try to change a character’s fundamental nature, think about what you’re asking of that player. At the very least, if you have an idea that you think would be amazing for a character in a game you’re running, ask the player first. Yes, it might ruin the “surprise” – but it’s a lot better than changing someone’s character and finding out that they no longer want to play that person as a result.

4 – Let Them Win (When They Earn It)
This is another one that trips up a lot of otherwise well-meaning staff members. They load up a Super Badass Villain with plenty of ways to kick some PC butt, surround them with minions eager to do some damage and send them out to cause havoc. Except that instead of an epic battle, a clever PC manages to slip behind enemy lines and take out your supervillain with a single well-placed shot. Or perhaps the PCs approach them diplomatically and explain a perfectly reasonable alternative to bloodshed that you hadn’t anticipated. You had a huge battle scheduled for this session … now what?

The short answer is, anything that lets the PCs keep their victory. One of the things that will make me bail at a game faster than anything else is when the staff can’t admit defeat, but I’ve seen it all too often in my career. A PC figures out a clever and perfectly legitimate way to defeat a villain or solve a problem, only to have the NPCs and other staff members bull right over their actions just so they can have the fight or showdown they were imagining all along. It’s a situation a lot of us know only too well – some NPCs show up looking for a fight, the PCs patiently explain why it doesn’t make any sense to fight, and then NPCs attack anyway “because that’s what they were told to do.” It really strains the shared illusion that is larp, and it teaches players a bad lesson about the value of cleverness and skill. Sometimes the players will hit you in ways you never saw coming, unraveling all of your plans in a moment. Let them. You can always regroup while they’re celebrating their victory and think of something else to put forward.

By the same token, don’t hand them a win when it should be a loss. Sometimes staff members see players getting frustrated or discouraged because events aren’t going their way, so they hand the players an easy win: a badass villain suddenly trips and falls on his sword; powerful allies swoop in out of nowhere to save the day; the solution to a vexing riddle is whispered into a character’s ear by his dead grandmother’s ghost. (Yes, I’ve seen all of these things.) The problem with this approach is two-fold, the first part being that it diminishes the value of all their other victories if you just hand them one they didn’t earn. And yes, the players can tell when you do it, especially if it starts becoming a habit. The second is that some players actually don’t mind losing – quite enjoy it, really – when it’s a fair loss. There’s a lot of great dramatic potential in failure and loss, and when you sweep that away for a cheap win, they don’t get either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, they just get a bland … OK-ness that isn’t good for much of anything.

5 - Talk to Your Players
Honestly, you’d be amazed at how many staff members forget this little step. Larp is a collaborative art form, staff and players working together to tell amazing stories about fantastic characters. (In many games players and staff are one in the same, with players rotating staff duties from event to event or story to story.) Talk to each other. This doesn’t mean the game should vote on every decision – “Hey, show of hands, who wants to be horribly butchered by witch hunters next game? Really? Nobody?” – or that staff should freely share important secrets with players, the kind that will ruin their fun and spoil crucial game mysteries. No, what it means is that you should have some form of dialogue between staff and players, so that you know what’s working, what isn’t, what people want more of and what they want to avoid. You won’t be able to make everyone happy all of the time, but you can find ways to make the game better for everyone if you tear down some of the artificial distance between staff and players and put them more directly in touch with each other.

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


Badass Larp Talk #11: To Live and Die In A LARP

One of the most telling decisions a game designer can make is how to handle character death; in many ways, how characters permanently exit play is just as important as how the game is played. It tells players the margin of error they’re looking at when it comes to characters failing, and also determines a number of other factors that might not be as obvious, such as the impact of player versus player (pvp) conflict.

So let’s break it down by the three main types of death systems and see what shakes out, shall we?

Single Death Systems (SDS)

Outside of certain high fantasy and super advanced science fiction settings, single death systems are the norm for a lot of games. Also known as “real life rules” since they closely mirror our actual human experience, SDS games have arguably the lowest margin of error of any system formulation, where even just one unlucky rules interaction could send a much beloved and long-played character out of the story for good. From a bookkeeping perspective, they’re probably the simplest of all the death systems out there, as when a character dies there isn’t much else to do but chalk up another strike mark and talk to the player about what they’d like to play next. Or at least that’s what it might seem like, except that it trades some simplicity in the aftermath for some complications before the fact, and you’d better be careful to figure out how you plan on handling them if you don’t want to get blindsided by some of the unexpected parts.

Advantage: High Stakes
Needless to say, when there are no come-backs, players have to take risks accordingly. Operating without a safety net in the event of foul play or catastrophe can be a rather brutal learning curve for some players, but it certainly means adds a heavy dose of excitement and tension any time lives are on the line. Given that most of my early larp experience was with the World of Darkness setting, a fundamentally SDS setting (though most characters had a lot of possible “outs” with their powers), I have to say it was hard to adjust to other systems at first. I wondered how tense it could be when you had multiple or even functionally infinite lives, because even though I hated the idea sometimes, there was a lot to be said in favor of how much it added to those dangerous moments, not to mention how much greater the triumph was when we walked away and a hated enemy did not.

Drawback: Wait, No! That’s Bullshit!
At the same time, SDS games require a lot of staff attention to make sure that they’re not being exploited, on several levels. For one thing, SDS games often have to contend with a higher rate of cheating than other systems, simply because when faced with losing a beloved character even normally honest players will often be sorely tempted to fold, spindle, mutilate or outright ignore the rules, especially if they feel it isn’t how their character is “supposed” to meet their end. Along the same lines, staff needs to decide in advance how to handle it if some players decide they’re bored and feel like killing other peoples’ characters just for something to do. Sad to say, this does happen, and it can be a major problem for games.

Possible Fix: Death’s Door Mechanic
To cope, a number of games have started adopting “delayed death” mechanics where a character is functionally removed from play – as in, cannot take any actions that involve rules or skill use of any kind, and sometimes are forbidden to talk about certain subjects (such as naming their killer in pvp situations) – but do not actually expire until the player wishes it or the end of a set period of time, which is usually but not always the session wherein the killing blow was inflicted. In effect, the character lingers long enough on death’s door to say some goodbyes and allow the player some chance to wrap up some business to allow for more closure in the face of sudden and permanent character loss, but without taking all the sting out of SDS games or making pvp killing impossible to conduct anonymously.

Unlimited Death Systems (UDS)

At the other end of the spectrum are UDS games, where death goes from being a character-ending experience to something more like a timeout or an inconvenience. (For the record, many supposedly UDS games actually have a handful of situations or conditions that can permanently remove characters, but these are often special plot directed circumstances and not elements that are casually encountered, so I’m setting them aside for this discussions.) The very first boffer LARP I ever played was a UDS game, and so I didn’t realize how uncommon it was until I started checking out other games and saw only a handful of other games I looked up online shared a similar philosophy.

Advantage: Risk Taking
One thing that players who don’t have experience in a UDS game often overlook is that – by its nature – UDS games encourage players to take risks. When you don’t have to worry about a single bad decision taking away your character, it’s a lot easier to dive in and take your chances in situations as compared to characters who get only one or two deaths. When we began at my first boffer larp – a place where resurrection took only 5 minutes – my brother and I became known for dying constantly. At my first event, I managed to die four times in half an hour, simply because I kept throwing myself in the thick of things for the fun of it. I was underpowered, couldn’t fight for crap and squishy as hell compared to the bad guys, but who cares? I was trying all kinds of tricks – flanking attacks, playing dead (not hard when you become known for getting killed), pretending to be under enemy control – and more importantly I was enjoying myself even when I failed and got ganked. A UDS game encourages players to take chances by removing one of the main reasons players play it safe in the first place, and as a result it feels very friendly as a learning and immersion environment.

Drawback: The Revolving Door
Of course, the same carefree abandon of those early games eventually wears off for most players, and at this point your game can have a serious problem: apathy. While permanent character loss can rip beloved characters away from people, not to mention make them grumble about hundreds of dollars of props and costuming becoming useless, it does serve a valuable motivating purpose, not to mention add tension to situations. For newer, less powerful characters, death is still something of a deterrent in a UDS game, if only because it can happen to them more easily and thus mean they have to be careful if they don’t want to miss out on crucial scenes due to being dead (or raised as enemy undead, or whatever). For more powerful characters, however, almost all the inherent risk is gone – they don’t fear most enemies because they’re seasoned players and have powers to back up their experience, and they don’t fear death because they know it’s temporary and have gotten used to it. Death is annoying and tiresome instead of frightening and traumatic, and that’s a major shift in attitude to play out. Worse still, if villains enjoy the same immortality, it can be hard to feel as though you ever get to defeat them. If you kill them, they just come back later; if you capture them and they escape, you start feeling much the same way.

Drawback: Power Scaling
When characters never have to be removed from play (at least until the player chooses to do so), a UDS game has to take a long, hard look at what’s going to happen down the line when those characters have been at game for years and accumulated huge amounts of experience points, fantastic gear, etc. Unlike other death systems, where there’s a strong chance that player characters will either die off or choose to retire due to impending doom, in a UDS game there’s no cap except player boredom regarding how long a character can gain experience, which means that if you have characters who choose to stay active for long periods of time you can have significantly unbalanced power levels in your player population. For this reason many UDS and even some LDS games bestow experience on a sliding scale, granting more early to encourage player growth and interest and then scaling back over time so that long-running characters advance much more slowly. Whatever the game chooses, though, this is a factor to be seriously considered in all but the most short term games.

Possible Fixes: Giving A Damn (Players) & Alternative Approaches (Staff)
Normally I don’t like to lay blame on players for system elements, but generally speaking the revolving door problem becomes a problem mostly because of roleplay habits and not staff issues (though stories that make light of the revolving door certainly don’t help). Simply put, you have to remember that even if your character is aware that death is temporary for some people in her world, that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful and unpleasant to experience, which should be roleplayed accordingly. It might also inspire her to fight harder on behalf of those who don’t share her functional immortality, as is the case in many fantasy settings, where heroes are repeatedly raised back to life but humble farmers fall once and stay dead. In short, you have to remember that even if you the player know death is little more than a time out, your character still experiences it as a much more intense, disturbing experience. And if she doesn’t, what does that say about how callous her attitude has become about life and death …?

Of course, staff isn’t totally off the hook here. If you run a UDS game, you need to think of other ways to threaten players and resolve conflicts that don’t encourage the negative aspects of this system. While killing the big bad guy is a nice exclamation point in many game systems, if the bad guy is just going to come back to life again later, you need to make sure the players don’t feel cheated or that their actions are pointless. (Maybe it takes them a certain amount of time to return, or players can perform certain dangerous rites or use rare technologies that prevent resurrection in order to keep particularly nasty villains from coming back.)  Also, just because players can return to life functionally forever doesn’t mean that it has to be wasted time for their characters – have staff members narrate experience between life and death when possible, showing an afterlife experience full of strange visions, comforting loved ones long lost, villains waiting for revenge or whatever else the world dictates. A really ambitious staff could use the time between death and resurrection to sow clues about ongoing plots, or even run whole story arcs in the time between life and death, possibly even requiring players to deliberately die to run special “flatliners” adventures in the sinister and eerie underworld from time to time …

Limited Death Systems (LDS)

As the term implies,  LDS games bridge the gap between the two worlds – players have more than one life but not an infinite amount, and so it enjoys some of the benefits of both while downplaying the drawbacks a bit in process.

Advantage/Drawback: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
Death is still a source of great tension in LDS games, since you don’t have an infinite number of “respawns” to fall back on, but you can also take comfort in knowing that your first fatal mistake won’t be your last either. In some games the players know the exact number of lives they have, while others keep them secret in a staff database of some kind; generally I prefer that players have a way of knowing how many lives they have, even if the character does not, because it lets them make decisions about retirement and wrapping up stories that they wouldn’t have otherwise, but there are certainly excellent roleplaying arguments in favor of the mystery and uncertainty of not knowing either.

One of my favorite compromises, in fact, comes from the absolutely superb roleplayers at the NJ fantasy larp Nocturne, where players don’t know how many lives they have … until they are resurrected into their last lifetime, which is accompanied by a brilliant display of IC pyrotechnics that signals to player and character alike “this is your last life, use it well.” I always thought that balanced the two elements very well – the player doesn’t know exactly how long their character has left until near the very end, so they have to play cautiously as they might not have more than just the one life left, but when the actual end is near, both player and character are clearly informed and can plan and roleplay accordingly. It’s a brilliant way to handle the LDS mechanics, and I’ve always thought it was a very elegant solution.

Of course, there are other twists to the LDS model that are worth investigating too. Post-zombie-apocalypse madhouse Dystopia Rising uses an LDS mechanic where players know up front exactly how many “lives” their character will have before the zombie infection claims them for good. (Generally speaking, the lower the number a particular character type has, the stronger their starting “genetics” and native skills are, which is a nice bit of game balance to accompany the LDS mechanics.) Technically speaking, there’s no way to get back an “Infection Point” (the term for lives), as losing them to death represents your character slowly succumbing to the zombie plague … however, there are a few tricks you can try if you’re desperate and fading fast. Only one of them is listed in the rulebook – and even then it’s a rare and dangerous skill known only by a few decidedly creepy people – so if that doesn’t work for you, you’d better get creative and dig into some intense roleplaying and exhaustive searching. Having other ways to extend a character’s lifespan hidden in the dark reaches of the setting is a great way to encourage exploration and roleplaying, and that’s before you actually have to consider the moral and philosophical costs of some of these potential “cures” …

The one major thing to consider when crafting an LDS game, in fact, is whether the number of lives that players are given is set in stone, or if it can be tweaked during play. If it is unchangeable, you need to make sure everyone knows it, and make sure that rule is never bent unless you want the players who didn’t get that favor to riot on you. If it can be changed – if players can acquire more lives, “buy back” lives lost, or some combination of both – then you need to very carefully consider how they can go about what might be described as the most important mechanic in your system. If you make it too easy, you’ve essentially made a UDS game and death loses all tension; if you make it a matter of raw in-game power, you’re sending newer players a message about how valued their characters are in your system, at least compared to veteran characters; if you establish it as a perk of belonging to particular faiths or organizations, you make it difficult for players to resist joining if they want to continue playing, and so on. My recommendation? Talk it over with the staff and your founding players, and make sure that the answer also reinforces your setting and its lore.

Now Pay the Ferryman, Son
So what sort of conclusions are to be drawn from examining these mechanics? Having played extensively in a variety of games using all three systems over the years, I can say that it’s not a question of right or wrong, as some game design adherents might have you believe. I hope I’ve been able to show that all of them have powerful advantages for staff members to use in order to craft excellent stories, and factors that players should bear in mind as they approach playing in different death systems. I’ve also tried to raise a few of the disadvantages I’ve seen in the different systems over the years, as well as possible fixes – I’m not going to pretend those are the only problems with those systems or that my fixes will work in every instance, I’m just hoping to point folks in the right direction to anticipate problems and formulate solutions that work for their games.

Because in my experience, death systems are one thing that are nearly universal in gaming, and yet many players and even quite a few staff members often don’t stop and think about the implications of a particular system on their setting or their characters. Which is a shame, because understanding what death means and how it works in the game is an important part of understanding what kind of heroes exist in your setting, the challenges they’re up against, and the risks that make their choices matter.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Take the long way home.

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


Table Manners: Time to Level Up

OK. Deep breath. I’m going to say something that I feel is a little bit overdue:

We geeks really have to get past the notion that we’re cultural outsiders.

Before anyone flies off the handle, let me make two things perfectly clear: I am not saying that geeks don’t get picked on for their hobbies and interests. Sadly I know that there are plenty of kids and more than a few adults who get picked on by classmates and co-workers for knowing what Naruto is, or arguing the merits of Star Wars versus Firefly. Bullies like easy targets, and there’s still plenty in our culture that says “nerds” are their natural prey, as though eighth grade was Wild Kingdom. Strike that. Anyone who’s been to middle school knows that it’s not Wild Kingdom – it’s much, much meaner. Lions can only take down a gazelle once; the gazelle never have to do a history presentation with them two weeks after getting mauled. So no, I’m not saying that geeks aren’t still being bullied for being geeks.

I am also not saying that bad cultural stereotypes don’t exist. Just to pick one of the most egregious genres, look at any of the thousands of police procedurals on the air – the techies and the “brainy” characters are still likely to have glasses, be “quirky” (read: socially awkward), and have hobbies that other “normal” characters make fun of for being too dorky. Venerable ratings juggernaut NCIS, whose writers generally display as much computer savvy as Wilford Brimley yelling drunken obscenities at a ceiling fan, spent a good chunk of time mocking MIT graduate Agent McGee and his fascination with computer games, role-playing and cosplay (not that they know that term). There are exceptions, of course, especially as characters get fleshed out over the run of a series, but on average if you dig back to those early episodes you’re going to see awkward, often-bespectacled geeks spouting jargon that – inevitably – some “down to earth” alpha male type barks at them to translate into “plain English” for everyone to understand. That sort of stereotyping still happens regularly, I know. That’s not in dispute.

No, what I’m trying to say is that we have to let go of the idea – deeply ingrained in many of us – that geek culture is still the weird kid no one wants to talk to at recess. I know it’s hard; sometimes I still can’t believe it myself. Whenever I see something from geek culture splashed across the mainstream, my first reaction is that old one a lot of us nerds grew up with – I don’t trust it. I look around to see if someone’s poking fun at it, or me for liking it, or maybe both. I just can’t accept that maybe a lot of other people, and I mean a lot of other people, might be into what I’m into. I think a lot of geeks know what I’m talking about, especially those in their late 20′s-early 30′s and up, the ones who didn’t grow up with Harry Potter being around their age. (The importance of this distinction will be clearer in a moment.) It’s a habit developed by folks who were used to having what they liked mocked or dismissed, and the “us versus them” mentality it creates is very hard to let go of even many years later.

When I was a kid, many people grudgingly suffered through The Hobbit in school, but it was a far rarer soul who’d braved the grown-up trilogy. Outside my circle of equally geeky friends, being able to rattle off the rosters and relative merits of of X-Men Gold versus X-Men Blue won me no love in the lunchroom, and staying inside to master Ninja Gaiden was definitely not the cool thing to do on a summer day meant for bike riding and pickup basketball. Being a geek felt like being part of a culture at the fringes – almost nobody knew what you liked, much less got what you saw in it, and so you were the caretakers of this little world, its protectors. We were enthusiastic about it in part because no one else cared, so it seemed even more important to pour ourselves into it.

But that world really isn’t there anymore.

Take a look around. I mean, really look. Video games are the highest grossing entertainment industry in the country; the Lord of the Rings trilogy tore up the box office and the Oscars; Game of Thrones is blowing away cable television; Harry Potter gave us a generation of fantasy fans; and instead of having one superhero movie every decade or so, now they’re attracting some serious talent and studios can’t make them fast enough. The average person went from not knowing anything about the Avengers to having opinions about possible roster changes and impending villains in upcoming movies. Geek culture isn’t just for geeks anymore, it seems, much to the confusion and consternation of many of the old guard who are still caught up in that “us versus them” mentality they’ve known for so many years. I mean, we could keep going:

Dr. Who? Huge.
Star Wars? A multi-billion dollar deal.
Star Trek? Rebooted.
Nathan Fillion? Dead sexy.

And all that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. We have arrived, ladies and gentlemen – in fact we’ve been here for some time. We just can’t bring ourselves to accept it yet. Like the kid on the playground waiting for the bully to turn a “compliment” into another mean joke at our expense, we can’t believe it’s really sincere. Deep down, a lot of us who grew up geek just can’t let go of the notion that our culture is the kid standing alone at the prom,  when in fact just about everyone’s lined up and asking us to dance.

I know what some of you are thinking: “But they sexed up the dwarves in The Hobbit! They  turned Star Wars into a merchandising scheme! The Big Bang Theory makes us all look like jerks and losers!” Underneath all those complaints is a single meta-complaint, the cry of every geek when they see something like the Spider-Man origin retcon in the third movie, the anguish of the inauthentic moment: “THEY’RE NOT GETTING IT RIGHT!” Geek culture and its properties are being picked up faster than ever, but in the process there’s a sense that it’s being co-opted, it’s being hacked apart and dumbed down and so on. Countless posts on countless forums decry the invasion of the mainstream as it grabs up another cherished geek property, and I understand why: It’s scary to have everyone suddenly fall in love with something you like after you’ve been used to no one knowing about it at all. It’s natural to lash out a little, to go into the “I was into it before it was cool” mode and complain about how it will inevitably be butchered.

All I can say to that is, well, of course not all of what is created or recreated in the mainstream will be “right.” (Though, to be fair, a lot of “right” is in the eye of the beholder. Some people like X3, after all, God help the sorry bastards.) As geek culture is brought more and more into the mainstream, there are bound to be missteps and screw-ups and bastardizations and more. It will take a long time before many of those misconceptions are corrected, if some of them ever are; I suspect even Benedict Cumberbatch’s demonic perfection won’t be able to lift the “Trekkie = virgin” stigma that particular fandom carries. And I won’t even talk yet about what my beloved larp hobby looks like to the mainstream media. Let’s just say we have a long way to go and leave it at that.

But geek culture isn’t unique in that. Ask any lawyer how “right” most courtroom dramas are, or see what a real forensic tech thinks of CSI and its many clones. Most football fans and players can name on one hand the really good “football movies” that get the feel of the game right, and let’s not even compare real epsionage work to James Bond’s adventures. Last summer the History channel got ripped, and rightly so in many cases, for “dramatizing” events in its Gettysburg anniversary programming that, oops, turned out not to have happened at all in the real battle. Every culture has its stereotypes in the media, and every culture is done “wrong” by what’s produced about them. If you believe geeks are the only people consistently portrayed in a negative, inaccurate light, have a chat with a member of a motorcycle club sometime.

No, what we’re really missing when we pull back from this culture shift and retreat into the ivory towers of “original fandom”, though, is the chance to guide what’s being brought into the mainstream. This goes beyond voting with our wallets and our ratings, though that’s important too, and focuses on the people around us who are first exposed to things that we’ve known for years. When you reject a new Dr. Who fan for only getting into it when the recent series reboot started, for instance, you’re missing a chance to show those people the charm of the older episodes in all their cheesy, wonderful glory. Push away a person because all they know about Batman is the video games, and how will they ever experience the sheer awesomeness that are classic Batman stories like Arkham AsylumThe Killing Joke, or Year One? Maybe you can’t reach out to everyone in the world who is awed by the Lord of the Rings movies or hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and tell them about other wonderful fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie, MZB, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch or Mercedes Lackey – but you can tell the new potential fans sitting next to you.

We have to put some of our old demons behind us, folks, and accept that as a culture we’re no longer the outsiders looking in. We’re at the threshold of a brand new culture, one that – with a little bit of our help – can bring some of the wonder and amazement and imagination that we love to people who otherwise might never have experienced it in their lives. As my man Hardison likes to say on Leverage – one of the better portrayals of a geek out there recently, by the way, who not only hacks computers but gets to be witty, get the girl and kick a lot of ass too – this is the Age of the Geek, baby.

It’s about time we stepped back of our self-imposed exile and started leading the way to the culture we want. 

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


Badass Larp Talk #10: Select, Start

Let me share a great and terrible secret of larp:

You are not the star.

Well, OK, that’s not entirely true. As a player character, you are a star of the larp story where you attend. There’s an important word in there, though – “a”. Not “the star”, just “a star.” You are one of many stars at your game, and that means you need to learn a thing or two about sharing the spotlight. Because doing so doesn’t come naturally to everyone, even those who generally do their best to make the game fun for everyone.

Though some dive right in at the deep end, many of us come to larp from other forms of gaming, tabletop rpgs and video games being perhaps the most common points of origin. However, both of these gaming arenas have a different sense of the needs of the player as compared to the needs of the game as a whole. In video games, unless you’re playing an MMO or running some co-op action, the rest of the game world exists solely for your own amusement. (And let’s be honest, we know a lot of MMO players who still think that way even with 10 million fellow players online.) Everyone else you see is created by the program and is there to do with as you wish, at least within the bounds of what is possible in the context of the game. My Warcraft rogue may respectfully doff his cap, salute and kneel down before Jaina Proudmoore as part of my roleplay when I turn in a quest, but that’s my experience. You may decide to just run in, get your completion and go. Or you might decide to strip to your skivvies and dance next to her spamming macros asking everyone to group with you for a raid. Point is, in a video game, the world exists for you and you alone, or perhaps you and a small circle of friends. The enjoyment of others falls way, way down on the list for most people. If you don’t believe me, watch a bunch of individual players try to tag a quest mob that only on of them can tag at a time. Sure, some people will offer to team up, but a lot of them will simply spam every dirty trick in the book, tag the mob and ride off. Your fun is not their fun.

Tabletop gaming has a similar feel, albeit for a different reason – in this case, your small circle of characters are the people that matter, and the rest of the world is there for your enjoyment. Good groups try not to think of things that way, and good STs won’t let you get away with it much in practice, but ultimately it still boils down to the fact that the characters are in some way special if only because the story is focused on them. Not to mention that you’re going to tolerate things from your fellow characters that you wouldn’t tolerate from others because if you don’t, the game doesn’t work. Ultimately the players must work together, even if the characters don’t want to, or your game doesn’t go anywhere. There’s a wonderful scene in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising where one character uses a magical wish to revive a fallen NPC, and one of her fellow players flips out because she “wasted” her wish by using it on a character that isn’t one of the party (and therefore by definition doesn’t matter as much as they do). That pretty much sums up the “bubble” that tabletop characters exist in – even if it’s just deep down, the players know that their characters are the only ones that really matter. Now, tabletop gaming is often a bit more cooperative than video gaming, but it’s still just one group of players having fun in a world otherwise populated with NPCs, and so the only other factor to consider outside of your own characters’ amusement is making sure you keep your GM happy enough to continue running the game. Your fun is your group’s fun, it’s not anyone else’s fun.

Larp, though, she is a beast from a different forest.

When you are larping, whether it’s a weekend boffer game or a Saturday night parlor session, you are not the only person whose fun matters. Take a look around at the other players, the NPCs, the staff. All of them are there to enjoy the game as well, one way or another, and their fun is just as important as your own, if not moreso at times. Why? Because larp is not a solipsistic bubble where only your character matters and the rest of the world is generated by a program or by a single omnipotent GM. It’s generated by everyone you see around you, and if you treat it like your own personal playground built for your sole amusement, you’re not only missing the point, you’re missing out on a lot of the fun as well. You are, quite literally, playing a different game than everyone else around you, and often not in the best way.

Because unlike most other forms of gaming, the more you put into the stories of others, the more it enriches your own experience as well. Having fun for your own sake is fine, but helping others have fun too actually improves the game for everyone. Remember, this is a shared world – the more everyone around you puts into it, the more they enjoy and create and invest in it, the better it’s going to be for you too. So while your own fun is important – it is a game, after all, so if you’re not enjoying it most of the time it’s not working as intended – it’s also important to be mindful of the fun of the rest of the people around you as well. Maybe I’m more sensitive to this fact because I’ve been a serial ST for many years and making sure everyone is having a good time is part of the job description, but I think the point remains valid regardless.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s true: The vast majority of the time, entertaining other people is entertaining for you too. Your fun is everyone’s fun, and everyone’s fun is yours too. (If you don’t believe it, try to have a good time at a larp where everyone else is bored, pissed off, frustrated or some combination of the three. Good luck to you, brave sir or madam, good luck.) Most of us encounter this when we take a turn as an NPC – the more we commit to entertaining the players, the more fun we tend to have playing the role ourselves.  Whereas one of the traits of a bad NPC tends to be someone focused only on their own amusement, and players be damned. Granted, the role of an NPC is different than that of a PC in terms of their relation to the story, but still, nothing says at least some of that spirit shouldn’t carry over to time spent as your own character. You shouldn’t feel obligated to entertain your fellow PCs at every turn, especially at the expense of your own fun, but at the same time, you should try to remember that encouraging their entertainment ultimately benefits your own as the world grows richer and the players are more fully engaged.  When you entertain only yourself, only you benefit; when you entertain others, you all benefit. It’s a net gain for the everyone involved.

What do I mean by this, exactly? If it can be boiled down to anything, it’s this: Don’t treat larp like a single player game. It’s not. That’s what’s so magical about it, right? The fact that we’re all coming together to make and sustain a world, whether it’s an entire fantasy realm or just one city by night. To get the most out of your larp experience, you need to understand when to leap into the limelight and show off who your character is and what they can do, of course. but also when to help someone else do the same. Because when you can recognize the difference between those opportunities, that takes your appreciation of larp to a whole new level.

If you’ll pardon me using my own experience for an example, I’ll try to illustrate what I mean. My main character at Dystopia Rising, a post-apocalyptic zombie horror larp, is a country doctor. He happens to be something of a jack-of-all-trades, capable of doing a lot of different things in addition to medicine – farming, brewing, patching broken objects, even crafting simple items. And make no mistake, I enjoy doing all those things, and I believe that this self-sufficiency is very much an expression of his character. But I also know when to step aside and let someone else do them if it will make the play more memorable or enjoyable to do so.

For instance, if I see a brand new tinker walk into town, if at all possible I’ll take the job to them rather than make a new weapon myself. When waves of wounded come into the triage center, I’ll let the new medics get first crack at them, staying to advise and maybe take the more advanced cases that their characters can’t handle yet. I’m not saying that I never jump to the front and build my own gear or take care of the first wounded through the door, because I certainly do (and there’s nothing wrong with doing so), but I also try to keep an eye out for the enjoyment of my fellow players as well. If it’s been a slow night and the newer docs look bored, well, I don’t mind letting them catch the next couple of cases. The point isn’t that I’m giving up my own fun for theirs – I still stay involved in the scenes through roleplay and such – but I’m trying to be considerate and let other characters have a chance to show their stuff as well.

Most veteran larpers have been at games that have fallen prey to “superhero syndrome.” For those that are not familiar, it’s pretty much what it sounds like – games where some long-running characters are so powerful that newer characters often feel useless by comparison. (Imagine trying to feel relevant and useful as an ordinary police officer when the Justice League always swoops in to solve every case.) However, I’ve seen games where this power disparity was a major problem, and games where it generally didn’t seem to matter nearly as much. The difference? In some games the “super hero” characters cared about their fellow players and tried not to just bulldoze over them to solve every problem with their mighty presence, often allowing other characters to come to the forefront when their vast powers were not required to solve a problem. By contrast,  in other games the “super heroes” were only interested in their own amusement, and didn’t care at all if anyone else was having fun so long as they enjoyed themselves. I’ve seen situations where a group of low-level characters is excited and about to face off with a group of dangerous enemies, only to have one super hero wander in, obliterate those enemies with a few powerful abilities, and wander off with a bored look in their eye. It’s not a whole lot of fun for anyone, trust me. The NPCs are frustrated, the new players are frustrated, and honestly, the super hero rarely has more than a moment or two of satisfaction from it anyway.

Now I know there are people out there calling bullshit on this line of thinking. (Hi, Noah!) And they have some valid points that are worth noting. After all, you’ve spent your money to play the game – if not up front at the door, at least chipping in for food and drink at your local parlor larp, I hope – and that means your fun should be primary. Even if you are an NPC, specifically tasked with entertaining players, your own enjoyment should still factor in or you’re not playing a game anymore, you’re going to a job. Let me also be clear in saying that it is absolutely true that you should be enjoying game. As I noted previously, I am not saying that being a good larper always means giving up chances to do things so that others get to do so. It definitely does not mean sacrificing your fun for the fun of others – it just means trying to encourage the entertainment of others at the same time as you enjoy yourself.

As I said, at Dystopia Rising I’m perfectly happy to heal people and build things when I like, especially if I’ll enjoy doing it, but I just try to “pay it forward” at times when it doesn’t matter as much to me as it might to someone else.  If you think about larp as a single player experience, where you’re just there to pay your money, grab your fun and go, you might enjoy it. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, at least so long as you’re not actively wrecking the fun of others in the process. But if you look at your role as being part of a larger community, and try to contribute not only to your own experience but that of others as well, you’ll find you can have a much more rewarding, much more fulfilling experience than any single player game can offer. Put your fun in everyone else’s hands when you can, and take up their fun from time to time yourself. I think you’ll be surprised and pleased by just how much fun it can be.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Let’s all go get lost together.

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


Badass Larp Talk #9: The Great Divide

By popular request, this installment of BLT is going to tackle something that every larper must face sooner or later – drawing the line between in-character (IC) and out-of-character (OOC). Now, I’m not talking about actually remembering that you’re not really an elven warrior or a vampire prince – though, for the record, if that does actually become a problem at some point, seek help (seriously) – I’m talking about some of the trickier or less obvious situations that come up when you and your friends spend time as other people for a hobby. And speaking of friends …

1) “We’re friends OOC, so we should be friends IC too!”

This is one of the first social hurdles a lot of larpers have to navigate, and a subject that has been known to split groups into two sometimes surprisingly vehement factions. Quite simply, the trouble is that some people like to automatically carry over their OOC friendships into game, while other players prefer a more “natural” approach that requires the IC friendship to develop. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but trouble arises when a group of friends doesn’t all share the same perspective. I’ve seen it happen, too – a person comes to their first session and has their character cozy up to a friend’s character, only to be brushed off with a IC dismissal because their friend doesn’t automatically assume OOC relationships should apply. The newcomer feels hurt and a little betrayed; after all, they came to this game to be with their friend, and being brushed off sometimes means that they spend the rest of their night surrounded by strangers pretending to be different strangers, which is fun for some but a small slice of boredom hell for many others. Of course, for their part, the friend is likely to feel that they’ve done nothing wrong – they’re just playing their character, and if that character doesn’t know someone, they’re not going to suddenly open up to them for no real IC reason. This tends to lead to a bit of a standoff and some hurt feelings, which can sour whole circles of friends on a game in really short order.

The Fix: As with a lot of IC/OOC problems, the best way to head off this sort of trouble is to talk about expectations before going to game. If OOC friendships are going to carry over into game from the beginning, make sure there’s at least some thread of backstory and character ties to support them – some classics include family members, old business partners, survivors of the same battle, etc. Having those ties also has the added benefit of soothing more “purist” roleplayers who don’t want to automatically carry over their OOC relationships by giving them IC reasons to know and talk to these new characters, so that they don’t feel like they’re bending their character just to accommodate their friends.  Ultimately, though, if things start getting heated, remember that you’re all friends sharing a hobby – it should be fun, not painful. Even great games aren’t worth losing OOC relationships over. And speaking of relationships …

2) “So, we’re dating IC too, right?”

Along the same lines, when players are dating/married – let’s just say involved to keep it simple – the subject of whether or not their characters should also be romantically attached is bound to come up.  As with the friendship issue, some folks like to just roll over their OOC relationship while others prefer to keep their IC love life separate from their OOC one, and problems arise when those involved can’t agree on which approach they want to take. Addressing that basic concern involves the same sort of dialogue involved in carrying OOC friendships over IC, though obviously tailored to suit the relationship in question. In my experience, at least initially a lot of players choose to maintain their OOC relationship in some fashion, if only to avoid potentially awkward situations. However, there is an added problem that faces players who are involved, at least if they choose not to roll over their OOC relationship – are their characters then allowed to date/marry other characters, or be sexually active IC? Even players who are cool with the basic concept of not rolling over an OOC relationship into game aren’t always OK with their partners becoming involved with other people IC, which can lead to some really awkward situations as their characters remain single for primarily OOC reasons.

The Fix: Communication, communication, communication. If you’re going into game and maintaining your OOC relationship, you don’t have much to discuss unless one of you decides to end it IC, in which case I’d recommend a long talk to reassure them that it’s a strictly IC decision. (If you want to end things OOC too, please, have the decency to just do it OOC and not sneak up to it by doing it IC first, or you risk dragging other players into a really messy situation.)  If you decide not to maintain an existing OOC relationship but you’re fine with your partners pursuing IC relationships, you still should talk about what you consider acceptable IC behavior when it comes to sex and romance, and when in doubt, choose the more conservative option just to be safe. After all, it’s a lot easier and less traumatic to relax restrictions later if you find you’re more comfortable than it is to tighten restrictions after something upsets you. Make sure your lines are clear, and revisit them on a regular basis to make sure they’re still a good fit. (For longer games, like marathon con sessions or weekend boffer larps, it’s also a good idea to build in a little sweetheart time where you can spend a few minutes together and be all cute and cuddly OOC before going back into game.) I’d also recommend coming up with a code phrase that lets your partners know that you need to talk to them OOC, so if you find yourself needing to discuss important OOC matters or just have a little relationship time you can do so without being disruptive. And remember, no matter how awesome and immersive and intense your IC romance might be, it’s never a good idea to blow off your OOC partners for it, whether putting them off at game, spending too much downtime chatting with your IC love interest, or anything else. Trust me, “It was just in-character!” is the last thing a lot of sad larpers say to the angry person on the other side of the bedroom door before spending the night on the couch. Speaking of intense …

3) “Wow! Our characters have great chemistry – wanna go out for real sometime?”

As classic blunders go, this one ranks right up there with land wars in Asia and going in against Sicilians when death is on the line – while it’s true that many larpers end up dating and sometimes even marrying people they first meet at game, it’s important to remember that most players are just there to play a game and have fun living in a fictional universe for a while. Which means that the person you meet IC can be and often is very, very different from the person playing them OOC. It would seem self-evident, but it’s surprisingly easy for even veteran larpers to forget that everyone around them is playing pretend too – that obnoxious thug might be a softspoken PhD, that charismatic revolutionary might be quite shy OOC, and that outrageous flirt might be happily committed to someone else when the curtain falls. (And even if they’re not, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily looking to be involved with someone at game.) Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of players about romance subplots, and the number one reason that a lot of people list for not pursuing them is that they’re worried their IC partner might not be able to keep things separate, and ruin some great roleplaying by trying to initiate a real relationship. Which is a damn shame, when you think about it, but a very understandable concern regardless.

The Fix: If you are really interested in asking out one of your fellow players, it’s generally best to do a couple of things before you take that step. First of all, you’ll want to get to know them outside of game, to make sure that you’re really attracted to them and not the character they’re playing. A lot of people play very different personas from their real life personalities, and that extends to their sexual and romantic preferences as well. Second, you want to find out if they’re available and interested, if you haven’t learned that in the course of getting to know the real person behind the IC persona. If they’re not available or they decline a request to date, accept it gracefully and move on. (By gracefully, that ideally also means not suddenly cutting all IC ties with them just because you learned they’re not OOC available.)  Third, if the stars align and you learn that they’re really an awesome person and that they’re potentially amenable to a date request, for the love of Holy Rock-Paper-Scissors Trinity, DO NOT ASK THEM OUT DURING GAME. Not only is it potentially confusing – “Are you asking out me or my character?” – but it also breaks game and puts the other player on the spot in a big way. Wait until after a session, or better yet, try to set up something away from game entirely, even if it’s just the diner after a session. And now that we’re on the subject of being away from game entirely …

4) “Hey, guys, I know it’s 3 AM, but I have the best idea for a new power!” 

Full disclosure: When I first got into larp, I was a sophomore in high school. My group of friends started playing The Masquerade, and we got seriously into it. As in, our whole group talked about little else but vampire clans and political intrigue and personal plotlines and cool powers and “could a mage take a werewolf in a fight” types of discussions. None of us failed out of school or quit all our other extracurricular activities, so we weren’t dangerously obsessed, but it’s safe to say that we were deeply into it. My girlfriend at the time – not a fan of vampires – told me more than once that she was sick of the fact that all our friends could ever seem to talk about was the game. It happened again when we found boffer larp in college, too – suddenly we were going to games for one or two weekends a month and spending an awful lot of our time away from game making costumes, holding fight practices, debating rules and storylines and otherwise geeking out about our new larp obsession. Again, nobody wound up carving an Uruz into their forehead and going to jail for stabbing people handing out Chick tracts, so we managed to stay at least a little grounded, but it was another period where those few friends who didn’t game with us had their friendship sorely tested by our incessant discussion of all things Mystic Realms. So trust me when I say that I know what it’s like to fall in love with a game and want to talk about it all the time. Both times it ended up that eventually our obsession leveled out a bit and our discussions returned to normal, but for a while we really broke one of the cardinal guidelines of larp, namely remembering to walk away from game from time to time.

There’s a fine line here, and I’m well aware of it – people like to talk about their hobbies, and I don’t want people thinking that I’m trying to shame people for being excited about their hobby or getting into their games and their characters. However, it’s also important to remember that always bringing the subject back around to the game can be really tiring for other players, particularly when they’re trying to enjoy the downtime between games. Most of you know the kind of person I mean – you’re at the diner with your gamer friends, talking just hanging out and chatting, and there’s that one friend who keeps trying to get people to discuss which vampire clan Dick Cheney belongs to, or joking about how many points Mal put into his pistol skill, or comparing their Econ professor to the villain from last weekend’s larp session, and so on. No matter what you try to do, they just keep trying to bring things back around to game, to the point where they’re really straining the conversation to make the connections or insist on continuing even when clearly no one else is into it. You’re all gamers, you all enjoy the game that they’re stuck on, but you’d just wish they could stop talking game for a while, you know? And we haven’t even touched on the folks who won’t give staff a moment’s peace, and constantly approach them about new rules, tweaks to skills and powers, etc., even when all the ST wants is a cup of coffee and a plate of eggs after a session.

The short answer, of course, is to take breaks from game and discussion of game from time to time. If it seems like too much game discussion is causing strife, designate certain nights “game free” zones where you avoid talking about game, and organize social activities away from game where you can hang out with people in a different context. You don’t have to be rigidly authoritarian about these things, but at the same time, if you realize you have trouble going without talking about game for a night, that’s generally a sign that you might need to give yourself a bit more distance. When it comes to handling some of these problems in others, you’ve got a few approaches that seem to work well too:

Fix #1 (New Friends):  Believe it or not, when it comes to new friends you make at game, a lot of the time this behavior has as much to do with insecurity as it does with a genuine obsession with the game. Specifically, the person who keeps bringing everything back to the subject of the game is worried that you don’t have anything else in common, so they stick to the one subject they absolutely know you share (and enjoy). They can generally be persuaded to snap out of this pattern if you make it a point to find other common interests and talk about those as well. (“You like punk rock? Sweet! So do I! Who have you seen?”) As they become more comfortable in the idea that you’re now friends in general, and not just game friends, they’ll relax and stop leaning on game so much to support their conversations.

Fix #2 (Old Friends): Hey, we’ve all been there – the friends we’ve known for years who won’t stop going on about their new obsession. (Chances are you’ve probably been that person yourself a few times.) In this case, the best way to address the problem is usually to, well, address it directly. Just tell your friend straight up that you need a little time without game coming up, and they’ll generally adjust their behavior. Most of the time they’re just super excited to share something awesome and fun with you, and genuinely don’t realize how stuck they’ve become on that single subject. So just politely let them know that you still want to talk about philosophy or horror movies or combat robots or swing dancing or whatever else you like chatting about with them, and generally it’ll work itself out in short order.

Fix #3 (Staff): Folks, let me tell you a poorly-kept larp secret: Your storytellers, rules marshals and other game staff need breaks from game too.  It might seem like you just have one quick thing to tell your ST about the rule that’s been on your mind, but remember that many games involve 25+ players, and some big games have hundreds, many of whom may also be approaching the ST with “just one quick thing” to talk to them about, when all the ST wants is a quiet meal or a chill night out with friends. In short, it adds up quickly, and it can strain even the most laid back staff member at times. Once again, I’m not telling you that game staff are like holy mystics you dare not approach, much less question, but if you want to be polite, I’d recommend asking them if it’s OK to talk to them about game if you’re encountering them outside of a session. (This includes social media like Facebook and game forums.) If it’s fine, they’ll say so, but sometimes they might be tired or stressed or upset or simply not have the energy to discuss game with you, and they’ll appreciate a chance to politely decline and maybe talk to you about it later. Trust me when I say that this is one of the most amazing courtesies you can show a game staff member, if only because sadly so few people do it.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Let’s go to the beach now and then too.

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


Badass Larp Talk #8: Ten Tiny Tips to Keep Old Larpers Young!

There’s a term that a good friend of mine uses – “larp fatigue.” It’s the feeling that can set in when you’ve been playing the same game for years, whether it’s a weekend boffer game or a parlor larp at a friend’s place. Those veterans in the audience know what I’m talking about – it’s the point when you realize you don’t know half the characters around you (and aren’t as interested in finding out about them as you used to be), when you see dread enemies lay waste to scores of people and think “well, that’s going to be a mess on the forums later”, when you start grouching about how things used to be in the good old days of the game, etc. A lot of the time it passes on its own if you just rally a bit and immerse yourself back in the game, but sometimes you might need a bit more of a push to chase away the dark clouds.

So with that in mind, here are a few tips for veterans who want to fight off “larp fatigue” and stay invested in the game. As always, of course, nothing about these rules is set in stone, especially if your character has a particular IC reason to be a certain way. (For example, #7 might not be as relevant if for some reason your character is not prone to big displays of emotion for IC reasons.) But in general, hopefully these  tips will help inspire you veterans to fight off fatigue and apathy and come to fall in love with your games all over again. Because good games really are worth the effort. Here goes:

10) Don’t cut corners. New players often learn their bad habits by watching older players who slack off. If you don’t care, neither will they. If you want the game to stay strong, help lead by example.

9) Learn people’s names. It’s a little thing to you, but it can be huge for a new player when a veteran knows who they are. When you stop bothering to learn names, it’s often a big sign of fatigue.

8) Characters often organize into IC cliques. There’s nothing wrong with gaming with your friends – that’s why many of us do it! – but make sure you socialize outside your crew sometimes too.

7) Energy is contagious. Make sure you communicate fear and joy, pride and loss, as much as possible. Other people pick up on it … and it is also a big middle finger to game fatigue.

6) Take breaks now and then, whether it means playing an alt, volunteering to NPC for a bit, or even taking a game or two off. This is especially true if playing starts to feel like a chore.

5) Resist cynicism and mockery if the game seems to be changing OOC in ways you don’t like. Try to be constructive instead – volunteer, offer to help, give advice to new players, etc.

4) Get to know people outside of game, even if it’s just a diner trip after a session or the occasional forum post. Larps are communities, and knowing everyone helps keep you invested.

3) Set three goals – a short term goal for each session, a long term goal for a season or so, and a challenge goal that will be very difficult to achieve. Goals keep things fresh and characters busy.

2) Keep the old stories alive. Tales of battles won, friends lost and challenges overcome give a game history and depth, and make people really feel they’re part of an ongoing story.

1) Forget the “game” and embrace the story. It can be hard to see your 100th fight is as scary and intense as your first, but when you give up even trying, none of them ever will be again.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep my sweets.
And there are always new paths to find.

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


Badass Larp Talk #7: The Business of the Stage

So, let’s talk about business.

I’m not talking about corporate stuff here. No, I’m using the actor’s definition for the term “business” – small actions and gestures that you perform that help set the atmosphere of a scene or assert a trait about your character. Business is James Bond casually straightening his cuffs after narrowly escaping mortal danger, a John Woo villain leaning over to light the cigarette in his lips off the engine of a burning car, Jayne Cobb grabbing for his pistol even though he’s totally outgunned (and backing down at a single look from Mal), the “bitch, please” look on Ripley’s face when the lone facehugger hatches after she stares down the Queen. All the little gestures and expressions that stamp a character’s essence on a moment without saying a thing. Even if you’d never seen a James Bond movie before and knew nothing about the character’s history, watching him casually adjust the fit of his suit right after surviving danger that would leave most of us weeping in the corner would tell you volumes about the kind of man you’re watching.

Or to put it in larp terms, business is a bunch of NPC bandits passing a bottle and playing cards around the campfire as the player characters sneak up for an ambush, rather than simply standing around staring into the woods. Business is your character crossing themselves before going into a fight, or after swearing, or whenever they see a dead body. Business is that gal in the corner flipping a coin over and over, cocky and dangerous without saying a word. Business is the acting you do when you make your big entrance or have your moment of triumph, true, but it’s also the things you do in the quiet times and private moments. Have you ever taken some extra time to make an in-character gesture, even when you were totally alone? If so, then you already know what the essence of business is in a game environment. If not, that’s cool too – I’m here to tell you why you might want to check it out in the future.

When it comes to games, business is often the difference between an immersive, ongoing world and a mediocre video game where characters stand around doing nothing as they wait for you to interact with them. Over the years I’ve been larping, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the best games and the best characters tend to be ones that use business the most when they’re creating their stories. It’s the recognition that all the moments in a game world matter, whether or not it’s a climactic scene or your character has the spotlight at the time. Indeed, I’m often most curious to see what players do during downtime or in the background, to see who actively maintains character and who simply waits for the next chance to assert it. I don’t judge players for it – playing a character is tiring for the best of us, I can’t know what people do in private, and besides sometimes your character is simply at a loss for what to say or do in a situation – but I’m always fascinated when I notice characters doing business even when they think nobody else is watching. Perhaps especially when no one else is watching, because that’s when I get to see something very personal about their character and how they view them.

A friend of mine played a ranger in the first fantasy boffer larp I attended, which was not itself unusual for the setting, but after a while what caught my attention was that he was always a ranger. You could tell by the actions he performed, even when we weren’t fighting or talking to NPCs. He’d check the wind and the weather, examine animal tracks when he found them, identify plants and bird songs, fashion clever little things out of twine and branches and otherwise take a few dozen tiny actions that played into his woodsman identity. (For the record, he was an Eagle Scout before coming to game, so he had a head start on a lot of his forestcraft; he didn’t just study it all for the game.) All these bits of business didn’t make him a “better” ranger than others at the game – nobody says you have to memorize the flora and fauna of your campground just to play a fantasy character! – but it definitely made it easier to see him in the role, particularly during downtime at events. Even when nobody was around, he’d stay in character and whittle or hum or whatnot. He felt like a real, well-rounded character, as opposed to a collection of game skills and boffer swords that sprang into action whenever danger threatened. And the business that he did really played into that. Notice I never mentioned his active roleplaying with others (which was great) or his backstory (ditto) – yet how many of you already feel like you know the character a little? That’s the magic of good business.

There’s an old thespian saying: “Act on the lines, not between the lines.” It means that you should be performing actions with your body simultaneously to reciting your dialogue, not saying your lines and then moving about. The lesson for larpers is similar; you don’t want to have a gap between speaking and acting. You want to be your character as much as possible as often as possible. That’s what business is good for – it helps keep you in character by giving you something small but evocative to do to maintain character even when there’s nothing else going on. It can be hard to stay in character during a lull in the action, especially during weekend-long events – but believe it or not, it actually gets easier if you’re chewing on your character’s favorite cigar rather than doing nothing at all. Even that little reminder that you’re in character is enough to help keep you invested in the moment, not to mention help maintain the environment for everyone around you. It’s also a good fallback if you’re exhausted and having trouble focusing on game, by the way – if I know that you’re always chawing on that stogie, and you walk past with it in your teeth, I don’t even wonder for a moment if you’re in character or not. You’ve already signaled it to me just by having the prop that I identify with that persona. You benefit, I benefit, the game environment as a whole benefits. All from one little gesture and one tiny prop.

Along those lines, business is also a public service of sorts at games, because it helps everyone else feel more in character and builds the feeling of a shared world. Larp is a communal activity – the more you see other people getting involved, the easier it is for you to get involved as well. Conversely, if no one else seems to be bothered to wear appropriate costumes or stay in character, it becomes more difficult for others to maintain game too, because they begin to wonder why they’re bothering to make an effort when other people are clearly half-assing it. Walking into a town where everyone seems to be doing something in-character creates a much different impression than walking into a town where it looks like a bunch of people chatting in costume while they wait for the next hook to show up – even if the latter group is totally in-character, the visual impression is different. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one in creating an environment that motivates everyone to stay in character.

At that aforementioned fantasy boffer larp, there was an in-game military order that used to camp together and basically remain a military unit all weekend. A visitor to their camp during a long downtime on Saturday afternoon remarked about how invigorating it was to see how each of them was still in character, even though it was downtime and even if they were off by themselves: the chaplain was writing prayers in his prayer book, the officers were talking strategy over a map of the camp, a sergeant was running some of the enlisted through some basic drills, their bard was practicing a battle song off to the side, their armorer was roleplaying repairing armor and weapons over an anvil, etc. Some of that was active roleplaying – the officers, the sergeant, etc. – but some of that was business – the chaplain, the bard, the armorer – and it combined to give the impression of a real military camp, rather than just some geeks goofing off in the woods for the weekend. The lesson being that you should never underestimate the impact that your little business can have on the rest of the players around you. That moment you take to visibly assert that you are still in game and playing your character can snowball into inspiring many other players to keep their focus and stay in game as well – character is contagious!

Make no mistake, character business is something that often takes time to develop, and business can certainly be overdone too – David Caruso’s sunglasses-and-a-quip routine from CSI Miami has grown into its own bad meme industry. Don’t feel compelled to make up quirks and gestures just for the sake of having them, or they’re likely to feel forced and inauthentic, if not outright cliche. As unhelpfully vague as it sounds, generally you’ll know it when you hit on a bit of business that works for your character, because when you do it you immediately feel more like your persona. It calls out the character as much as slipping on the costume, strapping on your gear or speaking in your accent. If you’re new to doing business, ease into it at first – do it a little and build up to more as you get more comfortable.

Having trouble thinking of good character business? Not to worry. Here are a few ideas to get you started thinking along those lines:

* Saying prayers/repeating mantras
* Carefully inspecting all of your equipment for damage
* Straightening your clothes/fixing your appearance
* Keeping a cigar or cigarette in your mouth (game rules & local laws permitting)
* Humming/singing (careful not to overdo one tune!)
* Playing with a small handheld object: lighter, coin, rosary, deck of cards, relic, etc.
* Polishing weapons/cleaning guns/counting ammo
* Pulling up the hood of your sweatshirt right before a fight
* Taking catnaps after battles
* Reading a book (sacred, trashy novel, science text, whatever)
* Cleaning a particular play area, often in a ritual fashion
* Taking out the contents of a bag or pack, inventorying them, then carefully replacing them
* Handicrafts (knitting, sewing, whittling, etc.)
* Putting notches in weapons/decorating gear for particular “wins”
* Reverently tending to the fallen, friend and foe alike

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Let’s never lose sight of the path.

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


Badass Larp Talk #6: How Not to Talk At Larps

Welcome back, BLT fans! On this week’s plate we address some simple steps to fix common mistakes and improve your roleplaying. As always, remember that this is just advice, not an absolute guide set down in stone – there are bound to be lots of situations where other responses are not only good but preferable. Such is the amazing and spontaneous nature of roleplaying, after all. With that in mind, though, enjoy!

#1 – Don’t Just Say “No”
Warning Signs: Long pauses, conversations ending awkwardly and gaps in interactions.

Before you think I’m advocating something very different, I’m not talking about mind-altering substance. What I’m saying isn’t new – it’s pretty much the cardinal rule of improv acting, and naturally carries over to larping, in a slightly modified form anyway. In improv, they tell you never to just say a flat “No.” All it does is kill the momentum of the scene, and shuts down the other person. You’re basically dismissing their input, which isn’t fun. Even a plain “Yes” doesn’t do a lot in larp either – it puts all the weight back on the other player to come up with everything in the conversation. Either way, it’s a really awkward moment. So when you’re roleplaying and someone throws you a bit of improv, don’t just say “Yes” or “No.” Build on it. Always try to tack on an “and” or a “but” and some new details to keep the scene moving.  Here’s an example:

Player #1: So, I hear you’re a man of action.
Player #2: No.
Player #1: …. oh.

That scene just screeched to a halt. Ouch. Painful. Now try this version:

Player #1: So, I hear you’re a man of action.
Player #2: No, but I know some dangerous people aren’t too picky about jobs they take. Whatcha looking for? 

P2 has still told P1 that they’re not a man of action, but now they’ve acknowledged what P1 is saying and are putting out material that will keep the scene going. They didn’t change their answer – it’s still “no” – but the scene is a lot less likely to come to a halt. It’s a big difference.

Of course, this is also character/scene dependent in some cases. If an enemy is trying to get information out of you, for example, a flat “No” may be the perfect in-character response! Or your character might be in a hurry and  unable to talk, or your character might be deliberately rude to a rival, or your character might distrust another character’s culture or background, or any of a hundred other reasons. I’m not saying you’re obligated to build on every hook handed to you or you’re a bad larper. But assuming that you don’t have a reason to be cagey or cut the conversation short, if you find that a lot of your larp interactions seem to have awkward pauses, it might be that you are giving more flat answers than you think.

#2 – Don’t Put People On the Spot
Warning Signs: People looking a little panicked, people saying a lot to stall for time, people changing the subject, etc.

This one’s a lot more subtle than the first one, but a surprisingly common one. Chances are you might not even be aware of is putting other players on the spot; ie, forcing them to improvise very specific details without warning. Asking a very direct question is fine – if the other player knows the answer already. If they don’t, though, chances are good that they will freeze as the player works to figure out the answer on the spot. Some people are very nimble at improvising that way, but many others – including many very good larpers too, I might add – are not, and it puts a lot of stress on them to do so. One of the best ways to avoid this is to add prompts with your questions; think of them as options to offer that give the person you’re talking to a ready-made jumping off point and maybe even guide them to some possible answers. Even if they don’t use them, it gives the other player an idea of where the answer might go, or at least more time to think of their answer. Here’s an example:

Player #1: So, where did your parents come from?
Player #2: Uhm, ah, well, I, uh …  <trails off>

P1 probably figured this wasn’t a difficult question, and it might not be for some, but right now P2 is probably feeling uncomfortable because she didn’t have the answer to a question her character likely would know. It’s a very specific question, and if you don’t have the exact answer, you’re going to kinda stall out trying to think of it. This is especially hard on new players who might not know a lot of world detail or the names of places, or be afraid to improvise details for fear of getting them “wrong” in terms of world continuity. Now look at this talk with prompts:

Player #1: So, where did your parents come from? Were they local, or did they come from someplace farther away?
Player #2: Oh, ah, farther off I guess. I didn’t know them much – I came to town recently.

P1 gives P2 a basic pair of prompts that doesn’t require a specific location name, which make it a lot easier for P2 to answer. In answering, too, P2 can make up a detail about her character and elaborate on it if she wants – the whole “I didn’t know about my parents” detail – but even if she didn’t she could still feel confident answering. Note that prompts can be added afterward if you notice the other player seems to be floundering a little:

Player #1: So, where did your parents come from?
Player #2: Uhm, ah …
Player #1: Were they locals, or did they come from somewhere else? Me, I’m a local. Born and raised!
Player #2: Farther off, I guess. I didn’t know them much, but I came to town recently.

Here, P1 notices P2 is caught a little off balance, so P1 throws out some prompts to help them figure out what they might say – they even give their own answer, which might serve as inspiration (plus it gives P2 a little extra time to come up with an answer – how thoughtful!).

#3 – A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
Warning Signs: People looking bored, people staring off while you speak, people quietly excusing themselves after a long one-sided conversation, etc.

We all love talking about our characters; one of the reasons we play them is because we find their stories compelling! However, if you’re not careful it can also grow into a bad habit, or more specifically the tendency to make every conversation about your character and how awesome (or awesomely screwed) they are. I’m not saying it’s never appropriate to tell stories – some of the absolute best memories I have from various games are times spent sitting around swapping tales with other characters – but even so the key word in that sentence is “swapping.” It’s an exchange, a give-and-take, not a monologue.  While there will certainly be times when you might find yourself perfectly justified in delivering a rather one-sided account of your actions, you want to be careful that you’re not falling into the practice of monopolizing interactions as a rule. Here’s a common case of what it looks like:

Player #1: Wow. did you see that guy? Man, he was badass!
Player #2: That’s nothing man, this one time I was fighting six Nazi mindmutants and … <five long minutes of thrilling heroics recounted> … so in conclusion, that’s why I’m the only Ewok with a triple-bladed lightsaber.
Player #1: Yeah. <fidgets> You know, one time I was fighting some sand worms, and I did this sweet flip -
Player #2: Hah! That’s cool! I learned how to do awesome flips from the only Vulcan ninja master ever certified by the Justice League, and … <five more minutes> … and so I told them, ladies, call me back when you find a sixth who can keep up, knowumsayin’?
Player #1: Uh, yeah. I gotta run, man.

Notice that P1 never asked P2 to recount any stories – that wouldn’t be so bad on its own, as sometimes a story is the best answer regardless, but the real red flag here is that when P1 tried to get in the spirit and share her own story, P2 just bulldozed right over it in his hurry to get back to his own awesomeness. Sadly, this sort of thing is all too common, but it can be easily prevented if you remember a very simple rule: If you want people to be interested in your exploits, you need to show interest in theirs too. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix for this problem: Any time you want to tell a story about yourself, ask the other person a question about themselves first. (It’s OK to ask at the end too, if you only remember halfway through.) Here’s what it might look like:

Player #1: Wow, did you see that guy? Man, he was badass!
Player #2: Heh, seriously! You ever done anything that sweet?
Player #1: Well, there was this one time I was fighting some sand worms … <tells tale>
Player #2: No shit? Awesome. Me, I was fighting six Nazi mindmutants, and … <tells tale>
Player #1: You’re kidding me? In front of the whole Jedi Council? With a grapefruit?!

Conversations like that can continue happily for quite some time, as both sides are both listening and being heard instead of one character dominating the interaction. Not only is it more polite, but it also shows the other person exactly what you want for yourself – a little bit of attention paid to the places they’ve been and the things they’ve done. Everyone wins!

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


Badass Larp Talk #5: Ten Tiny Tips for New Larpers!

So you wanna try a larp, eh? Awesome! Welcome to the wide world of live-action roleplaying! This serving of BLT – that’s Badass Larp Talk if you’re new to this particular roundup – covers the simultaneously amazing and intimidating experience of preparing for your first game. There’s a tremendous amount of advice out there for people just starting out in larp, and while a lot of it is great and really thorough, it can also become pretty overwhelming in a hurry. So in hopes of passing on the essentials without overloading new people with information, here are ten quick pieces of advice for how to create a character and enjoy your first event:

10) Don’t try to make a “perfect” character. Those are boring! Make a character you’d want to watch in a movie or read about in a book – someone you want to learn more about.

9) Don’t worry about having a huge backstory. Try one paragraph to start. You don’t need to know everything about your character right off – otherwise how can they grow during game?

8) For a quick way to get a handle on playing your character, come up with two positive personality traits (“kind, patient”) and one negative one (“overly trusting”), and use them as guides.+

7) “Making an effort” is the most important part of making your first costume. Don’t worry if it’s “perfect” or if it’s a little basic – like characters, costumes also evolve over time.

6) Don’t be afraid to ask questions, in or out of character. It’s better to find out than work on bad assumptions, and pursuing a mystery is often an adventure in itself.

5) Try to come up with at least one short term goal for each game session, like introducing yourself to five new people, or learning a new skill. If you meet it, make another!

4) Talk to people! Larp is a social activity. Remember, everyone was a new character once, and making friends (and enemies) will help you develop your character too.*

3) When in doubt, diving in is better than standing back, and risk is better than caution. Very few great stories involve hanging back in a safe place avoiding risk. Get involved!

2) Try to stay in character. Larp is a skill that gets easier with practice. If you need to take breaks, though, do so! Just do it away from the action so you don’t break game for others.

1) It’s not about winning or losing, living or dying, it’s about having fun and telling a good story together. Don’t worry about how it ends – just enjoy the ride!

There’s a lot more to learn, of course, but hopefully that should help dispel some of the fear and anxiety that can accompany trying your first few games.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
And we all got started somewhere.

+ Wanna play a badass anti-hero? Just reverse the ratio – two negative and one positive. Voila! Instant Han Solo.
*Follow up: Get to know people out of game as well – go to the diner with folks after a session, talk to people on forums and Facebook, etc. If someone’s play really blows you away, let them know! Most people are happy to talk about their process and give advice to new folks.

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


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