“Santa, will you help me get my virginity back?” – from “The End of Hungry Santa”, a brand new story featured in The Lost
Do you like helping worthy charities? Do you like awesome short fiction? Did you ever wish you could support both AT THE SAME TIME? Then look no further! Check out the The Lost, an anthology of short stories about people who have fallen through the cracks and into the strange and terrifying world that exists just beneath our notice. Some tales are full of urban fantasy, some much closer to reality, but all of them will grab you.
Proceeds will benefit City Harvest, a charity doing genuine good work in NYC. From the great minds at Galileo Games, Brennan Taylor and J.R. Blackwell, and based on Jeff Himmelman’s fantastic Kingdom of Nothing RPG (though you’ll enjoy it just fine even if you haven’t played that), The Lost features nine stories of this other world by the likes of Shoshana Kessock, Sarah Newton, Meg Jayanth, Stephen D Rogers and yours truly.
For my part, writing “The End of Hungry Santa” was a surprisingly moving experience. I’ve long been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, not to mention I really enjoyed playing Kingdom of Nothing, so I jumped at a chance to work this anthology. I started off with kind of a funny concept – “What if there was this skinny old dude with a big bushy beard called Hungry Santa?” – and began working from there, adding all sorts of strange characters to his world as he muddled about on his questionable quest to find Saint Alice’s missing virginity. I didn’t intend it to be a farce, exactly, but there was definitely a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in the early going. A funny thing happened as I went on, however. I really began to care about Hungry Santa and his world, and the more I cared, the more real it became, the more I really wanted this poor screwed-up guy to finally do the right thing and maybe find some peace along the way. It’s not that it became humorless – far from it – but the humor changed as I came to sympathize with him more and more. When I was writing the final scenes, my wife looked over and was surprised to see me getting really choked up – I was genuinely proud of the man, doomed as he was, and the choices he made. And I hope you find him just as compelling.
So check it out, folks, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll help do some real good in this hungry season.
Here’s the link for the IndieGoGo drive itself: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/272507/
Here’s the link for City Harvest, if you want to check them out: http://www.cityharvest.org/
Here’s the link for Kingdom of Nothing: http://galileogames.com/kingdom-of-nothing/
One of the highlights of working in academia is the privilege of teaching creative writing classes. One of the first assignments I usually give is something I call “Artistic DNA”, where I ask students to list the 10 biggest creative influences in their lives. It can be stuff from the distant past all the way up to something that blew their mind the night before, so long as it really gets their heart pumping. I ask them to write 2-3 sentences explaining how they encountered that source, what about it inspires them, you name it. For the record, I usually return the favor – after all, if I know where they’re coming from, it’s only fair for them to hear what drives me too!
After a little while, though, I noticed a curious trend – students almost never listed any rappers or hip-hop groups as influences, or if they did, half of their write-up consisted of apologizing for it. Students who didn’t blink about writing up their love for torture porn horror franchises, sex-saturated HBO shows or video games with more violence than a couple of World Wars, nevertheless felt compelled to do the written equivalent of starting at their toes and muttering apologies. And this is an assignment I give out on the first or second day, so other than my basic appearance – youngish, white & nerdy, thankyewverymuch – I don’t think I’ve given them any reason to believe I’d disapprove of rap or hip-hop.
What broke my heart the most about it was that I’ve seen a number of talented poets, not to mention students with definite poetic potential, yet very few of them are familiar with even a handful of hip-hop artists, aside from what they’re aware of as part of larger popular culture anyway. Obviously, knowledge of hip-hop or any particular musical discipline isn’t a requirement for being a good poet – though the idea of Emily Dickinson throwing down with John Donne in a freestyle battle has definite appeal – but it seems like a particularly terrible loss that a lot of students are embarrassed to even talk about it, let alone admit that they might enjoy it. Especially with poets, who are writing in the middle of another incredibly vital, experimental and explosive phase in the history of the discipline. Because honestly? Some of the best poets working today do it from behind a mic, backed by a beat.
Crazy, right? But you’d be hard-pressed to top a lot of rappers when it comes to an intuitive understanding of manipulating words and sounds, playing with complex schemes of rhymes and repetitions, making smart references and allusions, and otherwise displaying elements of – wait for it – great poetry. Whether or not you love the subject matter – and if you think hip-hop is all gangsta rap or glorification of material excess, hit me up and I’ll hook you up with some serious thinkers who happen to have their lectures on records – it’s hard to argue with the fact that I’d take a talent like Eminem or Nas over a lot of other modern poets without hesitation or apology.
Uh oh. I said the “E” word.
I remember the first time I mentioned in class that I listen to Eminem. I got a lot of blank looks – ok, I get those sometimes anyway – and some actual, no fooling, jaw dropping. It prompted a great discussion, where we talked about separating the artist from the work, or understanding the enjoying an artist doesn’t mean that you endorse all of their personal beliefs. Just in case anyone is unclear, though, let me state it again for the record: I’ve never followed Eminem’s personal life, and there are things in his lyrics I definitely don’t support: drug use, homophobia, and misogyny, just to start. But I watch a lot of Scorcese movies too, and it doesn’t mean I approve of the Mafia or the brutal violence endemic to their culture. And I wouldn’t let my young cousins listen to a lot of his stuff, at least until they were old enough to separate fiction from reality. (See? Apparently even I’m not immune to some need to make apologies when this subject comes up.) Which is ridiculous, because if you sit back and listen to Eminem, just hear the way he weaves his words, finds rhymes in unlikely places and drops allusions from way out of left field, you realize a simple truth:
The kid is a damn fine poet.
That’s it. There’s really not much else to say, except perhaps to add he’s certainly not the only one. I think it’s a shame that there’s such an odd stigma on it, especially considering its popularity- students never hesitate to list other styles of music, or really any other form of entertainment, but rap and hip-hop exist in this curious hole in the world. They love listening to it, but feel it will somehow diminish their standing to admit it, when in actuality it’s like any other art form, with plenty to teach you if you listen. Sure, like any art form it has its vapid practitioners, but there’s a lot of it worth fighting for. Go ahead. Take a listen.
So when gamers get together, aside from war stories getting told and retold, another topic that often comes up are the games that really had an impact on you, the sytems and settings that changed the way you viewed the hobby. I’m not always talking about your favorite games or even the best games, though they can certainly be those too – I’m just talking about the game-changers, the ones that made you sit up and take notice, fall in love with a style of gaming you hadn’t tried before or even re-examine the way you already played.
These are mine, in a very rough semblance of order – feel free to share yours, with or without the commentary!
#7 - Arkham Horror
It was tough to pick a single game line from Fantasy Flight, but when in doubt, always side with Cthulu. Simply put, I’ve never been a huge board game fan, and even when I enjoy a well-designed game like Settlers or some of the Risk variants, my interest level is generally low at best. Then I tried Arkham Horror, and realized that board games had grown the hell up while I was away. I call it “rpg-lite” for the level of character, detail and atmosphere they put into the game, but that’s really doing it a disservice, implying that it’s trying to be an rpg when in fact it’s not trying to be anything but a stellar board game. You can play it seriously, you can play it casually, you can play it dozens of times and not have two games closely resemble each other – truly a masterpiece of design. I quickly went from saying no thanks to board games to stacking my shelves with Arkham, Descent, Game of Thrones, Battlestar (whose loyalty mechanic deserves its own special mention for adding a wicked layer of trust and doubt to board gaming), The Adventurers and more. Board games grew up while I was away, and I’m glad that I finally caught on.
#6 - Pathfinder
In truth, this should be a split decision with the crew that did the original D&D 3.0 reboot, because without them there would be no Pathfinder to praise. So let me give them their props, then go on to say that the Pathfinder team has taken the revolution they started and given it some new fins, fresh chrome, a nitrous tank, and a jet engine. Because man, this system roars. Like many people my age – though not nearly so many as now, or even as started gaming 10 years ago – I began my journey in roleplaying games with Dungeons & Dragons, AD&D in fact. Over the years, though, I discovered other games with different, simpler systems, games that stressed story and setting as much or more than rules and mechanics. D&D fell out of fashion, and while 3.0 did rekindle interest briefly, it soon fell back into the trap that AD&D had, churning out tons of books until you were drowning in paper. (This may yet happen to Pathfinder, but shh, I’m enjoying the honeymoon.) So when I first heard about Pathfinder, I admit, I scoffed a bit. I’ve played dozens of systems, done LARP, done indie games all about story – I didn’t think “plain old D&D” would ever catch my eye again. But let me tell you, for someone who started out with D&D, reading Pathfinder is like coming home years later and finding out that your high school crush is still hot. And single. And wants to go out for a beer before doing freaky sex things that are illegal in five states. What’s not to love? Now hand me my d12, my inish just came up and daddy’s got some rabid baboons to kill.
#5 – Mystic Realms
I’ll admit it, there was a time in high school when – already a devoted White Wolf LARPer, mind you – my friends and I were driving through the Pine Barrens on our way to the shore. One of my friends casually mentioned that some people actually played “like, live D&D or something” at camps out in the woods, and the car erupted in laughter. What did they do, we snickered, yell “Fireball!” while hitting each other with He-Man swords from Toys ‘R Us? And what kind of loser dresses up as a goblin and fights nerds in the wood, anyway? I mean, we were gamers, but there was a limit, you know? Well, as a lot of this list proves, I do enjoy a tasty dish of cooked crow, and I certainly enjoyed a heaping portion years later when I tried Mystic Realms, my first-ever boffer LARP in what would become a long and nearly unbroken line of such games. My brother and I drove down to an unfamiliar camp and played a whole weekend, surrounded mostly by strangers (as the friends that invited us happened to be running that weekend), running around in the woods battling all manner of things, getting killed a half-dozen times each, and loving every second of it. While this game has changed considerably since then, at the time the rules were everything you’d want – but only rarely see – in live combat, simple and quick and evocative. Roleplaying was incorporated into them, rather than added on, and the whole system was designed to eliminate narration and keep the action moving. I was hooked. Not only did I drag most of my friends in with me over the next year or two, but it gave me a whole different perspective on a lot of tabletop games as well – suddenly the idea of my D&D character effortlessly fighting six enemies at once became laughable, and the idea that a torch could light a large easily dismissed. Not to mention the excitement of really being put to the test, weapon to weapon, staying silent and hidden to sneak around, you name it. It’s a rush, and I’ve never really shaken the addiction.
#4 – Mage: The Ascension
When I first read Mage, I had never played anything but AD&D and West End Games’ glorious old Star Wars tabletop system, and let me tell you, I was unprepared for the awesome. My brother had started playing Vampire, so I’d heard a little bit about White Wolf, and I thought the World of Darkness sounded pretty cool. Mage had just been released, so while we were on vacation I picked it up with precious summer money and started reading it. I soon put it down, though, angry and confused. Where were the lists of spells? Why didn’t they have components? What the hell were “Spheres” and what did they mean, everyone’s magic worked the way they thought it should, because they thought it should? Much as I hate to admit it, I was totally lost. It was magic, but so far out of the cut-and-dried paradigm I’d experienced in the past that I had no frame of reference for it. I might have walked away entirely, except that it was the only book I had with me that vacation, and so I grudgingly picked it back up. Fortunately, this time the magic system “clicked” – everything made sense, and suddenly I got very excited. I realized the freedom they were offering, as well the price to be paid for that freedom, and how great the stories would be that you could tell about those choices. I was hooked, and spell lists have never held quite the same appeal since.
#3 – Dogs In the Vineyard
If I put up much more good stuff about this game, this blog is going to look like a Dogs fan site, but really, reading it for the first time was that much of a fundamental shift. Dogs was my first real exposure to indie games, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A junior version of one of the big games, perhaps, or someone’s half-baked setting with a dose of barely edited house rules. (I know, I know, what can I say, I was young and foolish!) Instead, I got handed a thermal detonator – compact, polished, and cooly designed to blow you away. White Wolf had introduced me to gaming that aspired to be Art from time to time, but Dogs actually got into the nuts and bolts of how to make it happen in a big way. For example, I’ve always enjoyed creating characters as a group project, adding bits and pieces to each others’ stories as we go, but a game that actively requires it? (And set a trend for other indie games to do likewise, I might add.) One where the type of family you were raised in wasn’t just fluff, but helped determine who you were in mechanics as well? A setting that’s a masterpiece of minimalism, enough to get you started and get you thinking but never gets in the way? Genius. Add in a conflict mechanic so cool it got its own post a while back, as well as loads of potential moral and ethical conflicts, and you’ve got one hell of a game-changer.
#2 – The Masquerade
I almost don’t know where to begin talking about how this game changed my perspective on gaming. Spending points during creation to add disadvantages to your character? (And making you want to do it?) Earning “Drama Dice” for doing cool stunts or sharing witty one-liners? Dismissing most opponents with simple die rolls, while saving complex rules for the fights that matter? A stat openly named “Panache”? I was blown away. And I haven’t even touched on the world, the easiest non-licensed setting to explain to anyone ever – close enough to our own history to make quick, easy parallels (“Ok, so Montaigne is basically France immediately before the Revolution…”) while still containing enough difference to feel fresh and unique instead of dusty and dated (“… but there’s sorcery and monsters and ancient ruins of a lost civilization.”) 7th Sea was one of the first games where I bought and devoured every supplement, not for new rules or game mechanics (though new Swordsman Schools were always a plus), but just to read the setting material, to see what was happening as the timeline moved forward. I saw complex world design executed with a light, almost airy touch, inspiring players with an endless array of hooks and suggestions but rarely nailing them down to facts set in stone. In short, it was big and bright and brilliant and beautiful, and I still love it to this day.
Extremely Honorable Mentions
Houses of the Blooded - Really, I could probably do a whole John Wick list, and this is a truly great game, but I went with the original game of his that sparked my imagination in the end.
InSpectres – Jared Sorenson is a mad wizard of game design, whose books I wait for like some people follow favorite bands or film directors. I read this about the same time I read Dogs, and they both had a huge impact.
Star Wars (West End Games) - One of the first games I ever played, this is a wonderful example of a system well suited to its setting. It’s a fast, simple mechanic well-suited to the breezy Star Wars universe, and I still love it.
When I teach my creative writing course, one of the most important lessons that I try to pass on is the need to open up to a work of art, whether it’s a novel, an album, a television show, a painting, a live performance or whatever else they’re experiencing. I tell them to actively engage, to not just sit back and let it wash over them, but give it their whole attention and not be afraid of feeling a strong reaction.
For some reason, our culture tends to encourage us to experience art from a guarded, even cynical perspective – it’s the equivalent of going to see a stage magician but rather than relaxing in your seat with a smile on your face, instead sitting down in a huff, crossing your arms and barking out “Impress me.” Which makes very little sense when you consider that you’ve paid for your ticket and made the time to see the show – why approach it with such a hostile point of view? Even a “free” medium such as most television isn’t really free, as you’re still investing your time.
The comparison I make is asking my students to think of a time that they tried to show a friend a movie that they loved, one that their friend had never seen before. They sit down to watch the film, but as soon as it starts, their friends starts talking through it, texting constantly, taking phone calls, etc. The frustration they’d feel is exactly what an artist feels when people don’t give a work of art a chance – and that’s really all it is, giving something a chance. Taking the time to let it do its best, and see what happens. If you watch a movie, and I mean really watch it – not multitask with it as background noise – and it doesn’t engage you, then you’ve done everything you’re supposed to as the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, when I say “open” I don’ mean “uncritical” – if you give art your time, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s fine to express that disappointment. I also don’t advocate giving every work of art the same level of deep analysis – while it’s important to understand why you do/don’t love a work of art, taking apart a Jackie Chan movie the same way you analyze a Truffaut film is doing both of them a bit of a disservice. Over-analysis is as bad as no analysis at all, really, as it sucks out the joy of art just as surely as lack of engagement misses the joy entirely.
But one of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the years is to drop your guard and let art do what it will – make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Rather than sit back with my arms folded and wait for it to impress me, I go to it and encourage it to tell its story. It’s been an amazing transformation.
I was talking to some folks about cheating and game design not too long ago, and it was such a fun conversation I figured I’d share some of the conclusions. Basically, it boils down to recognizing three types of people.
1) A small number of people will basically never cheat, even if an easy opportunity presents itself.
2) A large number of people will cheat, but only if it is relatively easy and seems to carry low risk of getting caught.
3) A small number of people will almost always cheat, even if it’s very difficult, time-consuming and/or risky.
You don’t really have to worry about group #1 or group #3 – well, you do have to worry about #3, but only so far as catching them. You won’t be able to deter them, though; no matter how hard you make it for them to cheat, they will try it anyway. (There are many reasons why they are so persistent, but that’s another discussion for another day.) The trick is setting up the rules to make cheating just difficult and/or risky enough to deter group #2, the people who are normally honest but don’t mind taking shortcuts, especially when they see others doing it. Or to put it another way, you need to balance putting in so many safeguards the test becomes impossibly long and complex against having so few that the honest people find themselves wondering why they didn’t just take a few shortcuts. It’s what security experts call the “deadbolt effect” – you don’t need a deadbolt to keep out honest people, and it won’t stop determined criminals either. But it will deter casual snooping, amateur criminals and other crimes of opportunity.
One of the things that undermines a lot of good game design is the designers feel they have to go beyond deadbolts and install a full-on laser grid. They work endlessly to plug loopholes, scale back rules and abilities to avoid abuse, and otherwise make their games as airtight as possible. The problem is that, after a certain point, avoiding abuse starts diminishing the game itself. This is particularly true when it comes to combat, where a lot of games spend so much time trying to close possible cheating problems that they forget the purpose of gaming is fun, not making sure no one can ever possibly abuse it. They underestimate the power of the table, namely, that game groups can and should police their own.
That very notion, in fact, is one of my favorite trends that has emerged in tabletop gaming, especially in the indie field – the idea that rather than design a game to foil cheaters and power gamers, folks should simply design games the way they want them to be, and let groups worry about sending losers and creeps packing. Houses of the Blooded has my personal favorite mechanic for this: Bad Form. Whenever a player tries to manipulate the rules to do things they oughtn’t, the Narrator simply says “Bad Form” and that’s it. No need to argue rules for hours – if it violates the spirit of having fun, just say “Bad Form” and move on. Elegant simplicity.
Don’t get me wrong – I think deterring cheating is still an important element of game design, whether it means trying to plug a loophole or simply calling attention to it so that groups know it might come up during play. But the more people learn the value of the deadbolt effect, the more time we can spend creating awesome games, and the less time we have to devote in trying to discourage jerks from breaking in an rifling our stuff.
So, there’s an amazing little show called The Wire.
You may have heard about it.
I come back and revisit it from time to time. It’s one of those very rare series that simply gets better with time and repeated viewings. If you’re not familiar, it’s a series that follows a web of criminals, police and civilians in Baltimore. It begins with a single police unit investigating a drug operation in the west Baltimore slums, and grows organically outward from there over five seasons, touching on a lot of areas of the city: the slums, the port, the schools, the paper, the mayor’s office at city hall, you name it. You can feel the love that David Simon has for his city, but also the hurt and outrage that he feels over what has happened to it, the waste and corruption that he sees sinking it. Characters come and go, but one of the most impressive things about the show is the fact that despite the large and shifting cast, it never loses its footing, never feels like it’s casting about or trying to reinvent itself.
And the writing. Sweet mercy, the writing.
The dialogue snaps and pops hotter than bacon frying, and the plots wander as slyly as burglars casing a neighborhood, looking natural but constantly scheming under the surface. Things rarely play out quite the way you expect, but don’t go for sensation, cheap twists or other lazy tricks. Instead, the surprises come from the fact that the series almost never follows television conventions – things unfold more or less as they do in real life, which makes them even stranger and more powerful. It’s a testament to trusting your material, really, and letting it take you where it will, instead of forcing it to take some more unnatural shapes. It manages to employ a lot of moral ambiguity without falling into cynicism or resorting to stage-y ethical conflicts. You find a lot to sympathize with on all sides, and a lot that leaves you feeling really conflicted, and some things that just outright shock you.
Just listening to the dialogue is a master class on its own. It’s not unusual for a series to get one “sound” right – the streets, maybe, or the police. The Wire manages to hit every group and make it sound natural and effortless. You come to love certain characters just because of the way they talk – my favorite’s Proposition Joe, though Omar and the Bunk are close behind. It’s incredible to hear so many unique voices, especially with so many characters to juggle, you’d figure that sooner or later someone would get lazy, write some filler. But it just doesn’t happen.
So sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, or just need a fix of some fine writing to jumpstart my own inspiration, I put it on like some people put on the Beatles, and just sit back and listen to the poetry. If you haven’t, give it a try. I’ll tell you this much – it takes about three episodes to kick in. Those first couple are a little confusing, not because they’re poorly written, but because they refuse to play like the television we’re used to, wrapping things up neatly each episode, with clearly defined arcs and outcomes. Then it kicks in, the shape of the series starts to emerge, and damn! Off you go.
Enjoy. And listen carefully.
In the movies, it’s easy to know when someone realizes how much someone means to them. The music swells, the camera zooms, the dialogue slows down and the actor(s) focus everything on a single point. Realization dawns on them, and then they march off to war, turn the cab around on the way to the airport, put on a tutu and dance in their kid’s recital, etc. It’s simple, and even though there may be more obstacles in the way, we know that they will find a way to express it eventually.
In life, unfortunately it’s the bad more often than the good that pushes these moments. (I blame the lack of orchestral musical cues.) It’s another cliche that we only recognize what we love, what we value, when we are on the edge of losing it. But like folktales and good lies, most cliches have an element of truth to them. Those moments force us to put our hands against the mural we make of our lives and remember that for all its beauty, it’s still just stained glass. It only ever takes a little pressure to bring it down around us. Even if, looking back, we realize we might not have been so close to the edge as we thought at the time, that never really matters. The knowledge we gain is all that counts.
That’s where I am tonight, watching the weather howling on the other side of all the colors and swirls. I love so many people, and I want them to be okay. I want to see the sun come up tomorrow morning and shine through that mural without so much as a single piece out of place. I love each one so much it just about breaks my heart.
Between anticipation for the new Deus Ex installment, reading the superb Eclipse Phase game and a couple of books like Soft Apocalypse and Altered Carbon, the future’s been on my mind lately. A couple years back, I was introduced to the concept of transhumanism, which can be briefly described as a philosophy that seeks to anticipate and sometimes even precipitate what’s going to happen to humanity in the next 10, 20 or 100 years. One of the big things about a lot of transhumanist writing that sets it apart from more traditional views of the future is that it tends to take a close look at the changes that will happen within us, both as individuals and as a species, as opposed to external changes and technologies.
To put it another way, for traditional science fiction, think of Star Trek. In that vision of the future, almost all the technological advancement is external. Human beings are basically unchanged physiologically (though that might have had more to do with the makeup budget in some cases). Sure, they have awesome medical advances, and occasionally you find out that someone like Picard is actually a super cyborg with a crazy artificial heart, but otherwise they deal in external technologies: holodecks, starships, phasers, three level chess sets, Mr. Data. When he looked forward, Rodenberry saw a future like our present, only with better toys.
By contrast, for a more transhumanist view of the future, read the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis’ gonzo, foul-mouthed, hardboiled and venomously optimistic opus. In this future, there’s plenty of external technology – most of it weapons, predictably enough – but it pales in comparison to the stuff that people have done to themselves. Genetic engineering, cybernetic augmentation, neural enhancements, cryogenic statis, even migration of consciousness into clouds of nanotechnology. In other words, Ellis looked at the future and figured that we’d use all of our wonderful advances to get high, score more often and otherwise enjoy ourselves. When we weren’t killing each other in new and interesting ways, that is. Transhumanism isn’t necessarily that gonzo and decadent, but the heart was there.
Personally, I look into the future, and I see the next decade or so bringing big changes. I think we’re going to see a few big leaps – restoring sight, restoring hearing, improved prosthetics, etc. – and I think I may be a little bit too conservative, on the whole. I think of the future and I keep hearing “This Is the Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde, though if you know your musicals, that’s not necessarily the best omen. But I think we’ll manage. I hope we do, because I’m an optimist at heart, and I think we have it in us to go more Star Trek than Transmet.
Though I would love a bucket of caribou eyes.
So here’s my question for you out there in reader land:
What do you think we’ll see in the next 10 years?
What I See Is Not What I Get
Whether you’re trying to imagine a high fantasy sword & sorcery world, a grim post-apocalyptic nightmare or a shadowy world of occult conspiracies, just trying to imagine that you’re actually immersed in the setting instead of wandering around a hotel, friend’s backyard or rented Boy Scout campground is a major investment on the part of your imagination. Add to that seeing the other players as their characters instead of fellow geeks in costumes, and your imagination is working in overdrive pretty much the entire time you’re in-game. Add to that an extra level of narrative flourish – “OK, guys, I know that looks like a tent, but it’s actually a huge castle!” or “OK, when you see me, I’m 15 feet tall and have two heads and a glowing sword!” – and staying immersed becomes essentially impossible. Don’t tell me you have a glowing sword, show me! Stay as close as possible to what your props, costumes and makeup can already create, and let our imaginations do the rest. If you need to narrate, keep it brief and stay close to what’s in front of us. Our imaginations are already heavily taxed, so don’t add to that burden unless it’s absolutely amazing or absolutely necessary.
The Rules Are In the Way
LARP needs to flow smoothly, because when you interrupt the action, there’s an awkward pause where we all suddenly realize we’re playing a game instead of stayig immersed in our characters. This is especially true in boffer LARP, where maintaining the flow of things like combat and large group social interaction are crucial. Any time I see a skill that calls for a time-out, I cringe a little, especially if it’s a skill that will be used even relatively often. The same goes for skills that call for measurements on the fly – it’s one thing to have a ritual-type skill that takes 10 minutes to create a 15 foot circle of protection. That’s plenty of time to measure out the distance, and indeed creating the space is part of the roleplaying. It’s quite another to have a skill that calls for people to try to measure a 10′ radius in the middle of combat. Keep your mechanics as unobtrusive as possible – try to incorporate them into roleplaying whenever possible, instead of being something you do in addition to roleplaying, and when you can’t, try to make them quick and easy to resolve, instead of chewing up valuable game time.
“PC” Also Stands for “Paying Customer”
The best boffer LARPs I’ve ever seen never forget this – that a player has laid down some serious money for admission, not to mention costumes, props, food & drink, gas, etc. Some games take a very haughty “we are Serious Artists and if you don’t like it or get screwed over or whatever then too bad” approach, where the staff feels free to openly favor characters, do terrible things that ruin people’s fun for the weekend or otherwise mess with people’s entertainment in the name of Creating Art. I remember attending a boffer LARP where a player’s character was hit with a Big Deal Magic Effect on Friday night and essentially removed from play for the rest of the weekend. The staff congratulated themselves for being amazing and daring, but the player was pissed – he’d gotten his gear together, hauled it to the game site and paid his money to play, and less than four hours in his game was ruined. When he complained, they told him he could be an NPC all weekend, and gave him guff for his “bad attitude.” Needless to say, I’m with the player – he paid to play his character, not do their grunt work all weekend. (If you want to NPC for a whole game, fine, but that should be your choice, not one forced upon you.) Mind you, I’m not saying that players should always win/get what they want, or that staff cannot endanger characters, challenge players’ expectations or whatnot, or even that LARPs can’t create Art. But games need to remember that there are different obligations when it’s your friends sitting around your kitchen table, and when it’s 100+ people who’ve paid $50 or more to play your game. One is a friendly meet up, with nothing more than pizza money on the line; the other is a business, and forgetting that is a bad idea.
Pete Woodworth wrote, edited and developed for White Wolf Game Studio’s groundbreaking Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP game system for 8 years, and has been playing and writing both parlor and boffer LARPs for 17 years.
Last night I had a nightmare so disturbing that I woke up crying.
I haven’t done that in a very long time, as evidenced by the fact that it completely baffled my poor, concerned wife. I’m not terribly superstitious about a lot of things, but bad dreams fall into that tiny category, and as a result I don’t really want to talk about the main topic of the dream itself. Instead, I want to talk about one of the elements of the dream that most disturbed me: the arrival of my mom’s parents, my grandparents.
As a bit of background, I am one of the very lucky few who grew up knowing all four of my grandparents until well into my 20s. I felt close to all of them, though due to simple geography we tended to see my mom’s parents more often. Many of my friends met her parents over the years, and I take it as a telling tribute that when they passed, both times friends and even exes asked to attended the memorial services, because in their own ways they had loved my grandparents too.
To sketch the nightmare scene, I was in my parents’ house, and it was late at night. Everyone else – because I felt that my parents and my brother were also there, just like when we all lived at home – was asleep, and I was up reading. I heard a knock at the front door, and went downstairs. There was another knock, and I opened the door to find my mom’s parents standing there. They looked the way I tend to remember them, older but not as frail as they were near the end of their lives, and definitely not “ghostly” or “zombie-like” in any way. They didn’t have fangs, red eyes, spooky voices, or anything like that. It was just them, standing on the front step with sad expressions, but it still scared me out of my mind. It took poor Meg almost half an hour to calm me down, as I woke nearly hysterical, and even after regaining some composure I still slept with a light on for the first time in many years.
When the sun came up, though, I thought about how confusing a response that is, and to a degree how some other ghost stories are too. I mean, it was my grandparents, who loved me and supported me and would never, ever in a million years want to hurt or frighten me. And in the nightmare they didn’t do anything scary or disturbing – yes, seeing your deceased grandparents could be considered disturbing on its own, but that’s not what I mean. All the fear seemed to well up in me, rather than come from them or anything they did. But when I think about it, I’m not so sure what scared me so badly about seeing them.
Especially when I miss them so badly while I’m awake.