One If by Jeep
So this past weekend I attended Dreamation, one of Jersey’s longest running cons, and despite having arrived late on a Saturday I was able to crash some great games. The first was a tabletop session of Apocalypse World, D. Vincent Baker’s badass post-apocalyptic game, where a great table made for a fun afternoon of misfit adventures. I submit to you that if the idea of a chainsaw-wielding fat man in a business suit, dinosaur bone armor and a wooden Zulu mask he calls The Duke doesn’t make you giggle even a little bit, well, it might be time to blow the dust off those D6s.
As much fun as that game was, the real highlight of the con was Under My Skin, a fantastic LARP about relationships, boundaries and the power of new love. The game is inspired by the Jeepform school of LARP design – usually just called Jeep for short, which I’ll do here – which stresses freeform storytelling, emotional development, and personal drama over traditional rules and action-adventure style physical conflicts. I was fortunate enough to have the game’s creator, Emily Care Boss, running the session – despite our tight time constraints she kept us focused and centered throughout. Eight players rounded out the group, with LARP expert and blogger extraordinaire Lizzie Stark in attendance along with two of my fellow Apocalypse World players from that afternoon, a good friend’s super cool boyfriend and a few total strangers. All in all, a nice mix of familiarity to work with for a con LARP.
[Author’s Note: The rest of this post is part session review, part game design discussion, and it got very lengthy. If you enjoy that sort of thing, read on – if you don’t, you can skip to the last paragraph for a capsule review. Enjoy!]
Character Creation Basics
As we sat down to create characters, we first talked a bit about ourselves, our boundaries, anything we thought might be helpful for the group to know. Players were encouraged to share freely but not required to do so – there’s no checklist for what an Under My Skin group needs to know, which meant some people shared stories, others preferences, and a few not much beyond the basic details. We had a diverse crowd, too, which was interesting to factor into the process – going around the table we found a couple of married folks, a polyamorous triad, a single person, a couple of open relationships, and a couple of monogamous ones. Physical boundaries were set too – the game defaults to casual social touching outside the bathing suit area, but players could potentially set other limits if they liked, provided they respected the limits of other players first. So if you don’t have a problem with light kissing but I do, then we’re not kissing, or perhaps we’ll compromise with a theatrical “thumb kiss” or the like. Throughout the night, different pairs of players did little micro-negotiations of the “is it OK if I put my arm around you in this scene?” variety, but that’s about the extent of the contact that went on, or really was expected.
Right there one of the persistent myths I’ve heard about Jeep relationship games got busted, which is that it’s basically a front for gamers who just want an excuse to make out with strangers. We had a pretty progressive table in terms of relationships, I’d say, but no one even broached the subject of going past the usual touch limits; the most contact in game was some hand-holding, a couple of thumb kisses and some 7th grade “arm around the shoulder on the couch” action. I suppose you could say that we were just a restrained group, and that another game might have been wall-to-wall naked gamer party parts, but really, that could be true of any LARP if that’s where the players want to take it. I think it has a lot more to do with the desires of the players than it does with the game itself – I’ve been to Changeling LARPs with a lot more sexy touching than this session of Under My Skin had. If anything, the fact that we were taking on relationships and emotional issues made people a little more cautious, not less.
Couples & Friends
For a game with no “rules” as such, simply a structure to the session events, character creation took a surprisingly long amount of time – we began by selecting a “core issue” our characters that would help focus our roleplaying, such as guilt, honesty, loneliness, insecurity, etc.; the group then offered suggestions about areas where this issue might arise in our lives, such as work, relationships, religious beliefs, intimacy, you name it. Once we had those, we tried to get a sense of who our person might be, how those factors might have shaped them. I looked over my character’s core issue – honesty – and the areas I’d been given – taxes, the workplace, relationships, intimacy – and came up with a salesman one step ahead of a scheme falling apart around him, a smart young guy who’d left his old job under the cloud of a fraud allegation and was now hawking a second rate product as hard as he could before his customers caught on. I decided that this guy, Nathan (“hey, just call me Nate”), had a problem with honesty because he was so good at working around it, telling people just enough truth to be believed and get his way while leaving out the stuff they wouldn’t like so much. He wasn’t a really bad guy, in the sense of being truly abusive, just morally lazy as hell and seldom there when the fallout of his lies hit – he always tried to move on before the consequences caught up. I didn’t want him to be a caricature, but I definitely saw him on a downward swing as the game began.
After we’d had some time to think on our characters, we paired off – three couples and a pair of best friends. As it happened, I was paired with Lizzie Stark’s character, Rita, a disappointed actress and sometime teacher. We got together and talking about our characters, decided that our couple saw themselves as the model of a very modern, enlightened relationship – no marriage for us, no sir (and how’s that religious guilt working out for you there, Rita), we’re allowed to see other people, we talk all the time about our relationship, etc. So we rated our Intimacy high, since we communicate often on relationship issues, but gave ourselves a low Passion score – for all our talk, the two of us aren’t really doing well due to our mutual disappointment in our careers, and so the physical side of the relationship had suffered, priming us both for the arrival of a New Flame, the game’s destabilizing element. We picked a few things we do together – pottery class and oh-so-hip restaurants – and our Lines, the limits we do not want our partner to cross with someone else. Going over a Line is considered a serious betrayal, even if it might seem minor (like “don’t go to that restaurant with anyone else”) and so are the fuel for a lot of the drama of the rest of the night. The default Line is “have sex”, but it can be changed, and you may have up to three total. After talking about for a bit and refining our Lines for maximum dramatic value, we finally agreed that my limits for her were heterosexual sex (isn’t Nate so enlightened!), long romantic phone calls, and telling intimate stories, while hers for Nate were “sex with someone I know”, long romantic phone calls, and dishonesty about what he was up to. When those were settled, we also got a pair of Friends, two other player characters we were casually connected with. We sat down with them and worked out some details about our mutual past; I got Steve, an old-coworker I still played online games with, and she got Naveen, a travel writer she met while shooting on location a while ago. We had a few minutes to work out some friendship details and we were good to go.
One of the things that knocked me out about Under My Skin was how much I knew about my character after this process, how well I thought I could inhabit him even after just an hour or so. Another myth about Jeep took a hit there, which is that Jeep games are full of tortured characters and focus solely on Deep Angsty Melodrama. While your core issue will be the focus of your dramatic path over the course of the game, it is not required to be a horrible flaw – I could’ve taken “honesty” and been painfully honest instead, a nice guy who maybe tells the truth when a simple white lie would be better at times. Likewise, your areas give you some latitude to interpret your issue – you can choose to be free of your issue in some of them and suffer in others, to give it some contrast. And the Lines, well, damn. Having rules that your partner is never supposed to break, in a game where it’s guaranteed that they’re going to fall for someone else? That is the stuff drama is made of, ladies and gentlemen. You could practically hear the hearts cracking already.
Once couples and friends had been sketched out, it was time for the tipping point. The New Flame is the person your character is about to fall for (and who will likewise fall for you), as well as the one random element in the game – in this case, we rolled on it. This represents how you really can’t predict who you’re going to fall in love with, or when. It also prevents things from being too neat right off the bat – unlike your partner and your friend, you don’t talk to your New Flame before play begins. (You know who it is, but that’s it.) You’re required to fall for each other – one of the only truly required things in the game – but you’ll have to figure out how that happens in the moment with each other. This is less difficult or nerve-wracking than it might seem, as remember it’s a mutual attraction, so you’re both working to build chemistry, and most of us found it a lot of fun because when both people are working to make it happen, it’s a lot less difficult than if one person is unaware or resistant.
Note: You might think, as I did, that it’s not much of a game about relationships if you know in advance that your starter relationship is doomed. However, this is a misconception – all that’s guaranteed is that your character will notice someone new and face some hard decisions about where they want to take these new feelings. Some of our couples managed to hold it together and stay as they were in the beginning, others endured but changed their relationship to accommodate these new feelings, and some outright imploded. So it’s not a certainty that your original couple will collapse, just that they’re going to have questions to confront.
After all that, Emily went over the schedule with us. Under My Skin keeps dramatic tension building by having a set schedule of “stages”, which feature scenes that shape the relationships we’re going to be exploring. Most scenes are just two players, with the other players acting as an audience; each pair of players has a turn onstage acting out the same kind of scene. When everyone has had a turn, the next major stage on the schedule begins. For example, the first stage is each of the starting couples somewhere on their own, and helps establish the baseline for each relationship (including perhaps some hints of hope or problems). So for our game, first Steve & Jo did a scene, then Naveen & David, then Rita & Nate, and finally Andi & Amanda. After everyone had had a turn, we moved on to the next major stage in the schedule. We were under time constraints due to the con, but in general players are encouraged to take a comfortable amount of time to reach a dramatic moment with their scene – you are politely encourage not to monopolize (and Emily watched the clock for us all), but there’s no set time limit as such.
Anyway, it starts with the baseline scene, and then a big group scene where everyone is onstage at once – in this case, the group decided to make it a house party at David & Naveen’s place. This is also where the New Flames meet, so while couples tended to enter together, people quickly moved to making conversation with their new interests. I was concerned about how this would work – I wondered if it would be a little rom-com cliche to try to play out sudden attraction – but as my previous comments indicate, it was surprisingly believable. After all, you’re trying to impart a sense of attraction, not necessarily go crazy right off, and so it was a very charged scene full of leading questions, invitations for later contact and the like. Nate met Andi, his new crush, and they immediately geeked out, agreeing to a Warcraft meet-up later in the week. Innocent, right?
From there, the composition of the stages alternated – we saw the couples together again, now struggling with their new feelings for other people (some discussing it openly, some not), then the New Flames meeting up for that first big scene alone together, back to the couples for more reaction and processing. Due our time constraints, unfortunately we could not really use Flashbacks, one of the techniques that is normally employed to flesh out the different stages. As the name implies, Flashbacks are very short scenes involving two of the characters in a scene, used to give some context, focus in on a particular sticking point and the like. Flashbacks can be called for by the moderator, as Emily did at one point to see what a couple was like on their honeymoon, by the players in the scene themselves or even by the rest of the players in the audience. We got a taste of it, but sadly not much more, though it did show a lot of promise, and I’d love to see how it could be employed in games with more time to make use of it.
Some of you are probably thinking that you spend an awful lot of time passively observing Under My Skin as part of the audience – after all, at each stage we had four couples that each needed a scene, and barring a Flashback or the like you’re not going to be in more than one of them. However, this is where the character creation really shined – outside of your own character, you have a Partner/Best Friend, a Friend and a New Flame, all folks you’re invested in due to the time spent working out relationships and building romances. Which means that even when you’re in the audience you generally have at least one person you’re invested in who’s taking part in a given scene, and so trust me, you pay closer attention than you might think. It was like watching the best episodes of a Joss Whedon show – the slightest bit of contact between lovers made people inhale with tension, a cutting comment might elicit groans or gasps from the crowd, a faint smile cause people to almost clap with excitement, that sort of thing. It’s a brilliant way to handle having players be in the audience so much of the time, and worked very well – we were a con game of mostly strangers running late on a Saturday night, with parties and other games waiting in most instances, and yet nobody was texting, yawning or reading their new rulebook.
The one thing you don’t do is stop for analysis – in Under My Skin, you talk a lot before play and do a good long debrief after, but as much as possible you try to keep the action rolling once the game begins. This is another point in its favor, I believe. A lot of the fun of the game is in the uncertainty of where things are heading while it plays – you might have a brief whispered conference before a scene, but that’s it. Too much thought lets people start constructing much neater, more predictable narratives, and I think that would spoil a lot of the fun.
Angels & Devils
The climatic stage of the game is known as Angels & Devils, and features the New Flames meeting in private for the last time in the game. This is where they will decide whether or not they’re going to cross the Lines their partners have set for them, and what that will mean. The twist is that each character has two players hovering nearby, one portraying the Angel (telling them not to cross the Line) and the other the Devil (telling them to run over the Line with a monster truck). As a final twist of the knife, the player of the character’s Partner is automatically one of the two (their choice), so they will have a voice in their Partner’s decision process. (I should note that by default, the Angel/Devil roles are assumed to be more voices of conscience than actual voices in a character’s head or supernatural entities.) These players are encouraged to be as vicious or inspiring as they like, so long as they don’t upstage the principal characters in the scene, and they were a lot of fun to watch. I personally couldn’t quite get the hang of how to approach this role, but I was definitely in the minority – many of the comments made were absolutely heart-wrenching, and nobody had an easy decision to make. For instance, Nate seemed pretty definitely doomed going into the scene, but had an Angel who made a number of compelling comments, to the point where he was wavering and almost took the high road … until his New Flame openly made a play to seduce him, and he crumbled. Still, I walked in thinking it was just a matter of time, but my Angel’s player really spoke to his good side, making it a lot tougher than I thought it had been.
After that, there’s a final group scene, where the chips fall and we get to see public consequences for private behavior – Nate almost talked his way out of his infidelity with Rita (his half-truths coming in handy again), until Rita’s own New Flame heard about what happened from her best friend (Nate’s hookup) and it all came tumbling down. He ended up being tossed out after having a drink thrown in his face, but most of others were a lot quieter in their denouement, with some couples drifting apart, others setting new rules and so on. We sat down to a final debrief and talked about where our characters likely wound up, asked questions that hadn’t been answered, talked about our out-of-character reactions to events and passed around compliments for the scenes that we’d been most captivated by. It lasted far longer than any after-action I’d done at a con game, and even after 40 minutes or so the players had to be dragged out the door, we were having so much fun analyzing it. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but the characters and relationships had enough complexity to sustain it for that long, and I was one of the ones dragging his heels most deeply.
I came into Under My Skin with an open-mind, not inclined to believe the lurid tales of Jeep weirdness I’d heard from some quarters but also not convinced that Jeep would be the amazingly cathartic, therapeutic experience some of its devotees raved about. In the end, I walked out more a convert than anything else. It is a wonderful example of a game designed to explore a specific topic – relationships – and constructed to allow players to do exactly that on a level not often encouraged in other systems. Considering the amount of time we had to build our characters and their stories, the game was extremely effective prompting that most elusive of gaming conditions, namely getting everyone to really care about their characters – I sympathized with poor idiotic Nate more quickly than I thought possible, and both creation and gameplay really contributed to that experience.
So, could Under My Skin push some people’s buttons in a bad way emotionally? Certainly. But just as boffer LARPs write rules and guidelines to prevent physical injury when played properly, Under My Skin is designed with enough safeguards to make emotional trauma equally unlikely. There’s no one standing over your shoulder commanding you to confront your deep-seated real life issues – you only have to work with what you choose to bring. And just like boffer LARPs give you a visceral action-adventure thrill you really can’t find in other LARP forms, by making relationship dynamics its sole focus Under My Skin gives you an emotional journey more focused, intense and rewarding than most LARPs.