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! 

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3 responses

  1. “Business” is something that is really important in a role-playing setting and may be one of those elements that I look for. And also, you can do these in real life and in your real world persona as well. In fact, I think we all do. Anyway, thank you for writing this.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:06 am

    • I know what you mean. According to my students, I flip dry erase markers a lot, bounce on the balls of my feet while I’m writing on the board before class (if there’s music), and use the phrase “And then that happened, to the surprise of no one” perhaps more often than is wise. It really is the little details that add up, I think.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm

  2. I love it. Definitely going to nudge my players towards this.

    December 31, 2013 at 12:33 am

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