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! 

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