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.

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! 

18 responses

  1. Warden

    This is great advice.

    April 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad you liked it.

      April 25, 2013 at 6:24 am

  2. Just going to my old standby, because you said it all quite perfectly above: “You may not be the ST for the game, but you are an ST for two people — the one to the right and the one to your left. Make certain they have fun and you’ll have an amazing time yourself.” It’s been my mantra for years and has served so very well in a lovely, long, so enjoyable gaming career.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    • It’s a good mantra to have. When I’m PCing, I generally try to do my best to help keep the atmosphere of the weekend going – I particularly love to spread fear and panic when it’s called for. I like to help out the NPCs when I can. 🙂

      April 26, 2013 at 9:44 pm

  3. NoahTrucks

    Ha! I got a mention. Keep up the good writing, Woodworth.

    April 24, 2013 at 11:19 pm

  4. So true 🙂 remembers me of the time a character of a girl in our LARP group died… she started screaming and crying that it was not fair… drawing all the attention to herself being a drama queen and ruining an important moment for the rest of the group. Luckily, we never saw her again 🙂

    May 2, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    • There are few things as disruptive as a player tantrum. Yikes.

      June 8, 2013 at 7:44 am

  5. Acreswyld

    What you mention is a mindset that can be transcended to all types of gaming. The “pay it forward” mentality can work in any game that has multiple people (including MMO) The vast difference is with MMO’s there is anonymity many people will do whatever they want knowing they have anonymity. However that behavior often changes when face to face.

    In LARP’s and table tops there is only so much one may be willing to do. It will be uncommon for an individual to publicly kill players because in a short time retaliation will come for them. It is sometimes why it can be easy for the nameless NPC crunchy to make sure folks die instead of a solid interaction. The nameless NPC often does not have a vested interested in that particular role and has no loyalty to it so it matters less to them than the player. This is not to say all NPC/ or even PC’s behave in this manner. It is simply a mindset that can be transcended and functional in all interactive games, including the game of life.

    When anonymous, people are more likely to do what they want for themselves than if they can be identified.

    May 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    • Very true. Anonymity is a powerful intoxicant for certain personality types in particular. They just love the idea of screwing with people.

      June 8, 2013 at 7:46 am

  6. JJ

    This is a great post. Thanks. 🙂


    May 29, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  7. Eddie E

    Well done sir. An eloquent post most assuredly. We can all learn from this lesson, and make better games and enjoyments for all involved.

    May 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm

  8. ladychickenchaserthethird

    After reading through this post it’s made me want to blog again. I agree with a lot of what you said. I remember the days of starting at a new larp like KR and thinking to myself… well I can’t do anything. Or having other players distinctly say “Well the noobs should know even if there’s a group of them, without a high level they’ll die anyways”. It drove me up the wall.

    At first I was thinking psssh our larps up in Canada aren’t like…. oh wait yea they are. I do my best as an oldie character to buff everyone up and send them out there. However I’ve seen many characters who power game or min max so they can hit the hardest. They end up wandering around saying their board. While a hunk of us have somewhat useless life lore skills to which we interact with the wolrd and each other that way.

    I cannot agree more with this post and I wish. I feel like I am agreeing loudly at my computer. ❤ ❤ ❤ I've always wanted to try DR… one day.

    June 1, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    • I know exactly how you feel – watching superhero player characters is so frustrating. Not just because they can ruin the fun of others, but also because they don’t seem to realize that removing all danger and all threat means they’re removing what makes the game fun in the first place.

      I can’t stand to watch new players get treated horribly. I was at Mystic Realms years ago – my first event too – and saw some veteran players drive another group of new folks right out of the game by dismissing them when they were upset that one of their crew got killed. You could actually see the “Screw this, we’re outta here” moment – and five players left the game, never to return. Such a waste.

      June 8, 2013 at 7:53 am

  9. I’ve been larping for nearly half of my life (I’m 26), and it took me quite some time to learn this. And its always nice to get a refresher. Sometimes you lose sight of how you’ve actually been having fun all these years. It came into focus a few months ago while playing a (new for me) game with a friend. I knew a couple of the people from playing other games with them, but, otherwise everyone was a complete stranger to me. There were about perhaps 30 players in attendance. Most stuck to their own groups and weren’t very social. My friend and I started to have a rather poor experience until a couple of players interacted with us. And even suggested quests and missions to go on. One of them even handed us magic items! That was a first for me to get a powerful item in my first event. Those two players made our event. They saw that opportunity to help us to have fun, and they went for it.

    I GM for a small game in Michigan, and many of my players tend to be that guy who plays the game like its all about them. Hopefully this can help them see that its not always about them.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    June 8, 2013 at 1:53 am

  10. I love hearing stories like this! When gamers realize that the game is more fun if everyone’s enjoying it, something magical happens. It’s one of the things I love most about larp – it’s nothing like anything else when it gets going. And it doesn’t take much to make a new player’s whole experience most of the time. I remember the first time a veteran player called for me by name – it was like Iron Man asking you to join the Avengers. It takes so little effort for them, but it really makes the new players happy. Good luck with your game – drop a line and let me know how it goes!

    June 8, 2013 at 7:59 am

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