Posts tagged “Badass Larp Talk

Badass Larp Talk #32: That Old Ivory Tower

So let me put forward something of a controversial premise: The best chance larp has to keep evolving as an artform, as a medium, will not be catering to existing larpers but continuing to find an audience of people who do not consider themselves larpers when they encounter it.
I’m not saying that those of us already in the field can’t innovate. Of course we can. If you don’t believe me, play some Golden Cobras, go to a festival, read your trade pubs. There are plenty of cool ideas, and the past decade or so has seen some tremendous leaps we should be proud of, collectively.
But I’m an academic by vocation too, and that means I recognize a closed intellectual loop when I see one. And let me tell you, my friends and neighbors of this imaginary neighborhood, there are Signs of that particular affliction all around us if you but know how to spot them. We don’t have a true ivory tower of larp, at least not yet, but between you and me there’s a big ol’ pile of white-washed brick and a lot of mortar mixed already.
One reason academics get a bad rap with other people, after all, is because they can fall into the habit of talking exclusively to other academics, until their world shrinks to that little circuit. Once you’re inside a loop like that, it can be all to easy to forget that you’re only communicating with a small slice of the population, and mistake discussions you have with each other for Great Big Theory Talks that encompass an entire field when it’s actually just a handful of experts trading opinions.
With that in mind, here’s the associated uncomfortable truth: The vast majority of larpers do not attend academic larp conferences or read academic larp publications, nor are they likely to do so in any significant numbers in the future. So if you’re only aiming your ideas at that audience, you’re not reaching roughly 99% of the larp population. You may wish this wasn’t so – I know I do, at times – but it’s the plain truth, and an important one to remember if you want to balance the theoretical and practical experiences of larp.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying people shouldn’t study larp in an academic sense, or even that it’s a bad idea for experts to have conversations with each other that aren’t open to the general public. Like I said, I’m an academic – I recognize the value of study and debate. It’s healthy for a field, but only if balanced with the realization that it does not speak for the field entire. You have to come up for air sometimes, is what I’m saying. To paraphrase my boy Hume, now and then you need to put aside the philosophy and play pool with your friends. 🙂
This is where I get concerned with the state of larp, a bit. We’ve reached the point where we’ve got people really studying the field and digging into theory, not to mention designers pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do (or should do). WHICH IS COOL. But we also have to take care that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only the intellectual and avant garde aspects of the medium matter. They do, they absolutely do, but they are still only pieces of the whole, and not especially large pieces either.
Which brings me back to the original point. One thing I’ve said for a while now is that larp is still small as mediums go mostly because we larpers keep it that way, and I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. We spend an awful lot of time preaching to the choir, as it were, and while I understand the importance of satisfying the audience you’ve got, sometimes it feels like any large moves to bring the medium to a wider audience are greeted with eye-rolling derision. Things like “that’s not real larp” or “non-larpers take too much effort to teach” or “anything commercial can’t be True Larp” or “if it has [insert highly subjective requirement] then it’s not technically a larp” or a dozen other such nitpicky and dismissive utterances.
I know, I know. You don’t do that. You’re probably right about that, too. Most of us aren’t those people. But they are out there, and they can be awful loud. If you don’t believe me, try going to a larp community space and publicly suggesting that it’s OK to run a larp as a honest to goodness business instead of a passion project, or that interactive theater could offer a bridge to bringing larp to more people, or praise a depiction of larp on film, or simply declare that you’re starting a brand new game of any type. Chances are pretty good you’ll have some folks only too happy to tell you how wrong you are for liking or wanting any of those things.
People like that can’t truly stop progress, but they can sure as hell make it a lot more annoying. And more importantly, they can drive people away, when we always benefit from more places at the table. Larp, like love, is not a pie. Fun is not zero sum, and art sure as hell isn’t either. The more people who experience larp, and the more ways they experience it, the better and stronger all larp becomes. We shouldn’t ignore a deeper study of it, but we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking that’s the only part worth discussing, and we definitely shouldn’t stop looking at ways to fit more people into this medium. It’s bigger on the inside, I promise.
In the end, it’s important to remember that there is no one thing called larp. Larp is a lot of moving pieces. It’s players and designers, it’s game runners and event staff, it’s campaigns and chronicles and and conventions and one-shots, it’s parlor and boffer and freeform and playground and blockbuster and therapeutic and a dozen other styles and subsets. It’s that game you can’t stop playing and that game you can’t stand, it’s rulebooks you can fit in a text message and rulebooks you could derail a train with, it’s name tag elves and six hours of orc makeup, and so much more.
The only thing larp shouldn’t be is just for us,

the already larping.

 

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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! 

Badass Larp Talk #31: Art, Ownership, Evolution

Art that is walled off, dies.

This may seem like a weird and rather harsh sentiment to kick off a post in this normally sunny blog, but bear with me, I’ll explain. I was recently involved in a discussion about larp and cultural exchange where I was told, explicitly and with no apparent irony, that certain groups were “not allowed” to use rules and design principles developed by a particular group, because they did not respect the originating group’s design culture and overall artistic mission. Essentially, the argument went, these ideas had been developed by artists who didn’t want them used for commercial purposes, and that by doing so, these other groups were “destroying” the original art form.

So, let me unpack the few truths and many errors in this philosophy.

Let’s start with the truths. First of all, as an English professor with a historicist take on literature, I happen to agree with the notion that it’s important to understand the culture that created a particular work of art, and especially the context for an entire art form or movement. Art does not exist in a vacuum, after all – it is the work of living artists and as such reflects the zeitgeist they create in, not to mention various personal quirks, interests, passions, and foibles. If you think an art form is great enough to adopt and/or imitate, it seems reasonable to expect that it’s great enough to research a bit too, especially if you have more than just a passing interest in it. No one says you have to drop everything and research the origins of EDM if you like one song, for example but if you plan on playing it at parties professionally or even making the music yourself, you might want to look into its roots, movements, etc.

This leads to another truth in that statement – when you understand a culture, you also can recognize areas that may not translate (literally or figuratively) very well to your own. For example, the innovative Ars amandi method developed in Europe for incorporating non-sexual touch as a way of expressing sexual and physical intimacy in larp does not always play well with American legal and social mores, which are often extremely touch averse. (I know, it’s pretty messed up that Americans are cool about hitting each other with foam swords and yelling “DECAPITATE” but not that someone might consensually touch their forearms with their bare hands to indicate romantic closeness. Damn Puritans, still fucking everything up.) It’s not that Americans are incapable of learning and properly applying the method, it’s just that doing so will take some extra adjustment and consideration for both players and facilitators because it’s far outside the larp norms of this particular gaming culture. So, again, research is your friend in a situation like this.

Those are two very good and important items, but that’s about where the applicable truths run out, because now we run into questions of ownership.

Nobody owns art forms, not in the macro sense. While individual artists should be credited for their creations and their specific work not plagiarized – and yes, that has happened in the larp discussion before, and no, it’s not OK to just take design philosophies and pass them off as your own – in the larger sense art doesn’t belong to anyone, at least not in a prohibitive context. Art belongs to everyone who participates in it, for better or worse. Attempting to gatekeep it and tell people “you can’t do that” is bound for failure, because that’s just not how art works. Sometimes we wish art could be locked down a bit, if only to make sure that artists receive their due – looking at you, white American musicians who stole rock ‘n roll, got rich, and largely didn’t give any credit to the African American blues and early rock artists who actually started the genre – but sadly it’s just not the case, even when it maybe might be better that way. We can and should try to do better than those early days of rock’n’roll, for the record, but still, art doesn’t like to stay in boxes and it definitely doesn’t like to be fenced in.

Art goes where it goes, and by and large we’re all better for it.

That’s where the idea of “you can’t use these rules” really runs off the rails. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that every member of an entire creative community agrees with the notions that 1) their design principles are being misused, and 2) that the solution is that others outside their group should not use them.  That’s a tall order for agreement, given the often contrary nature of creatives, but it’s certainly not impossible, so let’s go with it. Let me be clear – it’s not that such a community can’t be upset if they believe things they created are being used in ways they find run counter to their design ideals. They certainly can be, and expressing that is natural – it’s another reason I think people should research new ideas and movements when they encounter them. No, where it breaks down is the “can’t” part of that response.

On a basic level, well, telling a creative community – any creative community – that they can’t do something pretty much guarantees a bunch of them will, if only just to spite you. Artists are funny that way.  But even beyond a basic, knee-jerk reaction, it’s actually really important that they do so, because otherwise you set some pretty dangerous precedents for art – namely, that a particular style or genre of art “belongs” to a specific group of artists, and furthermore that those artists have the right and authority to exclude others from practicing the same type of art they create.

As an experiment, imagine that Picasso, on creating cubism – yes art history folks, I know it’s more complex than that and that actually helps my case, but bear with me here – told everyone that they were free to enjoy cubist art. However, they could not create any themselves unless they too lived in Paris at the same time he did and shared his cultural and philosophical context. It would not only be monumentally egotistical to say so, but such a declaration would be bound to failure from the start.

Now, would it be fair to say that understanding the origins of cubism and especially Picasso’s take on it would require understanding their specific cultural context? Absolutely. Should you maybe look into the origins of the movement and its principles if you intend to apply it to your own work? I’d strongly recommend it, if only to give credit where it’s due and make sure you’re not making mistakes that have already been addressed. But do you need to share all those exact to apply the techniques of cubism to your own art? No. And that’s where the idea of ownership of larp concepts breaks down.

Let’s say I coined a design term – call it “playground larp.” I define it as larps which avoid both simulationist realism and narrativist abstraction, instead using simple games and child-like activities to resolve conflicts and dictate outcomes in the story. As an example of a pioneering playground larp, I cite Brennan Taylor’s ongoing Bulldogs! sci-fi larps, which use activities like tossing rubber balls at stacks of Solo cups to simulate knocking down enemy shields and keeping a ball bearing in the center of a painted circle on an unpredictably tilting frisbee to determine if a ship avoids dangerous asteroid collisions. I acknowledge that neither Brennan nor I invented the use of such activities in larp, but write a design manifesto which centers these elements in ways that have not been previously explored, and outlines a new vision for playground larp as an expanding movement. I present this at larp conferences and publish it in larp journals, and I make it clear that I believe playground larp should never be run for profit, as that diminishes the essential DIY nature and childlike wonder of the experience.

With all that said, can I tell people that they cannot create playground larps unless they’re from the same background as Brennan and me, and share our design principles? No. Those ideas are out there now, ricocheting in pinball fashion throughout the larp community, and I cannot control them even if I wanted to. Even if a few years later I see a huge blockbuster larp that heavily incorporates playground design principles – it’s set at a carnival, and so lots of situations are actually resolved by playing various carnival games – and charging $1500/head, I can’t say to them “you can’t do that.” I may wish they wouldn’t, because it’s not what I had in mind when I wrote up the playground design manifesto, but that’s as far as it goes.

This also touches on another important problem with the ownership issue – the folly of tracing origins as a gatekeeping method. As previously noted, art is not created in a vacuum, and larp is certainly no exception. Attempting to claim ownership of a part of it because you “created” it only leads to others to say that without their work, you could have never created yours, and so you actually owe them. Whereupon yet another person steps up and says that their contribution to the field is even older and therefore both of those people owe them, and so on, and so on, and so on. I’m not saying that nobody has original ideas, mind you. Going back to Picasso, I can certainly give him credit for helping invent a new style of painting. However, if he claimed that other painters could not use his ideas to inspire their own techniques, I’d call foul. Trying to establish that sort of ownership authority in art world gets ugly and reductivist, fast, and anyway it misses the entire point of art.

As Steve-o wisely put it in SLC Punk, when discussing the ongoing European/American argument about who “started” punk rock: “Was it the Sex Pistols in England? The Ramones and the Velvet Undergound in New York? ‘Sex Pistols!’ ‘Ramones!’ Ahhhhh! WHO CARES WHO STARTED IT?!?! IT’S MUSIC.” The idea being that enjoying it is way, way more important than quibbling over ownership.

There’s also the problem of asserting ownership in that it assumes there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways to apply artistic techniques, which is rarely if ever true. (Appropriate is an important question, as is appropriation, but those are matters for another time.) Mainly because this sort of outlook assumes that, once created, a design principle or rules system must remain in its original state or it is being “corrupted” somehow. Which is also a very limited and frankly very unhealthy view of art. Is Dada a “corruption” of cubism, for example, because it arose in response to those techniques? Or is it simply part of the ongoing discussion that is art?

I’ll just say it: There are no platonic artistic forms.

So let’s be clear: It is important to research and understand where the art that inspires you comes from, because art exists in part as a response to its environment, and also because some elements may not be easy to translate into other settings due to their origins in a specific context. It can also be important to think about who makes the art that you love, because their perspective can have a profound impact on understanding their work; even if you ultimately do not agree with them as artists or even as individuals, you at least can do so from a position of knowledge. And simply put, it is important to give people their due credit for blazing trails and changing perspectives – we already have far too many historical examples of artists being ignored, glossed over, and otherwise marginalized by other artists, especially when it comes to commercial success. Don’t add to that list if you can help it.

That said, it is equally important to understand that art is not a gated community, and that telling people “you can’t” is rather correctly doomed to fail as a result. Once art is out there, it is out there, and others will use it, adapt it, reject it, and otherwise create in response to it as they see fit. You may, of course, keep as true to your own original community and ideals as you like, and that’s fine. You cannot, however, expect the rest of the artists in your medium to adhere to those same standards simply because you do, and even if you could, the result would weaken the medium, not strengthen it. Art is not a ship in a bottle, it’s a ship at sea, and while you can plot courses and hold that wheel tight you still never know exactly how those winds will blow or precisely where those currents will carry you.

In conclusion: Players, game runners – do your homework, give credit. Designers – understand that once your work is out there, you can’t dictate how it’s used. And most importantly, because it often gets forgotten in this debate, everyone –

Have fun.

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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! 

 

 

 


Badass Larp Talk #30: Hard to Swallow Pills, Player Edition

OK, players, we’ve got to talk.

Let’s start with a basic but essential truth: Our hobby is changing. Hell, our medium is changing – for one thing, it can legitimately be called a medium now! This is in most ways a really great thing, because not only does it mean people outside of LARP are starting to recognize that we create some amazing experiences, but it also means that larp runners and designers are pushing the limits of what we can do and expect. Which is awesome! There’s really never been a better time to be a larper, and it’s getting better all the time.

That said, though, there are some things that aren’t so great, and that we need to change in order to keep up with what’s going on in our hobby. We’ve got some bad habits, you see, and we need to hold ourselves accountable

Big Damn Disclaimer: Let me be very clear. This is not a “vaguepost” about any particular larps, or players for that matter. I am absolutely certain that your larp may be totally different than what’s presented here, and that’s OK. I’m speaking in broad strokes about problems and trends I’ve noticed in the scene, and that means your individual experience may vary. If it does, and in a good way, hey, awesome! But before you run to the comments to say “NOT MY LARP” please understand that I never intended it to be about your specific game. We cool? Good.

1 – We Seriously Underpay for Larp
According to my admittedly unscientific research of looking up a bunch of larp sites, talking to larpers, and having played a variety of larps over a long period of time, the average weekend boffer larp in the US costs between $40-$60. I know that’s no small chunk of change for a lot of players and I respect that – I was a threadbare college larper too, and I know a lot of working poor who must scrape to find the funds too – but at the same time, think about what that level of entertainment would cost in almost any other form. Two days and two nights at a campground, with nearly/entirely 24/7 entertainment provided (and sometimes basic meals), including expectations for exciting battles, interesting plots, and dramatic roleplay, in addition to theatrical level makeup, costuming, props, etc.? With dozens of friends and cast members? That’s not a deal, my friends, that’s a steal.

I know that can be hard to accept if finding even that amount of money is hard for you, and once again, I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I’m just saying that as it grows up, we need to seriously evaluate what our hobby is worth to us, because in many games we’re still paying the prices that were set when it was a small bunch of friends just trying to cover the costs of renting a campground and making simple costumes, except now the game hosts 100+ people and the expectations are rising higher and higher when it comes to costuming and makeup and spectacle.

If boffer larp has a problem with pricing, by the way, parlor larp may be even worse, if a bit quieter about it. I mean, let’s start with the simplest question – does your local parlor game even charge money? If it does, does that money go beyond covering the cost of renting the play space and/or putting out food and drink for the players? Do you compensate the game runners for the extra time they spend writing plots, making props and costumes, answering messages on Facebook, running scenes on Discord, etc.?

If not, why not?

Now, before you object, I’m not necessarily talking about a small “for the love of it” game run by friends for friends – I’m mostly addressing public-facing games that run for larger groups, typically in rented spaces like community halls, VFW posts, college lounges, etc. Though it’s worth noting that it’s not a bad idea to check in on your friends running your small parlor game and see if there’s a way you can help them out, because I’ve known a lot of people who poured hundreds if not thousands of dollars into their friendly little parlor games but never thought to ask for anything for fear of sounding greedy.

Essentially, we need to confront the fact that on the whole our expectations for what game should be keep rising, but not our desire to pay more for it, and sooner or later one of those factors is going to give. Either we recognize that we’re not paying enough to support the sort of high-end experience we’re after (and scale our expectations accordingly), or we accept that we need to pay more in order to have one. Even if it’s not a discussion that applies to every single larp, it’s still one the community should be having as a whole.

2. We Need to Talk about Boundaries More
Social media can be a wonderful tool for larps – it helps game runners publicize events, players organize groups, makers share feedback and inspiration for game materials, and plenty of other lovely and helpful things. Not to mention that it’s brought players and creators closer together than ever before, able to interact with each other in real time. Which is amazing … but also part of the problem.

Quite simply, all too often we overtax our game runners and designers by not giving them nearly enough downtime where they don’t have to think or talk about game-related things. I’m not saying that we do it on purpose – a lot of the time staff may not even recognize it’s an issue until they hit the burnout stage – but it’s still far too common. We need to take a step back and recognize that just because we can doesn’t mean we should, especially when it comes to social media.

Look, I get it. One major part of larp – that goes almost completely missed by those outside of it, but that’s another blog post – is the fact that it creates communities. People who come to game can make friends, find romance, share passions outside of game, do job networking, and otherwise do all the things that humans do when you put us in one place. It’s exciting and generally awesome, no question.

The problem isn’t that people use games to make friends and connect with others. That’s fine. It’s when they don’t move beyond game in those connections, and it becomes all they ever want to talk about, even when other people aren’t interested in doing so. This is especially true when talking to game runners. It’s great that they created a world you enjoy playing in, and it’s cool that you guys can be friends. But may I recommend running through this small checklist every now and again, regarding other players in general and especially game runners and larp designers you know:

  • Do I respond to their posts that aren’t about game by making them game-related?
  • Do I know anything about them apart from their connection to game?
  • Do I only message them about game through approved channels?

I’m not saying answering “No” to one of these is automatically awful, but if you find yourself answering no consistently, you may want to broaden your connection with these folks. If you have larp in common, after all, chances are you may have other interests as well – video games, fantasy novels, woodworking, competitive dance, you name it. And if you don’t, well, maybe you need to gauge how often you talk about game stuff, flip it around and see if you think it would be excessive if someone you didn’t know too well was always talking about the one thing you both have in common.

World of Warcraft actually captured this one pretty well in one of their loading screen messages of all things. They wrote:  “It’s fun to visit Azeroth with your friends, but make sure to go outside Azeroth with them too!” In other words, game is great, game is definitely a shared interest – but try not to make it your only one.

3. We Need to Stop Pushing Divisive Narratives
There is no one size fits all, unified field theory of larp. Not every game will click for every player, and that’s OK. There are always more games out there. And yet we tend to fall into some pretty nasty, cliquish camps with very little provocation, and thanks to polarizing effects of social media, it only gets worse over time. What do I mean by camps? Well, here are just a few of the divisions I see popping up over and over again:

  • Euro larpers vs American larpers
  • Stick jocks vs emotional roleplayers
  • Bleed is creepy vs Bleed is amazing
  • Loving or hating blockbuster larps
  • Boffer larps vs parlor larps
  • Nordic larp is the One True Way vs Nordic larp is for hippie space communists
  • Larp is Art vs. Larp is just entertainment

I’m not saying we can’t have passionate feelings about some of these things, and I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t discuss them and explore these topics and why people feel the way they do. There’s a lot of potentially interesting and useful material at the heart of these discussions! We just need to remember that at least with these topics, it’s important to resist the notion of objectively right/wrong answers. Just because I like hitting people with plumbing supplies and you like hours of deep personal roleplay doesn’t mean we’re opposed to each other, or that one of us is correct and the other is incorrect. And yet, all too often it comes back to those sorts of knee-jerk distinctions.

Larp is a spectrum, and understanding that is essential. We can all find things we like, as well as things we don’t like, and that’s not only OK, it’s good! It means we have a dynamic and evolving medium on our hands, and that can only mean good things over time. But it also means we have to take extra care to avoid the temptation to confuse “I don’t like this” for “this is bad/wrong” as all that does is spark looping, unproductive arguments and set our community back.

We’re better than that, so let’s go out and prove it.

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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! 

 


Badass Larp Talk #29: Business or Pleasure?

So, larp has a little bit of a business problem.

Don’t get me wrong – on the whole I love how our medium is growing and evolving. When I started larping back in 1993, I don’t think in my wildest fantasies I conceived of events on the scale of the many blockbuster games that take place on a regular basis around the world these days. The idea of a larp – a larp! – being able to rent a castle or a battleship or acres of campground and put on a spectacle was something to daydream about, a full-on Barenaked Ladies “If I Had a Million Dollars” lottery win sort of fantasy, not a practical reality. And yes, I know even back then there were some games that were already putting on big events like those I’m talking about, but what can I say, the internet was still young and the community was not nearly as global and interconnected as it is now. My apologies to those who were breaking that ground and I just didn’t know it back then.

Hell, I remember when my local boffer game hit 100 attendees for the first time back in 2001 and we all went crazy with how huge that was; now I think 100 attendees is the figure many games have for hurricane weekends (“Cat 4? Pah! Fetch me my wind pants, papa needs his XP!”). It’s kind of amazing how quickly the exceptional becomes mundane, when you think about it. But I digress – this isn’t a post about being a (in this case literal) graybeard larper. That’s coming soon, but not quite yet. No, this post is about the problematic phase many larps find themselves in these days, specifically, the nebulous realm of “more than a hobby, not quite a profession” and the problems it poses.

Make no mistake about it – there are people who make a living running larps these days, particularly in Europe and North America. And while these professional larp runners may not be making golden cocaine money – yet* – they’re also not the quasi full-timers the field used to have either. By which I mean those who could do it “full-time” only because they had trust funds and/or still lived at home and didn’t pay for rent or groceries. I’m not disrespecting such individuals, just to be clear, but also pointing out that they weren’t self-sustaining as far as business models go – they didn’t pay enough for their owners to live on them without outside help. Now, though, we have a list of people who do exactly that, and the list is growing all the time.

Likewise, with a few notable exceptions the standards of larp production have been steadily climbing over the years. I’ve seen it with my own eyes – even smaller games regularly use makeup, props, and other stagecraft on ordinary scenes and mods that would have been considered the pinnacle of the art form years ago. Even humble games often have budgets dedicated to such things these days, as opposed to the catch-as-catch-can approach of years past where spectacle was pretty limited and usually reserved for Major Plot Moments a couple of times per year.  It’s a pretty amazing evolution and I love watching it continue.

However, there is a down side to all this as well, and one big part of it is the fact that while many larps have gone from enthusiastic hobbies and passion projects to full-fledged businesses, the compensation for those involved in making these events possible has not always kept up with what would be expected of a similar business of the same size in a different industry. Or to put it another way, it’s still too common in this industry to see games call themselves “businesses” when it suits them or sounds impressive but then hide behind “it’s just a hobby” when it comes time to compensate their staff.

Before I get too into this, I’m not saying that the monthly Vampire game you run in your friend Jessica’s creepy basement needs to provide comprehensive dental for all loyal Camarilla members**, or that the Backyardia boffer larp that you run at your stepdad’s place has to make matching contributions to your goblins’ 401k plan. I’m going to call games like that “non-profits” for a few reasons:  one, they don’t make money; two, I doodled in business class and didn’t learn proper uses for terms; three, I can’t hear tax lawyers vomiting blood through a computer screen anyway. Anyway, games like that aren’t the problem – though they can become one if they get bigger but never change their attitude.

To put it bluntly, relying on unpaid volunteers to staff vital operating positions when you’re running a for-profit business is dubiously ethical at best and possibly illegal besides – no, really – and yet that’s still the model for many ongoing games across America and in parts of Europe. (And no, paying people in experience points or other game perks doesn’t count.) It might be a fine model when you’re all just having fun together and nobody’s turning a profit, but as soon as you start making money on a level beyond the game simply sustaining itself, the right thing to do is compensate the people who make it possible to run that business. Because that’s what you are at that point, after all – a business.

What’s strange to me is that if you put this idea in the context of almost any other business, people agree without reservation. For instance, if your friend started a little farm stand you might not mind helping him haul produce and put up signs for free, but if he started making a full-time living out of it and still expected you to work for nothing, you’d probably be pissed, and rightly so. Yet if you mention this notion in the context of larp, well, I’ll just put it politely and say it doesn’t go over well. Western culture already has a problem with paying artists – see the trope of the starving artist, or how many books and movies tout the message that making any money on your art is “selling out” and how “real” artists do it for the sheer love of creating – and larp is no exception. The way some people come down on the merest notion of compensation you’d think that asking games to pay creative or logistical staff was the same as killing happy young couples just to see if their kids turn out to be Batmen.***

Let me be clear here: I’m not saying that the second you start making some real money on a larp you need to start paying everyone on staff $30k/year with benefits. Nor that doing a four hour shift as a series of hapless peasants and repeatedly murdered orcs should mean that you take home a fat roll of cash at the end of the weekend. That said, though, pretending there’s no intermediate step between unpaid volunteer and full-time salary is horseshit. I know several ongoing games that pay their writers for every scene or module they write, for example, or give a stipend to their logistics staff every weekend, or both. A few games I know of actually do pay regular salaries to their staff members, and I’m happy to say the trend is becoming more common. But it needs to continue, and perhaps more importantly, it needs to be encouraged.

Update: As noted by the inimitable Shoshana Kessock – go ahead, try and nimit her – another difficulty faced by larp runners that factors into the compensation scenario is larp pricing, which traditionally has been very low for the amount of entertainment delivered. This stems from the fact that many larps began as hobbies and passion projects and thus charged only what they needed to keep going, but then face a sticky problem as they grow. If they charge more, they face accusations of greed and possibly losing players due to higher pricing. If they don’t raise prices, however, they eventually run into the problem where the expense of entertaining larger numbers of players outstrips the money coming in, and the game either folds or the staff is forced to pay for the shortfall, neither of which is desirable or tenable. So along with deciding what sort of compensation is fair, it is important to note that the price of games may need to increase as well, or players begin scaling back the sort of perks and production values they expect for their dollars if it doesn’t.

It might seem that I’m really picking on larp runners so far, and there’s some truth to that since they’re the ones holding the purse strings in this situation, but let’s also be frank – this is still brand new territory for everyone involved. So while it’s OK to ask for-profit games and full-time larp runners to compensate their staff, please bear in mind and cut them some slack if they’re making an effort. We don’t exactly have decades of business models and comparisons to fall back on here, so even the folks trying hard to be fair and compensate their people are still very much figuring it out by trial and error. Mistakes will be made, even by the well-intentioned, so please don’t whip out your pitchforks just because the writing staff at your favorite game is currently making $50/mod and you think they should be making $65. This is new territory, so rather than attacking, we should be working together to come up with fair pay scales and compensation models. That’s what ultimately will be best for everyone.

Some of you out there, if anyone’s actually reading this – and if so, hi mom, hi dad, I’m so glad you both could make it – are probably also wondering about what all this means for larp influencers too. Quick explainer: if you’re not familiar with the term, larp influencers are famous bloggers, YouTube hosts, and other well-known personalities in the community that larp companies increasingly rely on to build audience and spread word of mouth about their games. Influencers are especially key when it comes to the world of big budget blockbuster larps, where anything less than nearly full attendance and/or glowing reviews can potentially represent a serious financial disaster for the company, and so securing a high profile endorsement can mean the difference between starting a franchise or folding in failure.

I could write a whole article about the problems surrounding how larps treat larp influencers, and I probably will later on, rest assured. For now though I’m going to stick close to the points I’ve been making, if any, and say simply asking a larp influencer to hype your game is no different than another business hiring an advertising agency to raise customer awareness or signing a celebrity to promote its products, and by that I mean you pay them for doing it. Especially if you want them to really go all-in and do things like make larp trailers, sizzle reels, or other marketing tools for you. You wouldn’t expect Don Draper to light cigarette one without offering him a paycheck first; you shouldn’t ask anyone to spend time and money promoting your larp for free either. Especially if you’re coming to them because of their fame and expertise.

In the end, I totally get that even many “for profit” games don’t net a whole lot of cash, especially after you consider their overhead in terms of renting locations, buying props and costuming, etc. But if you’re making more than petty cash amounts of money from your game, and especially if it’s enough for you to live on full-time, it’s time to acknowledge that you are a business and structure it accordingly, including compensating your employees. It’s not just the legal thing to do, but the right one too. Yes, it can be messy and tedious and complicated, and you might need to hire a business planner and/or tax attorney and do other sorts of less fun “adult” stuff, but guess what? If you want to call yourself a business, if you want to put your name and/or the name of your game out there in the larp world as one to watch, this is the price of admission.

Or rather, it should be.

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* By “yet” I just mean that nobody’s making Bezos money for larp quite at this point, not that I assume all larp runners will buy cocaine plated in gold when they do.

** The Sabbat “dental plan” is, unsurprisingly, to randomly murder humans and wear their teeth on necklaces, so we’re not counting them for this example.

*** I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but no, not it doesn’t. Quit it.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #28: Triage

Since I know this may be a little controversial to some, let me begin by stating the following clearly and for the record:

I have nothing against the concept of bleed in larps.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, here’s a quick definition –  it refers to when events at game provoke emotional responses that carry over (or “bleed”) into life outside of the game, typically in an intense, disturbing, or emotional manner. I use disturbing in the sense of something unsettling or unusual, by the way, not necessarily as a negative term connoting the unpleasant or bizarre (though it could be those too). Bleed is most often used in connection with strong, lingering emotional responses, though it can also be used to refer to moments that inspire a great deal of introspection and examination.

Bleed can be deliberately induced, such as when players intentionally confront topics or emotions they have already identified as pertinent to them in real life, such as a player with abandonment issues creating a character who displays an exaggerated version of that problem as a way of exploring those feelings. Bleed can also be accidental, such as when events at game unexpectedly prompt a player to examine real world feelings or concerns after game is off. A character might really lose their temper at game, for instance, and the player find the experience so unexpectedly intense and lingering that they realize they have some issues with anger they hadn’t previously recognized.

I’ve done both in my time, for the record, and they’re interesting experiences. I have particularly enjoyed it when I’m surprised by my own emotions – it’s one of the things that makes larp so magical, at least to me, that the stories we tell can sneak up on us like that and make us feel things we never expected.  So to be clear, bleed can definitely be part of larp! I’m not questioning that. Truly, I’m not. No, the part of my post that is perhaps controversial to some is simply this:

Bleed is not the highest form of larp experience.

The reason I say this is because in some of the larp communities I’m part of, I’ve seen an small but steadily rising number of people discuss bleed as sort of the apotheosis of larp. In their comments, there’s a sense that if a game doesn’t induce some sort of bleed it must not be particularly good or engaging, or sometimes even that a player must not be into their character enough. I’ve even seen arguments break out between players when one person claims to be feeling bleed and another isn’t, as if the latter person wasn’t trying somehow. While I wouldn’t call this a major problem for the larp community by any means, it does strike me as an unfortunate trend, because it ultimately reduces larp to a sort of perpetual quest for increasingly difficult to attain experiences.

In many ways, the idea of “bleed is best” is a classic case of mistaking “this is my favorite thing” for “this is the best thing for everyone” which is pretty common in geek circles. (Well, common to human beings in general, really.) And it’s OK to like something, or even have it be your favorite thing – just remember that it’s also OK that not everyone shares your favorite thing too. Bleed can be wonderful, but making people feel like they’re not playing correctly if they don’t feel it/don’t want to pursue it is just not cool. Likewise, generating/feeling bleed is not synonymous with great roleplay or immersive character experience – plenty of really superb roleplayers don’t look for or often experience bleed as part of their play experience.

Even at the same larp, everybody plays for their own reasons and has their own definition of what makes a good game. That definition can change session to session or character to character too! For example, I know some boffer players who keep a roster that includes a “feels” character they bring out when they want deep story and emotional roleplay, a “beatstick” they play when they want to really run around and throw down with bad guys, and a “casual” character who’s a little bit of both but more laid back than either extreme. All at the same game!

I guess this might seem a little long-winded for such a simple message, but I feel like it’s one that’s always worth remembering. It’s good that the larp community has recognized the concept of bleed and begun seriously examining it as part of participant experience (or even a design goal). At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that bleed is not a universal measure of successful larp, or a great participant experience, or especially someone’s roleplaying ability.

It’s just another element of the amazing medium we are exploring together.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #27: “Don’t I Know You?”

In this installment, I’m going to look at very specific but very useful larping technique: faking shared experiences, also known as “winging the backstory” or simply instant history.  What do I mean by all those strange terms? Well, here goes!

Shared experiences are moments in the past that were shared with another character (or several characters), but which hadn’t actually been agreed upon or developed until the moment they were suggested. This is what makes them different from spontaneously generating your own backstory when it doesn’t involve others, as that doesn’t require anyone’s approval but your own. Essentially you’re suggesting shared backstory on the fly, and seeing how the other person feels about it.

This might seem rude, but if done right it’s not only polite and creative but can be a great way to reinforce character bonds and create a sense of history in a hurry. Skilled and cooperative players can spin elaborate moments out of almost nothing, and there are a few key tips to pulling it off without a hitch:

Tip #1: Offer, with a Way Out
Example: “Hey, weren’t you there when we chased that banshee across campus?”
This is a good example of an offer with a way out. You’re suggesting a shared experience – chasing a banshee across campus – but with “weren’t you there” you’re still giving them an easy out if they don’t want to have that incident in their backstory (“no, I wasn’t there”). The easiest way to do this is to frame these offers as questions of one kind or another, rather than stating them as facts, because that implies a level of uncertainty or latitude that allows the other player to answer more freely. It also takes a bit of the sting out of the fact that you may be catching them off-guard with the suggestion of part of their backstory they never considered.

The essence of the idea is that you’re doing two things at once – proposing a previously unknown character connection, while also offering the other party a chance to decline if they don’t feel it’s appropriate for their character. Suggest, but leave the door open too. It may sound complicated, but with a little practice it becomes second nature.

Tip #2: Use Weasel Words
Example: “I believe it started when I stole that cursed book out of the library, remember?”
Weasel words are words that in this context allow both parties some wiggle room: some, maybe, many, mostly, probably, believe, feel, seems, apparently, remember, etc. In the example, “I believe” is a lot more of a weasel phrase than using something stronger like “I know” – while technically both could still be wrong, “believe” is a lot more personal sounding than knowing. Also, the inclusion of the word “remember” and phrasing the memory as a question once again allows for the other player to back out if they like.

When you’re offering a shared experience, try to keep it relatively fuzzy, so that everyone involved has a chance to add details or alter things they don’t like. Remember, even though you’re proposing it, it still involves other players, which means they get to have a say in what you’re creating together!

Tip #3: Help with Leading Questions
Example: “Wait, were you in on it, or one of the ones who narc’d us out?”
If the other player seems to be struggling, help them out by asking leading questions that might give them a better idea of possible ways to resolve the situation. This doesn’t mean leading them right into being forced to be on your side or divulge sensitive information about themselves – we’re not in a courtroom here. Instead, leading questions allow you to help a floundering player by giving them possible solutions in the guise of asking for more details about the memory or experience you just conjured up.

The important thing to remember is to only do this if it seems necessary to help someone else out, or if they are in agreement and need a hand fleshing out the situation with you. If they’re not interested (see below), don’t keep piling on in hopes of making them moreso, but be willing to accept that it didn’t work and move on.

Tip #4: It’s OK to “No, But”
Example: “No, I wasn’t in on it, and I didn’t narc you out … but I sure remember how the Chancellor freaked out!”
Most of the time in the world of improv acting, you’re taught to “yes, and” and larp is no exception – it’s generally better to agree with someone and build on it than decline an effort at shared world-building. However, when you’re suggesting a shared moment to someone (or having one offered to you), it’s a time when “no, but” is perfectly acceptable. After all, while you may consider it an innocent offer, it might contradict something in the other person’s backstory or go against how they feel their character would act, possibly in ways you never expected.

The important part of understanding “no, but” is that when it happens, it means the other person is still trying to play with you – if they weren’t, that would be a flat no and end of discussion. A “no, but” means that while the idea doesn’t work for them as stated, they’re still interested in following that general line of play, and offering an alternative way to stay involved.

Tip #5: Respect the Hard No
Example: “No, I don’t remember anything about a banshee or a stolen book.”
Sometimes another player won’t be interested in a shared experience and they’re not willing to “no, but” the situation to being one they like more. It might be it just seems to far-fetched or out of character an experience for them to accept, or they might have a detailed backstory they like that just doesn’t have room for it. Maybe it even touches on some entirely OOC element they don’t want to bring up, much less explain in the moment. Regardless, sometimes players will give you a hard no, and that’s their right. This is the other reason phrasing shared experiences as questions and using weasel words is useful – it allows you to back away from the idea without damaging continuity or creating awkward situations where something might or might not have happened.

Example: “No banshee? Oh man, was I hitting the hallucinogenic potions that night? Sorry, my mistake.”

It’s important to remember that while a hard “no” might seem like bad roleplaying at a glance (at least compared to “yes, and” or “no, but” techniques), it’s entirely possible that the stance is driven by factors that you can’t know and that the other player does not feel comfortable discussing. So give everyone the benefit of the doubt and don’t get huffy if you get a flat no, just assume they have a good reason, and just back off the idea. You can always try it with someone else, or find another way to reach the roleplaying moment you’re looking for!

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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! 

 


Badass Larp Talk #26 – The Dangers of Chasing Catharsis

This may be a bit of an unpopular idea, but please, hear me out:

Larp isn’t therapy.

One of the things I’ve loved seeing as larp has grown and developed over the years is the notion that this art form can produce real, profoundly emotional moments for players. While some games are specifically designed to elicit such responses, particularly in the Nordic and American freeform traditions, I’ve still seen plenty of these moments develop for players in more traditional parlor or boffer larps too. Sometimes they even happen to players who normally scoff at the idea of having such a cathartic moment as a consequence of donning elf ears and venturing into the forest for the weekend or putting in fangs and haunting a hotel ballroom for a night. There is really no question that larp can induce moments of great emotional release or trigger surprising personal revelations. And just to be clear, that’s not a bad thing at all!

But catharsis isn’t therapy, and it’s dangerous to mistake one for the other.

The example I like to go with is the Dr. Phil show. Wait, trust me, I’m getting there. On the show, it’s not unusual for people to hear some pat wisdom and “tough love” from that bargain basement Professor X, and respond by dramatically breaking down and tearfully acknowledging their mistakes and promising to do better about some dire personal failing. And while I know the show has been accused of staging such moments, I’ll give them the benefit of doubt and say that most of the folks who do so are genuine. After all, it’s a high pressure, highly emotional situation – they’re on television, they’re usually confronted by several loved ones, they’re getting sound bite wisdom from a world famous personality. Everyone around them is urging them to do better, to be better, and to do so now where the whole world can see it. In those circumstances, even a stoic individual would have trouble not giving in to the emotions of the moment, and most of us aren’t nearly so reserved with our feelings (or resistant to group pressure). Dr. Phil provides a moment of catharsis, a quick fix of self-esteem and the sense of being “better” for those involved.

The trouble, as any responsible mental health professional will tell you, is that rush doesn’t last. People feel clarity and warmth and direction – for a moment. If it’s not followed up on soon, however, and in a serious way, it fades and the individual is often worse off than they were before, because now they’re back where they started and they’re also beating themselves up with guilt about failing to change when they had such a golden chance. Except it wasn’t gold, it was straight up pyrite. Personal change – real, lasting change – takes time and effort and support. And if you’re dealing with actual mental disorders or psychological conditions, you really need the guidance of trained experts and possibly medication to make sure you’re actually getting  better and not simply masking your problem or using bad coping mechanisms.

This is what makes larp as therapy a dangerous idea.

Games almost by definition are exactly that kind of short term rush. You have an amazing roleplaying moment, and it releases all kinds of emotions, maybe even nudges you into looking at yourself or the world in a different way. Games are intense, packing a lot of story and substance into a short period of time. Which is great for entertainment, but it’s not what you need if you have a problem that requires real, long term therapy to treat. At best you’re likely to ride a bit of a rollercoaster, up high around game time and then slipping back between sessions before rising high as the next game approaches. At worst, well, you’re learning bad coping mechanisms to say the least. Yes, a game can be “therapeutic” in the sense that it’s stress relief if you’ve had a rough week and need to blow off some steam, but that’s not the sort of therapy we’re talking about here.

I know what you’re probably thinking. If you’ve been a larper for even a little while, you’ve heard the success stories about people who overcame chronic shyness through larp, or who used in-character events as a springboard to solve problems or confront emotional issues they were facing in real life. You might even be one such success story, for that matter, and if so I’m glad things worked out for you! I’ve known such cases in the past myself, and while I’d argue that most of them were not situations where larp replaced the need for treatment of a serious disorder, there’s no question being part of a community and getting together for regular activities with others is good for anyone, just like eating well and exercising is a good idea all around. The support of a larp community and the friends it contains is a powerful thing that can do a lot of good for a person, and is absolutely to be cherished.

But here’s the thing: support is not therapy, just like catharsis is not therapy. Both can help a person who’s going through changes, sure, but they’re not the same and should not be viewed as replacements for such. Actual therapy is often a long, difficult, and sometimes downright emotionally dangerous process. And if that’s the kind of thing you’re using larp to do, instead of being professionally treated, then do everyone around you a favor. Stop larping, and see a therapist. If the therapist believes that larping can help you, hey, that’s great, but it should never substitute for real treatment for a serious condition.

I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t want to sound unsympathetic. Accidents happen, for one thing – a player with a phobia might not know it’s going to come up in game if it hasn’t in the past, for example, and that’s nobody’s fault if it gets triggered during play. I also know therapy can be expensive, though many clinics and practitioners operate on a sliding scale if you can show hardship, and I’d argue that attending a regular larp often isn’t much cheaper when you factor in event costs, costuming, props, gas, food, etc. But at the same time, look at it for from the other side. The staff and players of your local game are not mental health professionals – and if they are, it’s safe to say that you’re not their patient and they’re still not “on duty” when they’re playing – and putting your well-being in their hands is a disservice to everyone. You’re not likely to get the help you need, and they’re not prepared to cope with the complications if things go wrong.

Which brings up another issue that often gets overlooked as well, but it’s really important to remember: Making other people part of your therapy without their consent is wrong. If you’re trying to confront a lifelong phobia of spiders, for instance, and decide to do so by getting involved in the Unholy Spider Kingdom War at your local fantasy boffer larp – especially without telling anyone about your history – that’s being awfully cavalier with the feelings and enjoyment of your fellow players. They’re not responsible for your therapy, to put it bluntly, and so if you have a breakdown and go catatonic – or start swinging like a berserker as that fear shunts into anger and adrenaline – then you’ve made them responsible for your condition without their consent. Even if you tell them in advance, I’d argue that untrained people can’t really consent to being part of handling a scene involving severe phobia or trauma, simply because they’re not informed enough to know what to do to avoid making it worse.

This also means that games deliberately designed to explore potentially dangerous, emotionally triggering territory need to be overseen closely and with great transparency, for the health and safety of all concerned. Briefings, content advisories, “escape hatch” mechanics for overwhelmed players, and detailed debriefings and “aftercare” should all be standard issue and taken seriously for such games. I’m particularly fond of the growing trend of using simple hand signs to signal other players to slow down, stop, or continue with particular types of scenes, as I feel it is a big step in the right direction. But if you’re not willing to put in that kind of work for an intensely cathartic game, then you’re not simply ready to put on that kind of game, and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near players until you remedy the situation. No, it’s not “edgy” or “shocking” to drop players into such extremely taxing and emotionally loaded territory without warning, it’s immature and irresponsible. Full stop.

In the end, a friend had a very good parallel for this whole situation – larp will not get you in shape, though getting out and getting exercise is still nice, and wanting to wear that beautiful heavy plate armor you’ve been dreaming of or fit into that swanky suit you feel will catch the Prince’s eye can certainly be outstanding motivation to eat better and work out more. But trying to get fit solely through larp just isn’t going to work, and attempting to make it happen ignores important realities of exercise and nutrition that will at best leave you frustrated and at worse actively hurt you. Not only that, but it isn’t the job of the staff or your fellow players to be responsible for your fitness regiment during an event.

Mental health is no different. Yes, larp can be a powerful and wonderful thing – it could generate a breakthrough you take back to therapy, for instance, or even inspire you to recognize a problem and seek help in the first place – but beyond that it’s no substitute for trained professional help. Enjoy your catharsis, by all means, but for your own sake and the sake of others around you, don’t mistake it for therapy.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #25: Play the Game You’re At

Have you ever showed up at a baseball game and wondered why no one wanted to toss a football around? Tried to enter your ferret in the Miss Teen USA pageant? Or offered to throw down at a Street Fighter V  tournament using your sick Magic: The Gathering deck? Of course not! All of those are ridiculous examples, right?

Except that’s sometimes exactly what happens when people come to larp.

Before I get into it, let me just say that I don’t normally pull the veteran card when it comes to larp. For one thing, logging a long time in a hobby doesn’t automatically make me better at or more insightful with it than someone else. For another, like any art form, larp needs youth and fresh perspectives as much as it needs the proverbial age and guile, so discounting people for having less experience is a fool’s errand. So I’m reluctant to make it a factor as a rule, and yet in this instance I feel that time logged actually has merit. So if you’ll pardon me, here we go.

I’ve been larping for 23 years now, not as long as some of course, but long enough to have seen trends come and go and as well as observe all kinds of play styles, game setups, and group configurations. I’ve done everything from homebrew parlor larps to massive networked boffer larps to Jeep and American freeform games. I’ve been a player and game runner and a rule designer and participated in all kinds of stories across a couple dozen genres. And let me tell you, sooner or later the same person shows up:

A player who attends one game, but tries to make it into another.

I’ve seen this in pretty much every venue and genre you can imagine over the years. There are always players who feel that the game and its setting should bend to what they want to play, rather than trying to create characters that work in the world they’re presented. I addressed some of these when I talked about problem players a while back, but it’s worth mentioning that players who want to bend the game can have very different motivations, which means that understanding them and how to approach them requires knowing exactly what type of player you’re dealing with in the first place.

The Commanding Cosplayer
This is a player who has a really cool cosplay, and is less about larping in the setting offered than finding another place to wear it between conventions. The game setting is near enough to the original cosplay source that they feel confident wearing it there, because “close enough,” right? Often they will make a nominal effort at changing some superficial elements, like having a different name than the character, but otherwise they don’t want to change more than they absolutely must, since the costume is what matters. Note that this can apply to people who have excellent historical costumes as easily as cosplayers who base their looks on fiction – I’ve seen Revolutionary War soldiers try to play at fantasy larps in full kit or period-perfect 1920s gangsters arrive at a cyberpunk bar. Having really great costumes can be a boon to any character or any larp, of course, but the Cosplayer is a problem because they want the game to shift to accommodate their aesthetic, rather than the other way around, and can wind up being visually distracting or outright disruptive to the game environment as a result.

The Fanfic Superfan
Sure, this game setting is great, but OMG! You know what it reminds them of! THEIR FAVORITE [BOOK/ANIME/MOVIE/TV SHOW/COMIC SERIES]!!!!111oneoneone This player compares the game to their beloved inspiration whenever possible and immediately tries to figure out how to shoehorn in terminology, backstory, characters, world concepts, or other elements from this source, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea. These are the players who try to turn your local fantasy larp into straight up Game of Thrones, who want to make a Requiem game into a live-action Vampire Diaries fanfic, or can’t seem to so much as see a wand in a setting without endlessly equating everything to Harry Potter. Now, every game has inspirational material behind it and that’s great, but the trouble is that the Fanfic Superfan just can’t let it go and embrace what’s new about the game setting, which does both their inspiration and the larp a disservice.

The Exchange Student
This player brings in a character from another game that they love and want to keep playing, regardless of whether or not the concept really fits the game they’re arriving at now.  Rather than change their backstory or other core concepts, they try to bring their original character elements into the game even if it doesn’t suit the world as presented. An example would be a player who tries to bring a vampire character from a homebrew setting into a Masquerade game, but refuses to use the clans and Disciplines of the new setting, instead trying to get their original clan and powers approved instead. Speaking as someone who’s played variations on the same base character off and on for 16 years now, believe me I understand – but the difference between me and an Exchange Student is that I always reshape and reinterpret him to fit the game world, instead of assuming I can walk in as the same person with the same backstory and capabilities regardless of setting.

The Backseat Designer
This type of player can be a little more subtle than some of the other types, but winds up being far more disruptive if their behavior is not caught early. Simply put, the Backseat Designer thinks they know better than the game runners when it comes to a game’s rules or setting or both, and therefore feels free to introduce their own elements instead. Sometimes they can’t help but comparing the game to some fabled game of their past, and constantly try to reinvent this one until it’s a copy of that one, or it might just be that they can’t help tinkering with what they see. This might be making up an important historical event that never happened in the official game timeline, or it might be choosing to ignore a rule they don’t like (or impose one of their own design instead), but whatever form it takes, the Backseat Designer sees no problem in changing the structure of the game in order to make it what they feel would be “better.” Naturally, while larp is a collaborative exercise, changing major elements like rules or important world history without consulting the game runners is a reciper for confusion at the very least, and serious player discord and event problems at worst.

The Troll
It’s pretty rare in my experience, but sometimes people come with a concept they know doesn’t fit for no other reason than just to mess with the game/see how much game-breaking they can get away with before they get tossed or the game grinds to a halt. The trouble is that a troll can appear to be one of the other types, but while those players generally aren’t trying to deliberately create trouble – they might just be a little confused about the setting, their character, or both – the troll is just there to be as disruptive as possible. Needless to say, if it becomes clear that a player is simply playing a character who doesn’t fit in order to mess with the game, it’s best to toss them out as quickly as possible, and if necessary retcon their actions if they ruined play for others. Giving a supposedly repentant troll a second chance is up to individual game runners, of course, but it is  worth remembering that other players who don’t make such selfish and disruptive decisions are worth giving priority.

So What’s to Be Done?

As evidenced above, there are a lot of motivations that might cause players to try to bend a game to suit their needs rather than adapting their characters to the world they’re offered. Regardless of why they do it, though, it’s important to recognize that this is not acceptable behavior – while larp is a collaborative effort, it is still important to respect the  role of the game designers and the vision they have for the kind of game they want. Some may not care if players freely add or change elements, but many do, and unless a player has been given specific permission to make changes or bring in characters who don’t quite fit the normal setting parameters, they should work with what they’re given rather than spend energy trying to make it into something else.

This may sound harsh, but at its heart it’s actually advice with the best interests of everyone at the game in mind. For instance, if a game designer announces a new larp set in a four-color superheroic world of her own creation, where the players are going to portray old school straightforward superheroes, attending that game is an agreement on the part of the players to take part in that world. Yes, the game designer needs to make it clear what kind of game she’s putting on – if only so the players don’t make inappropriate characters by mistake – but she should not have to then further defend it from players who want to play a different game and so try to make hers into what suits them.

Sure, a player may wish he could have a darker, more modern superhero character. He might think that modeling his character on Rorschach from Watchmen would be the coolest thing ever, or that it would be great to have Infinite Crisis have occurred in this world, or wish he could bring in his wonderful Dark Knight cosplay outfit based on Batman’s iconic battlesuit in The Dark Knight Returns. He might want to have time control as a power, and have a whole rule set worked out for it, even though it’s not on the regular powers list for this game. All of these might be great elements … but not for this game.

This game is not about those things, and trying to make it so is not conductive to group play.  

Let me be clear – it’s OK to ask game runners questions, or even offer suggestions. Nobody is saying otherwise! However, if the game runners decline to make changes a player desires, it’s the responsibility of that player to accept such a decision and either play the game as presented or leave and find a game that better suits their needs. After all, one of the wonderful parts of being involved in this golden age of larp we have going right now is that there’s certainly no shortage of alternative games available if one doesn’t suit you. Or, for that matter, no shortage of players who’ll likely be interested if you start your own!

But if you go to a game, don’t try to make it something it’s not, or judge it for not meeting expectations it was never intended to fulfill in the first place. Instead, embrace the world and the system you’re offered for what they are, because that’s the vision the designers have in mind. It’ll be less stress and more fun for everyone that way.

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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! 

 


Badass Larp Talk #24: What You Pay to Play

It’s an often overlooked game design factor, but truly one of the most important things a larp runner needs to decide on are what the barriers of entry to their game will be like. Or to put it another way, what sort of limits and requirements will they impose on their player base in the name of the game? For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming the game is at least semi-public – entirely private, invitation-only games are a different sort of entity entirely.

What follows is a list of some of the most common barriers of entry that a larp runner should consider when putting a new game together, or which might be worth occasionally re-examining as part of an ongoing game. It’s important to note that there are no “right” answers here, simply decisions and how they potentially impact a game. It’s a series of trade-offs, and ultimately the only correct answers are the ones that allow the game runner to create the experience they

For example, if a game runner wants to have a weekend larp event with $150 tickets that also requires extensive costuming, total immersion roleplay, and significant downtime preparation beforehand, that’s not necessarily “elitist” or “exclusionary” – it’s simply her prerogative for crafting the sort of game she wants. She’s accepting that with those barriers in place she’s going to have a small, dedicated player group in return for delivering an incredibly immersive and detailed experience.

By the same token, a game runner who hosts free bi-weekly games with minimal costuming and roleplay requirements isn’t necessarily creating a “weaker” game – he might simply not be interested in turning people away and just want to run a game for a big, rotating cast. If that’s the experience he’s shooting for, then great!

With that in mind, here are the barriers any larp runner should consider

Money: Sticker Shock 
The most obvious barrier to entry is direct cost. A free game potentially attracts anyone who’s even a little curious about what game might be like, while a game that costs $80 or more per session is likely to cut out a lot of low-income players – many high school and college students, as well as fixed income or minimum wage earners – which definitely changes your player base. While the upside of having an expensive game is that it naturally also tends to attract players with more disposable income, which in turn often leads to higher costuming, prop, and makeup standards for the player base, as players who can afford a more expensive session tend to have the money to splash out on fancy gear as well.

The downside to a high cost barrier, of course, is that it simply rules out a lot of the larp demographic right off the bat, and may also force out existing players who suffer a financial setback later on.  On the other hand, free or low-cost games cast a wide net, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the local player base.

Time: It’s Money Too
Another barrier of entry is time investment, both in terms of session frequency, session length, and any downtime needs as well. A game that’s played for a few hours one night every other month and requires minimal downtime participation is a lot more accessible to working parents and busy professionals, for example, while a monthly game that requires a full weekend (like many boffer larps) and/or has extensive downtime roleplay demands is going to naturally cater to students, couples without children, and other players with more free time on their hands. Games that demand a lot of time investment, whether at session or in downtime or both, do tend to encourage in-depth roleplaying and backstory creation if only due to the sheer amount of time players spend playing and developing their characters. By contrast, a lower barrier makes it easier for players to stay involved at all levels of involvement.

The downside, of course, is that players who can’t invest so much time either feel left out o the important action, or are actually relegated to second-class characters simply because they cannot follow every forum discussion or Facebook post. In an age when even modest larps spawn multiple Facebook groups, private messaging threads, and official forum posts to follow, this barrier should not to be underestimated!

Costuming: You Must Be This Rad to Ride this Ride
Time and money are both important barriers to consider, but another very important one is the costuming barrier. (To save space, for the purposes of this article “costuming” is being defined as the overall use of costumes, makeup, and props to portray a character.) This is not necessarily linked to the ticket price of a game, though it certainly can be, as even games with “cheap” tickets become considerably less affordable if the costume barrier is set high. On its own, though, it’s what standards a player is expected to uphold in terms of appearing to be part of the game world on just a purely visual level. A high standard helps create an incredibly immersive experience for everyone, and can be crucial for creating an intense roleplaying environment and keeping people in character. By contrast, a low barrier encourages new and casual players, as well as requires far less setup and prep to make players ready to start0.

Costuming standards are an extremely sensitive barrier in the larp world, however, as there’s often a thin line between expecting players to meet certain standards and having garb Nazis shaming players for not being up to snuff. Few things drive off new and potential players than feeling like they’re being mocked or excluded just because they don’t have the coolest costume on site, and even veteran players can get into destructive “cooler than thou” cycles over what is “acceptable” costuming.

No matter where the barrier is set here, game runners should watch carefully for signs of costume policing, garb shaming, or makeup snobbery and stamp them out whenever possible. If a player isn’t meeting the game’s requirements, mocking them never helps – but offering advice and assistance just might earn a dedicated player for years to come.

Roleplaying: Who Do You Think You Are?
How important is it for players to stay in character? How seriously is roleplaying to be taken? How immersive is the experience going to be? Simple questions, but deceptively challenging ones. Most games have a rule about staying in character, of course, aside from perhaps a designated out of character zone or to (briefly) address rules or safety concerns. That’s the absolute minimum barrier, though, and most games unofficially add levels to this requirement over time – not just discouraging players dropping character, but actively expecting them to roleplay in certain ways such as playing to fail, taking defeat seriously, respecting in-game authorities, etc. A high barrier insists on serious, in-depth roleplaying, while a low one doesn’t mind if players are a bit more casual or their characters less fully-realized.

Games with a high standard for roleplaying expectations can be as intimidating as they are engaging, however, and if they don’t take care to offer advice and assistance to players who aren’t used to such acting requirements they’re bound to turn away a lot of potential players who simply don’t feel good enough to play. By the same token, a game with a low standard can be frustrating for players who enjoy more in-depth roleplay if they feel too many other characters just aren’t “serious” or that their scenes are constantly interrupted with out of game chatter.

Lore: There Will Be A Test
Another less commonly considered barrier of entry is what might be called a “lore requirement” – how much in-game knowledge you expect players to have in order to function properly and roleplay in the game world. Games with a high lore barrier tend to have complex world histories and years of accumulated play experiences that reward players with immersive environments and in-depth environments for engaging with their stories, while games with a low lore barrier are much more welcoming to new and casual players, requiring far less explanation and setup for players to get up and running. Consider how much world lore you need to absorb to properly play a highly political Game of Thrones larp, for example, versus how much you need to play neophyte mortal vampire hunters in a World of Darkness game.

The downside to a low lore requirement is that it can feel a little too “episodic” at times – if the game doesn’t acquire much history and backstory as it goes it can seem like a sitcom where everything resets between stories. On the other hand, games with a high lore barrier can be seriously intimidating, like trying to start in the middle of the fourth book in a nine book cycle or picking up a comic series with forty years of continuity references behind it.

Moving the Bar
Last but not certainly not least, changing existing barriers is subject worth mentioning is changing barriers down the line, because if it’s not handled right it can lead to serious player discontent. Raising a barrier presents the most obvious problems, of course – if a game’s ticket price jumps from $35 to $65 there’s likely to be a lot of anger and dismay, for example. Even if players understand the necessity of an increase, it may not prevent some players from needing to drop out due to lack of funds. Likewise, if elf players are used to just wearing ear tips to signal their species, telling them that they now need to do full wigs, face paint, and French accents is likely to call up a storm of complaints.

Lowering barriers may not seem like quite as much of a problem, but it carries difficulties of its own, especially if the existing player base feels like the game is being “watered down” or that their investment in the game is being devalued. After all, if playing an elder vampire used to require writing a 10 page backstory, and now it requires a single page, the players who went through that effort are going to be justifiably upset – and may take it out on newer players who didn’t have a say in the change.

When raising or lowering a barrier, there are a few things that can be done to make the process easier on everyone. The first is to be as upfront and transparent about the change as possible – let players know what is happening and why, and be ready to answer questions and address concerns. The second is to give players lead time when making a change – while this isn’t always possible, the more time in advance the players have to process the change, the less likely it is to upset them or even cause them to leave the game.

Lastly, it’s usually worth considering compensating players who met the original barrier, especially if it’s now being lowered. Going back to the elder vampire example, giving players of existing elders who wrote the 10 page backstories some perks or advantages is certainly fair, and a good way to show that their effort was appreciated even as the new standard is being implemented. Even a small gesture can go a long way to mollifying players, which is worth it to keep the game going and fun for everyone.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #23: 5 Ways to Give Better Game Feedback

One of the amazing things about larp is that players are often in direct contact with the people responsible for the rules of the game, not to mention the setting. Even if you’re playing with an established system like Mind’s Eye Theatre or Cthulhu Live, many games still have a thriving culture of house rules and homebrew errata. Which means that the average player potentially has much more input into the rules for the game than in any other form of gaming, especially in the social media age where many game designers are friends with their players on places like Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, as Uncle Ben – the comic one, not the rice one – once said, with great power comes great responsibility. And frankly, in my experience a lot of gamers come across as a bit insensitive when giving rules feedback and proposing system changes, which can make the experience a lot less pleasant for everyone. So in the interest of helping players and designers alike, here are some quick guidelines to giving great larp rules feedback:

1 – Be Polite! (Seriously!)
Not because game designers and event runners are delicate flowers, but because if you want them to take your input seriously, you need to talk to them like they’re human beings. Before you click send, look over what you’ve written and make sure it isn’t insulting or obnoxious. And no, comments like “I’m just being honest” don’t justify being brutal in your critique. I’ve been edited by professionals for years, and I’ve had manuscripts absolutely savaged by editors who nevertheless were never any less than friendly and polite while they took my work apart down to the molecular level.

Gut Check: Would I be mad if I got this from someone else? Is my tone clear and respectful?

2 – Is It Really Better, Or Just Better For You?
One of the most common types of game feedback is what might generously be called “innocently self-serving” – players who claim to be proposing changes that will make the game better for everyone, but which would in practice benefit the player (and sometimes their friends) more than anything else. To be fair, a lot of times players don’t even realize this is what they’re doing, and that’s OK. Their perspective is based on their character, after all, so even well-intentioned players may put forward suggestions that are actually highly self-serving without realizing it. All the same, before you write in with a rules change, stop and as yourself if it’s something the game needs, or just something you need?

Gut Check: How much does the game as a whole benefit from this suggestion?

3 – Is It A Necessary Change?
I’m not saying little things don’t matter – most games are really a collection of little things, when you think about it – but it’s important to take a step back and think about how necessary your proposed change really is for the game. Is it a problem that’s seriously impacting gameplay in a major way? Or is it a minor irritation or small grace note that you just want to see tweaked? If it’s not a huge problem, it’s OK to say that up front – acknowledging that it’s not a major concern often makes it more likely to be considered, if only because you’re not claiming it is a crucial make-or-break element.

Gut Check: How high priority is this? Have I addressed that in my comments?

4 – Know the Right Time & Place
As mentioned previously, a lot of game designers and event runners are in direct contact with their player base on a daily basis, whether it’s through official game forums, Facebook pages, personal blogs, or other forms of social media. That’s good in a lot of ways, but it’s important to remember that game designers need time away from game too. One big cause of designer fatigue I’ve seen is when designers can’t seem to get away from the game. You start seeing it when posts on their personal Facebook that have nothing to do with game still get a lot of players responding with game terms and jokes, for example, or when the designer is out having drinks at a bar and people keep bringing up game when they are trying to talk about other topics, that sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with using the game as a starting point for a friendship, but if you’re in someone’s personal zone, it’s probably also welcome to talk about other things too. And if a designer has asked to keep game comments to certain times and places, respect that!

Gut Check: Is this a good time to bring this up? Is this the right place to do so?

5 – Accept That You Can Have A Great Idea (And It Still Might Not Be What They Want)
This is a tough one, make no mistake. Sometimes you might have what feels like an absolutely killer idea – for a new rule, a new power, a new setting element, whatever – and you think it will add a ton to the game as a whole. You might even tell other players about it and find they react similarly, and so you send it to the designer and hang back waiting for it to get approved. And then the word comes down that they’re not going to use it. You don’t know what to do – all you can see is how wonderful and perfect the idea is, and how good it would be for the game. So why won’t they use it?

There are a number of possible answers: Maybe they already have something similar in mind they just haven’t used yet. Maybe it actually conflicts with an upcoming plot development. And maybe, just maybe they like it as much as you do … but it still doesn’t fit what they want for their game. Because it is still their game, after all. Look at it this way – if you were in a band, you probably wouldn’t make changes to your songs, even if the person suggesting it knew something about music and was a really big fan. By the same token, it’s easy to forget that a game designer is an artist too, and might like their game the way it is just because it’s how they want it. And that’s their right.

Gut Check: Am I OK with the notion that this idea might not be used?

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #22: Why You’re Not Having Fun Anymore

One of the most wonderful things about long form/campaign larp is that it offers a chance to become part of a story that spans months or years of play, allowing you to inhabit your role for a length of time that would seem ludicrous to many other styles of gaming. It’s one of the things I love most about larp, this chance to weave stories over a long period of time and watch whole communities of characters mature and develop in the world, and I truly believe it is one of this medium’s most powerful strengths. That said, though, campaign play also brings with it some very real problems of its own, and I’m not even talking about more community-oriented ones like staff changes, out of character feuds, story arc disputes, rules quarrels, site troubles, or other messy circumstances that arise in any group over a long enough period of time.

No, this post is all about four of the most insidious things that many larpers wind up doing to themselves over the course of a long form game. These are ways that even great players sabotage their own fun, typically without realizing or understanding exactly what has happened and why it’s taken the fun out of a game they used to love so much. I’ve seen them happen many times over the years, at games ranging from fantasy boffer larps to White Wolf parlor games and beyond, and I’ll admit I’ve suffered from them myself in the past.

So if you’re playing in a campaign game, take a minute and run down the list. It might just help you steer clear of an obstacle you didn’t even see coming.

1) You’re Going to Every Game (Whether You Feel Like It or Not)

Seriously. Burnout is a major factor in both player and game runner fatigue. Finding a great new game can be a lot like falling in love – you can’t stop talking about them, you can’t stop thinking about all the fun you’ve had, and you definitely can’t wait for the next time. But eventually some of that feeling is bound to fade, and you’re due to start feeling a little bit fatigued. But you keep going to all the events anyway, because now you’re invested in the story and the other characters, plus it’s a chance to see friends you’ve made that it’s hard to see at other times. So you go, even though your heart’s not in it the way it was before, and don’t get me wrong – it’s still fun. But it’s a different kind of fun, because now you’re not going for the game anymore, you’re going because it’s a social expectation of sorts.

Eventually you can find yourself going to game grudgingly, or even dreading the approach of another event, because what was fun now seems more like a chore.And that, my friends, is the biggest red flag of all, because if you don’t heed those feelings, pretty soon you might walk away from game entirely – and all because you didn’t heed the warning your larp brain was sending.

The Fix: If you don’t feel like going, don’t go! Take a break. Sit out a couple of games and let your story batteries recharge. Find a reason for your character to be away for a little while if you like, but regardless, step back. Come back and play when you feel the urge to go and play, as opposed to the urge to go just to see people out of game. (If you miss your game friends, but don’t feel like gaming, arrange a night out or something instead – it’s always fun to see people outside of game anyway.) Trust me, it’ll help. Game runners, I know this sort of fix is trickier for you, but if you ask around it’s often possible to get a limited run “special guest storyteller” or someone similar to step up and handle duties for a game or two while you get some downtime. And it’s wroth it.

2) Your Character’s Story Has Run Its Course (But You’re Still Playing Them)

I know this is tricky, because part of the appeal of a long-running larp is that the story never ends (unless the game goes under). I’ve known people who’ve played the same character at the same game, continuously, for more than a decade. That’s amazing when you think about it, and more power to those folks. If that’s your style and your character, awesome! However, that combination of player interest and character longevity is a rare one, at least in my experience. A lot of larpers I’ve known get dissatisfied with a game after a while but can’t say exactly why, and when they puzzle it out, the answer comes back to the fact that they don’t feel like their character has more stories to tell.

In a nutshell, their character has essentially stagnated – sure there are new stories being told around them, but not through them, if you follow me. The town changes while they stay essentially the same. And so the player gets more and more restless, because there’s none of that wonderful thrill of character growth and exploration you have early on, and so it gets harder and harder to enjoy sessions because you’re now relying solely on external stories and events for fun, instead of also generating a certain level of your own enjoyment through character development.

Think about it this way – have you ever read a series or watched a show where you loved the main character, but after a while it started to feel like the story was going on too long?  Where you wound up wishing that the creator would simply end the series, because either the main character hasn’t changed in too long (becoming boring) or because they have changed so much you don’t even recognize them anymore (tossing out what you liked in the first place)? Most of us have experienced this at one time or another, and yet a lot of larpers wind up doing the exact same thing with their own characters, because they embrace the notion that story doesn’t have to end but miss the follow-up about how sometimes it really should conclude.

The Fix: I know it’s tough, but sometimes you have to say goodbye, or at least see you later. This doesn’t mean your character has to get killed off, though, or otherwise permanently written out of game. (Assuming you’re allowed multiple characters at the same time, anyway.) But it does mean you need to at least take a good long break from your primary character. Make a new character, preferably one with a totally different way of looking at the world or from a totally different background. Try them out for a while. Sometimes all it takes is a break from a regular role and a change of perspective to re-energize you and make you see your original character in a totally different and exciting way, and you can dive right back in with a fresh sense of purpose. Or sometimes you see that, well, your original character had a great tale, but it’s finished, and so it’s time to write them out and move on. Trust me – it’s better to realize a character’s story is over and end it the way you like than it is to keep on to the point where you’ve worn the concept down to a nub. Game runners, this goes for you too – villains, allies and other familiar faces have arcs just like player characters, and outlasting their time can be just as bad. Learn to guide them to their own finales, and let go when it’s time.

3) You’re Not Investing As Much Emotionally (Yet Expecting the Same Returns)

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but it bears repeating – all other things being equal, you get from larp what you put into larp. Period. Early on, this isn’t a problem – like I said, the first sessions of your time at a great larp are a lot like the early days of a great romantic relationship. You’re at the mad infatuation stage, where everything is fireworks and flowers and you can’t help but throw yourself into every session with all you’ve got. Even after that stage cools a bit, most of the time you enter a nice steady state of serious emotional investment – your character has forged ties with others, they’re regularly involved in plots, they know most all of the other faces in town and where they stand, and so on. A good character in a thriving game can exist in that state for months, sometimes years, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Characters are a lot like anyone else, after all – they tend to find a comfortable niche for themselves and settle into it, whether it’s badass assassin or idealistic politician or humble merchant or cheerful adventurer for hire.

But … eventually, for most players, a certain emotional fatigue sets in. Or perhaps complacency would be a better term for it. Combat, which was once a total rush, has become rote – a matter of math and rules instead of mayhem and roleplay. Other characters you used to roleplay with have been written out, killed off, or simply stopped attending – and all these new faces just seem to blend together. Games that once promised exciting installments of your favorite story that you just couldn’t wait to dive into now seem more like “Monster of the Month” episodes and everything feels like you’ve seen it before. (“How many times have we saved the world? Geez, I stopped counting at eleven or so.”) You used to be afraid to walk in the woods at night, or thrilled to duck into that secret back room meeting, but now it just feels so … remote.

Now, I’m not saying this is all necessarily your fault. Maybe the game staff has turned over, and the new stories just aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe the new players aren’t connecting with the game in the same way you do. Or maybe the quality of combat roleplay itself really has declined, and it’s not just you. But let’s assume for a moment that outside factors aren’t the problem – or at least, not all of it. Because larp fatigue is real, and it’s not just due to over attendance or a character outstaying their welcome. It’s also a matter of roleplay discipline, specifically holding yourself to the same standards you did when you started (or perhaps a little later when you hit your groove at the game). It’s easy to forget that larp is a skill that not only takes practice to develop, but also concentration to maintain during play. And if you let that slip, well, naturally things aren’t going to be as fun or exciting or emotional as they used to be, because you’re not there like you used to be, and so you’re going to be frustrated because the same things that used to thrill you won’t anymore. Because they can’t. Consciously or not, you’re not letting them.

The Fix: This problem is often the result of one of the other two problems above, so you might want to check them first. Assuming they’re not the cause, though, the only thing you can do to combat this sense of detachment is to, well, get attached. To characters, to stories, to the relationships in the game’s community, to the drama of the moment. I know that two years into a game it can be difficult to feel the same giddy thrill that you felt the first time you ventured forth into the darkened woods or down into the scary basement, but simply put, you have to try. You have to make the effort to really invest yourself back into your character, to stop taking the meta view of stats and story arcs and who’s doing what with whom outside of game, and really inhabit your role again. Characters can grow up, of course, they can become jaded like anyone else – a warrior seasoned by dozens of battles isn’t likely to have the same reaction to a fight that he did to his first, after all – but you have to draw a clear distinction between the character becoming hardened to their world as opposed to you the player numbing out the experience. Trust me, it’s a seemingly small but absolutely crucial distinction.

4) You Don’t Like the Game Anymore (But You’re Still Playing)

At first glance, this may sound a lot like #1, but there’s a fundamental difference – #1 assumes that you still like the game and want to keep playing, you just need to ease off on the play schedule a bit so you don’t burn out. But this is different. This is all about A) realizing that the game you loved isn’t the game you’re playing anymore, and B) you don’t enjoy what it’s become. There are a lot of reasons why this might come to pass. Maybe the rules have undergone major revisions, and you can’t stand the new mechanics. (Many larpers can’t even read the words “final edition of the rulebook” without uttering an involuntary bitter laugh.) Perhaps the game’s storyline has changed the world in a way you fundamentally disagree with, so much so that it seriously interferes with your enjoyment – I once played in a very traditional fantasy boffer game that decided without warning to add aliens and laser guns, for instance. Or maybe the staff has experienced significant turnover, and you don’t like the way the new crowd is running things compared to how the game was managed before. Sometimes it’s not any of those, but just the fact that one day you look around and realize the crowd you started playing with is almost if not entirely gone, and you don’t really connect with all these new players the same way.

Whatever the reason, it boils down to the fact that you just don’t like the game anymore.

And that can be really, really hard to accept. After all, larp is a big time investment, and more often than not a big monetary one as well. A lot of us wind up spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars making costumes, building props, perfecting makeup schemes and so on, not to mention the costs of “incidentals” like gas money, event food, and other miscellaneous supplies. It’s hard to look at how much you’ve put into a game and think that you might just have to walk away from it, no matter what the reason might be. And so you fight it and hang on, even as the game becomes less and less something you enjoy and more and more a collection of flaws and frustrations you can’t stop noticing, because the alternative is not going and that’s just not acceptable. Nobody likes to think that they’ve “wasted” all that time and money, even though it wasn’t really wasted if it has already given you hours of amazing stories.

On top of that, there’s the personal dimension too. You make friends at game, sometimes start romantic relationships or even get married to people you meet there. The gamers in a long form larp often create a community that’s something between a group of close friends and a rather kooky extended family, simply because as the game goes on even the most antisocial player spends months or years at a time in the company of the same people. We’re human beings – we can’t help but connect to people we know for that long, especially when we hear them talk about their lives, celebrate their victories and comfort them through the hard times. Since it is the common experience that brought you together with these other people, realizing that the game isn’t for you anymore can feel like a betrayal of sorts, like you’re letting them down somehow. Even if you don’t consciously realize it, concern over whether or not leaving the game will mean losing the friends you’ve made there can keep you in a game long after you would have stopped playing otherwise.

One clue that you might be sliding toward this state of mind, if you haven’t reached it already, is reviewing your after-action conversations and looking at the ratio of jokes and fun anecdotes to snarky comments and complaints. If you’re spending more time complaining about a game session than laughing and telling cool stories about parts you enjoyed, you might have a problem that you need to consider. Now, every game will have a bad session, or maybe just one that was good overall but you personally didn’t enjoy so much, so a negative after-action session here and there isn’t a problem. However, if you look back and realize that most or all of your post-game reports have turned primarily negative, you’re almost certainly headed in this direction. And that means you either have to re-evaluate what you enjoy about the game, or make a couple of hard choices.

The Fix: There are really only two options here: talk about making changes, or pack up and move on to a different game. There’s nothing wrong with trying to bring your concerns to the attention of the staff and/or your fellow players – after all, given the time frame of long form games, sometimes change is so gradual that other people don’t notice, and will correct the shift if it’s brought to their attention. If you’re going this route, try to be as constructive as possible. Don’t just wax on about “the good ol’ days” of the game or dump on how bad or wrong you think it is now; neither tactic will earn you any points. Just talk as politely as possible about what you think needs changing, and why. Offer suggestions – not mandates, suggestions – about how this might be done, and be ready to discuss it rather than get huffy and defensive if others have different ideas. Games are communities, after all, and it might be that the desires of the community have changed, and made the game fun when you began playing isn’t what makes it fun for the players now.

Which brings us to the other option, namely leaving the game. Obviously this isn’t ideal for most people, but at the same time remember the very first principle of gaming – games are supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, why put yourself through it? And for that matter, if you’re not having fun, why spoil the fun for others by hanging around in a game you can’t enjoy anymore? Again, politeness is key. As tempting as it might be, try to resist the urge to burn bridges, and don’t go out in blaze of petty spite and sour grapes. Even if you don’t care for the people there anymore, it’s not worth tarnishing your own memories of the game to leave it on a sour note. Just bow out, remember the good times, and focus on keeping ties with those players you still want to see outside of game. It’s better for everyone in the long run that way.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #21: 4 Backstory Boosting Mini-Games You Can Play In the Car!

One of the most difficult – but also most rewarding – parts of larp is coming up with a good character backstory. A sense of a character’s history often gives great insights into how to play them in the present, for one thing, not to mention shines some light on what you’re For some people this comes easily, but for many others it’s a bit more of a chore, especially if you’re new to a particular game or to gaming in general. Fortunately, coming up with a fun, interesting backstory (and accompanying character depth) doesn’t have to mean nights of staring at a blank Word document, waiting for inspiration.

I’ve spent a lot of time driving to and from larps over the years, often with 2-3 other people along for the ride, and when I realized that some of my best character ideas sprang from the discussions we had in the car, I figured it might be fun to present a few games you can play with those lovable lunatics in your carpool. Games designed not only to be entertaining and help make the drive a little easier, but that also offered up a host of sneaky ways to develop all of your characters’ backstories in the process.

So whether character histories are your best friends or your worst enemies, I think you’l find this an interesting collection of ways to build character and write history without facing down that blank white screen!+

1 – The Hell of A Hat Game

My number one favorite trick for a reason, this one relies on nothing more than what you’ve packed (or put on) for game to make it work. Going around in a circle, have each player pick one of their costume and prop pieces – not necessarily the flashy ones they might already have stories for, like signature weapons or prominent jewelry, but preferably just some little, ordinary things – and explain where it came from and/or why they still have it. One of my favorites? Boots. I play in a post-apocalyptic survival horror larp, Dystopia Rising, and I love asking folks where they got their boots. (I mean, this is a world where new Timberlands aren’t exactly rolling off the assembly line, after all.) Did they trade for them? Find an unopened box on a scrounging run? Take them off a body? (A body they created?) Did they make them? Where did any of these things happen? You’d be amazed at how creative ordinary things can make you, and how much they can tell you about your character in the moments they’re not out fighting monsters and saving the world (or damning it).

Even in a modern setting, it can be surprisingly interesting to figure out where your werewolf gets her blue jeans (and if the clerk wonders why she keeps ripping the ones she gets), or whether your occult researcher takes time to shop or if they’ve been wearing the same clothes for months (years?) on end. I once knew a vampire character who wore purple all the time, and when I asked her why, she stopped and thought about it for moment, then said it was because centuries ago when she was a mortal, sumptuary laws prohibited her from wearing that color, so this was her thumbing her nose at the past. Awesome, right? Proof that you can get great character moments out of little things like that, even if you never considered it before that moment – the devil may be in the details, but so is a lot of useful information … and motivation.

If you want to have a different but equally interesting kind of fun, start picking pieces of each other’s costuming and props, and try to imagine where they came from, what that character did to get them, etc. In either case, I recommend playing to about five or so at the most, time permitting – you don’t want to use up all their costume at once, after all, especially because this game tends to get better and better the longer you’ve played a character and the more you’ve added to and tweaked their costume.

Sample Questions: Where did you get those boots? Where do you shop for your clothes? How did you come by that ring? What’s the piece with the most sentimental value (that has no in-game worth or power)?  Who made that necklace for you? If you lost X, what would you do to get it back? Do you carry anything your parents gave you anymore? 

2 – The Polaroid Game

You can do this in character, or out of character, or a mix of both if you prefer. Ask one of the other players to give a snapshot image of your character, something they imagine might have happened at some point before your character entered play. It can be a funny image, a serious image, a mysterious image, any kind of moment at all. It doesn’t have to start off being terribly specific – “I picture your character, bloody, standing over a body while a woman cries out, ‘What have you done?'” is in many ways just as useful for this game as something like “I see your character, bloody, standing over Mary’s body in back of the Northpoint Tavern while Jodie cries out, ‘What have you done?'”

Once the basic shot is sketched, each other player adds another detail to the picture – “You’re bloody but not wearing your armor or holding a weapon” – until it comes back around to you. (Hence the name Polaroid, as the details of the picture slowly come into focus during play.) The details added don’t have to be strictly visual either, despite the name of the game – someone might add “They had just pushed you too far and you snapped” as a detail if they like, though it’s fun to try to find a way to express those visually if you can (“You can tell by the look on your face that you had just been pushed too far and snapped”).

If people have trouble coming up with these details, you can have them do it in response to questions you ask about the picture that’s developing – for example, if a player is stumped, you might ask, “Did I kill the person lying on the ground, or was that someone else?” in order to help guide them. If you’re doing it with just one other person, I’d recommend that they add up to 3-4 supplemental details, perhaps in response to your questions about the image as described previously.

Once one picture is finished, play rotates to the next player, and everyone describes a new snapshot for them. If you want to play a more guided version of this game, try having the player being depicted name a particular moment or topic they want to see- “My first kill”, “My happiest moment before the Fall”, “The moment my character realized the Truth” etc. – and see what other people come up with in response.

Now, when it comes to actually using the material the other players come up with, you can discount some of it, or all of it, or otherwise alter and experiment with it as you see fit, but hearing how other people see your character – how they imagine they’ve lived, what they might have done – can be an interesting way to shake up your own notions of who your character is and where they might have gone in the past, not to mention where they might have go in the future.

Even if it seems to be very against what you might initially think applies to your character, try to keep an open mind and you might find that sometimes the material that is most unlike them is fodder for some of the best stories. After all, maybe your character is usually so calm and collected precisely because the last time she lost her temper she wound up standing over a body, bloody and incoherent.

Sample Moments: The first time I held a weapon; the last time I ever got ripped off; the night I decided to leave home; the moment I figured out what I really was; the instant after I did what I regret the most; the first time I got paid for my work; what I do on my nights off; the time I was happiest, before all of this started; the moment I first came face to face with Them. 
Sample Follow-Up Questions: Where am I? Is anyone else around? What kind of expression do I have? How long ago does this look? 

3 – The House of Cards Game (aka Larper’s Poker)

This one takes a deck of regular playing cards, but in a car full of gamers, that usually isn’t too hard to come by. (There are also smartphone apps that can deal a random card or generate a random number you then assign to each suit.) Deal one card at random to each player, let them look it over and think about it for a moment, coming up with a short story from their character’s past as dictated by the suit of the card they received. Each suit requires a different kind of story: Hearts centers on mental health or an emotional relationship of some kind (not necessarily a loving one); Diamonds refers to stories focused on wealth, equipment and other material goods, or lack thereof; Clubs requires a story about a physical challenge, battle, illness or ordeal of some kind; and Spades refers to encounters focused around interaction with special, setting specific elements such as zombies, magic, cyberware, superpowers, monsters, etc. You may want to at least roughly define what Spades involves before playing, if it might be unclear.

Starting with the lowest card and working up to the highest, each player tells a short story based on the suit they received – these should be no more than five minutes, tops, and can be a lot shorter, as suits a player’s comfort level. (It’s OK if stories start super short – that just means you can play more rounds!) Try to stay within the type of story you’ve been given – that’s part of the challenge – but don’t jump on players if it seems like their Diamond story about their old engagement ring seems more like a Hearts story about the lover to which it once belonged. These categories are broad and may often seem to overlap, and that’s OK. The stories are the goal, after all. When everyone has told their story, shuffle the cards back into the deck, deal another hand and start again. Simple, but effective.

If you want to try some variations, deal each person a hand of five cards – player riding shotgun holds for the driver, as is their ancient right and obligation – and allow each player to pick a card for each round, to give them a bit more control over the kind of story they feel like telling. Or have the stories be connected to the values on the cards – lower numbers mean it was more of a minor incident, while higher numbers mean it was more important, and a face card means they have to talk about a particular person who came into their life (or left it) as a result of the story. Or let players hand each other the cards, so that they get to determine what kind of story their fellow players will tell (rotating so that each person gets a chance to assign a card to each other player and no one gets more than one card in a round). There are a ton of variations on this game, all of them fun, so have it.

Wait, that’s still not enough? You want the double black diamond version of this game, so to speak? OK, then!  Deal each player five cards and go around in turn as before … but each round the player must somehow continue the story they’ve started telling. For example: A player is dealt a hand of two Clubs, a Heart, a Diamond, and a Spade. They start with a Clubs story about a battle they won, then on the next round they play their Diamond and talk about how they recovered a valuable weapon in the aftermath, which in turn leads to a bitter Hearts rivalry as they fight over possession of the weapon with their former best friend (who also claimed it), followed by a Spades story about how the local seer consulted the gods as to who was the rightful owner (the player’s character), but then with the final Club we learn that the friend attacked the character and stole the weapon anyway, beating them savagely in the process. A potentially dynamic story of friendship, hardship, loss and betrayal, and it all sprang from a random hand of cards.

4 Play/Theme/Pass (aka The Mixtape Game)

This one’s near and dear to my heart, as anyone who’s ever seen the stacks of mix CDs in my car can attest to, especially if they joined me on a drive to game. It takes a little more prep than some of the others, but pays off nicely when you manage it (and digital devices do make it a bit easier than it used to be). Making a music mix for game is a time-honored tradition – hence the ancient term “mixtape” in the name – but there’s a fun way to put a backstory twist on it. Have everyone in the group contribute a few tracks to a collective mix/playlist of music inspired by the game and its characters, and as each song plays, everyone declares “Play/Theme/Pass”.

Play means that you enjoy the song, but don’t necessarily feel it would be a song for your character in particular. Theme means that you could see that song as a theme for your character, something you’d put on a personal playlist dedicated to your character. (You can have more than one Theme, and more than one character can call Theme on the same song. It’s non-competitive that way.) Pass means that you’re just not connecting to the song in relation to the game; it doesn’t necessarily mean you think the song is bad, but you’re just not feeling it in this context.

You don’t need to explain a Pass further (and don’t insult anyone’s musical taste either), but if you say Play or Theme, try to say what about it got your attention – connect it to your backstory, to your impression of your character. Does the beat remind you of the thrill of a battle in your past? Does a line in the lyrics jump out as totally true to your character? Is the tone of the song putting you in the mood for game? Did the music capture a moment in your character’s history so perfectly it makes you jump up and down in your seat? If two players pick Theme, might it be because they shared that moment in their past? It doesn’t have to be a long, detailed anecdote or anything, just a quick image or moment or impression that it brings up as you think of your character.

The more people do this, the more amped up everyone tends to get, which is a lot of fun. Plus you tend to get a lot of awesome new music to add to your library, especially if you throw together new mixes every few events, and how cool is that?

Of course, if you’re the really competitive sort, you can actually score this game – simply tally up the points for each track and assign them to the player who contributed it. Each player who picked Theme for that track gives the contributor 2 points, each Play is worth 1 point, and each Pass is worth zero. Add up the totals at the end of the mix and declare a Mixmaster General if you like! That might be too technical for some folks, but then again, if you’ve got a 3-4 hour drive to game, you might just enjoy another way to help pass the time.

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+Note: These games generally presuppose the presence of other players, and while most can be configured to be played solitary, I believe all of them are enhanced by group play. What’s more, despite the title of the post they don’t require an actual carpool to work. You can just as easily play these games right before or after a session, or at the diner one night, or even on a game’s message boards. Of course, if you prefer to work alone, all but one of these still work just fine – the point is having fun and coming up with backstory elements in different ways than simply sitting down and writing them out.

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This post is an adaptation of a talk I was scheduled to give at the amazing Shoshana Kessock‘s equally amazing Living Games Conference. Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to illness – hence the material winding up here – but if you’re even casually interested in the many forms of larp and what people are doing to expand and innovate in the field, you owe it to yourself to head on over and check out the site. While the conference has ended, there’s still a ton of great larp material collected there, and if nothing else, the first academic conference on larp in the United States deserves attention and respect.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #20: 5 Popular Boffer Larp Mechanics It’s Time to Re-Examine

BIG DAMN DISCLAIMER
This a post about game mechanics that are common to many larps around the country (if not the world). I am not saying that any game with these mechanics is terrible, and I not calling someone a bad game designer for putting them in their game. For one thing, I’d be condemning about 95-99% of the boffer larps and boffer larp designers out there, since most of them use at least one of these systems, and that’s not my intention or my assessment. I’ve been a boffer player for 14 years, designed and run my own boffer game, and helped write rules for a few others here and there, including systems that used some of these very rules. I love boffer larp. No, think of this more as a call to examine some of the practices that I think the genre may have outgrown, or at least may need to re-assess regarding the cost:benefit ratio surrounding their implementation.

If it helps, think of it like D&D community assessing the utility of THAC0 when the time came to transition to D&D 3.0 and onward. While it’s not the worst system by any means, the designers took  a look at the system and said “Are we using this because it’s the best, or just because it’s the rule we’ve always had and it does well enough?” Though it met with some resistance, including a surprisingly sentimental amount from folks like me who grew up with that system, ultimately the attack system re-design resulted in what I think many players agree is a stronger system overall. Even the diehards who stuck with AD&D and the THAC0 system had a chance to compare it to some new ways of thinking and decide if they wanted to improve anything while still keeping what they were used to using. It was a win all around.

Just to recap: I am not saying your favorite game sucks. I am not calling anyone a bad game designer. I am saying that maybe it’s time to take a look at some of these mechanics and see if they’re still necessary, at least in their current forms. Your answer can certainly be “No thanks, what we have works for us!” and a cheerful wave, and that’s fine! If your game is working and everyone’s having fun, then great, by all means keep on doing what you’re doing. Having fun, after all, is the ultimate goal of any game. Just wanted to make that clear.

That said, let’s have some fun taking apart some rules, everyone.

#5 – The Card Check
The Theory: Keeps players honest.
The Problems: Needlessly breaks immersion, does little to prevent abuse.

There are lots of little variations on this practice – some games use rings of tearaway strips, others have plastic chips players must carry, some use multiple character sheets, and so on – but the basic idea is the same: At certain intervals, the game staff will come along and check your character card or what have you, do some math and make sure that you’re not cheating (using skills you don’t have, overspending for those you do, etc.). It’s also not uncommon for games with these systems to require players to write down things like skill use, resource point expenditures, and so on during play, so if say a crafter is forging a magic sword then he must take a moment or two during the process to write out what he’s doing on his character card. A good player will do this as unobtrusively as possible, but even so, the fact remains that according to the system it needs to be done.

Like most things on this list, it’s not necessarily a bad practice in theory, or when it comes to rare or permanent changes to a character – religious baptism, joining a secret society, forging a powerful item, taking a death in a limited death system, etc. – but when it’s required for more commonplace activities it simply becomes a needless hassle as people break character to sit down and do math after exciting scenes. (Or you make defacto cheaters out of the players who don’t bother or remember to do so.) The great thing about larp, and especially boffer larp, is that the action is supposed to unfold in real time as much as possible. Copying down expenditures on a card is pretty much the exact opposite of that, as it breaks the momentum of the moment and forcibly reminds players that they’re playing in a game.

The other main argument for this practice is to prevent cheating, but honestly, it’s extremely rare that it catches anyone on its own. Like it or not, larp is pretty much entirely an honor system. There are too many players spread across too much territory to watch everyone. If someone wants to lie about what they can do or how often they can do it, they won’t be caught by checking their card math; if they’ll lie about using a skill, why would they be any more honest about their record-keeping? No, serious cheaters will be caught when a marshal watches them break the rules and calls them out directly, usually after other players or NPCs report their suspicions to staff. And you know what? You don’t need a card call system to catch people that way.

Suggestions: Don’t worry about minor expenditures and commonplace actions, but develop a system for recording and monitoring skills and powers that create items, alter characters in a permanent way or otherwise have a lasting impact on the game or significantly affect the game’s economy. Requiring players to report to a central location – typically the NPC staging area, or somewhere nearby – with any required resource cards or other materials is a good way to do so with crafting skills, as it lets staff verify that the proper procedures were followed for important skills and that no one is making items without the necessary resources. Ditto recording significant game events like baptisms, deaths, marriages, etc. But the “everyday” stuff like combat skills, basic healing, and so on? It’s not worth the interruption in play to make people record them. Rely on alert marshals and players to bring possible cheaters to the attention of the staff and leave the little things on the honor system.

#4 – Narration
The Theory: Adds colorful details to the world that are not easily simulated with props/makeup/set dressing
The Problems: Breaks up the game, strains the imagination of an already taxed player base, can lead to problems if people enter the scene after missing the initial description

Let me be clear that I don’t think a little narration now and again is such a bad thing. We are playing a game that relies on the power of imagination, after all, and I certainly don’t mind using mine. I’ve looked at a single wooden wall and been asked to imagine it as simply the front gate of a whole castle; I’ve watched a friend’s apartment become the literal Underworld with nothing more than some candles and dripping water sound effects; I’ve had a hook turn to my group and tell us that the network of candles and Christmas lights on the ground ahead represents a maze with walls of shifting light. Not to mention that I can look at my friend Frank with brown facepaint and tied on horns and see a minotaur instead,  or mentally edit out the feet of the NPCs operating the large Chinese dragon-style monster and instead focus on the fact that the mouth part is actively trying to devour me. It’s all part of the game.

Here’s the thing, though. If you look back at those examples there, all of them have one thing in common: in each case the staff combined narration with the power of even just some basic setting preparation, so that the narration at least had some sort of foundation for my mind to work with instead of just declaring something existed by narrative fiat. I wasn’t just told “there’s a castle there” – the NPCs actually built a single wall with a gate so that we had something to focus on, and that single wall still makes it a lot easier to imagine the rest of the castle than conjuring it entirely in our minds. The hook didn’t just declare “OK, you guys are in a maze now”, but actually laid out a maze on the ground in lights, forcing us to navigate it while solving puzzles and battling monsters. My friend Frank could’ve just narrated “I actually look like a minotaur”, but instead he put on makeup and added some props to help create the image our imaginations could finish in full minotaur form. The key is creating as much suggestion as possible with props, makeup, costuming, set pieces, and so on, so that the narration is simply adding to what the players see in front of them, not conjuring something out of nothing when it can possibly be avoided.

This may seem an odd bone to pick, but it stems from the fact that boffer games are supposed to run in real time as much as possible, which makes WYSIWYG a crucial standard to keep the game running smoothly. If I see an orcish tent encampment in the woods and plan a raid accordingly, it’s more than a little bit of a pain in the neck to have a timeout called as soon as we come crashing out of the trees “because this is actually a castle and you can only enter through the gate, which is those two traffic cones there” and be forced to into a do-over.  (And yes, that sort of thing has happened.) Likewise, if an NPC walks up to me, throws up an out of game sign and says “Oh, by the way, I look exactly like your character’s old friend who betrayed him”, it’s anticlimactic to say the least. We’ve lost all the fun of me recognizing them from across the room and reacting accordingly, whether it’s cursing their name and pulling a sword, running and hiding, or whatever else I might want to do in response. Instead he’s right in front of me and now I have to adjust my reactions accordingly, when I might have never let him near me if I knew it at a glance.

Bottom line: The less you can trust your eyes to at least give you the basic story at a boffer game, the less immersive it will be, and the more prone to frustrating mistakes and missteps based on players missing crucial narration. (Nothing like walking in a few minutes late and quipping at an NPC dressed in basic blacks, only to be told “Um, that’s actually a fire giant” and spending the next few minutes arguing about whether or not you can take back what you said because you didn’t know what the NPC was supposed to be. Good times.)  And that’s just not ideal from a game point of view.

Suggestions: Like I said, a little bit of narration isn’t so bad from time to time, but it’s best when it’s paired with some real elements that help maintain the reality it’s creating. Players are amazingly adaptable and will work with most any setup you give them, but you’re doing both sides a favor if you use setting elements to reinforce your narration. I remember a great fantasy adventure that started with the hook bringing our adventuring group to a little cabin in the woods, turning and telling us: “OK guys, this building is a cave, and the black tarps are the cave walls, so you can’t attack through them or cross under them, and for story purposes it gets hotter and hotter as you go in. Any questions?” Sure enough, the inside of the cabin was set up like a tunnel system, complete with low tunnels set up under tables that we had to crawl through, and it was a blast. A little basic narration combined with some great setup turned into something truly memorable.

#3 – Prestige Classes

The Theory: A special reward system for dedicated, long-term players.
The Problems: A favoritism minefield and an escalating unbalancing factor in large games.

This is one of those hot button topics that can easily tear apart long term games, or at least lead to a lot of bitterness and burnout in the veteran player base, and yet it’s a very common phenomenon at many different games. As usual, at base it’s not a terrible idea – rewarding dedicated long-term players by allowing them access to special “prestige classes” that bestow powerful, high-end capabilities on their character. The actual term for these special roles varies, naturally, but the basic concept is the same – after accumulating a large amount of experience and/or play time, as well as completing certain in-game tasks, a character is granted a new set of powers or given access to a skill list not available to other characters outside of this new prestige class.

The problem here is two-fold: frequency and favoritism. Frequency is simply how often these special rewards are approved – in order to retain their special impact, many games grant these rewards sparingly, elevating a handful of players a year, perhaps a dozen at most. Which can work in smaller games, where that might represent a significant chunk of the player base, but as the size of the game increases it may cause problems. Bestowing prestige classes on 6 players every year in a 60 person game is probably fine, but in a game of 300 players there are going to be a lot of unhappy players at the same level of XP/time invested grumbling about not being picked.  Which brings up the favoritism problem – whether it’s just sour grapes or actually might have some basis in truth (intentionally or not), accusations of favoritism are a serious concern for games that use the prestige class system. This is especially true when you consider that many prestige classes have exceptionally powerful or useful abilities, which can make even veteran players feel frustrated if they feel they are being continually passed over for this reward while also watching rivals or enemies acquire these capabilities.

Suggestions: If you decide to use a prestige class system of some kind, transparency is your friend. Even if it’s surrounded by multiple levels of in-game secrecy, as far as the players are concerned it should be clear when a character becomes eligible, how they can apply for one of these classes, and what if any selection restrictions are in place (as well as whether re-submissions are allowed if they don’t get picked up the first time). That may sound a bit mechanical, but the more the system relies on “personal judgement” by staff, the more you’re opening the process up to accusations of favoritism and encouraging bitterness and unhealthy competition among the player base as people gossip about why one player got their special reward while others got snubbed, and so on.

#2 – Big Numbers
The Theory: Large numbers make things epic!
The Problems: Large numbers are a pain to track during play and often make new players feel pointless compared to veterans.

A lot of boffer games are addicted to big numbers, with players tossing around damage totals in the hundreds and facing down enemies with thousands of hit points. Big numbers sound impressive in theory, but really, from a live action point of view, they’re rarely anything but a totally avoidable disaster in practice. Sure, it sounds awesome to swing for 150 damage, especially if you started out swinging for 3 back at your first game. I’m sure it does make you feel a little bit epic. Cool! But let’s think about it for a second – when numbers start rising, is the challenge of the game actually becoming greater, or simply the associated math?

Let’s say we’re both badass veteran warriors at our respective games, but you’re in a high math system and I’m in a low math system; you swing for 50 damage each hit, and I swing for 1. In your game, a nasty troll has 1250 hit points; in my game, it has 25. Both of us will need to land 25 hits on that enemy to put it down. (Let’s leave spells, skills, and special attacks out of it for the moment.) So far it sounds the same, right? Except at my game, a new player also swings for 1 damage. So it’s 25 swings for him too. But at your game, a new player swinging 3’s will take 417 swings to put down that bad guy, or in other words, he won’t, at least not without developing a wicked case of tennis elbow in the process.

In order to combat this problem, many games adopt a “scaling” practice where they openly divide the player base for battles and adventures based on character level or the equivalent, so that new players don’t fight things they can’t kill and veterans don’t get bored obliterating nuisance threats. In other words, in a scaling system you might not be able to go on anything designated an “Epic Adventure” unless you’re level 15 or higher, that kind of thing. Which is all well and good when you can easily divide players, such as when you have hooks taking a pre-determined number of players on a structured adventure in a designated area, but it can be very difficult to preserve the concept in sprawling melees, night ambushes and other more freeform situations. And it’s not much fun to be the new players who stumble across the Unkillable Lich Minions and are carved down without even the slightest hope of winning. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that every enemy should be a cake walk for new players as well as veterans, and I know full well that many larpers will stubbornly insist on fighting when they probably should run. But there’s a big difference between “probably a good idea to flee” and “there is absolutely no hope at all” and I know which one sounds more fun and dramatic in the end.

Now, I’ve also heard this practice defended with logic along the following lines: “Well, a 1st level D&D character can’t expect to fight a 15 Hit Die dragon and win – why should it be any different in larp?” And I suppose that’s true if that’s the model you want to follow, but in response, let me answer with another question – is a math-heavy tabletop gaming model designed for a small group of friends necessarily the best basis for a real time live combat game with dozens or hundreds of players? I know fantasy boffer games started up with the general idea that it would be like playing D&D in the woods, but it’s been more than 20 years now. Boffer gaming is its own form, with two decades of innovation to make it so. We can imitate tabletop standards if we want to, but we certainly don’t have to do so anymore.

Suggestions: Obviously, this is a difficult thing to “fix” in an existing game without overhauling the entire system, so if the game already uses large numbers and adventure scaling, it might be more of a question of just understanding the problems the come with that kind of system and trying to minimize them. Make sure the new players feel valued, spend equal time and effort designing content for the different levels of players, find other ways to make things challenging than simply adding more numbers to them.

#1 – Calling Damage Every Swing
The Theory: It helps keep combat math straight.
The Problems: It kills combat roleplay, makes large battles extremely confusing, and renders ranged effects difficult to downright useless to land successfully.

This is the absolute number one thing that I find frustrating about fighting in boffer games. Anything larger than a small skirmish invariably becomes an escalating shouting match as everyone tries to make sure their target can hear them clearly, creating a battlefield din that can make it difficult to tell which numbers are directed at which target. Not to mention the difficulty people have in adding up the numbers coming at them – it’s hard enough to add 35+11+7+7+14+25 in a hurry, let alone while you’re also shouting your own numbers back. Which leads to a lot of boffer combatants essentially giving up on doing the math and just taking their best guess at when they should fall down – and if pragmatism means more or less everyone does that, what’s the point of calling damage supposed to be, again?

Another casualty of constant damage calling is ranged combat (including spellcasting and similar mechanics) – I’ve watched spellcasters of power great and terrible throw packets into these cacophonous rugby scrums and scream themselves hoarse trying to be heard by their targets, even giving up in frustration at times. Bow and crossbow users sometimes do a bit better, especially in systems that use padded arrows instead of packets – it’s a lot harder to miss being hit with an arrow than it is being hit with a tiny bean bag – but as someone who plays a game that uses nerf guns to simulate real ones, I know well the frustration of landing a perfect shot only to realize after four tries that my target can’t hear my damage because they’re heavily engaged with three people in melee and all four of them are yelling numbers of their own. Nobody’s cheating – they’re not ignoring my shots on purpose or anything – it’s just that with all the loud math in the air, my target literally cannot hear me over the din. And if I have to run up close to make my skills known, I tend to lose a lot of the basic point of being an archer/gunslinger/spellcaster, namely that I’m supposed to be able to destroy rude strangers from a distance as opposed to getting right up in their faces.

To be fair, a lot of my frustration with this problem comes from the fact that I started out playing in one of the very few boffer games that didn’t use damage calls every swing. It had a very simple system – a one-handed weapon did 1 damage, a two-handed weapon did 2 damage. If you couldn’t tell what hit you – say you were struck from behind and couldn’t turn around to see what did it – you assumed the higher number. If you used a special skill to increase this amount, you called that extra damage, and if your weapon had a magical quality, you called it once or twice the first couple of times you attacked a target, just to see if it had a special effect (or was totally ineffective), but otherwise you didn’t need to call anything while you were fighting. And you know what the best part of that system was?

We could fight and roleplay simultaneously.

Instead of having to pause our combat damage calls in order to say something to our companions – yell for help, a rallying cry, pray to the gods, insults for our enemies, whatever – we could swing our weapons and talk at the same time. It made for a  very dramatic combat environment, where we could continue our character roleplaying and interaction the entire time. Now, I know from experience it’s certainly possible to intersperse roleplaying and combat in systems that require constant damage calls, so I’m not saying such systems eliminate combat roleplaying, but they certainly don’t encourage it to the same degree as a system which has few if any damage calls. When you take out the constant math calls, you not only encourage combat roleplaying but also make it far more likely that spells, ranged attacks and special abilities are properly noted, since those are the only rules calls that will be made during the average fight. It’s a win all around.

Suggestions: Like big numbers, this system is hard to remove from a game without completely overhauling the combat system, but there are some work-arounds that different games have used in the past, and not just the very simple “number of hands = damage inflicted” mechanic I discussed previously. Some games color-code weapons, for instance, so that if you’re hit by a blue weapon you take 1 damage, a green weapon does 5 damage, a red one does 10, etc. At night or in other situations where it might not be obvious, you simply call the color a few times as you swing – “Red! Red! Red!” – until your opponent knows what you’re swinging. This system does rely on learning a color code, requires a handful of standard weapon damage settings to correspond to those colors (typically increments of 1, 3 or 5), can be limited by the practical availability of properly colored duct tape or fabric sheathes to mark weapons, and can be quite noisy at night when colors are hard to see, but it remains a potential alternative. Other games use hit location systems, where weapons don’t inflict damage numbers, they simply render body parts useless after a certain number of hits to that location (potentially modified by armor on that location). This too can have some problems, as it can encourage extremely rapid striking and is often quite brutal compared to other games, but it does eliminate a lot of damage call mechanics a game might dislike.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #19: Bias Cut

The Appropriation Conversation
This is one of those posts that I’ve started four or five times, but had trouble finishing each time, because while I think there’s something that needs to be said on the subject, I’m not sure right now if there’s a solution as such (and if there is, I sure don’t have it). So what I have to say may not add up to more than a longer version of “Hey guys, this is a thing, you should consider it when designing your games” – but you know what? The hell with it. I’ve had the itch to write about this long enough, it’s time something got said, even if I don’t have as many answers as I’d want.

Whew. Here goes.

There’s a lot that can be said about race and culture in the context of gaming in general, but to the surprise of nobody who reads this blog even semi-regularly, I’m going to choose to focus on how it applies in larp. Not just larp, even, but primarily in live combat or “boffer” games, as they seem to be the biggest examples of what I’m going to be talking about in this post. They are not the only ones who encounter these subjects, particularly with the rise of many experimental freeform and Nordic larp games dedicated to exploring issues like race, culture and identity, but once again I’m going to try to stay within my wheelhouse here, and I’ve been doing boffer games for almost 15 years now. The issue, I think, is best phrased as the following question:

When do real world analogs and their resulting cultural appropriation cross the line from inspiration to insult?

Let me explain what I mean by cultural appropriation, here. In many games, the various fantasy cultures, kingdoms and even races that players portray are based at least in part on actual peoples and cultures from real world history. It’s a fairly rare fantasy boffer game that doesn’t have some kind of Norse analog, for instance, not to mention a Celtic one and often a loosely defined “you know, like, Asian” one. These cultures are often called different things in the game, naturally, as befits the fictional nature of the world, but players are directed to use their real world inspirations to guide their costuming, makeup and prop choices, sometimes even encouraged to attempt accents or speech patterns based on these cultural touchstones. (Some games even borrow religious or cultural language from these cultures directly, like a fantasy game with Thor as one of the deities or using a term like ronin in their otherwise entirely new fantasy culture.) When I was younger I took this in without thinking too much about it – it was all make believe, after all, and anyway we weren’t actually supposed to be real world individuals, we were just borrowing parts of the real world to help give this fantasy one a solid foundation. Now, though, I look on them with a bit of hesitation, because sometimes I’m not sure we’re putting our best foot forward as a community.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As a designer and a player, I have to admit I’m torn.

On the one hand, I totally get the advantages of this sort of world-building – rather than try to build something as complex as fashion, language and culture from the ground up, using real-world analogs allows a designer to focus on the parts unique to their game world and gives players to an easy way to handle what they’re being asked to portray. This is often crucial for new players, particularly those new to larping altogether. After all, it’s already fairly taxing for them to try to take on the imagination load of being another person in another world surrounded by other imaginary people, but chances are they know what a Viking is, so imagining that they’re a Viking-type person makes it just a little easier. Not to mention that it’s easier to construct costumes and props, since there are already a lot of references and patterns available. Using an existing culture as a reference point is therefore a good way to help people identify with the game world more quickly and easily, which in turn helps them engage with the stories going on there.

It can also be a lot of fun to do some culture-and-genre mashing, as far as more advanced designs go. For example, in the past I played a game with dark elves, who are long since a staple of modern fantasy gaming, but gave them an interesting twist by combining standard dark elf makeup with feudal Japanese costuming and etiquette, rather than sticking with their traditional vaguely Western European dress and matriarchal organization. They also had a regal culture that combined elements of Victorian England with ancient Rome, which sounds like an utter sartorial train wreck but actually hit a lot of great notes conveying a sort of instinctive sense of power, dignity and imperial superiority (for better or worse), which is exactly what they were shooting for when they created it. I love these sorts of mashups, because when they’re done well it can breathe new life into what might otherwise be all too familiar territory, and let’s face it, fantasy games in particular often cover a lot of very familiar territory.

Just to be clear, then: There are definite upsides. I get that, do not deny it. In fact, I think real world cultural analogs can be powerful tools for designers who think them through and use them respectfully and deliberately. After all, it is certainly possible to create a fantasy setting that uses elements inspired by feudal Japan without venturing into caricature and stereotype – Legend of the Five Rings certainly did so very ably and respectfully, after all, in both tabletop and larp form.

That said, there are the parts that start making me a bit uncomfortable. Because while a lot of these cultural appropriations are harmless or nearly so, there also quite a few that are at best rather painfully simplistic and at worst, well, extremely insensitive and offensive. I think the main culprit here are the “vaguely Asian” cultures I mentioned earlier – they are common to a large number of fantasy games, and all the more striking because while many games have a number of very distinct cultures drawn from various European roots – Norse, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Elizabethan English, etc. – those same games then turn around  and simply hand-wave everything east of Transylvania or so into one big catch-all category.

Now, I understand where this is coming from. While the gaming community is thankfully becoming more diverse, games still tend to have a player majority drawn from various varieties of Western European descent. So that’s the historical and cultural backdrop they know best, and therefore they’re more aware of the distinctions in those real world cultures than they are of Asian, African or South American cultures. Doesn’t make it any less simplistic and potentially insensitive, but I can see the why, if that makes sense? Still, it’s rather shockingly patronizing when you step back and take a good look at it.

I mean, let’s try a little thought experiment here: Imagine if you described a game culture as simply “European” and left it at that. You’d have players asking questions about exactly what that’s supposed to mean, how the designers could possibly lump the Greeks with the Spanish and the British, do they think Vikings are the same as Roman centurions, etc? And yet that’s pretty much exactly what’s being done in a lot of these game cultures that simply say “Asian” or “African” then dust off their hands and walk away.

When I first started boffer larp, I played at a game that has one of these “we-say-Asian-but-we-really-mean-Japanese-and-a-few-things-like-tie-shirts-we-think-are-Japanese-but-are-actually-Chinese” cultures, and looking back it makes me cringe to think of just how staggeringly insensitive it was. The name of the culture was simply a real world Eastern culture with r’s substituted for the l’s – get it? – and players were encouraged to use the sort of thick “Asian accents” you don’t hear anymore outside of old time race comedy and the worst sort of hack stereotype characters coughed up by Hollywood. Looking back I just want to facepalm myself into unconsciousness, or perhaps better yet smack the designer on the back of the head. That’s probably the worst example I’ve encountered, but there are quite a few other games that come awfully close to that same line, and really there’s just no excuse for it – not then and certainly not now. I mean, if nothing else, this is the Age of Search Engines. You don’t have to say “Asian” anymore – you can tell people to reference the Edo period, the Boxer Rebellion, the founding of the Joseon Dynasty or any other specific country and era you like, and references are just a few clicks and an image search away.

Speaking of lines, this is just a friendly heads-up for the gaming community at large: inasmuch as one can say an entire culture agrees on anything, generally speaking the Romani consider the term “Gypsy” more than a little offensive, essentially tantamount to using a racial slur. I didn’t know this myself until a few years ago – it’s so pervasive in our language and the Romani are such cultural outsiders that it’s unlikely to change any time soon – but still, now we know, and knowing is half the battle, right? I’m not asking anyone to give up their game cultures based around a nomadic people dressed in bright colors, but maybe we could stop using a racial slur to refer to them? I mean, if you want to use the culture as the basis for a culture in your game, try referring to the Romani instead of using the term Gypsy. Take it from a writer who has his own flamboyant “Gypsy cavalier” larp character in his back catalog and did a big Vistani writeup for Ravenloft back in the day – it’s not any harder and you get to be less offensive too. Win win.

Now, I know that there are probably at least a few people out there saying something along the lines of “Wait a minute, I’m of Scandinavian descent and I gotta tell you, I find some of these ‘Norse’ game cultures pretty damn offensive too – why don’t you say something about that?” Well, for one, consider it said. I’m not disagreeing with you – I’m not saying it’s only non-European cultures and ethnicities that can be appropriated in offensive ways. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are proud of their heritage, take one look at fantasy game “Celts” and want to throat punch everyone with a terrible Lucky Charms accent. Insensitive is insensitive – just because a lot of gamers are of Western European descent doesn’t mean they can’t be just as patronizing and clueless about those cultures too.

So … What Do We Do About It?

Before anyone accuses me of trying to launch some sort of witch hunt or anti-fun crusade, bringing games to their knees with political correctness run amok and whatnot, let me stress that when these offensive things are done at a game, I’d say about 99% of the time it’s done out of ignorance, not malice. (It certainly was in my case.) People are playing a game to have fun in a make believe world, and because of the distance that fantasy provides they don’t always see what it might look like back in the real world, especially to people from a different background than their own. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything, but it does mean that you should look at it as a chance to educate, not harangue.

Designers and game runners, when you’re considering using real world analogs, make sure you understand what you are carrying over and what it might bring with it. This doesn’t mean that you should feel paralyzed with indecision, worried that every little move might offend someone somewhere. (Any creative project will offend someone, as the Internet will be only too happy to point out for you.) But it does mean you should stop and think through your decisions – are you using parts of a culture that will add to the game in a meaningful way, or do they encourage the perpetuation of stereotypes and caricatures? If a player starts taking one of your cultural analogs in an offensive direction – for example, showing up in an outlandish caricature outfit and speaking with an offensive accent – what will you say to them?

For example, I was at a game recently where some folks playing dumb redneck NPCs started going off on “lazy Mexican” stereotypes, which needless to say, made more than a few other players angry and uncomfortable out of game. This dumb redneck culture is part of the game, and they probably just figured they were acting in character, but at the same time there’s no question that tossing around real world racist stereotypes crossed the line for their fellow players, and with good reason. Fortunately the game staff was on top of it and addressed the problem quickly, declaring the behavior out of bounds and telling players to refrain from real world insults and stereotypes in favor of insults based solely on the game’s fictional “races” and local cultures. Still, when you draw on real world analogs, you have to realize that sometimes players may miss the point, take it too far, or otherwise cross the line, and you should be ready to handle the situation if it does.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of games now post rules about inappropriate material, and a discussion point about real world analogs is definitely considering if your game includes them. Let players know that real world elements are there for inspiration, not caricature and stereotype, and let them know the proper method for expressing concern if they feel that something has crossed a line. That alone can go a long way to making sure your game stays  a safe space for people to feel comfortable while they’re playing.

Players, for your part, remember that when a game uses a real world analog, it’s generally designed as a quick reference and a jumping off point, not as a final destination. Unless the game actually encourages you to bring over cultural and historical elements, you should look at it as more of a visual reference than a cultural mandate, and therefore feel free to take it in new and interesting directions rather than recreating what we already know of in our own world. Games are a chance to really unleash your imagination, after all, so even if a game culture has a lot of Celtic analogs, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have Gaelic sounding names or make references to existing traditions. (Not unless that is what the designer intends, I suppose.) Instead, use it as jumping off point and chart new territory.

TL;DR

In the end, I think the key is remembering to be respectful and understanding that what may seem like just good fun to one person can be quite different to someone else, especially if they feel their racial or cultural identity is being slighted by material presented in the game.  Because even though the characters are imaginary, the people behind them are not, and as our hobby grows we owe it to everyone to leave behind some of the mistakes of our past and build better worlds for the future.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk Holiday Special: A Larper’s Thanksgiving Litany

For the Staff
* Thank you to the Storytellers, Directors, Game Organizers and other community leaders who invest so much of their time, their money, their creativity and their hearts to creating the games we love.
* Thank you to all the staff members for bringing the world to life around us, whether it’s a menacing villain we spend an entire season hating or just a bit part played for five minutes.
* Thank you for all the late nights and re-writes, the prop shopping and the jaw dropping, and most of all the non-stop love you have for telling it right.

We see what you do, and we’re so grateful for it all.

For the Players
* Thank you to all the other players who join these communities and dive into these worlds alongside us, whether for a few hours at a one-shot con game or a few years of a long-running chronicle.
* Thank you to everyone who roleplayed with us, talked costuming, worked out character history details, helped us with our makeup, built us a cool prop or just shared post-game fries at a diner.
* Thank you for all the backstories and past glories, the schemes and the dreams, and most of all for the scenes we’ve shared in our stories.

We see what you do, and we’re so grateful for it all. 

For LARP Itself
* Thank you to everyone over the years who had enough faith in the power of “grown up make-believe” to make it such an awesome, entertaining and inspiring part of our lives.
* Thank you to all the game writers, the playtesters and other patient folks who build these worlds we love, from the biggest story flourish to the smallest rules fix.
* Thank you for all the epic nights and the desperate fights, the hot tears and the wild cheers, the jokes everyone hears and the joys of being in a story told right.

We love what we do, and we’re so grateful for it all.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #18: The 4 Most Common Problem Character Types (And How to Make Them Work)

In all my years of gaming, I’ve come across a lot of different characters – and perhaps more importantly, character archetypes: the Rogue with a Heart of Gold, the Bookish Wise Man, the Femme Fatale and so on. Whether it’s a fantasy boffer larp or a horror parlor game, certain types of characters keep showing up over and over again. And most of the time that’s fine – archetypes are part of storytelling, so it’s no surprise that we find lovable crooks everywhere from drafty dungeons to cyberpunk clubs. However, there are some character types that aren’t so easily integrated, that in fact can do some real damage to the game and the enjoyment of the other players.

In this installment of BLT, we’re going to take a look at four problematic character types, what’s wrong with them, and most importantly offer solutions on how to turn them around and make them work in a way that makes most everybody happy. It’s not about calling people out to shame them; it’s about taking what are usually well-intentioned concepts that have gone a little astray and steer them into becoming awesome, well-developed characters in their own right.

Note: With this in mind, please don’t go running around your game putting labels on concepts that you think fit these roles or badgering other players about the perceived shortcomings of their characters. If you have a concern about the impact a character is having on the game, talk to a staff member about it. They might think the concept is just fine, and anyway, if it is serious enough to warrant talking to a player about changing their concept, it’s best that it be a staff member and not a fellow player who voices the concern. Wheaton’s Law, folks, always.

The Carbon Copy, aka The Cosplayer

Telling Quote: “What do you mean? My name Mel Reynolds, and I’m the captain of an old spaceship called Tranquility! It’s totally different!”
What’s Going On: 
Perhaps the easiest of problem characters to spot, the Carbon Copy is just that – an exact or nearly exact recreation of an existing character from some form of popular entertainment. The name is either exactly the same or a clever play on the source (Nathan Reynolds, Malcolm Fillion, etc.), the costuming is as close as they can make it within genre considerations – turning Mal’s signature browncoat into a brown cloak for a fantasy version of the character, for example – and the mannerisms and catchphrases are dead on. They probably have the props too, and drop references to their source material every chance they get. Now, in some specialized games this is perfectly fine, even encouraged – if we’re doing a Firefly larp and using the crew of the Serenity as characters, by all means, Mal and Jayne and Zoe to your hearts’ content. But for most other games? Playing a carbon copy of an existing character is something best avoided for a couple of reasons.

The Trouble Is: Setting Breaker
Say it again with me – there is absolutely nothing wrong with being inspired by a character from a book/movie/song/TV show/etc. Many gamers can trace the origins of each of their characters at least in part to inspiration drawn from other sources, and that’s OK. It’s more than OK, in fact – it’s a fantastic way for new players to explore the hobby, and for veteran players to draw on inspiration to make characters they identify with right off the bat. But when you try to faithfully recreate a character in their entirety rather than simply use them as a starting point, you’re missing the chance to make your own. When everyone else around you is making the effort to create something new and exciting, it can be frustrating to see someone else just playing a role other people have already traveled. Not to mention that your character can break immersion a bit as it reminds people of things that don’t necessarily exist in that world or setting – Sir Malcolm Reynolds of the Order of Serenity may tickle your fancy as you stride around in your long brown cloak, but at a fantasy game you’re basically a walking immersion breaker, because any kind of acknowledgment of the source of your character necessarily goes outside of the setting.

How to Make It Work: Spirit, Not the Letter.
Fortunately this one’s pretty easy. Sit down and write out the three or four things you like best about that inspirational character. I’m talking personality traits and mannerisms, not names and events. That’s what’s really important, and so you can focus on bringing those into your character. After all, what do most people really like about Malcolm Reynolds? His name isn’t important, nor is it the way he dresses. It’s more like his sense of honor, his sardonic humor, his loyalty, and his penchant for speaking his mind even if it gets him in trouble. If you bring those into your character, do you really need his name or his coat? Not so much.  By all means, take those characters you love and use them to inspire and structure your own creations if you like, but make sure you put your own spin on them too!

The Lone Wolf That Rides Alone, Wolfishly

Telling Quote: “…” <walks off alone, but only after carefully making sure everyone sees just how alone and uncaring they are>
What’s Going On: 
You all know the type. The moody loner character who actively pulls away from social contact, usually with a hard stare or a cryptic muttered comment about not playing well with others. They’re like a compass lodestone – whatever way the rest of the game is going, the loner is always heading in the other direction.  They absolutely refuse to be grouped in with others, and will fight fiercely to retain their independence and autonomy even when it doesn’t always make sense to do so. In my experience, there are actually two types of Lone Wolves, the True Loners and the Needy Loners. True Loners are players who are genuinely content to go their own way, even if it costs them some entertainment value now and then, and rarely complain about their lot because they’re playing the way that gives them the most enjoyment. Needy Loners, by contrast, are players who make characters that claim to want nothing to do with anyone else, but who really desperately need people to pay attention to just how cool and aloof and alone they are, and tend to complain loudly about how they don’t get enough plot or how they are excluded from certain content even though they do their best to stay apart from others, turn down plot hooks and otherwise push away from the game as a whole. As you can imagine, I’m talking about Needy Loners more here.

The Trouble Is: So Lonely
Larp is a social activity. When you create a character whose entire existence is predicated around actively avoiding social contact, grouping up and otherwise forming connections, you’re locking yourself out of a lot of the fun. Even if you’re OK with that – and as I said, True Loners generally are – be aware that by doing so you surrender a certain amount of involvement in the story everyone else is being told, as well as some ability to complain about not having enough to do or not being included in plots. At a lot of larger games, the staff is hard pressed to keep up with the demands of a sizable player population, and simply doesn’t have the resources to spare to babysit a single loner character off doing their own thing. Even in smaller games it can be difficult to justify tailoring plots for a single character, especially when it’s because they stubbornly refuse to go along with everyone else. So I’m not saying you can’t play that loner character concept, but if you stick with it, be prepared to make your own fun as a result, as well as accept what it might cost you in story terms.

How to Make Them Work: The Happy Few
You remember all those great loner characters from your favorite movies, books and TV shows? Remember what happened to pretty much all of them over time? Yeah. They developed connections to at least one or two other characters, even if only grudgingly, and those connections drew them into the larger action and also made them more interesting.  After all, being a loner only really sinks in when contrasted against regular social contact, so as much as you might want to be an absolute island beholden to no one, I recommend developing at least one or two connections with your fellow characters, even if only as business partners or some other formal arrangement. Doing so will allow you to stay involved in certain storylines or give you a reason to throw in for larger causes when necessary, while still letting you go your loner way a lot of the time as well. Because you know what’s just as common as those great “lone wolf” characters? The part where they get drawn into working with others, grumbling all the while maybe, but drawn in nonetheless. Even Logan eventually saw the value of joining the X-Men – if only to hit on Jean – and that tells you something about interesting loners.

The Snowflake, aka The Odd One Out

Telling Quote: “Every good Werewolf game needs at least one vampire.”
What’s Going On: Like a lot of problem concepts, the Snowflake doesn’t usually set out to cause trouble, but often winds up causing a lot of headaches. The simplest way to sum up this concept is that whatever everyone else is playing, they aren’t. They’re the Imperial spy in the middle of a Rebel Alliance cell, the vampire in a werewolf sept, the obvious heretic in a Dark Heresy game, you name it. Anything that is normally rare, despised, ill-advised or otherwise off-limits in the setting is like catnip to these players, who immediately decide that they must play this concept even though it goes against everyone else’s character type. Some of them do it for the sheer challenge of trying to survive in a setting hostile to their concept, others enjoy the fish out of water roleplaying, and many enjoy having different powers or even different rules than the rest of the game. And some just do it because they like standing out in the crowd, being the one character or concept that immediately jumps out as special or different. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these things, by the way, but when the concept is so far outside what the rest of the game is going with, it can be a problem in a number of ways worth discussing. 

The Trouble Is: Writer’s Burden
Even when created with the best of intentions, the Snowflake is an extra drain on the storytelling staff, who have to go to extra lengths to tailor plots and events to make sure that the Snowflake can somehow participate despite so much of the setting material saying otherwise. There are also a lot of potential problems with power balance, as the Snowflake is often resistant to things that are mortally dangerous to other characters (or vice versa), meaning that their mere presence can make some difficult challenges seem trivial. What’s more, in many game settings there are long-established reasons that different nations/races/species/factions/etc. don’t work together, and so the Snowflake presents a unique difficulty when writing storylines, as the staff is either forced to ignore a major setting element or enforce it and risk making the Snowflake feel frustrated as they are persecuted at every turn.

How to Make Them Work: Realistic Expectations
Assuming this concept is approved in the first place, it’s time to take the player aside and have a frank discussion about what their expectations are for their character, as well as what they might expect from NPCs or even their fellow PCs regarding their outsider status. Generally speaking, they should be ready to accept a certain amount of (justified IC) prejudice and poor treatment, as well as being socially excluded from certain groups and storylines. It’s also a good idea to get the player to recognize and accept that their character might have a short lifespan in the game before meeting death, imprisonment or other forms of retirement. (Remember, even if their character is sweetness and light, outsiders make great scapegoats for all kinds of wickedness.) They also should recognize that if 30 players are portraying vampires, and 1 person is playing a wizard, the staff’s obligation is to entertain those 30 players first, and so they may not have the same level of staff attention as the rest of the game. In short, the player should understand that playing a character that radically differs from the other characters means they should expect that their play experience will also be very different, and possibly a lot shorter, than those of other characters. If they can handle that, great! If not, well, a standout character like this might not be best for them.

The Diner Hero, aka The Walking Gag

Telling Quote: “Hail and well met! I’m Sir Prize! Bet you didn’t see that coming! Ha HA!” <gallops away using coconuts to make hoofbeat noises>
What’s Going On: 
Oof. Yeah. Sooner or later we all see these characters – a funny idea from a late night at the diner or at 3 AM of some marathon gaming session, which unfortunately someone turned into an actual character and now wants to play.  Some of them share characteristics with Carbon Copies and dress like famous characters or imitate their important characteristics, but the important difference is that while a Carbon Copy is usually trying to play a sincere character in the game world (if one adapted from some other source), the Diner Hero has no such intentions. They’re just there because they think it’s funny to play a gag character and see how long they can get away with it. At best it’s like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch drag on too long, funny for a few minutes but increasingly painful as it stretches out; at worst these players are actively trolling the game, breaking the world and mocking their fellow players until they’re thrown out.

The Trouble Is: Funny the First Time, But …
I’m going to assume that we’re talking about a player who maybe doesn’t realize exactly what they’re doing, as opposed to someone who’s deliberately trolling. (Troll solution: Throw them out fast, retcon any damage they did to the game before they left, and ban them from returning.) If you confront these more innocent jokers about what they’re doing, they usually respond with something like “It’s just a game” or something along those lines. What players of gag characters often don’t realize is that even the funniest gag character is a drain on the other players around them; they’re quite literally having their fun at the expense of others. Because larp takes a certain amount of serious concentration even from veterans – you have to imagine that you really are your character, that the players around you are actually their characters and not your friends in funny outfits, that the location is actually your game world and not a rented campground/friend’s apartment/hotel ballroom, etc. (Not to mention potentially adding fantastic elements like supernatural powers, differently colored moons in the sky overhead and so on.) That’s a lot to ask of an imagination! And it gets harder when you have someone whose very presence breaks the game, let alone whose behavior is constantly pushing the boundaries of IC/OOC humor and taste.

How to Make It Work: Seeing Past the Punchline
This one can be tough, but if the player isn’t trolling on purpose it can often be done. Take the player and explain to them while you appreciate the fact that they’re enjoying the game, there’s a difference between IC and OOC jokes, and right now their concept feels too OOC to work in the environment. If they can see that, talk about what needs to be changed to make the character feel less like a gag; sometimes it’s as simple as a new name and a few different costume pieces, while other times it’s a more extensive overhaul. If the player’s onboard with what needs to be changed, great! If not, well, it might be time for a new character. Hopefully that’s a last resort, to say the least, but if it seems harsh, remember that larp is a group activity – one person’s fun should not take precedence over the fun of the troupe as a whole, especially if it’s not for strong IC reasons.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #17: 3 Little Tricks That Quickly Ramp Up Your Game

I was talking to a group of larpers recently, some old hands and a lot of newer folks, and as is often the case when a group of gamers get together the discussion quickly turned to our common pastime. We were swapping war stories and talking a little bit of larp theory when one of the very new players asked a pretty simple question: Theory aside, what can you do to improve your larping ability, like, right away?

Like a lot of deceptively simple questions, it was actually kind of a stumper, but after thinking on it a bit these are the three best “little” tips I know to quickly boost larp experience. (Well, four really – I added a bonus one you can do pre-game to help get more in character, but the others are all tips to use during play.) So without further ado, here they are, three little tricks that can make a big difference at game:

1 – Put Your Body Into It
“Motions bring emotions.” This is the simplest, yet most effective larping trick I know for anyone looking to up their game and increase their immersion. If you put your body through the motions, the associated emotion/sensation usually follows. It’s a technique that many actors already know but which a lot of larpers don’t always pick up on, and it’s a really powerful one. If you’re wounded, hobble a little, clutch your side or make your breathing ragged, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to really feel that pain like it was your own. If you get devastating news and want to really feel the sting, slump down, put your head in your hands, curl up in a ball, sniffle a little like you’re choking back sobs. Want to feel anxious and agitated? Start pacing back and forth with tight strides, make sharp gestures, fiddle with something small in your hands over and over. Trying to feel that supreme rush of joy? Don’t just smile – hop around, wave your hands a little, throw your head back and laugh, pump your fist and say “YES!”, whatever it takes. Of course, different characters will react differently to all of these situations, no question, so naturally YMMV – but the point is that they should all react somehow.

Too often you see larpers expressing emotional reactions using only their words and their facial expressions, with perhaps a little bit of gesticulation here and there. That’s a good start, don’t get me wrong, but you’d be amazed what a difference it makes to really put your whole body into it. It quite literally changes the way you see larp, and it’s totally worth it.

2 – Learn All the Names!
Seriously! It seems like such a nothing thing to do, but it’s actually a really powerful roleplaying tool. After all, without a name, it’s hard to care about someone (PC or NPC); if you don’t care about someone, it’s hard to get invested in what happens to them; if you’re not invested in what happens to others, you’re basically standing outside of the story looking in any time events don’t revolve around you. Wild, huh? So take the time to learn names. (Or hey, make up your own nicknames for people like I often do!) It can be a lot to take in, especially at a larger game, and don’t worry if you don’t get it right all the time, but make an effort to learn everyone’s name. It goes double for NPCs too, even – perhaps especially – if they are “throwaway roles” that may not be around long.

Not only will it help you feel like you’re moving in a real world full of real people, which is a huge plus for any player, but people like to be recognized too, and referring to someone by their character name instead of a “hey you” or worse still their OOC name is a subtle but powerful bump to help them stay in character too. Everyone wins!

3 – Care
The scariest villain, the most thrilling battle, the most amazing triumph and the most heartbreaking loss – none of these incredible moments will really mean anything to you if you don’t care about your character and her world. But caring is weird and tricky, too, especially if you’re new to larp. So how to go about doing it? I don’t know how to put it any other way, except to let down your guard a little and stop thinking about your character like a lead in a movie or the avatar in a video game. Larp is unique in that you are the only thing holding yourself back from really living in that character’s shoes – for an hour, for a day, for a weekend. Not a tv screen, not a controller, not a handful of dice. Just you. So let down your guard a bit. Let your character and her world matter to you like it would matter to her.

Start small if you like, and just care about your character – what she wants, what she fears, what she plans to do that day. Then expand your circle a little and think about how she cares about her friends and allies, what she’s willing to do for them (and what she expects in return). Then expand even further and care about her rivals, her enemies, think about why she sees them as threats – and what’s she prepared to do about it. Then when you really have it down, care about the problems facing her community, even if only because they threaten to interfere with her own plans. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a complicated web of feelings, reactions and desires, and perhaps even more importantly, you’ll find yourself really caring about what goes on in your game, even when it isn’t about you directly. And that’s amazing fuel to keep you going in a long-term game.

Bonus Pre-Game Tip – Give Your Whole Outfit A Story
I touched on this a little while back with the “Hell of A Hat” contest, but it’s still a quick way to tease out a surprising amount of character backstory and personality when you might otherwise be stumped. Here’s how it works. Put on your whole costume, including any significant props that you usually carry, but as you put on each piece tell yourself a little story about where your character got it. Doesn’t have to be more than a sentence or two, but you’d be surprised how much you can find out from such simple pieces. Has your vampire been buying her dresses at the same boutique for the last sixty years? Did your post-apocalyptic survivor pull those boots off an enemy he killed? Did your character buy a pistol after her girlfriend took her out shooting? Did he cut that ring from an orc chieftain’s cold dead claw – or did he take it from one of his old companions along with a promise to return it to her family? Does she buy her shirts “I dunno, just someplace cheap” because she’s broke, saving money to buy a book of spells, paying off an old debt?

Even if no one else in game ever finds out any of these details, even if they are tiny little stories that aren’t relevant to anyone else but you and your character, it still makes them feel more real. And that in turn makes it easier to be in their head, which makes for a better experience on the whole.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #16: A Hand to Head Disease PSA

Hello, larping.

Today I’m here to talk about a growing problem in our community, a spreading sickness that threatens the shared realities we work so hard to create. What you’re about to read may shock you, may disgust, may even horrify you, but don’t worry – there is help, and there is hope.

It’s called Hand to Head Disease.

Some of you may know it by different names – Finger-Crossitis, Headbanding, Clarificosis, HTH, and many more – but the effects are much the same no matter what you call it. A scene is humming along, everyone playing their characters as the world comes to life around you, when all of a sudden an HTH sufferer experiences an outbreak of symptoms. Right in the middle of your unfolding moment, their hand goes to their head, their whole character falls away and they vomit up reality all over everyone. Sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes it’s a compliment, sometimes it’s a reference to a movie or a book or even another game, but whatever it is, now it’s all over you and you’re having trouble wiping it off and staying in character afterward.

What’s worse is that HTH is highly contagious, with others exposed to it often displaying symptoms almost immediately, leading to more outbreaks as hands fly to heads and more reality comes up. The whole scene can get pretty disgusting pretty quickly, leaving a huge mess that wrecks the scene and a reality stink that can follow you around for hours afterward, making it hard to stay in character. Before long whole games can be infected, until it seems like no scene goes by without at least a few outbreaks, and people are spending more time with their hands to their heads than they are in character.

Unfortunately many HTH sufferers don’t even realize what they’re doing can be disruptive and unpleasant for those around them. They believe that spewing that little bit of reality actually increases the enjoyment of others, not realizing that what seems like a momentary splash of reality to them makes a total mess of the environment for everyone exposed to it. They also don’t realize that even people who can’t hear what they’re saying as still affected, as just witnessing an outbreak of HTH from a distance can still be enough to damage someone’s immersion in the world as they watch the game fall away and reality go all over the place.

But don’t worry! There are some simple steps you can take to treat HTH symptoms when you see them emerge. So the next time you see an outbreak begin, just follow these steps, 1-2-3:

Treating HTH In Others
1) Isolate the Outbreak – Try to convince the HTH sufferer to take their aside somewhere more private, quietly but quickly.

2) Explain the Symptoms – Explain to the HTH sufferer politely that unnecessary out of game comments should be saved for after game is over.

3) Dive Back In – Don’t linger, don’t scold, don’t dwell – remember, most HTH sufferers don’t realize what they were doing! Just be friendly, dive back into game and help others do so if needed.

If these steps don’t seem to help, don’t be rude and don’t confront the sufferer further – that just makes the problem worse. Instead, find a member of staff and inform them of your concerns as politely and discreetly as possible, and let them decide the proper course of treatment at that point.

Of course, that all fine and good when treating HTH symptoms in other people, but what if you realize you might be suffering from a bout yourself? Don’t worry! Self-administered treatment is effective in 95% of cases.

Treating HTH In Yourself
1) Stay Your Hand – Before you put your hand up, ask yourself: Is what you were about to say really worth shattering the shared reality of everyone around you? If not, wait on it, and skip steps 2 & 3.

2) Isolate Yourself – If you do feel something needs to be said, try to take aside only the individual(s) you need to address, and say it away from where others can see or hear you.

3) Limit Your Exposure – Say what you feel is necessary quickly and quietly, then resume play as soon as possible. Try to avoid prolonged outbreaks – if you can’t, take them away from the game until they’re over.

Just by following those simple steps, you should be able to minimize the impact of HTH outbreaks at your favorite games, as well as make sure you don’t catch the infection yourself. But don’t forget that the #1 way to prevent HTH from spreading is simple vigilance – the more you focus on staying in character and encouraging others around you to do the same, the more likely that it is you will be successful in blocking HTH transmission in your game.

Remember, it’s up to all of us to be on the lookout for Hand to Head Disease – but if we work together, we can beat it in our lifetime!

~Your friends at the C.D.C. (Character Defense Coalition)

HTH Disease FAQ
Q) Is every character break always a case of HTH?
A) No!  This is a common misunderstanding. In fact, many games encourage players to use certain gestures or phrases ask rules questions, which can look similar to HTH in action but is in fact a vital part of gameplay. Let’s be clear: Asking rules questions, raising safety concerns or clarifying vital story matters (that cannot be resolved in character) are valid reasons to drop character. However, it is still recommended that players try to make the disruption to play as brief and minimal as possible – when you can, take people aside to ask questions in private, for instance, or try to phrase it in at least vaguely in character terms so it doesn’t sound too harshly real to others nearby.

Q) So I want to share a little joke or tell someone they rocked that last scene  – what’s the harm?
A) Some people might not mind if you drop character, it’s true, but other people probably will, even if they don’t tell you so. And remember that even if you’re telling it to some friends who don’t mind, if someone else overhears you break character or witnesses your HTH gesture, you’ve just broken game for them, whether or not you intended to do so, and that’s not fair to them when the default at a larp is a continuous immersive environment. Trust me – if it really is a funny joke or witty reference, it will still be amusing later on. If it’s not, well, you didn’t need to break game for it, did you?

Q) What if something is so wrong in the game that the only choice is breaking character?
A) Apart from things like safety concerns, which as noted always justify dropping character no matter what, I’d say file that under “extreme and unfortunate circumstances” for sure. If something about the current scene is so broken – or at least, appears to be so broken – that the players have no choice but to break character to try to find some way to resolve the problem, then no, I wouldn’t hold that character break against them by any means. (“Hang on, this is a Vampire larp, not a Dr. Who episode – what do you mean the play area just fell through a time rift into the Jurassic period?!”) Just be careful not to jump to this option too quickly, though. A situation may seem difficult in game for perfectly in game reasons, and not necessarily require dropping character to resolve.

Q) Aren’t you being a little bit of a larp nazi?
A) (Hang on – do we really have to use the term “nazi” for something so trivial as larp? We do? OK, fair enough.) Well, this whole thing is more than a little tongue in cheek, so relax. Plus I want to make it clear that as much as breaking character can be disruptive and annoying, the solution is not to be obnoxious back – as noted above, I want to stress that it’s important to be polite and laid back when talking to players breaking character, not confrontational and rude. And there’s always the chance that your your game is cool with people breaking character, then hey, feel free to ignore any and all of this. Seriously!

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #15: 5 Little Questions that Do Big Things for Your Character

I was talking with some friends over the weekend about the best characters we’ve ever seen at games – ours, each others’, those of near or total strangers – and as our conversations sometimes do, it wrapped around to how those characters were created. As we were talking, I realized that a lot of what everyone was saying boiled down to how the players of the characters we loved had chosen to answer a small set of questions, and I realized that sharing those could help other players ask the important questions that really shook up characters and pushed them to be more real and more engaging.  (Besides, we’ve had a lot of longer, weightier posts in the series lately, so I figured it might be time for a bit of a palate cleanser.) So here they are, five simple questions that open a lot of doors in character development!

5 – Why are you here?
Why does your character come to game events? (If she’s nomadic, why does she keep coming back?) Is she in love? Seeking fortune and glory? Out for revenge? Exploring and questioning the world around her? Settling a score? Doing good and helping others? Or just desperate for a dry place out of the rain? Ask yourself this question before every session and I think you’ll be surprised at how much the answer tells you about your character, not to mention how they’ve evolved over time if you compare it to some of your previous answers.

4 – What do you want, right now?
Ask yourself this at the beginning of every game session – during longer ones, such as full-weekend boffer larp, ask yourself when you get up every day. This isn’t a theoretical, big picture question either – it’s all about what your character wants in the short term. What does he need right now? A better weapon, a political alliance, a good fight, a puzzle to solve, maybe some medical attention? How can he get it? Setting little concrete goals is a great way to keep you active and invested in your character, not to mention keep you engaged with the larger stories at work around you.

3 – Who do you trust?
Come on, admit it. Your character trusts someone, even if they probably shouldn’t. Who is it? How far does that trust go – would they trust that person with their wallet, their safety, their heart? Why? Who do they think trusts them, and are they right? And if you’re convinced that your character absolutely does not trust anyone in any way at any time for any reason, well, how do they plan to exist that way? Do they feign allegiance and friendship, or go their own way and dare others to mess with them?

2 – What will you never do?
Even the most hardened, cynical, jaded character usually has one or two lines left that they won’t cross. (If they don’t, what do they do to avoid others finding out just how heartless they’ve become? Or do they revel in their monstrous nature, and if so, how do they get away with it?) What does your character consider the ultimate sin? Betrayal? Deception? Wanton killing? Blasphemy? What would they do if they found out someone they trust from question #3 crossed that line?  What would they do if they broke it themselves?

1 – How will it end? 
Simply put, what’s the end of your character’s story? Yes, games are filled with uncertainty and it’s very possible that you may find your character exiting earlier than expected or in ways you couldn’t imagine before they happened … but let’s put that aside for a moment. Look down the line and try to figure out where you want your character to go – and how you want their story to wrap up? It may seem a little morbid, but it’s actually quite liberating. One of the main causes of player fatigue in long term games is that the player has no clear idea of where they want their character to go, so they just kind of trudge along from game to game. By thinking about how you want their story to end, you give yourself a powerful guide to how you want to play them, where you want their story to go, and possibly even when their story has been told to your satisfaction and it’s time to retire them to start a new character.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #14: Nice Shoes, Wanna Larp?

We question one accessory,
don’t think the piece is neccessary –
we agree you’re dressed to kill,
but wonder if you will
– The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “Hell of Hat”

So I was talking with my Dresden Files larp partner in crime, the lovely and talented Christine, and she mentioned a larp practice she was developing that I thought was pretty dynamite. She talked about trying to capture a character in a picture, using only a small collection of their props and costume pieces, maybe a half-dozen or so. Combined with a grand Dystopia Rising tradition begun by the inimitable Jamie Snetsinger – go ahead, just try and nimit him, I dare you – of posting pictures of costume pieces right before an event, I thought the two ideas together had a lot of potential to really make larpers focus on the physical foundation that makes up their character. I mean, a lot of players spend a great deal of time on backstories, and they spend a lot of time on their costumes and props, but they don’t always connect the two. Which is a real shame, because costume pieces are as iconic and meaningful as any part of your character, if not moreso.

I mean, in many of the worlds we larpers inhabit, good gear is at a premium one way or another, and characters who live dangerous and adventurous lives are likely to have very good reasons for wearing and carrying what they do. Those of us who have been in the life for a long time also know that wonderful feeling of slipping into a favorite costume like a second skin, or how picking up that one signature prop instantly fills you with badass swagger. The players will go on and on about how they lucked out at a thrift shop, slaved for hours at a sewing machine or had this brilliant idea to adapt some existing material to suit their character, but often as not if you ask the character where they got a piece of equipment, and you get a blank look or a simple “Um, I, you know, bought it” that doesn’t go anywhere. Which is a shame – shouldn’t the character’s story about finding their gear be at least as interesting as the player’s story? So with that in mind, I’m issuing you a challenge. That’s right, you!

The Hell of A Hat Challenge
1) Find or make a backdrop suitable for your character and their world – the hood of a rusted out car for a dystopian caravan driver, the roots of an old oak tree for an elven ranger, a quiet library for a vampire archivist, etc. If no good location presents itself, use a simple cloth backdrop instead, but regardless, set the scene a little.

2) Pick no less than three but no more than six costume and prop pieces from your character’s wardrobe. If your character has multiple outfits, feel free to mix and match as you see fit. They don’t need to be the biggest, flashiest or most obvious pieces in your collection – just the ones that most embody your character to you. Signature pieces are great, of course, but even if it’s a ring that’s usually worn under a glove and thus generally visible to no one but you, that still works. Clothing, jewelry, gear, accessories, tools, weapons, armor, masks, footwear, whatever strikes you.

3) Lay your pieces down against your backdrop, one at a time. You can choose to try to arrange them artistically if you like, or you can simply lay them all in a row. Whatever works for  you – this isn’t a photographic composition contest, after all. However, before you can lay a piece down, you have to come up with A) Where your character got it, and B) Why they wear it/carry it.  (If you want to be even more ambitious, add C) Their favorite memory involving it.) The answers don’t need to be elaborate, but they should satisfy the questions.

4) Take a picture of the final array and post it – here, on your home larp’s forums, your own private blog, etc. Spread the love! If you’re feeling ambitious, include a one sentence summary of each piece’s significance.

I highly encourage you to give the answers real thought, too. Not every piece has to be some sort of legendary item handcrafted by cherubs, of course, but even if it’s ordinary clothing in a modern day game where such stuff is readily available, there’s still a reason your character is drawn to it (or pieces like it). After all, a vampire lord in immaculately tailored suits is projecting a very different attitude and impression than a vampire lord in cut off shorts and a tank top. A ranger in dirty woolens and dented leathers is almost to be expected – which makes your character’s immaculately kept gear that  much more interesting, don’t you think?

Contest Deadline
In order to give people time to do this right – and because I have a vacation coming up shortly – let’s say the window for entries is open until 8/10. Sound good?

The Prize
If I can get at least, say, 10 people to post their arrays somewhere where they can be seen – either here, or linking back to it somewhere else – I will judge the entries and offer the winner a brand new signed copy of Dead Heroes: Runner, the first book in my zombie apocalypse trilogy. Already have it? I’ll put up a copy of Domino,  the brand new second book in the series, instead. Already got both of those? Well, I thank you for your fandom – seriously, I mean that! – and I’ll see if I can work something out. (Note: International winners may have to chip in a few bucks for postage. Sorry about that!) So what are you waiting for?

Show us what you’ve got!

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #13: Mind the Gap

I hate character histories.

OK, OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t actually mind when people lay out the lives of their characters, inventing whole networks of friends and family, love and loss, places been and promises to keep. There’s a ton of passion and invention in that sort of work, and it can really help flesh out a character and give them reasons to inhabit the worlds we create. That’s awesome, when you think about it. Truly, awesome.

What I hate are airtight histories. You know the type – the player with pages and pages of character backstory and motivation detailing everything that’s ever happened in that character’s life from birth until ten minutes ago. They know their character’s favorite food, the name of their first co-worker, the mascot of the high school they went to, the dress they wore to their first birthday party, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the work ethic behind such creations, but they’re closing the door on one of larp’s best features: improvising your own history on the fly.

(Note: Remember to be respectful of other players’ backstories, especially if your improvisation involves their character directly. Characters are very personal, after all, and telling other people to change theirs to suit yours can come off as very rude if not handled correctly. Ask politely, explain why you’re thinking the change would be positive for everyone, and most importantly be OK with getting “No” as an answer. While it might seem totally awesome to have your characters turn out to be cousins, they might have other ideas for the relationship, or have a clearly defined backstory with no room for a sudden cousin, and that’s fine too.) 

You see this skill used a lot by veteran larpers – players who recognize an opportunity to increase the drama and character connection in a moment by tying in their character in a way they hadn’t defined before. (I’ve picked up siblings, rivals, long lost friends and more in this way – “Hey, you wanna be cousins?”) In his great game Houses of the Blooded, master game writer John Wick talks about this exact phenomenon – the idea that you can take advantage of a gap in your character’s backstory to vault yourself right into the action. In his example, he was playing a detective character, and hadn’t really connected to the character much, when a plot about a missing girl came up.

Suddenly he just knew that his character had lost someone too, a daughter – and abruptly a throw away character became someone real and compelling, He hadn’t thought anything about children before, hadn’t really done more than sketch a backstory to get himself going, but now the plot meant something much more to him, and in turn he got much more invested in the game and had a lot more fun. It was a great character turn – and it wouldn’t really have been possible if he’d been beholden to some sort of massive Sacred Comprehensive Backstory.

I recently had a moment like this myself – game on had just been called at Dystopia Rising when one of the staff members running that weekend approached me in character asked me if was a firstborn child. (Biblical plagues are always a hoot.) I paused. I’d only just recently begun playing the character, and I honestly hadn’t thought of his immediate family much at all. I knew my character was part of a wealthy (crime) family, out seeking his fortune in the world, and I knew he had a fierce mother at the head of his family, but I hadn’t thought much more about his relatives than that.

Right on the spot it hit me – he’s not the firstborn. Of course he’s not. His older sister is the heir apparent, and his two older brothers and another older sister work under her directly, taking care of the family business. There were other kids, a boy and a girl, both older as well, but one died young and the other one was killed by a rival family. He’s the baby of the family, so he gets away with a lot, but that also means he’s not going to inherit anything either, not with that many older siblings dividing up the business and a mess of aunts, uncles and cousins mixed in too. That’s why he’s come south to the town where the game is played, because for all his bluster about how big and important his family is, he wasn’t going to get much from them, and so he knows this is his spot, his chance to make a name for himself. And I knew that his Ma missed him, her baby boy, and writes after him often, which he pretends to be embarrassed by but secretly loves, of course.

All of this backstory creation happened in the space of a few seconds – I’m sure the NPC was a little baffled at how I spaced out, sorry Josh – but it really helped me open up my character. Now, if I’d had a detailed backstory, I’d have known his birth order and his siblings, but it would have been pretty flat detail. I’d have just said “Nope” and moved on, and that part of the story wouldn’t have come alive quite the same way. But since I hadn’t worked out what was going on ahead of time, I was able to take that storyline and run with it – even though he wasn’t a firstborn, he kept keen track of the plague and how to cure it, and then immediately ran off and wrote to his big sister to tell her what to look out for if it came her way. Even though the plague story didn’t affect me directly, I was hooked, and all because I’d just invested a ton into my family that I hadn’t known even moments before.

And that’s the real beauty of gaps in a character history – they leave you room to improvise in compelling ways, allow you to adapt your character to suit the stories you’re involved in or the people you meet. It takes a little practice, but once you know how to do it, it opens a lot of doors to a lot of awesome possibilities. So when you’re writing up a character background, feel free to put in plenty of detail and motivation and the like, but leave some room to improvise too. Let some things be decided during play, as needed. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how far this technique can take you.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Mind the gaps.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #12: 5 Key Tips for Staff Members

Hey everyone! It’s been almost a month since my last update, so apologies for the extended absence – the end of the semester caught me a little off guard, and then a succession of larp weekends and events kept me busy. (I know, I know, what terrible problems to have, right?) So, without further ado, I present a by-request edition of BLT – specifically, answers to the question: “What advice would you give to larp staff members to make their games better?”

1 – Learn the Entertainment Ratio
Wait, math at a larp? And not in combat? It’s true, folks. One of the best lessons I ever took away from the first boffer larp I played was something my friend Matt called the “entertainment ratio.” It’s pretty simple, really – for any scene you set up, how many non-player characters (NPCs) are being used to entertain a particular number of player characters (PCs)? That’s your entertainment ratio. So if you send out one NPC as an impassioned artist who winds up entertaining twelve PCs with their performance, that’s a 1:12 entertainment ratio – a very good one in most games. On the other hand, if you use twelve NPCs to set up a special module for three PCs, that’s a 12:3 ratio (or 4:1 if you like reducing things correctly). Chances are that’s a really intense, immersive experience for those three PCs, no question, but it might not be the best investment of your staff members if it means 40 other PCs are sitting around bored while waiting for staff members to answer their questions, portray crucial NPCs or otherwise make an appearance in the game.

It’s the economics of staff management, really. If you know that you’re investing heavily in one scene, you have to make sure you’re still putting out enough entertainment to keep everyone else satisfied, or at least make sure the game isn’t stalling out. Most of the best staff members I’ve ever seen grasped this intuitively, or at least learned to do so after a while, and made sure that their ratios always added up to the most fun for the largest number of players whenever possible. But if you’re new and it’s not second nature, I highly recommend that you at least consider the entertainment ratio as you’re sending out plot to the players. Don’t agonize over every little number – “oh no, those two NPCs were supposed to entertain 11 people, but they only got 9!” – but try to make sure that you have a sense that your staff is being utilized wisely.

Oh, and for the record, when your PCs are entertaining each other, which no NPCs required? (Popular examples of this are martial tournaments, talent showcases, heated internal political debates, etc.) Congratulations! Entertainment ratio = infinite! My advice at that point is to take a breather, get your staff ready for when it’s over, and enjoy the show your players are putting on for each other!

2 – Don’t Interrupt Living Story Moments
Remember when you were in school, and a class discussion totally (and often unexpectedly) took on a life of its own? Everyone got really into it for its own sake, because they were actually interested and had real things to say about the topic. If you had a good teacher, what did they do? Sit back and moderate the discussion, but otherwise let it go on a while. And what did a bad teacher do? Shut it down, leaving everyone feeling frustrated.

Those moments happen in larp too – I call them “living story” moments, because they’re those times when the story really seems to take on a life of its own – and if you see them happening, whenever possible try to leave them the hell alone. Unless it is vital for the plot, or the players put themselves in a position where they knew they could be interrupted easily – like holding their tender wedding at an unholy portal that frequently overflows with ravenous monsters, which is really just begging to have it crashed by demons – just steer your NPCs around those moments and find other PCs to entertain. Interrupting that sort of roleplaying is the larp equivalent of butting in on a serious private conversation, and that doesn’t usually end well for anyone.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that players having a tender moment should have some kind of magic anti-plot forcefield. (Those moments can be hard to spot, for one, and some players might get the wrong idea and start trying to abuse the practice if it became widely known.) I’m just saying that, assuming the plot and/or characters they’re bringing in area able to be ignored, or at least can interact with other players in the area, you should avoid interrupting scenes already in progress whenever possible, especially if it looks like the players are really engaged and roleplaying intensely. Generally you can tell when you’re approaching this sort of scene as opposed to PCs just hanging around and talking – if the PCs aren’t too engaged, they’ll usually leap at a chance to talk to NPCs and see what’s going on, but if they’re really invested in the moment they’ll barely acknowledge the NPCs and stay focused on what’s at hand.

It’s a fine line and you’ll make mistakes now and then. That’s fine. But the important thing about it is remembering that when story is happening – even and perhaps especially when it’s something the players have generated on their own – try to give it some room to breathe. You don’t have to let it go on and on – most games take place in dangerous worlds where those moments of respite are all too brief – but don’t stomp on it too quickly or what you’re really doing is telling the players that your story is more important than their roleplaying investment, and that’s a bad message to put out there regardless.

3 – Don’t Try to Play Their Characters For Them
One of the biggest traps I see new staff members fall into is the desire to play their players’ characters as if they were own – sending that PC plot that essentially makes them become what the staff member wants them to be. At a Vampire game I played years back, one of the Storytellers decided that a friend of mine should become the Sheriff of the city, which would’ve been great if my friend had shared the notion. But she didn’t, and so every time the Storyteller tried to push her in that direction she pushed back the other way. It became a weird tug of war, because the Storyteller got it in his head that this was what her character “should be”, when really that power is and always should be the player’s.

It sounds really obvious, but sadly a lot of staff members can get a little caught up in their ability to create situations that challenge PCs and try to use them to change PCs instead, taking away beloved aspects of a character or adding unwanted elements to a character. Don’t get me wrong – characters can and will change in response to stories, and games where they can remain the same in perpetuity will eventually have major problems with stagnation. But an important concept to remember is that only the player owns a PC. They are the ultimate arbiter of what that character is about, and failing to remember that is a recipe for frustration and disaster.

Now, I’m not saying that players have veto power over every possible change – if their character wanders into an ambush and gets killed, they can’t simply say “Nope!” and pretend it didn’t happen. Handling fallout from decisions is an important part of any character. But there’s a big difference between enforcing the setting realistically and actively trying to mold a character into something you want them to be. The former is being a good staff member and helping maintain a consistent shared universe; the latter is intrusive and unwanted. If I  made a character based around his beautiful singing voice, you may think it’s cool to take his voice away, and it might be very dramatic to deal with for a while. But if you do it permanently, and not as the result of actions I chose to take but because you think it would be cool to see what happens next, step back and think about what you really did. Characters can be injured, broken down, put upon and otherwise harried within an inch of their lives, without necessarily changing the core of what makes them them. So before you try to change a character’s fundamental nature, think about what you’re asking of that player. At the very least, if you have an idea that you think would be amazing for a character in a game you’re running, ask the player first. Yes, it might ruin the “surprise” – but it’s a lot better than changing someone’s character and finding out that they no longer want to play that person as a result.

4 – Let Them Win (When They Earn It)
This is another one that trips up a lot of otherwise well-meaning staff members. They load up a Super Badass Villain with plenty of ways to kick some PC butt, surround them with minions eager to do some damage and send them out to cause havoc. Except that instead of an epic battle, a clever PC manages to slip behind enemy lines and take out your supervillain with a single well-placed shot. Or perhaps the PCs approach them diplomatically and explain a perfectly reasonable alternative to bloodshed that you hadn’t anticipated. You had a huge battle scheduled for this session … now what?

The short answer is, anything that lets the PCs keep their victory. One of the things that will make me bail at a game faster than anything else is when the staff can’t admit defeat, but I’ve seen it all too often in my career. A PC figures out a clever and perfectly legitimate way to defeat a villain or solve a problem, only to have the NPCs and other staff members bull right over their actions just so they can have the fight or showdown they were imagining all along. It’s a situation a lot of us know only too well – some NPCs show up looking for a fight, the PCs patiently explain why it doesn’t make any sense to fight, and then NPCs attack anyway “because that’s what they were told to do.” It really strains the shared illusion that is larp, and it teaches players a bad lesson about the value of cleverness and skill. Sometimes the players will hit you in ways you never saw coming, unraveling all of your plans in a moment. Let them. You can always regroup while they’re celebrating their victory and think of something else to put forward.

By the same token, don’t hand them a win when it should be a loss. Sometimes staff members see players getting frustrated or discouraged because events aren’t going their way, so they hand the players an easy win: a badass villain suddenly trips and falls on his sword; powerful allies swoop in out of nowhere to save the day; the solution to a vexing riddle is whispered into a character’s ear by his dead grandmother’s ghost. (Yes, I’ve seen all of these things.) The problem with this approach is two-fold, the first part being that it diminishes the value of all their other victories if you just hand them one they didn’t earn. And yes, the players can tell when you do it, especially if it starts becoming a habit. The second is that some players actually don’t mind losing – quite enjoy it, really – when it’s a fair loss. There’s a lot of great dramatic potential in failure and loss, and when you sweep that away for a cheap win, they don’t get either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, they just get a bland … OK-ness that isn’t good for much of anything.

5 – Talk to Your Players
Honestly, you’d be amazed at how many staff members forget this little step. Larp is a collaborative art form, staff and players working together to tell amazing stories about fantastic characters. (In many games players and staff are one in the same, with players rotating staff duties from event to event or story to story.) Talk to each other. This doesn’t mean the game should vote on every decision – “Hey, show of hands, who wants to be horribly butchered by witch hunters next game? Really? Nobody?” – or that staff should freely share important secrets with players, the kind that will ruin their fun and spoil crucial game mysteries. No, what it means is that you should have some form of dialogue between staff and players, so that you know what’s working, what isn’t, what people want more of and what they want to avoid. You won’t be able to make everyone happy all of the time, but you can find ways to make the game better for everyone if you tear down some of the artificial distance between staff and players and put them more directly in touch with each other.

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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! 


Badass Larp Talk #11: To Live and Die In A LARP

One of the most telling decisions a game designer can make is how to handle character death; in many ways, how characters permanently exit play is just as important as how the game is played. It tells players the margin of error they’re looking at when it comes to characters failing, and also determines a number of other factors that might not be as obvious, such as the impact of player versus player (pvp) conflict.

So let’s break it down by the three main types of death systems and see what shakes out, shall we?

Single Death Systems (SDS)

Outside of certain high fantasy and super advanced science fiction settings, single death systems are the norm for a lot of games. Also known as “real life rules” since they closely mirror our actual human experience, SDS games have arguably the lowest margin of error of any system formulation, where even just one unlucky rules interaction could send a much beloved and long-played character out of the story for good. From a bookkeeping perspective, they’re probably the simplest of all the death systems out there, as when a character dies there isn’t much else to do but chalk up another strike mark and talk to the player about what they’d like to play next. Or at least that’s what it might seem like, except that it trades some simplicity in the aftermath for some complications before the fact, and you’d better be careful to figure out how you plan on handling them if you don’t want to get blindsided by some of the unexpected parts.

Advantage: High Stakes
Needless to say, when there are no come-backs, players have to take risks accordingly. Operating without a safety net in the event of foul play or catastrophe can be a rather brutal learning curve for some players, but it certainly means adds a heavy dose of excitement and tension any time lives are on the line. Given that most of my early larp experience was with the World of Darkness setting, a fundamentally SDS setting (though most characters had a lot of possible “outs” with their powers), I have to say it was hard to adjust to other systems at first. I wondered how tense it could be when you had multiple or even functionally infinite lives, because even though I hated the idea sometimes, there was a lot to be said in favor of how much it added to those dangerous moments, not to mention how much greater the triumph was when we walked away and a hated enemy did not.

Drawback: Wait, No! That’s Bullshit!
At the same time, SDS games require a lot of staff attention to make sure that they’re not being exploited, on several levels. For one thing, SDS games often have to contend with a higher rate of cheating than other systems, simply because when faced with losing a beloved character even normally honest players will often be sorely tempted to fold, spindle, mutilate or outright ignore the rules, especially if they feel it isn’t how their character is “supposed” to meet their end. Along the same lines, staff needs to decide in advance how to handle it if some players decide they’re bored and feel like killing other peoples’ characters just for something to do. Sad to say, this does happen, and it can be a major problem for games.

Possible Fix: Death’s Door Mechanic
To cope, a number of games have started adopting “delayed death” mechanics where a character is functionally removed from play – as in, cannot take any actions that involve rules or skill use of any kind, and sometimes are forbidden to talk about certain subjects (such as naming their killer in pvp situations) – but do not actually expire until the player wishes it or the end of a set period of time, which is usually but not always the session wherein the killing blow was inflicted. In effect, the character lingers long enough on death’s door to say some goodbyes and allow the player some chance to wrap up some business to allow for more closure in the face of sudden and permanent character loss, but without taking all the sting out of SDS games or making pvp killing impossible to conduct anonymously.

Unlimited Death Systems (UDS)

At the other end of the spectrum are UDS games, where death goes from being a character-ending experience to something more like a timeout or an inconvenience. (For the record, many supposedly UDS games actually have a handful of situations or conditions that can permanently remove characters, but these are often special plot directed circumstances and not elements that are casually encountered, so I’m setting them aside for this discussions.) The very first boffer LARP I ever played was a UDS game, and so I didn’t realize how uncommon it was until I started checking out other games and saw only a handful of other games I looked up online shared a similar philosophy.

Advantage: Risk Taking
One thing that players who don’t have experience in a UDS game often overlook is that – by its nature – UDS games encourage players to take risks. When you don’t have to worry about a single bad decision taking away your character, it’s a lot easier to dive in and take your chances in situations as compared to characters who get only one or two deaths. When we began at my first boffer larp – a place where resurrection took only 5 minutes – my brother and I became known for dying constantly. At my first event, I managed to die four times in half an hour, simply because I kept throwing myself in the thick of things for the fun of it. I was underpowered, couldn’t fight for crap and squishy as hell compared to the bad guys, but who cares? I was trying all kinds of tricks – flanking attacks, playing dead (not hard when you become known for getting killed), pretending to be under enemy control – and more importantly I was enjoying myself even when I failed and got ganked. A UDS game encourages players to take chances by removing one of the main reasons players play it safe in the first place, and as a result it feels very friendly as a learning and immersion environment.

Drawback: The Revolving Door
Of course, the same carefree abandon of those early games eventually wears off for most players, and at this point your game can have a serious problem: apathy. While permanent character loss can rip beloved characters away from people, not to mention make them grumble about hundreds of dollars of props and costuming becoming useless, it does serve a valuable motivating purpose, not to mention add tension to situations. For newer, less powerful characters, death is still something of a deterrent in a UDS game, if only because it can happen to them more easily and thus mean they have to be careful if they don’t want to miss out on crucial scenes due to being dead (or raised as enemy undead, or whatever). For more powerful characters, however, almost all the inherent risk is gone – they don’t fear most enemies because they’re seasoned players and have powers to back up their experience, and they don’t fear death because they know it’s temporary and have gotten used to it. Death is annoying and tiresome instead of frightening and traumatic, and that’s a major shift in attitude to play out. Worse still, if villains enjoy the same immortality, it can be hard to feel as though you ever get to defeat them. If you kill them, they just come back later; if you capture them and they escape, you start feeling much the same way.

Drawback: Power Scaling
When characters never have to be removed from play (at least until the player chooses to do so), a UDS game has to take a long, hard look at what’s going to happen down the line when those characters have been at game for years and accumulated huge amounts of experience points, fantastic gear, etc. Unlike other death systems, where there’s a strong chance that player characters will either die off or choose to retire due to impending doom, in a UDS game there’s no cap except player boredom regarding how long a character can gain experience, which means that if you have characters who choose to stay active for long periods of time you can have significantly unbalanced power levels in your player population. For this reason many UDS and even some LDS games bestow experience on a sliding scale, granting more early to encourage player growth and interest and then scaling back over time so that long-running characters advance much more slowly. Whatever the game chooses, though, this is a factor to be seriously considered in all but the most short term games.

Possible Fixes: Giving A Damn (Players) & Alternative Approaches (Staff)
Normally I don’t like to lay blame on players for system elements, but generally speaking the revolving door problem becomes a problem mostly because of roleplay habits and not staff issues (though stories that make light of the revolving door certainly don’t help). Simply put, you have to remember that even if your character is aware that death is temporary for some people in her world, that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful and unpleasant to experience, which should be roleplayed accordingly. It might also inspire her to fight harder on behalf of those who don’t share her functional immortality, as is the case in many fantasy settings, where heroes are repeatedly raised back to life but humble farmers fall once and stay dead. In short, you have to remember that even if you the player know death is little more than a time out, your character still experiences it as a much more intense, disturbing experience. And if she doesn’t, what does that say about how callous her attitude has become about life and death …?

Of course, staff isn’t totally off the hook here. If you run a UDS game, you need to think of other ways to threaten players and resolve conflicts that don’t encourage the negative aspects of this system. While killing the big bad guy is a nice exclamation point in many game systems, if the bad guy is just going to come back to life again later, you need to make sure the players don’t feel cheated or that their actions are pointless. (Maybe it takes them a certain amount of time to return, or players can perform certain dangerous rites or use rare technologies that prevent resurrection in order to keep particularly nasty villains from coming back.)  Also, just because players can return to life functionally forever doesn’t mean that it has to be wasted time for their characters – have staff members narrate experience between life and death when possible, showing an afterlife experience full of strange visions, comforting loved ones long lost, villains waiting for revenge or whatever else the world dictates. A really ambitious staff could use the time between death and resurrection to sow clues about ongoing plots, or even run whole story arcs in the time between life and death, possibly even requiring players to deliberately die to run special “flatliners” adventures in the sinister and eerie underworld from time to time …

Limited Death Systems (LDS)

As the term implies,  LDS games bridge the gap between the two worlds – players have more than one life but not an infinite amount, and so it enjoys some of the benefits of both while downplaying the drawbacks a bit in process.

Advantage/Drawback: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
Death is still a source of great tension in LDS games, since you don’t have an infinite number of “respawns” to fall back on, but you can also take comfort in knowing that your first fatal mistake won’t be your last either. In some games the players know the exact number of lives they have, while others keep them secret in a staff database of some kind; generally I prefer that players have a way of knowing how many lives they have, even if the character does not, because it lets them make decisions about retirement and wrapping up stories that they wouldn’t have otherwise, but there are certainly excellent roleplaying arguments in favor of the mystery and uncertainty of not knowing either.

One of my favorite compromises, in fact, comes from the absolutely superb roleplayers at the NJ fantasy larp Nocturne, where players don’t know how many lives they have … until they are resurrected into their last lifetime, which is accompanied by a brilliant display of IC pyrotechnics that signals to player and character alike “this is your last life, use it well.” I always thought that balanced the two elements very well – the player doesn’t know exactly how long their character has left until near the very end, so they have to play cautiously as they might not have more than just the one life left, but when the actual end is near, both player and character are clearly informed and can plan and roleplay accordingly. It’s a brilliant way to handle the LDS mechanics, and I’ve always thought it was a very elegant solution.

Of course, there are other twists to the LDS model that are worth investigating too. Post-zombie-apocalypse madhouse Dystopia Rising uses an LDS mechanic where players know up front exactly how many “lives” their character will have before the zombie infection claims them for good. (Generally speaking, the lower the number a particular character type has, the stronger their starting “genetics” and native skills are, which is a nice bit of game balance to accompany the LDS mechanics.) Technically speaking, there’s no way to get back an “Infection Point” (the term for lives), as losing them to death represents your character slowly succumbing to the zombie plague … however, there are a few tricks you can try if you’re desperate and fading fast. Only one of them is listed in the rulebook – and even then it’s a rare and dangerous skill known only by a few decidedly creepy people – so if that doesn’t work for you, you’d better get creative and dig into some intense roleplaying and exhaustive searching. Having other ways to extend a character’s lifespan hidden in the dark reaches of the setting is a great way to encourage exploration and roleplaying, and that’s before you actually have to consider the moral and philosophical costs of some of these potential “cures” …

The one major thing to consider when crafting an LDS game, in fact, is whether the number of lives that players are given is set in stone, or if it can be tweaked during play. If it is unchangeable, you need to make sure everyone knows it, and make sure that rule is never bent unless you want the players who didn’t get that favor to riot on you. If it can be changed – if players can acquire more lives, “buy back” lives lost, or some combination of both – then you need to very carefully consider how they can go about what might be described as the most important mechanic in your system. If you make it too easy, you’ve essentially made a UDS game and death loses all tension; if you make it a matter of raw in-game power, you’re sending newer players a message about how valued their characters are in your system, at least compared to veteran characters; if you establish it as a perk of belonging to particular faiths or organizations, you make it difficult for players to resist joining if they want to continue playing, and so on. My recommendation? Talk it over with the staff and your founding players, and make sure that the answer also reinforces your setting and its lore.

Now Pay the Ferryman, Son
So what sort of conclusions are to be drawn from examining these mechanics? Having played extensively in a variety of games using all three systems over the years, I can say that it’s not a question of right or wrong, as some game design adherents might have you believe. I hope I’ve been able to show that all of them have powerful advantages for staff members to use in order to craft excellent stories, and factors that players should bear in mind as they approach playing in different death systems. I’ve also tried to raise a few of the disadvantages I’ve seen in the different systems over the years, as well as possible fixes – I’m not going to pretend those are the only problems with those systems or that my fixes will work in every instance, I’m just hoping to point folks in the right direction to anticipate problems and formulate solutions that work for their games.

Because in my experience, death systems are one thing that are nearly universal in gaming, and yet many players and even quite a few staff members often don’t stop and think about the implications of a particular system on their setting or their characters. Which is a shame, because understanding what death means and how it works in the game is an important part of understanding what kind of heroes exist in your setting, the challenges they’re up against, and the risks that make their choices matter.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Take the long way home.

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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! 


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.

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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!