Posts tagged “blt

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! 
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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!