Posts tagged “gaming

Badass Larp Talk #32: That Old Ivory Tower

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

the already larping.

 

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Badass Larp Talk #31: Art, Ownership, Evolution

Art that is walled off, dies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

 

 

 


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

OK, players, we’ve got to talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not, why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

 


Badass Larp Talk #29: Business or Pleasure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or rather, it should be.

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


Badass Larp Talk #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! 


Hack Review: Uncharted 4

So it’s been about a week since I finished Uncharted 4, but I wanted to let it sit as I worked my way through how I felt about it. I want to start off by getting the simple stuff out of the way: the game is great on pretty much every conceivable level, from level design and visuals to gameplay to voice acting. As with previous entries in the series, I routinely stopped just to marvel at my surroundings – or listen to them, or both – and it was just damn impressive.

That said, the story is a bit of a rough one. I don’t mean badly written, though, not at all. I mean because you know going into it that this is Nate’s last adventure – at least so says Naughty Dog, and I believe them – and so there’s an extra level of apprehension to everything because between that and the game’s title you find yourself constantly wondering how the titular thief is and what kind of end they have in mind. I won’t say it makes the game melancholy, as the trademark Uncharted wit and banter is strongly in evidence, but it does add a depth and maturity to the story, as well as an extra sense of risk any time a character is in peril.

Think it like watching the last season of a television show you like, or firing up Mass Effect 3, or how we will all feel picking up the last installment of A Song of Ice and Fire – you’re sad the story is ending, excited to see how it will happen, and more than a little scared because you know all bets are off and literally no character is safe. It’s a thrilling experience, done correctly, but an even more nerve-wracking one too.

I wasn’t precisely surprised how emotional I got at some points during the game – I love the characters and I’m an unabashed fan of the series, so you could say I’m invested – but I was pleased with how well it was handled. They didn’t wring melodrama out of it, and even when some of the characters made boneheaded decisions, I believed it emotionally even if it didn’t quite scan logically. More credit to the seasoned and awesome voice acting crew on this one too, for delivering top notch performances. The addition of a new character can really throw an existing dynamic, but it worked beautifully here. Sam doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a distraction, he feels like part of the crew, and the brother chemistry works beautifully in both the funny parts and the serious ones.

I read a review that commented on how you can see the influence of The Last of Us in some of the pacing and the emotional beats, and I’d agree with that. In particular I can see that in how this game takes time to slow down and explore its environments a bit more, to reward you for taking different paths and trying dialogue options. (Seriously, when you have a chance to explore a house – Nate’s or otherwise – then TAKE IT. Lots of neat little things to pick up for character and backstory.) It’s not the first Uncharted game where I was tempted to go back and replay levels to look for stuff, but it was the first time I would do it for story and exploration more than just picking up missed collectibles.

As for the gameplay and set pieces, well, it’s Uncharted. You know what you’re getting, and you get it here like you have in all the others – crazy chases (the mud flats is an insanely fun level in particular), amazing and also exploding/collapsing environments you have to race out of in cinematic fashion, cool Indiana Jones puzzles to figure out, the works. Combat is jazzed up nicely, with good melee and slick shooting, though I will tell you the enemies are no joke this time around – stealth is much more of an option and I suggest you take it, as even on “normal” the enemies are lethal shots and good at flanking and using grenades and other tricks to flush you out and take you down.

And two words of pure joy: GRAPPLING HOOK!

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Now, I’ve heard some folks say that Uncharted 4 felt a little tired in the sense that these amazing action scenes and set pieces are expected by now, which makes them predictable instead of the flat out craziness off the first few games. I can see that point, but I don’t believe the predictability detracts from their excellence in execution. And more than a few of those moments had me scrambling and laughing and saying “holy sh-t!” so I think they pulled them off.

There was also a somewhat controversial decision to not include a particular type of plot element in this installment, which has been found in every other Uncharted game (to greater or lesser degree). I will admit I was mildly disappointed when I realized they weren’t going to go in that direction, if only because I like those sorts of stories and felt they had a good setup here (and did it well in the past), but I also recognize that it might have been one ingredient too many in an already packed story. And given that it was the final installment and plenty of personal and emotional stuff going on with Nate and his family – adopted, married, or actual – it was probably best not to muddy the water any further. I salute their restraint, though I still would have loved to see what they would have done differently if the story wasn’t so big already …

Still without going into spoilers, I will say that the very, very end of the game – the Epilogue, in fact – was a total surprise, in the best sort of way. And definitely a spiritual descendant of The Last of Us, which you’ll understand when you see it. I wasn’t expecting an epilogue in general, and I especially wasn’t expecting the one I got, so I will say that it worked particularly well in those respects. It wasn’t how I expected Uncharted to conclude, or at least Nate’s story, and I think some people might have felt it was a bit underwhelming or anticlimactic, especially given the franchise’s action-packed history.

Not me, though. I liked the quiet meditation of it – when you get to it, EXPLORE. EVERYTHING. – and really enjoyed that they let me take my time to process it. No gimmicks, no cheap jumps or gotcha moments, just … an ending. Maybe not the one we were expecting, no. But perhaps the one we should have been.

Bravo, Uncharted. You earned a great exit, and you got one.


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! 


In Defense of Railroading Your Players

I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes it’s good to have a story on rails.

In case you might have missed it, this past week’s release of The Order: 1886 has generated a fair amount of controversy. Two of the most common objections are regarding the game’s duration, as well as the fact that it is a story “on rails” as opposed to a sandbox world of open exploration. The game’s developer, Ready At Dawn, even came out to respond to critics on the first charge, defending the game’s shorter than average runtime as being what the story required.

And I have to say, I agree. I think both objections are junk.

Let me preface my defense with a caveat – I am playing, but have not yet finished The Order, mostly due to a lot of deadlines floating around and also a deliberate decision to savor it a bit and play it in small pieces. To which some more cynical reviewers would probably respond by saying that if I played it but haven’t finished it, I must not have done more than sit through the opening credits. There has been serious howling about the fact that the game runs around 10 hours, and how this constitutes a “ripoff” for a game costing $60. A ripoff? Really? Let’s do some simple math.

$60 for 10 hours of entertainment is $6/hour.
$12 for 2 hours of entertainment (going rate for a movie ticket, not including snacks or 3D funny business) is $6/hour.

So, in effect, you are paying about the same for the game experience as you would for a theatrical movie experience. (Except, you know, it’s longer, interactive, and you don’t have to deal with the meathead in the row in front of you texting “omg channing tatum looks like legolas! more like jupiter GAYscending lol #YOLO” the entire time.) Where is the ripoff in that, exactly? Yet longer playtime is consistently touted as a good thing, with games bragging about 40 or 60 or even the occasional insane 100+ hours of playtime. Don’t get me wrong, I get that having a ton of time to bash around in a game world can be a lot of fun. I did every side mission in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series because I loved those worlds and those characters and wanted to squeeze as much out of them as I could.

But there’s also the question of how much of a game’s playtime is gripping story or involving action (or both), and how much of it is simply busywork? I consider Mass Effect 2 one of the finest games ever made, and yet I know my personal playtime was inflated by at least a couple of hours spent firing probes and collecting materials. I spent a lot of time playing watch_dogs, but only a fraction of that time was on the main story – the rest was all side missions, secondary objectives, and the odd collectible. A writing professor of mine once said “there is no greater tragedy than a novel that should have been a short story” and it’s a lesson I think the gaming industry – and its fans – need to remember. Adding playtime is only a good thing if it enhances enjoyment. Otherwise you’re just creating busywork, and unless it all ties in neatly and powerfully you might in fact actually hurt the story you’re trying to tell by throwing off its pacing and drowning it in distractions.

When I finished watch_dogs, in fact, I was left feeling like the sandbox nature of the game seriously harmed the story at the heart of the game. It’s supposed to a tightly-wound neo-noir tale of revenge, but giving the player a chance to drive all over (a very beautifully rendered) Chicago on a whim dilutes the essential drama and pacing of the story. It’s hard to take the unfolding events seriously when I get a plot update like “do this job or your nephew dies” but can cheerfully spend the next few hours driving around shooting gang members and participating in street racing with no impact at all on the main story. I felt like a terrible uncle, sure, but there was no penalty at all. A lack of urgency means a lack of tension, and a lack of tension means events feel flat or disjointed, and that makes a story that could have been a tight, compelling thriller wanders off into a series of weird, disconnected events.

To put it simply, if you try to take a 10 hour story and turn it into a 30 hour story, you’re not doing anyone any favors – not the creators, not the players, nobody.

Which is where the rails discussion comes in. One of the other major complaints about The Order is that “it’s on rails”, meaning that the player has no choice but to follow the path laid out for them by the developers. Or to put it another way, there is only one way to go through the story – the player cannot choose to go other places or do other things. Look, once again, there is no question that sandbox games can be totally awesome. I’ve played my share and loved them … when it suits the nature of the game. Having an entire world to explore and interact with can add an amazing feeling of freedom to a game, as well as fit in countless side activities to flesh out more of the setting (there’s that playtime bump again). But like a lot of design elements, opening a game up into a sandbox experience is a trade off – when players can go anywhere on the map, you lose the tighter narrative control that comes with putting a story “on rails.”

I mean, this is obvious from the textures and assets elements on up. If The Order was a sandbox game, you’d have to detail a huge playable area of London (among other locales), as well as fill it with reasons to go out exploring. That’s a ton of content that isn’t necessarily focused on or related to the main story. Sure, that trade-off is worth it to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only viable way to approach the design. I loved bombing around Revolutionary Paris in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and it was absolutely gorgeous and stacked to the gills with side content, but that doesn’t mean every game wants to invent several types of side missions, collectibles, and other activities just to justify their open world experience.

There’s also the matter that the best games “on rails” make those rails as invisible as possible – you follow the story as it’s laid out because it’s a fun, compelling plot. The Last of Us is absolutely on rails in the strictest possible sense, and it’s still one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced in gaming. I never once bemoaned the lack of an open world map, because it meant that the levels and encounters I was going through were carefully calculated for maximum narrative and gameplay impact – something you can’t do nearly as neatly or cleanly in a sandbox environment. There are great sandbox games, and great games on rails, but they are distinct styles of telling a story, and we need to stop stigmatizing one simply because it tends to have shorter playtimes. Especially considering how much complaining I hear about how pointless a lot of side content feels in so-called longer games – it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach to criticism.

As a lifelong tabletop gamer and larper, believe me when I say that my first response to the notion that a game is “on rails” is usually to recoil – one of the things I enjoy most about playing rpgs in those formats is the fact that there’s room for tremendous player creativity. Even so, I also recognize that some types of experiences – especially short convention games or other one shot formats – are best put on some kind of rails, because otherwise you have a bunch of players puttering around for a few hours hoping to bump into a cool plot. Sometimes putting players on track is not only useful, but necessary to convey the story you want, as well as lead them to certain carefully crafted and utterly unforgettable moments.

It’s ludicrous and more than a little confusing to try to say games like The Order don’t measure up because they aren’t meeting some absurd, arbitrary standards of playtime and player freedom. That’s finding a game lacking because it’s not the game you thought it should be, which is always going to be an impossible standard. If you want to criticize what is there, great – and there have been reviews that focused on what they saw as weaknesses in the finished product. That’s cool, and necessary. We just need to approach a game on its own merits, instead of applying consumer metrics that area increasingly pushing games to adopt sandbox models and multiplayer elements whether they make any sense or not, just to keep playtimes up to what gamers consider “acceptable” levels.

In the end, I’d rather have a tightly crafted 10 hour story than a bloated 30 hour mess.
But it seems like I’m more in the minority with every release.


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! 


Hack Review – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

I am become Bro-shiva, destroyer of dudes.

OK, well, that’s probably putting a bit much of a spin on it. Especially considering how much I suck at multiplayer (more on that in a bit). But on the recommendation of a former student, I started playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare at midnight last night. And so far I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.

Understand, I’m not anything approaching a regular Call of Duty fan. Before last night, the last Call of Duty game I played was Call of Duty 2, which was released in 2005. So it’s been almost a decade since I played a game in this franchise – it was still about World War II when I left, to give a sense of perspective – and while I’m no stranger to FPS games, I generally prefer to play them on PC as opposed to a console. I’ve gotten used to console play over the last couple of years, but still find the mouse and keyboard a lot better for quick reactions. So I came very reluctantly to the decision to dive into Advanced Warfare, if only because while I thought it would be a nice spectacle on the PS4, I also thought I’d be spending most of my time lying down in a rapidly cooling puddle of blood as my poor controller skills got me killed. Repeatedly.

Suffice it to say that I’m very happy I changed my mind.

You see, I’m a military sci-fi fan. I’ve taught a course on the genre before. I read Starship Troopers several times a year, I go through the whole Old Man’s War series at least once annually, and regularly re-examine Ender’s Game. I love the breezy weirdness of Forever War and the boots in the mud grit of the Gaunt’s Ghosts books, the stark technology of Armor and the all-too-familiar modern media echoes of Embedded. And while it’s by no means the first game to mine near-future sci-fi for military purposes, it does it well and with enthusiasm. It’s far enough out there to be different and interesting, without going so far from the recognizable that it’s hard to feel a sense of visceral connection.

The writing, while investing heavily in some of the expected military tropes of the genre, is engaging when called for and knows better than to take itself entirely too seriously when it needs to be an action movie, which I appreciated. (It also doesn’t hurt that Private Mitchell is voiced by Troy Baker, who has so much character and pathos in his voice he could read half-finished Mad Libs and make them sound like the Gettysburg Address.) Kevin Spacey is exactly what you’d hope for in his role as President Frank Underwood Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons, bringing just the right amount of sly paternal affection to his megalomaniacal scheming. While I can see where some of the criticism of his character comes from, most of that stems from the lines he’s given as opposed to his performance; in his defense it always sounds like Spacey’s invested and enjoying himself, even when he’s given some over the top crazy ranting to do. I’ll take that over phoned-in celebrity voice work any time.

Here comes the caveat: I haven’t played the multiplayer. “But Pete! That’s what Call of Duty is all about!” comes the response from someone who apparently thinks yelling comments at a screen is better than typing them. All I can say is that multiplayer – especially PvP multiplayer – just isn’t a draw for me. I’ve never really been a huge fan of it in games, with the noted exception of the cheerfully addictive insanity of Team Fortress 2, and even if I was, recently a few rounds of PvP in Destiny taught me a valuable lesson:

I cannot compete with the Call of Duty generation.

Well, not on a console, anyway. Let it be known that I was so bad that I received my first-ever PS4 hate mail from a player on that first PvP team – out of our team score of 5325 points for the round, I’d managed to contribute a whole 170 points. (Not that this justifies sending a hate mail, because really, but I just wanted to emphasize that I was truly terrible.) Even though I improved to merely awful after a few rounds, I simply haven’t honed the fast-scoping, forever-headshotting, running-and-gunning reflexes of those who’ve been playing competitive multiplayer for hundreds on hundreds of hours. What’s more, I don’t really feel like putting in the time to catch up. I respect the talent and I’ve watched gameplay videos of pro Call of Duty players with real admiration for the skills on display, but it’s just not for me. So my apologies, but if you’re looking for a review of the multiplayer, this ain’t the place.

That said, hopefully it says something pretty strong about the game that I’m really enjoying it despite the fact that I’m ignoring the main reason a lot of players pick it up in the first place. I’m enjoying the story mode, as heretical as it might be, and while the price tag might be a little steep for most folks if that’s all they’re going to get out of it, for anyone who enjoys the story and some multiplayer action I’m pretty confident Advanced Warfare will deliver some solid entertainment bang for their buck.

Now if I could just figure out which stick controls the camera and which one controls the dude, I’d really be in business.

Hack out.


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

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

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

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

1 – The Hell of A Hat Game

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

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

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

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

2 – The Polaroid Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


Table Manners: How (Not) to Talk to Gaming Professionals

Disclaimer: This is not intended as a snide dismissal of fan input, or an attempt to crush anyone’s dreams of working for a game company. It’s intended as practical advice for anyone who wishes to contact a game designer, whether it’s to bring up mistakes they feel they’ve uncovered in that designer’s games, suggest improvements they think could be made to the system in question, submit a proposal for a possible game supplement, or even to just inquire about writing opportunities with a particular company or game line in general. For the curious, it’s written from the perspective of someone with almost twenty years of professional game writing experience as everything from a freelance writer to a full line developer, who also knows a large circle of fellow game designers at companies large and small. 

Without a doubt, we’re living in an amazing era of game design. Kickstarter, viable small press distribution, improved print on demand services, high quality PDFs, and the increased ability of individuals to reach and capture the attention of the market has transformed the tabletop rpg gaming business. Part of that evolution has been a radical transformation in communication between game designers and their fans – while in the past you might have a company forum that employees occasionally replied to, or some RPG.net exchanges with a favorite designer, a lot of the time game companies of old were often hard to decipher.

Now, though, the world of game design has become increasingly transparent and approachable, with designers blogging about their latest rules or system changes, crowdsourcing advice on game design forums, incorporating backer ideas as Kickstarter rewards and so on. As a result, things like talking directly to the creators of a game about problems you have with a game, submitting a proposal for an idea you have about a possible game supplement, asking about playtesting opportunities and the like are easier than they’ve ever been.

Before we talk about how to approach your favorite designers, though, there are a few general things you need to know about the gaming industry:

About the Business

Gaming Is A Small Industry …
Make no mistake, there are still some larger outfits still out there – Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Steve Jackson, just to name a few – but a significant portion of the tabletop gaming world has moved to a different model, one centered around small design houses or even individual designers. And even the “big” companies aren’t exactly Shadowrun-level zaibatsu, at least compared to what counts as a “large company” in most other industries. With that in mind, you need to understand that most companies either produce everything in house, or bring freelancers aboard on a work-for-hire basis to do their projects. There simply aren’t “entry level” permanent positions available at a lot of gaming companies – you’re either one of a small number of permanent staff, or on a roster of freelancers they hire when they need extra project hands. How to make it on that roster? Read on.

… And Everyone Knows Everybody
When it comes to publishing games, even with the self-publishing, print on demand, and the indie explosion, you’re still not talking huge numbers of industry people, and many of them have been in the business for years. Quite simply, a lot of them know each other, and they talk. Which means that if you develop a reputation as a troll, a pest, a deadbeat, a flake, or some other sort of potential undesirable, word of that behavior will travel a lot farther and more quickly than you might expect. (Conversely, a good reputation as a polite, creative, and reliable individual goes around too, and can pay off in unexpected ways at unlikely times.) Meditate on that a moment before sending a snarky reply to a designer’s email or posting a flamebait review.

Gaming Isn’t A Get Rich Quick Environment
Like a lot of entertainment fields, game writing is not exactly a path to fame and fortune – people do it because they love it, not because it’s going to buy them a separate Gulfstream for their dog. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of successful game design professionals out there who make a living doing it! But generally speaking, the definition of successful is going to be a lot more modest for this field than, say, what we usually think of for a successful actor, athlete, or medical specialist. Be prepared about that reality and therefore realistic in your related expectations.

Check Their Application/Submission Process
If you’re interested in applying for work or submitting a proposal, make sure you read and adhere to any submission guidelines the company has posted. (If they don’t have such guidelines posted that’s usually a good sign they’re not looking for those things, though you can always check to make sure.) When I became a line developer, I was told the SOP was to destroy without reading any submissions that did not follow the posted guidelines, and I’ve since learned this is a pretty universal rule (it’s also often a legal thing). It may break your heart a bit to try to condense your 300 page sourcebook into a two page pitch, but if that’s what they want, trust me, doing otherwise just about guarantees that your submission will be deleted unread.

The Designers

Read Their Work/Play Their Games
This probably seems like the most elementary step, but when I was with White Wolf, I got more proposals/critiques than you might think that demonstrated a clear lack of familiarity with our games. If you’re going to contact a game designer about working for them or offer a criticism of their work, it’s generally best to at least read through the material once or twice, if not actually log some time playing their games. If they have a blog, that’s usually worth a read too, if only to see what they’re thinking about, learn any pet peeves you might want to avoid, and generally get a sense of who they are as individuals.

Use the Proper Channels
A lot of game designers are easy to contact these days – many have public email addresses, not to mention things like Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and so on. Try to find out how they prefer to be contacted for professional communications, and if none of their available contact information is tagged as such, it’s generally best to send your first message with a “Is this the right way to contact you about X?” message. Sometimes it will sort itself out, of course – if they only ever use their Twitter feed for joking with friends and sharing pictures of their dog doing hilarious things, it’s probably not their preferred business communication tool.

Be Polite, Precise, and Concise
If you’ve never spoken to a particular game designer before, keep your communication as brief and to the point as you can without being rude. A simple greeting, a quick explanation of what you’re interested in – “I was wondering if you’d like my thoughts on X” or “Are you looking for any writers on Y?” is fine, for example – and a thank you for their time is a lot more likely to get a response than a rambling three page breakdown of all the errors you’ve found in their game so far (or worse yet, the unasked-for resume).

If you’re approaching a designer in person, say at a game convention, these rules still apply! Try to judge if it’s a good time to approach them – if they’re drinking with friends at the bar or slammed with a line of customers at their booth, it might be best to try starting your conversation later on. If you think there’s an opportunity, introduce yourself politely and ask if they have a moment to talk about what’s on your mind – if they do, great! If they don’t, they might give you another time that would be better, and they’ll remember you as being polite regardless (sadly it’s often rare enough to be memorable). This is also a great time for business cards, as you can often hand one over even if they’re not able to talk at the time, and it gives you a natural way to contact them in the future.

Remember, Designers Are People
When you talk to a designer, remember that the game you’re discussing is the product of hundreds if not thousands of hours of their effort and care, not to mention expense and often frustration. It’s a reflection of their creative desire in dreaming it up as well as their personal discipline in seeing it through to completion, and in many cases their ability to work with a number of other professionals – artists, editors, layout designers, playtesters, etc. – in order to realize their vision. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their work, but it’s important to remember that personal dimension. I’ve seen otherwise apparently well-meaning gamers cheerfully tell designers that their games sucked, the rules were totally broken, they didn’t like huge parts of the setting, etc., and then turn around and complain that the designer was being a jerk or a wuss for not wanting to talk to them anymore. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism – the former isn’t shy about addressing problems and complaints, but does so from a position of respect, while the latter is insulting and dismissive.

If you’ll forgive an odd extended analogy, walking up to a game designer and telling them you want to “fix” their game is a lot like walking into someone’s house and telling them you want to “fix” their decor. Sure, it might not be arranged to your taste, but they probably have plenty of reasons everything is the way it is – maybe that area rug you don’t like is covering a stain they just couldn’t get out, and so removing “just that one little thing” would actually mean reshuffling their entire living room arrangement to compensate for the alteration. Or perhaps the sofa configuration, which looks odd and impractical to you, is set up for an ideal surround sound experience for their home theater system. Or – and this is valid too – maybe they just like it that way, which is fine because after all, it’s their house. And even if you’re absolutely, objectively correct about how something is “wrong” with their decorating scheme, and they know that you’re right, it doesn’t make it any more obnoxious for a stranger to walk in and loudly declare it when a quieter, more polite way would also have sufficed.

Again, this does not mean that game designers are some special genius/martyr social caste that is above the reproach of lowly common gamers. It certainly does not mean they are infallible – I’ve had people point out mistakes in my own games plenty of times, and I happily signed on writers and approved book proposals that resulted in better ideas than what I would have come up with if I was given the same projects. I’m the first to admit my books had problems ranging from the merely hilarious to the totally tragic. I’ve been taken apart on forums, by email, and in person, and I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t most some of the most technically scathing critiques because they were presented constructively, while other relatively minor points drove me to distraction simply because people presented them in rude and insulting ways. I’ve got a pretty thick skin – necessary adaptation to working in this field – but that doesn’t mean etiquette and presentation don’t matter. I’m much more likely to listen to someone who’s polite and presents their points constructively, or who submits their proposals in the proper format and through the proper channels. That’s just human nature. If you’re rude to me, I react accordingly, while courtesy elicits the same in return. Simple as that, and yet a step that eludes a lot of folks when they post game reviews or detailed rules breakdowns – they forget there are people behind those rules, and thus lose a lot of any potential they might have had to effect real change in the process.

Ultimately it’s important to remember that just about all game designers were regular old gamers long before they designed a system – their passion for the hobby is what drove them to want to make their own games in the first place! (And when they’re not designing’ games, most creators are still avid players.) I’m stressing this because it’s important to remember on both sides – that designers and fans are far more similar than they are different. You’re talking to an industry professional, true, but you’re also talking something that is intensely personal to them. The more you remember and respect that, the better your interaction with them will be, whether you’re offering game feedback, proposing a book or asking if they’re looking for talent for future projects.

Seriously, Courtesy Counts
I’m not exaggerating when I say that pretty much all gaming industry professionals have a thick file of stories involving times when people trashed them, their work, their dubious parentage, etc., whether electronically or in person. More amazingly, these people often don’t actually realize what they’re saying is seriously rude, or at least, that they phrased what might otherwise have been an interesting point in the most insulting way possible. I had one guy send me a very personal and highly insulting two page email detailing at length all the faults he’d found in my various publications, then turned around and – I guess having figured he impressed me with his superior intellect? – ask me to hire him for future projects. I had another person tell me “yeah well no offense but those rules are total shit” and then act completely amazed that I might take issue with his wording, as though “no offense” was a magic incantation that warded off my ability to be insulted. The list goes on, but the point is not that everyone who talks to a game designer is a jerk – just that sadly it happens enough that politeness really makes an impression. If you’re polite, professional, responsible in making contact, you’re ahead of the game. Why not get off to a good start?

Final Thoughts

So that’s pretty much that. I can’t guarantee that following these steps will mean game designers take your feedback into account for future rules changes or hire you to write that book you’ve been thinking about, but it certainly won’t hurt your chances – and in many cases, might improve them dramatically. Above, always remember that game companies are composed of people – gamers a lot like you, in fact – and that being friendly, constructive and respectful will go a long way toward developing positive relationships in the game design community.

We’ll see you at the panels!

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#3 – Prestige Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could fight and roleplay simultaneously.

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


Badass Larp Talk #19: Bias Cut

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

Whew. Here goes.

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So … What Do We Do About It?

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


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

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

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

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

The Carbon Copy, aka The Cosplayer

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

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

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

The Lone Wolf That Rides Alone, Wolfishly

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

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

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

The Snowflake, aka The Odd One Out

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

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

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

The Diner Hero, aka The Walking Gag

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


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

Hello, larping.

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

It’s called Hand to Head Disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


“The Gamers: Hands of Fate” film review!

[Update: This review refers to the film’s “Festival Cut”, which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film’s “Extended Edition” will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo’s own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]

Full disclosure: I’m a geek.

Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters.  (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.

I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Rising, because I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called).  I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.

[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]

The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around.  (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.

As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.)  It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.

Don’t get me wrong – Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film – Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.

For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.

Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.

Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.

(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! – and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++

Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.

And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.

As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.

Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.

So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!

+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.

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I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners – a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!

I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 


Table Manners: A Very Special Geek Convention PSA

So! That last Table Manners post had some real legs, didn’t it? Wow. Y’all are amazing, I have to say. One of the responses that came up as the reactions to the post went on, though, was a call for more specific, helpful advice for gamers in general and guys in particular in order to improve or avoid some of the bad behavior that was the subject of the post. After all, these responders reasoned, if I’m going to take these guys to task for being ill-behaved and ask them to do better, shouldn’t I also do more to help them know what that means? I figured that was a fair point, so I gave the traditional Internet response – “Challenge accepted!” – and put the word out to some of the gamers and geeks I knew that I was looking for advice to help people treat each other better in the scene, then collected their answers.

After sifting through some of the responses I got, I decided to split it into two parts, spread across two posts: Conventions and Gaming. Conventions is a bit more general, and covers all kinds of cons – gaming, comics, entertainment, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, you name it. In particular, it focuses a bit on proper etiquette for approaching strangers – celebrities, cosplayers and costume designers especially – since that seemed to what got the biggest response. Gaming is a bit more specific in scope, and talks mostly about tabletop and larp gaming, though I think a lot of it applies to video games, board games and other gaming forms as well. I wanted to make them one post, honestly, but as I wrote it became clear they were each long enough to justify their own post, and I felt lumping them together would also detract from the message of each. You can look for the follow-up to drop in a day or two, promise!

It’s worth noting, of course, that these are tips and guidelines, not absolutes, and what’s appropriate in one situation might not be in another, even if they seem otherwise identical. Some cosplayers love having their picture taken, but others might decline no matter how polite you are, and even that cute couple who gladly posed for your “Dr. Who versus Pinkie Pie Deathmatch!” photo earlier in the day might just want to get back to their room and not be in the mood for pictures later on. With that in mind, as a rule of thumb I encourage you to treat each situation as its own new experience; even if you had a great conversation and photo op with a celebrity earlier in the day, that doesn’t mean you should just walk up to them while they’re talking to their friends at the hotel bar and act like you’ve been buddies for years.

Last but not least, you’ll notice that none of these tips address how to get a date, put the moves on someone or otherwise enter the sexual/relationship sphere.  That’s deliberate; I definitely didn’t want people to think this was some kind of “How to Pickup Con Hotties” or “Bringing that Elf Ranger Back to Your Place 101” guide. Besides, I think the whole “pickup artist” scene is creepy as hell, so if that’s your cup of tea, kindly drink it elsewhere. I will say this and only this on the subject: Good manners should not be viewed as a stepping stone to or a guarantee of sexy funtimes, they’re an end unto themselves and should be treated accordingly  … but that said, good manners are also a hell of a better start to a conversation than the alternative. Just puttin’ that out there.

Convention Etiquette 101

Conventions are purpose-built sensory overload, but even in the midst of the panels and the demos and the workshops and the previews and the parties and the dealers’ room, there’s still no excuse for forgetting a few basic rules of etiquette when it comes to your fellow convention-goers, whether they’re working the con or fans like you. What follows is a series of tips to help you make a good impression and avoid the “creeper factor” as you meet people, take pictures and strike up conversations around the con. So if you’re nervous about the social rules surrounding the convention scene, well friend, we’re here to help you.

Be Nice

Yep. The Mister Rogers rule. Be nice to people. You might see what you think is a terrible cosplay and be tempted to comment on it right there, for example, perhaps even while that person is in earshot, but my advice? Save it for your blog, if you really feel the need to say it anywhere.  It’s not about censorsing yourself, it’s about taking a moment and remembering that everyone is at the con to have fun, geek out about things they love and generally enjoy their fandoms in the company of other fans for a day or two. Why take that away from someone else, just because you don’t approve of their choice of costume or favorite movie or best rpg ever or whatever else it is? You probably don’t like it when people make fun of your hobbies, so why on earth would you turn around and bring that sort of bullying and aggravation into the scene yourself?

So, take the high road when you can. Be nice to people. You’d be amazed how far it gets you.

Look, Don’t Leer

OK, I know this is going to be subjective territory at times, but let me give you a couple rules of thumb – if you’re looking at someone long enough that they look back not once but twice or more in your direction, clearly aware that you’re looking at them, then you’ve probably crossed from “looking” to “staring” (and are making them uncomfortable too). And if you’re in a place where they’re not likely to see you, like looking down from a balcony, then count Nathan Fillion credits backward to yourself: “1, Castle, 2, Dr. Horrible, 3, Serenity, etc.” If you reach Saving Private Ryan, you’ve been looking too long.  What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, have you ever been riding on the subway or walking down the street, seen a stranger looking at you, then looked back a few seconds and saw that they were still staring at you? Creepy, right? So don’t do that to someone else across the convention floor. Sure, you may mean no harm by it – but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t have to worry about the distinction.

Also, it’s worth noting that openly staring at body parts – especially the sexy ones – is pretty much automatically going to put you in the creeper category as far as most people are concerned. And yes, it is different than simply appreciating an attractive person in general. For instance, you can think a woman is absolutely stunning and still be able to maintain eye contact for a full conversation, as opposed to spending the entire chat staring into her cleavage as though a mystical formula for transmuting d12s into gold was tattooed across it. The former shows appreciation for a whole person, but the latter fetishizes a body part to the point where the person attached to it is pretty much an afterthought. Remember, you might think that this sort of body appreciation is a compliment – “I can’t help admiring how gorgeous that costume is!”, “You can’t dress up like Captain Jack Harkness and not expect people to stare!” – but once again they don’t know what’s in your head. All they see is someone staring, and it’s likely to make them more than a bit uncomfortable.

Of course, if someone is rocking a really awesome cosplay, or is the big star of everything you’ve ever liked in film and television, or wrote that game you’ve been playing nonstop for years, or has created a super elaborate costume you just can’t believe, you might wonder: How are you supposed to appreciate all that magnificence in just a couple of seconds before moving on? Fair question. The answer is that if you think you’re going to need some serious time to appreciate the person and their work, it’s probably best to actually approach them and let them know that you’re a fan or that you’re admiring their handiwork (or both). That way you can express your admiration and not just be someone creeping on them from afar, plus it gives you the advantage of possibly getting to meet a con rock star and take some pictures up close instead of furtive, stalker-y shots from deep in the crowd.

Meeting people give you a big case of the nerves? No worries! Keep reading, we’ve got your back.

Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”

Before you approach someone at a convention, whether it’s a celebrity or an awesome cosplayer or your favorite game designer, take a few seconds to see if you might be interrupting. Conventions are busy places, and people are often juggling several things at once – talking to friends, browsing booths, texting their dinner plans, you name it. That doesn’t mean you can’t approach them until they’re standing alone and staring off into space with nothing to do, but one sure way to get off on the wrong foot is to walk up to someone in the middle of something that’s really demanding their attention – eating dinner, talking on the phone, taking a picture with someone else, having a tender moment with their sweetie – especially if you don’t seem to notice that you might be intruding.

If it looks like the person you want to talk to or take a picture of might be busy, always err on the side of the caution and acknowledge that when you introduce yourself: “I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting, but do you have a moment for a picture/autograph/question?” It’s a lot more considerate than just walking up and demanding some of their time as though you were the only important thing at the con. Plus, if they don’t have time but you’re polite when you ask, you’re more likely to have them tell you a better time later if they have one available. You show consideration for their schedule, they have a polite way to turn you down if it really isn’t a good time, everyone wins.

Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything

OK. So you want to approach someone and it looks like you’ve got a good window to do so. Now, I know introducing yourself to strangers can be stressful as hell, no question, but as a rule it sure beats just walking up to someone and demanding a picture or launching straight into a discussion of your common hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, either; just a simple “Hi, I’m [Your Name Here], how are you?” is a great start. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed at how many people skip this step, which means that suddenly you’re putting a total stranger on the spot by launching right into a topic like you’ve been talking for years.

For what it’s worth, people are also a lot more likely to consider your requests if you approach them politely and engage them first, rather than just walking up and demanding something out of the blue. So even from a bottom-line perspective, this basic courtesy still makes a lot of sense. Practice it.

Ask Before You Touch

Here’s a big rule that a lot of people violate without even thinking about it, even though most of us were taught it back in kindergarten: Don’t touch other people without asking. Simple as that, and yet a lot of people forget it as soon as cameras come out or costumes come into play. So this one’s short and to the point – always ask before you touch someone. Even if you think it’s casual contact, such as if you want to throw your arm around someone for a photo – or shake their hand, or stand back to back, or touch them in any other way really – ask them first. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you so and you still come off being more polite than most; if they do care, you can avoid an embarrassing moment and possibly crossing into creeper territory. When I’ve posed with celebrities at cons, I’ve never had one react poorly to me asking them if I can throw an arm around them or shake their hand for the photo … but I have had some politely decline, and I’ve also seen them get justifiably annoyed when someone touched them without asking first.

Likewise, when it comes to costumes, props and cosplay in general, don’t assume you can touch anything without asking first; even if it’s a giant angel wing sticking three feet off their body, it’s still an extension of their person, and one they probably spent a lot of time working on and don’t want people messing with at random. Not only is it rude, but a lot of costume pieces are lighter and more delicate than they might appear, in order to prevent the cosplayer’s untimely death from sweating under 175 lbs of costuming all day at Otakon, and you might end up doing several hundred dollars and several thousand hours of damage very easily. I’m a steampunk and a larper who’s married to a costumer, so costume etiquette is more strongly ingrained in me than most, but let me tell you that few things annoy my otherwise sunny and amazing wife faster than people walking up and touching her costuming without asking. She’s likely fine with people examining the craftsmanship if they ask first, but if they don’t? It’s intrusive.

Oh, and About Those Photos

Just like you don’t want to touch people without asking, it’s also safe to assume that you should ask people before taking their picture. “But they’re in a public place!” I hear some people say. “And they’re dressed up! You can’t tell me that they don’t want their picture taken!” Actually, yes, I can. Believe it or not, not everyone at a con wants their picture taken, or wants it taken by people they don’t know, and that’s their right. A lawyer may not want opposing counsel to find pictures of him dressed as Weapon X; a woman might have a stalker in her past that makes her averse to any pictures of her showing up online; a celebrity might not want pictures taken when they don’t have their game face on or feel up to dealing with the public. Not that they have to share their reasons – all they have to do is say “No, I don’t want my picture taken” and that’s the end of the conversation. I know it might be really disappointing to come across the best genderbent Deadpool cosplay you’ve ever seen, approach her politely and ask her a for a photo only to be told no, but in the end, that’s her decision. Respect it and move on.

If you’re nervous about asking for a picture, you can also hang back a bit and wait for other people to take pictures – this is pretty likely with a good cosplay or a celebrity – and it gives you a natural moment to make your own request since others have broken the ice. Just try not to follow them all over the con or for long periods of time, or it’s going to make you seem like a creeper because they’re bound to notice you sooner or later.

Also, I’m not saying you can’t take pictures at a con without getting the permission of everyone in the background; that’s just not going to happen. Cons are too crowded to make that practical, and anyway, if you’re really just trying to take a picture of your best friend in front of the Evil Hat booth and a cosplayer wanders into the background of the shot, so be it. But there’s a big difference between taking crowd shots or candids of your friends that happen to include other people in passing, and deliberately setting up shots so that you can get a picture of someone else while pretending to take a different photo.

I mean, I know that right now some folks out there are thinking “Well, can’t I just take someone’s picture anyway, whether or not they tell me no or even ask in the first place?” To which I respond, stop and think about what you’re saying. What you’re describing – making a conscious decision to take someone’s picture in a way that avoids or ignores getting their consent – is really pretty creepy. And if it doesn’t seem creepy to you, that’s kind of scary on its own.

Be Cool with “No”

I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight. What I’m talking about is everything not covered by the above – autograph requests, attempts to share your analysis of a star’s last three movies, offering someone a free T-shirt from your gaming store if they’ll pose with it, you name it. It might make perfect sense in your head, it might be a totally innocent request, it might only take 30 seconds for them while it would totally make your year – and it their answer still might be no. And you have to be OK, not only with that being the answer, but the fact that you also might not get an explanation.  Because while some folks will offer one in the spirit of politeness, they don’t actually owe you one – you’re the one who approached them and asked for something, remember?

I’ve seen a lot of fans approach people at conventions with all sorts of requests, and you can see that they’ve played the exchange over and over in their head before they walked up, never once considering it might not work. “I just know Wil Wheaton will think this shirt is awesome,” they’ve told themselves, imagining the moment as he slips on their irreverent “Kobolds Do It In Great Numbers” T-shirt and thereby becomes the envy of the con. “How can he not? He’s a gamer! He’s totally going to wear it!” But remember, just because it makes sense to you and seems reasonable in your eyes doesn’t mean it will line up with what that person is OK with, either at that moment or in general. Maybe he has a policy about not accepting gifts from fans, or he’s running late to a panel and literally doesn’t have the time, or his first TPK came at the scaly hands of a kobold horde and just thinking about the little bastards gives him traumatic flashbacks. Or maybe – and this allowed too – he just isn’t interested in the shirt. All of these and countless more are legitimate reasons to turn down your request, and you have to be OK with that before you step up and ask.

In the end, remember that when you pay your admission, you’re not entitled to anything at a con beyond any special events you sign up for – such as a guaranteed photo op or autograph session – and even those usually have rules that you’re expected to follow.  Which means that even things that seem like no big deal to you might not be something someone else is interested in, and that’s their right.

Not All Compliments Are Created Equally

So now you’re talking to someone, and you want to tell them what’s so awesome that you just had to come over and say hi, but sadly, a lot of geeks are master of left-handed compliments, things that they think are positive but are actually mixed at best. You may mean all the best by it, for instance, but telling that game designer “Oh my god, I love your new game! It’s soooo much better than your last two!” isn’t likely to win you much goodwill. Why? Because even though you think you’re saying something nice, you’re essentially saying that you thought their last two games were terrible. You might not mean that – you might also like the other two – but that’s not what you actually said. Another classic is “You look really badass, for a girl” – well, pretty much anything with the “for a girl” phrase suffixed is probably a good example of a bad compliment. You might mean to say something positive, but all that the other person is going to hear is that you track women separately from men in the category being discussed, and unless gender’s an essential and obvious factor that’s not going to go over too well.

Another category of compliments that cause a ton of tension and aggravation are physical or sexual compliments. “You look so sexy!” is intended to be positive, for instance, but it also immediately suggests that you see the person as a potential sexual partner (or object). This is rarely a good way to make a first impression with a stranger, because the other person immediately has to wonder if you’re hitting on them, which can derail an otherwise pleasant exchange as they evaluate that situation instead of focus on a fun conversation. Again, you might know that you have no interest in them as a sexual partner, but they don’t know that, and given that you’re a stranger, they’re likely to assume the worst if you put them in that situation. I know, that sucks, but it’s the world we live in, at least until we change it.

And it should go without saying, but praising body parts – “You have amazing tits!”, “Your costume makes your ass look awesome!”, “Your feet are really pretty!” – is pretty much a bad call all around. Even if it’s an “innocent” body part, it makes them immediately aware that you’re closely studying their body, and that can make them very uncomfortable as they wonder why you’re doing that and if your interest is purely lecherous. You might feel like you wouldn’t mind if people said those things to you, so what’s the harm in saying them to others, but other people won’t automatically feel the same way. Now, if things take a particular turn and you wind up going on a date with them later on, that might be the time to tell them how their Akuma costume made their pecs look fabulous or how their Asuka suit accentuated their curves, but until then? Unless specifically invited to do so, I’d keep the body compliments to yourself and focus on costume pieces and props instead.

With that in mind, take a moment to compose a proper compliment or two if you have a chance. I don’t want to stress people out by making them go over and over their words until they’re absolutely perfect, but fortunately at conventions you often have time in autograph lines, panel crowds or other places to think out what you might say in advance. And if you’re really worried about getting it right, keep it simple – just say one nice thing and a thank you: “Thanks for your work, I love your movies,” “That costume is amazing, thanks for the pics,” “Your games really inspired me, thank you.” You’d be amazed how far a little thank you can go.

Have An Exit Strategy

I know most of us have this secret fantasy – no, not that one, the other one, the one where we meet one of our idols at a convention and wind up hitting it off. What starts as two strangers meeting becomes something more friendly and casual, and before long we’re swapping buddy IMs with Felicia Day or dropping guest vocals on that new Paul and Storm ode to the Valve gaming console that shall never be. Or maybe it’s not quite as star struck as that, just an invitation to join that elite cosplay group we’ve been admiring from afar or an alpha tester spot for a new MMO we’ve heard a lot about. Whatever it is, there’s this conviction that a lot of us have deep down that we’re just one good conversation with our heroes away from realizing our dreams – but while that might be true in some rare instances, it also tends to mean that people wear out their welcome at conventions trying to make it happen, turning what were pleasant interactions into increasingly uncomfortable and one-sided exchanges the other person can’t wait to end.

My advice? Don’t assume that a simple request like a photo or an autograph is automatically an opportunity for a long, in-depth conversation. If the two of you start chatting, great, I’m not saying you need to cut it short for some arbitrary reason, but try to gauge the other person’s level of engagement and excuse yourself when it looks like it’s run its course (ideally a little before it reaches the very end). If the conversation starts hitting some long pauses, or it circles back around to points you’ve already made, or they start glancing around a lot like they have somewhere else to be, you’re likely at the edge of your welcome, if not already tipping over. At that point thank them for their time and anything they might have done for you – pics, autographs, etc. – and just excuse yourself. It might seem a little awkward, but it makes a much better impression than having the moment stretch out out so far it finally snaps and they’re forced to take more direct action to end it.

Worried that you might have accidentally cut short a crucial conversation before its prime? Well, for one thing, if you go to excuse yourself and the other person protests, that’s usually a good sign that you can stick around a while longer – you gave them a chance to politely bow out of conversation and they didn’t take it. For another, this is the reason business cards were invented – have a batch of professional-looking ones made and offer them to people as you’re leaving the conversation. Nothing fancy, nothing too cute, just your name and some basic contact information. That way if they want to get in touch with you later – for example, to get copies of the pics you took of their cosplay – they have an easy way to do so, without requiring them to find a pen or whip out their phone. What’s more, giving them a card means future contact will be on their terms as well – they choose when and how to contact you, which is a lot less pressure than asking for their info on the spot. Plus offering a business card can result in receiving one in return, which can also tell you a lot about whether or not someone is interested in continued contact.

Speak Up

Last but most certainly not least, remember that con culture will only change for the better when it hits a critical mass of people who stand up to the jerks and call them on their bullshit. If you see someone bullying a reluctant cosplayer for a picture, speak up. If you see someone getting creepy and not taking no for an answer at the hotel bar, speak up.  If you see someone ridiculing another attendee for how they look or what they say, speak up. I’m not saying wade in with fists swinging – if you think a situation’s tipping dangerously, by all means call security or the cops – but a lot of the bad behavior arises from the fact that nobody speaks up when the jerks act like assholes, which makes them think it’s OK to be that way. If we can get enough people to make it clear that it’s not acceptable, it may not change their minds, but it will take the megaphone out of their hands and give the rest of us a chance to speak our minds instead.

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


Table Manners: Guys, We Need to Talk

In a recent post about conventions, I added a note about gender bias in the gaming community. It was a little thing, just a “hey, guys, stop assuming ladies can’t be gamers too” for the less-evolved crowd, but it turned out to get a much stronger response than anything else on that list. This post is an attempt to expand on the ideas in that post, and in doing so I found I got pretty heated myself – mostly because for every talking point I came up with I could remember some terrible evidence from my own personal experience, or which was shared with me by the ladies I know. And so I broke my normal guideline about profanity on this blog, because I think sometimes there is no polite way to express a certain measure of outrage, so I hope you bear that in mind as you read.

Let me also make a quick note for clarity: While I do address the geek community in general at points, in terms of specifics I’m addressing gamers for the most part, as that is the specific geek subculture that I have the most experience with on the whole. Likewise, when discussing conventions, I’m primarily talking about gaming cons, though I’ve spent enough time at literary, comic and entertainment cons that I think many of my points apply to those venues as well. OK! Here goes.

The Ladies Have Always Been Here (So Act Like It)

I’ve been a gamer for a long time. Not as long as some, no doubt, but as a percentage of my life it’s higher than most. I started playing tabletop rpgs when I was in first grade, and I’m in my mid-30s now. I literally have trouble remembering a time in my life when I wasn’t reading one game book or another. So while I may not be able to wax nostalgic about the glory days when the only way you got to play D&D was by picking up the original big red box – or by hanging out with Gary and Dave personally, or whatever – I do have a pretty good vertical slice of what gaming’s been like in my lifetime. And you know what? When I was a kid, it really was largely a boys’ club, no question. Yes, there were lady gamers, but they were a tiny minority. I knew two, for example, as compared to the dozen or more guy gamers I knew back then.

Then, around the time I turned 14 or so – and started playing more White Wolf games and less D&D, if you want an interesting correlation/causation possibility to ponder – suddenly there were a lot of girls in my gaming group. When we organized our first high school larp, the ratio was just about even, and while the ratio still fluctuates wildly depending on which gaming subgenre you happen to be into, it has slowly but steadily improved since then. For instance, miniatures wargaming still tends to be a very heavily male group, while larp is much more co-ed, as is tabletop gaming.

And just to be clear? I turned 14 two decades ago. 

Now, I’m not saying that everything is peachy keen just yet, and I fully recognize that this is my impression as opposed to sociological data, but it’s still significant. It’s been fashionable in mainstream media outlets to talk about women in geekdom and gaming as though it was something new, when any gamer could tell you this simply isn’t so. Instead, I suspect it’s more like “cultural critical mass” is being mistaken for “new arrivals” – that is, that there are enough women in these cultures willing to speak up about some of their inequities that they’re making headlines. Or to put it more plainly, there are now enough women who are tired of being told to put up with the same stupid sexist bullshit and are speaking up about it that they can’t be easily marginalized or ignored as they might have been in the past.

But seriously, guys, stop acting like you stepped out to the garage to get more Mountain Dew and came back to find girls where there had been no girls before. They’ve been here for a long time now, and pretending like they’re some sort of new phenomenon is equal parts patronizing and unproductive. It’s a way of avoiding dealing with gender issues by pretending they’re something new and unexpected, when in reality they’ve been around for a while and there was simply a lot of subcultural inertia holding them back. Quit it.

… You Do Realize That You’re Not Entitled to the Women You See, Right?

OK, let me make one thing clear: I’m not slamming anyone who earns some money working a convention, whether it’s in costume or otherwise. A job’s a job, especially in this economy, and I’m not gonna judge someone who decides they wouldn’t mind earning some extra scratch handing out flyers or walking around dressed as a Romulan or Red Sonja. And I’m not so naive that I don’t understand the notion of “sex sells” and its utility in the advertising world. That said … come on, people. We can do better than this. We have to do better than this. Because this shit is embarrassing.

Geek culture prides itself on being the smartest guy in the room, on being progressive and forward-thinking, and yet at every single one of the conventions I’ve been at in my lifetime, I’ve heard or seen some guy be absolutely disgusting about so-called booth babes.  It’s so prevalent that most guys don’t even notice it unless they specifically tune their frequency for it – though I guarantee you, the ladies walking with you hear it every time. (That there aren’t more “Dozens Missing, Believed Castrated As Lady Gamer Snaps After 1,517th Boob Joke In GenCon Spree” headlines is a testament to their enduring patience.)  And even worse, a lot of the guys at these cons not only expect to be greeted with an array of nearly-nude female flesh for their camera phone gratification, they’re completely unembarrassed about the kind of entitled asshole behavior it brings out in them.  They leer, they “accidentally” cop a feel while setting up a photo, they make crude jokes and sexist comments as though the woman wasn’t even there.  I once heard a guy loudly talk to his friend in clinical and exhaustive detail about everything that was right (and wrong) with the body of a girl he’d just cuddled up with for a photo at a publisher’s booth … while the woman was maybe three feet away, trying her best to smile and ignore it.  It was honestly sickening, but what was even worse was what she said when I got to the head of the line and blurted out an apology on behalf of my gender: “It’s OK, I hear that sort of thing all the time.”

No. Not just no, but fuck no.

We can do better than this, or at the very least, we have to try. I’m not so naive to think that we’ll be able to de-sexualize our advertising, but shit, can we at least agree that we’ll call people on it when they’re creepy assholes about it? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I know I wish I had the nerve to say something to that con troll years ago, and as penance I’m trying not to let that shit slide in the future. I know that some folks out there will immediately respond “this is just the way conventions work no one’s forcing them to do it” – to which my response is, and that’s supposed to make it better how, exactly? Because I can’t be the only one who finds it disgusting that geek cons still feel like they must pander to the boys in the crowd with the same level of discourse as bikini girls at boat shows. Or worse, that the bad behavior of said boys is then supposedly excused by the fact that companies are using booth babes in the first place. “If they didn’t want us to look they wouldn’t have them in the first place” is about as much of an excuse for being an asshole to booth babes as saying it was OK to steal because they left the tip jar right out on the counter where anyone could grab it. Just because you can see something doesn’t mean that it’s yours.

And for the guys who immediately jump on the “you’re just gay/a prude/kissing up to feminists” responses to this notion, respectfully, shut the hell up. It is not unreasonable to expect y’all to behave like human beings. That’s not gay, or straight, or sex-positive, or prudish, or even particularly feminist – it’s called being decent and respectful to your fellow human beings. Just because your culture passively let you get away with this behavior for a while does not mean that it’s right, and it sure as hell does not guarantee you the ability to continue doing it in the future.

There Are No Gatekeepers, Mr. Clortho, and You’re Not the Goddamned Keymaster

Over the past year or so the idea of the “fake geek girl” – and backlash against the notion of labeling people as such – has gotten a lot of attention. If you missed it, somehow, it can be summed up as follows: There’s actually a notion out there that some girls you find at gaming and entertainment conventions are “faking it”, that they’re not Real Geeks at all, they’re just there so … hell, I dunno, exactly. The actual accusations are as muddled as  Mushmouth on mescaline, ranging from crass marketing ploys to trolling to trying to pick up unsuspecting geek boys (… to do what, exactly? de-nerdify them with evil mainstream vagina powers?), but whatever they’re up to, it’s definitely Something Bad, these defensive guys can all agree. So watch out, geeks, because that cute girl in the “So Say We All” t-shirt you met at SDCC is probably just a hooker your friends hired to take your coveted viriginity!*

The notion is as obviously wrong as it is goddamn absurd, of course. Sure, a lot of people working conventions aren’t actually into the subject matter – going places and doing things you aren’t really interested in is the definition of having a job for a lot of people. (And a lot of them put up with way too much shit because of it, if you caught the booth babe section earlier.) And sure, some of the ladies who describe themselves as geeks or gamers might not have the history that you feel sufficient to have earned that title … but, and I mean this with all the love and respect in the world, who gives a fuck what you consider worthy? You, and if you’re lucky, maybe a couple friends. That’s it. Stop mistaking your personal standards for scientific constants. Because there’s always a bigger fish in the geek sea, someone who knows a lot more than you about something you like to think you’re an authority on, and if you ask them about it you will find out just what kind of sad, sorry judge of human beings you’ve really been.

Honestly, the debate over fake geek girls reminds me a lot of the endless discussions about “poser punks” back during my days in the hardcore scene. You see, according to a number of angry self-appointed punk rock authorities, there are an awful lot of “poser punks” in the scene who just like to dress up in the style and pretend to like the music, but who aren’t Real Punks and therefore don’t know What It’s All About. (Sound familiar?) How to spot these wannabes was a subject of much intense discussion, of course. I remember one supposed authority setting out some very specific advisories, like a poser punk wouldn’t know who people like the Dead Boys or GG Allin were, or that they’d bought some of their gear at that notorious poser store Hot Topic, or that they hadn’t been to any shows in church basements or dive bars like real punks attended. All of which is total bullshit, of course. Plenty of punks have never listened to the Dead Boys, they can buy clothing from wherever the hell they want, and last I checked most of us didn’t actually like going to shitty and dangerous places to see shows, so why the hell would we make it a requirement? Most telling of all, I remember going to see Rancid when I was in college, and standing near the back of the crowd in my Operation Ivy shirt I unwisely remarked about how a lot of the “kids” there wouldn’t know why I was wearing my shirt to a Rancid show. A much older punk, who looked like the CBGB’s bathroom floor in human form except not as well maintained, heard my snide comment and took my head off about how all us asshole kids were ruining his scene, and how he hadn’t seen a real punk show worthy of the name since about 1988. It was a humbling moment, and one I’ve not forgotten – if you think you’re a gatekeeper for a whole scene, think again.

The most common and yet insidious way that this phenomenon is expressed in geek culture is “the quiz” – when a guy meets another guy at a convention, he automatically assumes that guy is as into it as he is and the two start chatting happily about their mutual interests. By contrast, a lot of guys still haven’t accepted the notion that there are ladies in their hobbies as well, and so when they meet they quiz them, sometimes subtly but often not, asking questions in an attempt to determine if the woman is a Real Geek like them. Most of the time, of course, they pick the most obscure or heavily bias-laden questions they can think of, so that when the lady doesn’t answer with exactly the response they wanted they can dismiss her as a fake and feel secure in their authority and their fandom.

Because that’s what it comes down to for a lot of insecure geek guys – they feel put upon because deep down one of the reasons they got into their hobby is often that it comfortably insulated them from the gender politics of middle school and high school, but now they feel that women are invading their territory, and so they lash out in any way they can. Which is doubly sad because there is no One True Authority, not in gaming, not in comics, not in anything geek related. I mean, I guess we could come up with some sort of all-purpose Geek Entertainment and Educational Knowledge Exam (GEEKE, pronounced “geeky”) , and make everyone take it before they’re allowed to register for Comic Con or host a larp, but really, how dumb is that? And yet we let people get away with a personal version of it all the time. And it needs to stop.

Threatening Rape Is Not Just “Trash Talk”

There’s been a fair amount of coverage lately about what women endure on gaming networks like Xbox Live and PSN, not to mention MMOs and other online gaming experiences – as soon as their gender is discovered, they receive a barrage of crude pickup attempts and pornographic images/requests, or are called sluts and whores and urged to “get raped”, and called thin-skinned and worse if they can’t handle it. “Trash talk is a part of gaming,” these boys say. “If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t play.” They’re not wrong about one part of that statement – yes, trash talk is part of gaming. Always has been, always will be. But there’s a difference between mocking an opponent’s gameplay and simply spouting a litany of racist, sexist and/or homophobic language into a microphone. That’s not a matter of being prudish, that’s simple linguistics.

To paraphrase the superb Extra Credits series, who addressed this problem very eloquently some time back, the problem is right now that we’ve given the idiots the megaphone. So naturally they’re shouting into it. We need to turn the culture around, and while I’ll let folks like EC tackle the difficulties of doing so on online gaming platforms, we can do a lot to shut down this bullshit in our gaming groups and at our geek events. So the next time you hear someone talking about “raping the other team” in TF2 or how “the NPCs just totally raped us” at your larp, I recommend that you call that person on their bullshit. Chances are if they’re a decent person they’ll just apologize and not do it again, but if they object, I’ve anticipated some of the common arguments for you:

* “Freedom of speech!” BZZT. Sorry, wrong. The First Amendment only says the government can’t stomp on your speech. It says nothing about what’s allowed on corporate-owned gaming networks, or at public gaming cons, or at your local larp. Also, you are specifically not protected from the consequences of your language.  You are free to threaten people all you like, but they are just as free to call the cops on you for it, and guess who’s punished for it?

* “I didn’t mean anything by it! Chill out!” OK, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – but if it’s really not such a big deal, pick a different topic. Rape hits home with a lot more women – and men, for the record – than you know. Would you make a suicide joke to someone you know has suffered through family or friends committing suicide? No? So how about leaving out a topic that many people have only too much history with in their lives?

* “But what’s so different about threatening rape? Lots of guys say they’ll kill each other and don’t mean it!” If you ever needed an example of male privilege, you could pretty much just copy/paste these sentences into the dictionary. Let me try to keep it short, for those out there who don’t get it. Most of us were bullied at one time or another, and if so, you know the difference between a friend joking about kicking your ass as opposed to a bully really threatening to do it. We know one party isn’t a threat, but the other? Different story. Now imagine a total stranger bumps into and promptly threatens to beat you up – are you going to assume they’re kidding? Or, for safety’s sake, are you likely to take them just a little more seriously, just in case? Of course you are. Now throw in the fact that rape is not nearly the remote threat that murder is, especially for women, and you begin to understand the problem. So stop.

Oh, and Please Stop Assuming Women at Boffer Larps Can’t Fight As Well As You Can

This is a pet peeve of mine, but while we’re on the subject, guys, seriously, stop being so freaking clueless when it comes to women who can fight. I’ve been fighting at boffer larps for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is just plain sad to see how often the guys there just reflexively shoulder women out of the way when it comes to arranging shield walls, picking combat patrols and otherwise  throwing down. What’s worse is that many of you don’t even seem to notice you’re doing it, you just unconsciously leave them out of the thick of things. So speaking as the husband of a Markland heavy fighter and all-around badass, who is also friends with many other badass larper ladies, please stop embarrassing yourselves. Watch someone fight and judge them on that, not anything else. And if you don’t think you have this prejudice, check your circuits, son, you’re getting bad signals – even I still struggle with this one from time to time and I most certainly know better.

A Final Word for the Guys

I know it seems like I’m on the warpath for a lot of this post, and let’s not kid each other, in many ways I am. I’m sad, and ashamed, and more than a little pissed off by some of the standards that this scene considers acceptable, and I want to help change them. And I know that a lot of you out there probably read sections of it and thought to yourselves, “That’s a pretty big generalization – that’s not true of me.” And I hope – I know – that’s the case for a lot of you. I painted with a pretty broad brush, and I know that gets some paint on the good guys as well as the bad. For that, I apologize. But the best way we can prove these are generalizations, and not true of all geek and gamer guys, is by living up to a higher standard. Not just by not being sexist ourselves, but by calling other guys on it when they try to pull some chauvinist bullshit, whether it’s making a rape reference in an online game, or groping a booth babe, or pushing the women aside when it’s time to stand shoulder to shoulder at a boffer larp. Don’t get me wrong, either – this isn’t about saving the ladies from wicked sexists. We don’t need more white knight bullshit clouding the issue. This is just about us looking at things that are awful and unfair and disgusting, and saying, “Fuck that, it stops here” and really meaning it. We can do it. I know we can. We have to.

Or in the words of John Custer to his son Jesse, from the incredible comic Preacher:
You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.

*Because of course you’re a virgin, nerd! And yes, that is also the plot of an episode of Veronica Mars. Well spotted, marshmellow, well spotted.

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Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates! 


It Was the Last of Us, It Was the Best of Us

Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.

For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:

The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.

OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:

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WARNING! WARNING! HUGE

HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
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So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.

Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.

And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.

In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.

I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.

There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.

In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.

And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.

Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.