Posts tagged “gaming

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! 

 

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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!