Posts tagged “gaming

Badass Larp Talk #13: Mind the Gap

I hate character histories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Table Manners: Or, How Not to Be a Convention Troll

In honor of Dexcon this weekend, where hundreds of gamers are coming together for a weekend of dice rolling and debauchery, I thought I’d share a few little tips to help everyone make the most of their con (and maybe help break some bad habits at the table before they get started):

1) We’re All Nerds Here
Dystopia Rising creator Michael Pucci likes to open his larp sessions with some variation on the following advice: “Look around you. We’re all nerds! Everyone is here because they’re a geek who loves gaming! Enjoy it!” The message goes double for gaming cons: Leave the hatin’ at home, and focus on the fun instead. Try new things, play new games with new people, maybe learn some new tricks or even a new way of looking at an old game you never would have considered before. We’re all nerds. Embrace it.

2) Stay On Target
Most convention games have between 4-6 hours to hand out characters, explain the rules (for new folks), provide relevant background/setting material to set up the scenario and then actually play out a full, entertaining story, usually with a group of strangers who’ve never gamed together before. That’s a hell of challenge. So do your GM a favor and try to stay focused. Don’t be a humorless jerk about it, of course, but those long-winded war stories from other games can probably wait for the bar afterward, you probably don’t need to keep dropping character to talk about your other convention larps, and that game of Angry Birds on your iPad will still love you even if you don’t play for a few hours. You’ve only got a short time to play, so dive in!

3) Play Nice with Others
Don’t get me wrong – I know some con games thrive on PvP action. (The “everyone make characters for system X and have a huge gladiator brawl” is a storied con tradition, after all, as are the equally time-honored “let’s all make Evil characters and screw with each other” games.) But there’s a difference between your characters hating and fighting and scheming, and the players being at each others’ throats. Even the harshest PvP games are still games, after all, so the goal is to have fun. Be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat, and remember, it’s just a game, so enjoy it, and help everyone else at the table do so the same.

4) Respect the Shower Hour
I know that because of the limited convention time frame, gamers tend to maximize their playing time and minimize other needs like sleeping, eating properly and so on. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, and looking at my schedule for Dexcon right now, I’m no different in that respect.  On top of that I’ll fully admit that I’m no daisy after six hours of larp in a small convention boardroom or five hours packed around a gaming table, and my nutritional plans never seem to quite be as healthy as I’d hope. I’m not going to say that the convention needs to schedule a designated Shower Hour between gaming rounds. (Though, now that I mention it…)  Deodorant, mints, real food, a nap now and then, enough changes of clothes to see you through the weekend and doing battle with shampoo at least once a day – these things not only make you better suited to enjoy the games you’re playing, but your fellow gamers will appreciate it too.   

5) Guys. Seriously.
I hate having to write this one, but some guys need the reminder, so here goes: There are lots of female gamers. I know to some of you it might seem like they just suddenly appeared in the time it took to get another case of Mountain Dew from the garage, but believe it or not, they’ve actually been here for a long time now, and not because their boyfriend dragged them into it. In fact, at a con I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that any lady you see with a badge and a backpack is there because she’s stoked to throw down in an Apocalypse World, or to see her Space Wolves wreck on some Necrons, or because her Gangrel is gonna slit throats and seize Praxis as soon as the sun goes down. So really, stop reciting rules at them like they don’t know what they’re doing, talking over them during planning sessions, offering unsolicited advice on the “best” move to make every time their turn comes up, quizzing their “cred” like the geek SATs, or worse yet assume that sharing a table and some laughs entitles you to share a hotel room later. It’s sad and obnoxious, and it needs to stop. For all the guys who don’t need this reminder, thank you, keep being awesome, and don’t hesitate to speak up and back up a lady if you see some tool trying to pull this sort of bad behavior. For all the ladies in these hobbies, thanks for coming out despite all the crap and the cavemen and the creepers, not to mention kicking some major ass besides.  All too often we’re still like the short boys hugging the walls at the eighth grade dance, the ones that made you roll your eyes and long for the relative social graces and personal growth of high school guys, but don’t give up on us yet. We’ll catch up to y’all sooner or later, maturity-wise. Promise.

—————————————————————————

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Single Death Systems (SDS)

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

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

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

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

Unlimited Death Systems (UDS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limited Death Systems (LDS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Table Manners: Time to Level Up

OK. Deep breath. I’m going to say something that I feel is a little bit overdue:

We geeks really have to get past the notion that we’re cultural outsiders.

Before anyone flies off the handle, let me make two things perfectly clear: I am not saying that geeks don’t get picked on for their hobbies and interests. Sadly I know that there are plenty of kids and more than a few adults who get picked on by classmates and co-workers for knowing what Naruto is, or arguing the merits of Star Wars versus Firefly. Bullies like easy targets, and there’s still plenty in our culture that says “nerds” are their natural prey, as though eighth grade was Wild Kingdom. Strike that. Anyone who’s been to middle school knows that it’s not Wild Kingdom – it’s much, much meaner. Lions can only take down a gazelle once; the gazelle never have to do a history presentation with them two weeks after getting mauled. So no, I’m not saying that geeks aren’t still being bullied for being geeks.

I am also not saying that bad cultural stereotypes don’t exist. Just to pick one of the most egregious genres, look at any of the thousands of police procedurals on the air – the techies and the “brainy” characters are still likely to have glasses, be “quirky” (read: socially awkward), and have hobbies that other “normal” characters make fun of for being too dorky. Venerable ratings juggernaut NCIS, whose writers generally display as much computer savvy as Wilford Brimley yelling drunken obscenities at a ceiling fan, spent a good chunk of time mocking MIT graduate Agent McGee and his fascination with computer games, role-playing and cosplay (not that they know that term). There are exceptions, of course, especially as characters get fleshed out over the run of a series, but on average if you dig back to those early episodes you’re going to see awkward, often-bespectacled geeks spouting jargon that – inevitably – some “down to earth” alpha male type barks at them to translate into “plain English” for everyone to understand. That sort of stereotyping still happens regularly, I know. That’s not in dispute.

No, what I’m trying to say is that we have to let go of the idea – deeply ingrained in many of us – that geek culture is still the weird kid no one wants to talk to at recess. I know it’s hard; sometimes I still can’t believe it myself. Whenever I see something from geek culture splashed across the mainstream, my first reaction is that old one a lot of us nerds grew up with – I don’t trust it. I look around to see if someone’s poking fun at it, or me for liking it, or maybe both. I just can’t accept that maybe a lot of other people, and I mean a lot of other people, might be into what I’m into. I think a lot of geeks know what I’m talking about, especially those in their late 20’s-early 30’s and up, the ones who didn’t grow up with Harry Potter being around their age. (The importance of this distinction will be clearer in a moment.) It’s a habit developed by folks who were used to having what they liked mocked or dismissed, and the “us versus them” mentality it creates is very hard to let go of even many years later.

When I was a kid, many people grudgingly suffered through The Hobbit in school, but it was a far rarer soul who’d braved the grown-up trilogy. Outside my circle of equally geeky friends, being able to rattle off the rosters and relative merits of of X-Men Gold versus X-Men Blue won me no love in the lunchroom, and staying inside to master Ninja Gaiden was definitely not the cool thing to do on a summer day meant for bike riding and pickup basketball. Being a geek felt like being part of a culture at the fringes – almost nobody knew what you liked, much less got what you saw in it, and so you were the caretakers of this little world, its protectors. We were enthusiastic about it in part because no one else cared, so it seemed even more important to pour ourselves into it.

But that world really isn’t there anymore.

Take a look around. I mean, really look. Video games are the highest grossing entertainment industry in the country; the Lord of the Rings trilogy tore up the box office and the Oscars; Game of Thrones is blowing away cable television; Harry Potter gave us a generation of fantasy fans; and instead of having one superhero movie every decade or so, now they’re attracting some serious talent and studios can’t make them fast enough. The average person went from not knowing anything about the Avengers to having opinions about possible roster changes and impending villains in upcoming movies. Geek culture isn’t just for geeks anymore, it seems, much to the confusion and consternation of many of the old guard who are still caught up in that “us versus them” mentality they’ve known for so many years. I mean, we could keep going:

Dr. Who? Huge.
Star Wars? A multi-billion dollar deal.
Star Trek? Rebooted.
Nathan Fillion? Dead sexy.

And all that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. We have arrived, ladies and gentlemen – in fact we’ve been here for some time. We just can’t bring ourselves to accept it yet. Like the kid on the playground waiting for the bully to turn a “compliment” into another mean joke at our expense, we can’t believe it’s really sincere. Deep down, a lot of us who grew up geek just can’t let go of the notion that our culture is the kid standing alone at the prom,  when in fact just about everyone’s lined up and asking us to dance.

I know what some of you are thinking: “But they sexed up the dwarves in The Hobbit! They  turned Star Wars into a merchandising scheme! The Big Bang Theory makes us all look like jerks and losers!” Underneath all those complaints is a single meta-complaint, the cry of every geek when they see something like the Spider-Man origin retcon in the third movie, the anguish of the inauthentic moment: “THEY’RE NOT GETTING IT RIGHT!” Geek culture and its properties are being picked up faster than ever, but in the process there’s a sense that it’s being co-opted, it’s being hacked apart and dumbed down and so on. Countless posts on countless forums decry the invasion of the mainstream as it grabs up another cherished geek property, and I understand why: It’s scary to have everyone suddenly fall in love with something you like after you’ve been used to no one knowing about it at all. It’s natural to lash out a little, to go into the “I was into it before it was cool” mode and complain about how it will inevitably be butchered.

All I can say to that is, well, of course not all of what is created or recreated in the mainstream will be “right.” (Though, to be fair, a lot of “right” is in the eye of the beholder. Some people like X3, after all, God help the sorry bastards.) As geek culture is brought more and more into the mainstream, there are bound to be missteps and screw-ups and bastardizations and more. It will take a long time before many of those misconceptions are corrected, if some of them ever are; I suspect even Benedict Cumberbatch’s demonic perfection won’t be able to lift the “Trekkie = virgin” stigma that particular fandom carries. And I won’t even talk yet about what my beloved larp hobby looks like to the mainstream media. Let’s just say we have a long way to go and leave it at that.

But geek culture isn’t unique in that. Ask any lawyer how “right” most courtroom dramas are, or see what a real forensic tech thinks of CSI and its many clones. Most football fans and players can name on one hand the really good “football movies” that get the feel of the game right, and let’s not even compare real epsionage work to James Bond’s adventures. Last summer the History channel got ripped, and rightly so in many cases, for “dramatizing” events in its Gettysburg anniversary programming that, oops, turned out not to have happened at all in the real battle. Every culture has its stereotypes in the media, and every culture is done “wrong” by what’s produced about them. If you believe geeks are the only people consistently portrayed in a negative, inaccurate light, have a chat with a member of a motorcycle club sometime.

No, what we’re really missing when we pull back from this culture shift and retreat into the ivory towers of “original fandom”, though, is the chance to guide what’s being brought into the mainstream. This goes beyond voting with our wallets and our ratings, though that’s important too, and focuses on the people around us who are first exposed to things that we’ve known for years. When you reject a new Dr. Who fan for only getting into it when the recent series reboot started, for instance, you’re missing a chance to show those people the charm of the older episodes in all their cheesy, wonderful glory. Push away a person because all they know about Batman is the video games, and how will they ever experience the sheer awesomeness that are classic Batman stories like Arkham AsylumThe Killing Joke, or Year One? Maybe you can’t reach out to everyone in the world who is awed by the Lord of the Rings movies or hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and tell them about other wonderful fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie, MZB, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch or Mercedes Lackey – but you can tell the new potential fans sitting next to you.

We have to put some of our old demons behind us, folks, and accept that as a culture we’re no longer the outsiders looking in. We’re at the threshold of a brand new culture, one that – with a little bit of our help – can bring some of the wonder and amazement and imagination that we love to people who otherwise might never have experienced it in their lives. As my man Hardison likes to say on Leverage – one of the better portrayals of a geek out there recently, by the way, who not only hacks computers but gets to be witty, get the girl and kick a lot of ass too – this is the Age of the Geek, baby.

It’s about time we stepped back of our self-imposed exile and started leading the way to the culture we want. 

—————————————————————————

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


Badass Larp Talk #10: Select, Start

Let me share a great and terrible secret of larp:

You are not the star.

Well, OK, that’s not entirely true. As a player character, you are a star of the larp story where you attend. There’s an important word in there, though – “a”. Not “the star”, just “a star.” You are one of many stars at your game, and that means you need to learn a thing or two about sharing the spotlight. Because doing so doesn’t come naturally to everyone, even those who generally do their best to make the game fun for everyone.

Though some dive right in at the deep end, many of us come to larp from other forms of gaming, tabletop rpgs and video games being perhaps the most common points of origin. However, both of these gaming arenas have a different sense of the needs of the player as compared to the needs of the game as a whole. In video games, unless you’re playing an MMO or running some co-op action, the rest of the game world exists solely for your own amusement. (And let’s be honest, we know a lot of MMO players who still think that way even with 10 million fellow players online.) Everyone else you see is created by the program and is there to do with as you wish, at least within the bounds of what is possible in the context of the game. My Warcraft rogue may respectfully doff his cap, salute and kneel down before Jaina Proudmoore as part of my roleplay when I turn in a quest, but that’s my experience. You may decide to just run in, get your completion and go. Or you might decide to strip to your skivvies and dance next to her spamming macros asking everyone to group with you for a raid. Point is, in a video game, the world exists for you and you alone, or perhaps you and a small circle of friends. The enjoyment of others falls way, way down on the list for most people. If you don’t believe me, watch a bunch of individual players try to tag a quest mob that only on of them can tag at a time. Sure, some people will offer to team up, but a lot of them will simply spam every dirty trick in the book, tag the mob and ride off. Your fun is not their fun.

Tabletop gaming has a similar feel, albeit for a different reason – in this case, your small circle of characters are the people that matter, and the rest of the world is there for your enjoyment. Good groups try not to think of things that way, and good STs won’t let you get away with it much in practice, but ultimately it still boils down to the fact that the characters are in some way special if only because the story is focused on them. Not to mention that you’re going to tolerate things from your fellow characters that you wouldn’t tolerate from others because if you don’t, the game doesn’t work. Ultimately the players must work together, even if the characters don’t want to, or your game doesn’t go anywhere. There’s a wonderful scene in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising where one character uses a magical wish to revive a fallen NPC, and one of her fellow players flips out because she “wasted” her wish by using it on a character that isn’t one of the party (and therefore by definition doesn’t matter as much as they do). That pretty much sums up the “bubble” that tabletop characters exist in – even if it’s just deep down, the players know that their characters are the only ones that really matter. Now, tabletop gaming is often a bit more cooperative than video gaming, but it’s still just one group of players having fun in a world otherwise populated with NPCs, and so the only other factor to consider outside of your own characters’ amusement is making sure you keep your GM happy enough to continue running the game. Your fun is your group’s fun, it’s not anyone else’s fun.

Larp, though, she is a beast from a different forest.

When you are larping, whether it’s a weekend boffer game or a Saturday night parlor session, you are not the only person whose fun matters. Take a look around at the other players, the NPCs, the staff. All of them are there to enjoy the game as well, one way or another, and their fun is just as important as your own, if not moreso at times. Why? Because larp is not a solipsistic bubble where only your character matters and the rest of the world is generated by a program or by a single omnipotent GM. It’s generated by everyone you see around you, and if you treat it like your own personal playground built for your sole amusement, you’re not only missing the point, you’re missing out on a lot of the fun as well. You are, quite literally, playing a different game than everyone else around you, and often not in the best way.

Because unlike most other forms of gaming, the more you put into the stories of others, the more it enriches your own experience as well. Having fun for your own sake is fine, but helping others have fun too actually improves the game for everyone. Remember, this is a shared world – the more everyone around you puts into it, the more they enjoy and create and invest in it, the better it’s going to be for you too. So while your own fun is important – it is a game, after all, so if you’re not enjoying it most of the time it’s not working as intended – it’s also important to be mindful of the fun of the rest of the people around you as well. Maybe I’m more sensitive to this fact because I’ve been a serial ST for many years and making sure everyone is having a good time is part of the job description, but I think the point remains valid regardless.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s true: The vast majority of the time, entertaining other people is entertaining for you too. Your fun is everyone’s fun, and everyone’s fun is yours too. (If you don’t believe it, try to have a good time at a larp where everyone else is bored, pissed off, frustrated or some combination of the three. Good luck to you, brave sir or madam, good luck.) Most of us encounter this when we take a turn as an NPC – the more we commit to entertaining the players, the more fun we tend to have playing the role ourselves.  Whereas one of the traits of a bad NPC tends to be someone focused only on their own amusement, and players be damned. Granted, the role of an NPC is different than that of a PC in terms of their relation to the story, but still, nothing says at least some of that spirit shouldn’t carry over to time spent as your own character. You shouldn’t feel obligated to entertain your fellow PCs at every turn, especially at the expense of your own fun, but at the same time, you should try to remember that encouraging their entertainment ultimately benefits your own as the world grows richer and the players are more fully engaged.  When you entertain only yourself, only you benefit; when you entertain others, you all benefit. It’s a net gain for the everyone involved.

What do I mean by this, exactly? If it can be boiled down to anything, it’s this: Don’t treat larp like a single player game. It’s not. That’s what’s so magical about it, right? The fact that we’re all coming together to make and sustain a world, whether it’s an entire fantasy realm or just one city by night. To get the most out of your larp experience, you need to understand when to leap into the limelight and show off who your character is and what they can do, of course. but also when to help someone else do the same. Because when you can recognize the difference between those opportunities, that takes your appreciation of larp to a whole new level.

If you’ll pardon me using my own experience for an example, I’ll try to illustrate what I mean. My main character at Dystopia Rising, a post-apocalyptic zombie horror larp, is a country doctor. He happens to be something of a jack-of-all-trades, capable of doing a lot of different things in addition to medicine – farming, brewing, patching broken objects, even crafting simple items. And make no mistake, I enjoy doing all those things, and I believe that this self-sufficiency is very much an expression of his character. But I also know when to step aside and let someone else do them if it will make the play more memorable or enjoyable to do so.

For instance, if I see a brand new tinker walk into town, if at all possible I’ll take the job to them rather than make a new weapon myself. When waves of wounded come into the triage center, I’ll let the new medics get first crack at them, staying to advise and maybe take the more advanced cases that their characters can’t handle yet. I’m not saying that I never jump to the front and build my own gear or take care of the first wounded through the door, because I certainly do (and there’s nothing wrong with doing so), but I also try to keep an eye out for the enjoyment of my fellow players as well. If it’s been a slow night and the newer docs look bored, well, I don’t mind letting them catch the next couple of cases. The point isn’t that I’m giving up my own fun for theirs – I still stay involved in the scenes through roleplay and such – but I’m trying to be considerate and let other characters have a chance to show their stuff as well.

Most veteran larpers have been at games that have fallen prey to “superhero syndrome.” For those that are not familiar, it’s pretty much what it sounds like – games where some long-running characters are so powerful that newer characters often feel useless by comparison. (Imagine trying to feel relevant and useful as an ordinary police officer when the Justice League always swoops in to solve every case.) However, I’ve seen games where this power disparity was a major problem, and games where it generally didn’t seem to matter nearly as much. The difference? In some games the “super hero” characters cared about their fellow players and tried not to just bulldoze over them to solve every problem with their mighty presence, often allowing other characters to come to the forefront when their vast powers were not required to solve a problem. By contrast,  in other games the “super heroes” were only interested in their own amusement, and didn’t care at all if anyone else was having fun so long as they enjoyed themselves. I’ve seen situations where a group of low-level characters is excited and about to face off with a group of dangerous enemies, only to have one super hero wander in, obliterate those enemies with a few powerful abilities, and wander off with a bored look in their eye. It’s not a whole lot of fun for anyone, trust me. The NPCs are frustrated, the new players are frustrated, and honestly, the super hero rarely has more than a moment or two of satisfaction from it anyway.

Now I know there are people out there calling bullshit on this line of thinking. (Hi, Noah!) And they have some valid points that are worth noting. After all, you’ve spent your money to play the game – if not up front at the door, at least chipping in for food and drink at your local parlor larp, I hope – and that means your fun should be primary. Even if you are an NPC, specifically tasked with entertaining players, your own enjoyment should still factor in or you’re not playing a game anymore, you’re going to a job. Let me also be clear in saying that it is absolutely true that you should be enjoying game. As I noted previously, I am not saying that being a good larper always means giving up chances to do things so that others get to do so. It definitely does not mean sacrificing your fun for the fun of others – it just means trying to encourage the entertainment of others at the same time as you enjoy yourself.

As I said, at Dystopia Rising I’m perfectly happy to heal people and build things when I like, especially if I’ll enjoy doing it, but I just try to “pay it forward” at times when it doesn’t matter as much to me as it might to someone else.  If you think about larp as a single player experience, where you’re just there to pay your money, grab your fun and go, you might enjoy it. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, at least so long as you’re not actively wrecking the fun of others in the process. But if you look at your role as being part of a larger community, and try to contribute not only to your own experience but that of others as well, you’ll find you can have a much more rewarding, much more fulfilling experience than any single player game can offer. Put your fun in everyone else’s hands when you can, and take up their fun from time to time yourself. I think you’ll be surprised and pleased by just how much fun it can be.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Let’s all go get lost together.

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


Badass Larp Talk #9: The Great Divide

By popular request, this installment of BLT is going to tackle something that every larper must face sooner or later – drawing the line between in-character (IC) and out-of-character (OOC). Now, I’m not talking about actually remembering that you’re not really an elven warrior or a vampire prince – though, for the record, if that does actually become a problem at some point, seek help (seriously) – I’m talking about some of the trickier or less obvious situations that come up when you and your friends spend time as other people for a hobby. And speaking of friends …

1) “We’re friends OOC, so we should be friends IC too!”

This is one of the first social hurdles a lot of larpers have to navigate, and a subject that has been known to split groups into two sometimes surprisingly vehement factions. Quite simply, the trouble is that some people like to automatically carry over their OOC friendships into game, while other players prefer a more “natural” approach that requires the IC friendship to develop. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but trouble arises when a group of friends doesn’t all share the same perspective. I’ve seen it happen, too – a person comes to their first session and has their character cozy up to a friend’s character, only to be brushed off with a IC dismissal because their friend doesn’t automatically assume OOC relationships should apply. The newcomer feels hurt and a little betrayed; after all, they came to this game to be with their friend, and being brushed off sometimes means that they spend the rest of their night surrounded by strangers pretending to be different strangers, which is fun for some but a small slice of boredom hell for many others. Of course, for their part, the friend is likely to feel that they’ve done nothing wrong – they’re just playing their character, and if that character doesn’t know someone, they’re not going to suddenly open up to them for no real IC reason. This tends to lead to a bit of a standoff and some hurt feelings, which can sour whole circles of friends on a game in really short order.

The Fix: As with a lot of IC/OOC problems, the best way to head off this sort of trouble is to talk about expectations before going to game. If OOC friendships are going to carry over into game from the beginning, make sure there’s at least some thread of backstory and character ties to support them – some classics include family members, old business partners, survivors of the same battle, etc. Having those ties also has the added benefit of soothing more “purist” roleplayers who don’t want to automatically carry over their OOC relationships by giving them IC reasons to know and talk to these new characters, so that they don’t feel like they’re bending their character just to accommodate their friends.  Ultimately, though, if things start getting heated, remember that you’re all friends sharing a hobby – it should be fun, not painful. Even great games aren’t worth losing OOC relationships over. And speaking of relationships …

2) “So, we’re dating IC too, right?”

Along the same lines, when players are dating/married – let’s just say involved to keep it simple – the subject of whether or not their characters should also be romantically attached is bound to come up.  As with the friendship issue, some folks like to just roll over their OOC relationship while others prefer to keep their IC love life separate from their OOC one, and problems arise when those involved can’t agree on which approach they want to take. Addressing that basic concern involves the same sort of dialogue involved in carrying OOC friendships over IC, though obviously tailored to suit the relationship in question. In my experience, at least initially a lot of players choose to maintain their OOC relationship in some fashion, if only to avoid potentially awkward situations. However, there is an added problem that faces players who are involved, at least if they choose not to roll over their OOC relationship – are their characters then allowed to date/marry other characters, or be sexually active IC? Even players who are cool with the basic concept of not rolling over an OOC relationship into game aren’t always OK with their partners becoming involved with other people IC, which can lead to some really awkward situations as their characters remain single for primarily OOC reasons.

The Fix: Communication, communication, communication. If you’re going into game and maintaining your OOC relationship, you don’t have much to discuss unless one of you decides to end it IC, in which case I’d recommend a long talk to reassure them that it’s a strictly IC decision. (If you want to end things OOC too, please, have the decency to just do it OOC and not sneak up to it by doing it IC first, or you risk dragging other players into a really messy situation.)  If you decide not to maintain an existing OOC relationship but you’re fine with your partners pursuing IC relationships, you still should talk about what you consider acceptable IC behavior when it comes to sex and romance, and when in doubt, choose the more conservative option just to be safe. After all, it’s a lot easier and less traumatic to relax restrictions later if you find you’re more comfortable than it is to tighten restrictions after something upsets you. Make sure your lines are clear, and revisit them on a regular basis to make sure they’re still a good fit. (For longer games, like marathon con sessions or weekend boffer larps, it’s also a good idea to build in a little sweetheart time where you can spend a few minutes together and be all cute and cuddly OOC before going back into game.) I’d also recommend coming up with a code phrase that lets your partners know that you need to talk to them OOC, so if you find yourself needing to discuss important OOC matters or just have a little relationship time you can do so without being disruptive. And remember, no matter how awesome and immersive and intense your IC romance might be, it’s never a good idea to blow off your OOC partners for it, whether putting them off at game, spending too much downtime chatting with your IC love interest, or anything else. Trust me, “It was just in-character!” is the last thing a lot of sad larpers say to the angry person on the other side of the bedroom door before spending the night on the couch. Speaking of intense …

3) “Wow! Our characters have great chemistry – wanna go out for real sometime?”

As classic blunders go, this one ranks right up there with land wars in Asia and going in against Sicilians when death is on the line – while it’s true that many larpers end up dating and sometimes even marrying people they first meet at game, it’s important to remember that most players are just there to play a game and have fun living in a fictional universe for a while. Which means that the person you meet IC can be and often is very, very different from the person playing them OOC. It would seem self-evident, but it’s surprisingly easy for even veteran larpers to forget that everyone around them is playing pretend too – that obnoxious thug might be a softspoken PhD, that charismatic revolutionary might be quite shy OOC, and that outrageous flirt might be happily committed to someone else when the curtain falls. (And even if they’re not, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily looking to be involved with someone at game.) Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of players about romance subplots, and the number one reason that a lot of people list for not pursuing them is that they’re worried their IC partner might not be able to keep things separate, and ruin some great roleplaying by trying to initiate a real relationship. Which is a damn shame, when you think about it, but a very understandable concern regardless.

The Fix: If you are really interested in asking out one of your fellow players, it’s generally best to do a couple of things before you take that step. First of all, you’ll want to get to know them outside of game, to make sure that you’re really attracted to them and not the character they’re playing. A lot of people play very different personas from their real life personalities, and that extends to their sexual and romantic preferences as well. Second, you want to find out if they’re available and interested, if you haven’t learned that in the course of getting to know the real person behind the IC persona. If they’re not available or they decline a request to date, accept it gracefully and move on. (By gracefully, that ideally also means not suddenly cutting all IC ties with them just because you learned they’re not OOC available.)  Third, if the stars align and you learn that they’re really an awesome person and that they’re potentially amenable to a date request, for the love of Holy Rock-Paper-Scissors Trinity, DO NOT ASK THEM OUT DURING GAME. Not only is it potentially confusing – “Are you asking out me or my character?” – but it also breaks game and puts the other player on the spot in a big way. Wait until after a session, or better yet, try to set up something away from game entirely, even if it’s just the diner after a session. And now that we’re on the subject of being away from game entirely …

4) “Hey, guys, I know it’s 3 AM, but I have the best idea for a new power!” 

Full disclosure: When I first got into larp, I was a sophomore in high school. My group of friends started playing The Masquerade, and we got seriously into it. As in, our whole group talked about little else but vampire clans and political intrigue and personal plotlines and cool powers and “could a mage take a werewolf in a fight” types of discussions. None of us failed out of school or quit all our other extracurricular activities, so we weren’t dangerously obsessed, but it’s safe to say that we were deeply into it. My girlfriend at the time – not a fan of vampires – told me more than once that she was sick of the fact that all our friends could ever seem to talk about was the game. It happened again when we found boffer larp in college, too – suddenly we were going to games for one or two weekends a month and spending an awful lot of our time away from game making costumes, holding fight practices, debating rules and storylines and otherwise geeking out about our new larp obsession. Again, nobody wound up carving an Uruz into their forehead and going to jail for stabbing people handing out Chick tracts, so we managed to stay at least a little grounded, but it was another period where those few friends who didn’t game with us had their friendship sorely tested by our incessant discussion of all things Mystic Realms. So trust me when I say that I know what it’s like to fall in love with a game and want to talk about it all the time. Both times it ended up that eventually our obsession leveled out a bit and our discussions returned to normal, but for a while we really broke one of the cardinal guidelines of larp, namely remembering to walk away from game from time to time.

There’s a fine line here, and I’m well aware of it – people like to talk about their hobbies, and I don’t want people thinking that I’m trying to shame people for being excited about their hobby or getting into their games and their characters. However, it’s also important to remember that always bringing the subject back around to the game can be really tiring for other players, particularly when they’re trying to enjoy the downtime between games. Most of you know the kind of person I mean – you’re at the diner with your gamer friends, talking just hanging out and chatting, and there’s that one friend who keeps trying to get people to discuss which vampire clan Dick Cheney belongs to, or joking about how many points Mal put into his pistol skill, or comparing their Econ professor to the villain from last weekend’s larp session, and so on. No matter what you try to do, they just keep trying to bring things back around to game, to the point where they’re really straining the conversation to make the connections or insist on continuing even when clearly no one else is into it. You’re all gamers, you all enjoy the game that they’re stuck on, but you’d just wish they could stop talking game for a while, you know? And we haven’t even touched on the folks who won’t give staff a moment’s peace, and constantly approach them about new rules, tweaks to skills and powers, etc., even when all the ST wants is a cup of coffee and a plate of eggs after a session.

The short answer, of course, is to take breaks from game and discussion of game from time to time. If it seems like too much game discussion is causing strife, designate certain nights “game free” zones where you avoid talking about game, and organize social activities away from game where you can hang out with people in a different context. You don’t have to be rigidly authoritarian about these things, but at the same time, if you realize you have trouble going without talking about game for a night, that’s generally a sign that you might need to give yourself a bit more distance. When it comes to handling some of these problems in others, you’ve got a few approaches that seem to work well too:

Fix #1 (New Friends):  Believe it or not, when it comes to new friends you make at game, a lot of the time this behavior has as much to do with insecurity as it does with a genuine obsession with the game. Specifically, the person who keeps bringing everything back to the subject of the game is worried that you don’t have anything else in common, so they stick to the one subject they absolutely know you share (and enjoy). They can generally be persuaded to snap out of this pattern if you make it a point to find other common interests and talk about those as well. (“You like punk rock? Sweet! So do I! Who have you seen?”) As they become more comfortable in the idea that you’re now friends in general, and not just game friends, they’ll relax and stop leaning on game so much to support their conversations.

Fix #2 (Old Friends): Hey, we’ve all been there – the friends we’ve known for years who won’t stop going on about their new obsession. (Chances are you’ve probably been that person yourself a few times.) In this case, the best way to address the problem is usually to, well, address it directly. Just tell your friend straight up that you need a little time without game coming up, and they’ll generally adjust their behavior. Most of the time they’re just super excited to share something awesome and fun with you, and genuinely don’t realize how stuck they’ve become on that single subject. So just politely let them know that you still want to talk about philosophy or horror movies or combat robots or swing dancing or whatever else you like chatting about with them, and generally it’ll work itself out in short order.

Fix #3 (Staff): Folks, let me tell you a poorly-kept larp secret: Your storytellers, rules marshals and other game staff need breaks from game too.  It might seem like you just have one quick thing to tell your ST about the rule that’s been on your mind, but remember that many games involve 25+ players, and some big games have hundreds, many of whom may also be approaching the ST with “just one quick thing” to talk to them about, when all the ST wants is a quiet meal or a chill night out with friends. In short, it adds up quickly, and it can strain even the most laid back staff member at times. Once again, I’m not telling you that game staff are like holy mystics you dare not approach, much less question, but if you want to be polite, I’d recommend asking them if it’s OK to talk to them about game if you’re encountering them outside of a session. (This includes social media like Facebook and game forums.) If it’s fine, they’ll say so, but sometimes they might be tired or stressed or upset or simply not have the energy to discuss game with you, and they’ll appreciate a chance to politely decline and maybe talk to you about it later. Trust me when I say that this is one of the most amazing courtesies you can show a game staff member, if only because sadly so few people do it.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Let’s go to the beach now and then too.

—————————————————————————-
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 #8: Ten Tiny Tips to Keep Old Larpers Young!

There’s a term that a good friend of mine uses – “larp fatigue.” It’s the feeling that can set in when you’ve been playing the same game for years, whether it’s a weekend boffer game or a parlor larp at a friend’s place. Those veterans in the audience know what I’m talking about – it’s the point when you realize you don’t know half the characters around you (and aren’t as interested in finding out about them as you used to be), when you see dread enemies lay waste to scores of people and think “well, that’s going to be a mess on the forums later”, when you start grouching about how things used to be in the good old days of the game, etc. A lot of the time it passes on its own if you just rally a bit and immerse yourself back in the game, but sometimes you might need a bit more of a push to chase away the dark clouds.

So with that in mind, here are a few tips for veterans who want to fight off “larp fatigue” and stay invested in the game. As always, of course, nothing about these rules is set in stone, especially if your character has a particular IC reason to be a certain way. (For example, #7 might not be as relevant if for some reason your character is not prone to big displays of emotion for IC reasons.) But in general, hopefully these  tips will help inspire you veterans to fight off fatigue and apathy and come to fall in love with your games all over again. Because good games really are worth the effort. Here goes:

10) Don’t cut corners. New players often learn their bad habits by watching older players who slack off. If you don’t care, neither will they. If you want the game to stay strong, help lead by example.

9) Learn people’s names. It’s a little thing to you, but it can be huge for a new player when a veteran knows who they are. When you stop bothering to learn names, it’s often a big sign of fatigue.

8) Characters often organize into IC cliques. There’s nothing wrong with gaming with your friends – that’s why many of us do it! – but make sure you socialize outside your crew sometimes too.

7) Energy is contagious. Make sure you communicate fear and joy, pride and loss, as much as possible. Other people pick up on it … and it is also a big middle finger to game fatigue.

6) Take breaks now and then, whether it means playing an alt, volunteering to NPC for a bit, or even taking a game or two off. This is especially true if playing starts to feel like a chore.

5) Resist cynicism and mockery if the game seems to be changing OOC in ways you don’t like. Try to be constructive instead – volunteer, offer to help, give advice to new players, etc.

4) Get to know people outside of game, even if it’s just a diner trip after a session or the occasional forum post. Larps are communities, and knowing everyone helps keep you invested.

3) Set three goals – a short term goal for each session, a long term goal for a season or so, and a challenge goal that will be very difficult to achieve. Goals keep things fresh and characters busy.

2) Keep the old stories alive. Tales of battles won, friends lost and challenges overcome give a game history and depth, and make people really feel they’re part of an ongoing story.

1) Forget the “game” and embrace the story. It can be hard to see your 100th fight is as scary and intense as your first, but when you give up even trying, none of them ever will be again.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep my sweets.
And there are always new paths to find.

—————————————————————————-
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 #7: The Business of the Stage

So, let’s talk about business.

I’m not talking about corporate stuff here. No, I’m using the actor’s definition for the term “business” – small actions and gestures that you perform that help set the atmosphere of a scene or assert a trait about your character. Business is James Bond casually straightening his cuffs after narrowly escaping mortal danger, a John Woo villain leaning over to light the cigarette in his lips off the engine of a burning car, Jayne Cobb grabbing for his pistol even though he’s totally outgunned (and backing down at a single look from Mal), the “bitch, please” look on Ripley’s face when the lone facehugger hatches after she stares down the Queen. All the little gestures and expressions that stamp a character’s essence on a moment without saying a thing. Even if you’d never seen a James Bond movie before and knew nothing about the character’s history, watching him casually adjust the fit of his suit right after surviving danger that would leave most of us weeping in the corner would tell you volumes about the kind of man you’re watching.

Or to put it in larp terms, business is a bunch of NPC bandits passing a bottle and playing cards around the campfire as the player characters sneak up for an ambush, rather than simply standing around staring into the woods. Business is your character crossing themselves before going into a fight, or after swearing, or whenever they see a dead body. Business is that gal in the corner flipping a coin over and over, cocky and dangerous without saying a word. Business is the acting you do when you make your big entrance or have your moment of triumph, true, but it’s also the things you do in the quiet times and private moments. Have you ever taken some extra time to make an in-character gesture, even when you were totally alone? If so, then you already know what the essence of business is in a game environment. If not, that’s cool too – I’m here to tell you why you might want to check it out in the future.

When it comes to games, business is often the difference between an immersive, ongoing world and a mediocre video game where characters stand around doing nothing as they wait for you to interact with them. Over the years I’ve been larping, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the best games and the best characters tend to be ones that use business the most when they’re creating their stories. It’s the recognition that all the moments in a game world matter, whether or not it’s a climactic scene or your character has the spotlight at the time. Indeed, I’m often most curious to see what players do during downtime or in the background, to see who actively maintains character and who simply waits for the next chance to assert it. I don’t judge players for it – playing a character is tiring for the best of us, I can’t know what people do in private, and besides sometimes your character is simply at a loss for what to say or do in a situation – but I’m always fascinated when I notice characters doing business even when they think nobody else is watching. Perhaps especially when no one else is watching, because that’s when I get to see something very personal about their character and how they view them.

A friend of mine played a ranger in the first fantasy boffer larp I attended, which was not itself unusual for the setting, but after a while what caught my attention was that he was always a ranger. You could tell by the actions he performed, even when we weren’t fighting or talking to NPCs. He’d check the wind and the weather, examine animal tracks when he found them, identify plants and bird songs, fashion clever little things out of twine and branches and otherwise take a few dozen tiny actions that played into his woodsman identity. (For the record, he was an Eagle Scout before coming to game, so he had a head start on a lot of his forestcraft; he didn’t just study it all for the game.) All these bits of business didn’t make him a “better” ranger than others at the game – nobody says you have to memorize the flora and fauna of your campground just to play a fantasy character! – but it definitely made it easier to see him in the role, particularly during downtime at events. Even when nobody was around, he’d stay in character and whittle or hum or whatnot. He felt like a real, well-rounded character, as opposed to a collection of game skills and boffer swords that sprang into action whenever danger threatened. And the business that he did really played into that. Notice I never mentioned his active roleplaying with others (which was great) or his backstory (ditto) – yet how many of you already feel like you know the character a little? That’s the magic of good business.

There’s an old thespian saying: “Act on the lines, not between the lines.” It means that you should be performing actions with your body simultaneously to reciting your dialogue, not saying your lines and then moving about. The lesson for larpers is similar; you don’t want to have a gap between speaking and acting. You want to be your character as much as possible as often as possible. That’s what business is good for – it helps keep you in character by giving you something small but evocative to do to maintain character even when there’s nothing else going on. It can be hard to stay in character during a lull in the action, especially during weekend-long events – but believe it or not, it actually gets easier if you’re chewing on your character’s favorite cigar rather than doing nothing at all. Even that little reminder that you’re in character is enough to help keep you invested in the moment, not to mention help maintain the environment for everyone around you. It’s also a good fallback if you’re exhausted and having trouble focusing on game, by the way – if I know that you’re always chawing on that stogie, and you walk past with it in your teeth, I don’t even wonder for a moment if you’re in character or not. You’ve already signaled it to me just by having the prop that I identify with that persona. You benefit, I benefit, the game environment as a whole benefits. All from one little gesture and one tiny prop.

Along those lines, business is also a public service of sorts at games, because it helps everyone else feel more in character and builds the feeling of a shared world. Larp is a communal activity – the more you see other people getting involved, the easier it is for you to get involved as well. Conversely, if no one else seems to be bothered to wear appropriate costumes or stay in character, it becomes more difficult for others to maintain game too, because they begin to wonder why they’re bothering to make an effort when other people are clearly half-assing it. Walking into a town where everyone seems to be doing something in-character creates a much different impression than walking into a town where it looks like a bunch of people chatting in costume while they wait for the next hook to show up – even if the latter group is totally in-character, the visual impression is different. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one in creating an environment that motivates everyone to stay in character.

At that aforementioned fantasy boffer larp, there was an in-game military order that used to camp together and basically remain a military unit all weekend. A visitor to their camp during a long downtime on Saturday afternoon remarked about how invigorating it was to see how each of them was still in character, even though it was downtime and even if they were off by themselves: the chaplain was writing prayers in his prayer book, the officers were talking strategy over a map of the camp, a sergeant was running some of the enlisted through some basic drills, their bard was practicing a battle song off to the side, their armorer was roleplaying repairing armor and weapons over an anvil, etc. Some of that was active roleplaying – the officers, the sergeant, etc. – but some of that was business – the chaplain, the bard, the armorer – and it combined to give the impression of a real military camp, rather than just some geeks goofing off in the woods for the weekend. The lesson being that you should never underestimate the impact that your little business can have on the rest of the players around you. That moment you take to visibly assert that you are still in game and playing your character can snowball into inspiring many other players to keep their focus and stay in game as well – character is contagious!

Make no mistake, character business is something that often takes time to develop, and business can certainly be overdone too – David Caruso’s sunglasses-and-a-quip routine from CSI Miami has grown into its own bad meme industry. Don’t feel compelled to make up quirks and gestures just for the sake of having them, or they’re likely to feel forced and inauthentic, if not outright cliche. As unhelpfully vague as it sounds, generally you’ll know it when you hit on a bit of business that works for your character, because when you do it you immediately feel more like your persona. It calls out the character as much as slipping on the costume, strapping on your gear or speaking in your accent. If you’re new to doing business, ease into it at first – do it a little and build up to more as you get more comfortable.

Having trouble thinking of good character business? Not to worry. Here are a few ideas to get you started thinking along those lines:

* Saying prayers/repeating mantras
* Carefully inspecting all of your equipment for damage
* Straightening your clothes/fixing your appearance
* Keeping a cigar or cigarette in your mouth (game rules & local laws permitting)
* Humming/singing (careful not to overdo one tune!)
* Playing with a small handheld object: lighter, coin, rosary, deck of cards, relic, etc.
* Polishing weapons/cleaning guns/counting ammo
* Pulling up the hood of your sweatshirt right before a fight
* Taking catnaps after battles
* Reading a book (sacred, trashy novel, science text, whatever)
* Cleaning a particular play area, often in a ritual fashion
* Taking out the contents of a bag or pack, inventorying them, then carefully replacing them
* Handicrafts (knitting, sewing, whittling, etc.)
* Putting notches in weapons/decorating gear for particular “wins”
* Reverently tending to the fallen, friend and foe alike

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Let’s never lose sight of the path.

—————————————————————————-
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 #6: How Not to Talk At Larps

Welcome back, BLT fans! On this week’s plate we address some simple steps to fix common mistakes and improve your roleplaying. As always, remember that this is just advice, not an absolute guide set down in stone – there are bound to be lots of situations where other responses are not only good but preferable. Such is the amazing and spontaneous nature of roleplaying, after all. With that in mind, though, enjoy!

#1 – Don’t Just Say “No”
Warning Signs: Long pauses, conversations ending awkwardly and gaps in interactions.

Before you think I’m advocating something very different, I’m not talking about mind-altering substance. What I’m saying isn’t new – it’s pretty much the cardinal rule of improv acting, and naturally carries over to larping, in a slightly modified form anyway. In improv, they tell you never to just say a flat “No.” All it does is kill the momentum of the scene, and shuts down the other person. You’re basically dismissing their input, which isn’t fun. Even a plain “Yes” doesn’t do a lot in larp either – it puts all the weight back on the other player to come up with everything in the conversation. Either way, it’s a really awkward moment. So when you’re roleplaying and someone throws you a bit of improv, don’t just say “Yes” or “No.” Build on it. Always try to tack on an “and” or a “but” and some new details to keep the scene moving.  Here’s an example:

Player #1: So, I hear you’re a man of action.
Player #2: No.
Player #1: …. oh.

That scene just screeched to a halt. Ouch. Painful. Now try this version:

Player #1: So, I hear you’re a man of action.
Player #2: No, but I know some dangerous people aren’t too picky about jobs they take. Whatcha looking for? 

P2 has still told P1 that they’re not a man of action, but now they’ve acknowledged what P1 is saying and are putting out material that will keep the scene going. They didn’t change their answer – it’s still “no” – but the scene is a lot less likely to come to a halt. It’s a big difference.

Of course, this is also character/scene dependent in some cases. If an enemy is trying to get information out of you, for example, a flat “No” may be the perfect in-character response! Or your character might be in a hurry and  unable to talk, or your character might be deliberately rude to a rival, or your character might distrust another character’s culture or background, or any of a hundred other reasons. I’m not saying you’re obligated to build on every hook handed to you or you’re a bad larper. But assuming that you don’t have a reason to be cagey or cut the conversation short, if you find that a lot of your larp interactions seem to have awkward pauses, it might be that you are giving more flat answers than you think.

#2 – Don’t Put People On the Spot
Warning Signs: People looking a little panicked, people saying a lot to stall for time, people changing the subject, etc.

This one’s a lot more subtle than the first one, but a surprisingly common one. Chances are you might not even be aware of is putting other players on the spot; ie, forcing them to improvise very specific details without warning. Asking a very direct question is fine – if the other player knows the answer already. If they don’t, though, chances are good that they will freeze as the player works to figure out the answer on the spot. Some people are very nimble at improvising that way, but many others – including many very good larpers too, I might add – are not, and it puts a lot of stress on them to do so. One of the best ways to avoid this is to add prompts with your questions; think of them as options to offer that give the person you’re talking to a ready-made jumping off point and maybe even guide them to some possible answers. Even if they don’t use them, it gives the other player an idea of where the answer might go, or at least more time to think of their answer. Here’s an example:

Player #1: So, where did your parents come from?
Player #2: Uhm, ah, well, I, uh …  <trails off>

P1 probably figured this wasn’t a difficult question, and it might not be for some, but right now P2 is probably feeling uncomfortable because she didn’t have the answer to a question her character likely would know. It’s a very specific question, and if you don’t have the exact answer, you’re going to kinda stall out trying to think of it. This is especially hard on new players who might not know a lot of world detail or the names of places, or be afraid to improvise details for fear of getting them “wrong” in terms of world continuity. Now look at this talk with prompts:

Player #1: So, where did your parents come from? Were they local, or did they come from someplace farther away?
Player #2: Oh, ah, farther off I guess. I didn’t know them much – I came to town recently.

P1 gives P2 a basic pair of prompts that doesn’t require a specific location name, which make it a lot easier for P2 to answer. In answering, too, P2 can make up a detail about her character and elaborate on it if she wants – the whole “I didn’t know about my parents” detail – but even if she didn’t she could still feel confident answering. Note that prompts can be added afterward if you notice the other player seems to be floundering a little:

Player #1: So, where did your parents come from?
Player #2: Uhm, ah …
Player #1: Were they locals, or did they come from somewhere else? Me, I’m a local. Born and raised!
Player #2: Farther off, I guess. I didn’t know them much, but I came to town recently.

Here, P1 notices P2 is caught a little off balance, so P1 throws out some prompts to help them figure out what they might say – they even give their own answer, which might serve as inspiration (plus it gives P2 a little extra time to come up with an answer – how thoughtful!).

#3 – A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
Warning Signs: People looking bored, people staring off while you speak, people quietly excusing themselves after a long one-sided conversation, etc.

We all love talking about our characters; one of the reasons we play them is because we find their stories compelling! However, if you’re not careful it can also grow into a bad habit, or more specifically the tendency to make every conversation about your character and how awesome (or awesomely screwed) they are. I’m not saying it’s never appropriate to tell stories – some of the absolute best memories I have from various games are times spent sitting around swapping tales with other characters – but even so the key word in that sentence is “swapping.” It’s an exchange, a give-and-take, not a monologue.  While there will certainly be times when you might find yourself perfectly justified in delivering a rather one-sided account of your actions, you want to be careful that you’re not falling into the practice of monopolizing interactions as a rule. Here’s a common case of what it looks like:

Player #1: Wow. did you see that guy? Man, he was badass!
Player #2: That’s nothing man, this one time I was fighting six Nazi mindmutants and … <five long minutes of thrilling heroics recounted> … so in conclusion, that’s why I’m the only Ewok with a triple-bladed lightsaber.
Player #1: Yeah. <fidgets> You know, one time I was fighting some sand worms, and I did this sweet flip –
Player #2: Hah! That’s cool! I learned how to do awesome flips from the only Vulcan ninja master ever certified by the Justice League, and … <five more minutes> … and so I told them, ladies, call me back when you find a sixth who can keep up, knowumsayin’?
Player #1: Uh, yeah. I gotta run, man.

Notice that P1 never asked P2 to recount any stories – that wouldn’t be so bad on its own, as sometimes a story is the best answer regardless, but the real red flag here is that when P1 tried to get in the spirit and share her own story, P2 just bulldozed right over it in his hurry to get back to his own awesomeness. Sadly, this sort of thing is all too common, but it can be easily prevented if you remember a very simple rule: If you want people to be interested in your exploits, you need to show interest in theirs too. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix for this problem: Any time you want to tell a story about yourself, ask the other person a question about themselves first. (It’s OK to ask at the end too, if you only remember halfway through.) Here’s what it might look like:

Player #1: Wow, did you see that guy? Man, he was badass!
Player #2: Heh, seriously! You ever done anything that sweet?
Player #1: Well, there was this one time I was fighting some sand worms … <tells tale>
Player #2: No shit? Awesome. Me, I was fighting six Nazi mindmutants, and … <tells tale>
Player #1: You’re kidding me? In front of the whole Jedi Council? With a grapefruit?!

Conversations like that can continue happily for quite some time, as both sides are both listening and being heard instead of one character dominating the interaction. Not only is it more polite, but it also shows the other person exactly what you want for yourself – a little bit of attention paid to the places they’ve been and the things they’ve done. Everyone wins!

—————————————————————————-
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 #5: Ten Tiny Tips for New Larpers!

So you wanna try a larp, eh? Awesome! Welcome to the wide world of live-action roleplaying! This serving of BLT – that’s Badass Larp Talk if you’re new to this particular roundup – covers the simultaneously amazing and intimidating experience of preparing for your first game. There’s a tremendous amount of advice out there for people just starting out in larp, and while a lot of it is great and really thorough, it can also become pretty overwhelming in a hurry. So in hopes of passing on the essentials without overloading new people with information, here are ten quick pieces of advice for how to create a character and enjoy your first event:

10) Don’t try to make a “perfect” character. Those are boring! Make a character you’d want to watch in a movie or read about in a book – someone you want to learn more about.

9) Don’t worry about having a huge backstory. Try one paragraph to start. You don’t need to know everything about your character right off – otherwise how can they grow during game?

8) For a quick way to get a handle on playing your character, come up with two positive personality traits (“kind, patient”) and one negative one (“overly trusting”), and use them as guides.+

7) “Making an effort” is the most important part of making your first costume. Don’t worry if it’s “perfect” or if it’s a little basic – like characters, costumes also evolve over time.

6) Don’t be afraid to ask questions, in or out of character. It’s better to find out than work on bad assumptions, and pursuing a mystery is often an adventure in itself.

5) Try to come up with at least one short term goal for each game session, like introducing yourself to five new people, or learning a new skill. If you meet it, make another!

4) Talk to people! Larp is a social activity. Remember, everyone was a new character once, and making friends (and enemies) will help you develop your character too.*

3) When in doubt, diving in is better than standing back, and risk is better than caution. Very few great stories involve hanging back in a safe place avoiding risk. Get involved!

2) Try to stay in character. Larp is a skill that gets easier with practice. If you need to take breaks, though, do so! Just do it away from the action so you don’t break game for others.

1) It’s not about winning or losing, living or dying, it’s about having fun and telling a good story together. Don’t worry about how it ends – just enjoy the ride!

There’s a lot more to learn, of course, but hopefully that should help dispel some of the fear and anxiety that can accompany trying your first few games.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
And we all got started somewhere.

+ Wanna play a badass anti-hero? Just reverse the ratio – two negative and one positive. Voila! Instant Han Solo.
*Follow up: Get to know people out of game as well – go to the diner with folks after a session, talk to people on forums and Facebook, etc. If someone’s play really blows you away, let them know! Most people are happy to talk about their process and give advice to new folks.

—————————————————————————-
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 #4: The NPC Commandments

Welcome back, everyone! This week’s Badass Larp Trick is another “by request” feature, where I’ll talk a little about what makes a good NPC. There’s a tremendous variety of rules and settings out there, but system variations aside, there are a few basic rules that I’ve seen apply to most good NPCs no matter what game they come from. So, with no further ado, I give you the five most important NPC commandments:

NPC Commandment #1: You Are Not the Star

Let’s get this out of the way early. A dear friend of mine had a speech he liked to give to his NPC crew before they kicked off one of his weekends, which went something like this: You are not a hero. You are a lamp. You are a painted backdrop. You are a rubber sword from the prop department. You are not here to beat the PCs, or fall down for them, you are here to entertain them. Not the other way around. A simple notion, really, and yet you would not believe how many people get this one wrong either by accident or design. So let’s restate it a bit more directly – if you want to NPC because you want to beat down PCs, to show how badass you are, or most of all to “win”, you’re doing it wrong. Period. End of story. I know I usually say there aren’t many “wrong” ways to larp, but this in fact is one of them, and if you catch yourself doing ittake yourself out of the mix until you get your priorities right again. When you play an NPC role, whether it’s the main villain of a weekend or Faceless Zombie #457, your top priority at all times is entertaining the players. Not winning. Not showing how clever you are. Not beating them down. Entertaining them. Say it until it’s like a meditative mantra: An NPC is there to entertain the PCs. 

NPC Commandment #2: Don’t Drop Character

Think about how much a player’s imagination has to work to keep themselves immersed in game – they have to accept the reality of being in another world, as another person, and that all these other people around them are different people too, and that all those weapons are real and dangerous instead of foam and plumbing supplies, and so on. That’s really hard. Dropping character is like rolling a reality grenade at their feet on top of it all. It blows a big damn hole in the middle of the pretend world we’re all creating, and it affects everyone who sees it happening. That’s right – you might think that dropping character is just between you and one other person, but it’s not. Everyone who sees you put your hand to your forehead or hears you say “Out of character” gets a big ol’ shock of reality right in the middle of their roleplaying experience. Avoid it at all costs. Even if you really want to tell someone how badass that combat was, save it for the diner after game. If it’s good, it’ll keep; if not, it wasn’t worth breaking game anyway.

NPC Commandment #3: Stay On Script

Improvisation is the core of larp, but as an NPC, you have to be careful about the details you add to make sure they don’t inadvertently lead the plot off-track. When you get an NPC role, chances are that you’re getting a sketch of a person – after all, you might only need to exist for an hour or two. However, it’s inevitable that sooner or later players will ask you questions that weren’t covered in your briefing, but which you feel are necessary to answer. Here’s where the balancing act comes in – you want to add details to the character that flesh them out realistically so that the PCs don’t run into the invisible wall of “Uh, no, I don’t know where I was born”, but at the same time you have to be careful not to create problems for the story or connections where none are supposed to exist. My advice for making this work? Improvise on a small scale. Don’t create sweeping backstories that leave a lot open for the players to make connections; give little answers that are entertaining but still don’t volunteer much beyond what the players asked. If the players seem to be asking questions about a plot your NPC isn’t involved in – usually indicated by a persistent line of questioning –  don’t  make connections you weren’t explicitly told to make. Remember, most of the time PCs accept what NPCs say as gospel – they have to or a lot of the reality of the game really starts to break down as they question each and every thing they’re told. So even if you think it’s just funny to make up some crazy stories that “obviously” aren’t true from your perspective, remember that PCs will generally assume what you’re saying is true. Use that power very carefully, and when in doubt, stay on script.

NPC Commandment #4: Don’t Argue With the PCs

This is another facet of not playing to win – don’t argue with the PCs. If the rules are unclear, and it’s not a vital rules call – and by vital I mean “a character’s life and/or the outcome of a major story arc is hanging in the balance” – let the tie go to the PC and figure it out later. Note carefully that I’m not saying that you should let the PCs use rules you know are incorrect, just that if the situation seems unclear rules-wise, don’t let the game stall out in rules argument and speculation – let it fall in favor of the PCs and get an official ruling later. When in doubt, always try to err in the PCs’ favor. If you’re wrong, it’s a lot easier to come back to them later and say “Hey, you know how that worked out for you back there? We got it wrong, so this time you’re good, but in the future it wouldn’t go that way” rather than saying “Hey, sorry you guys got screwed, turns out I was wrong.” Small but important distinction. If you do know that a rule is being used incorrectly, point it out calmly and directly (off to the side if possible), and avoid being confrontational, sarcastic or condescending. Even good players can get caught up in an intense moment and be a little hot-blooded, so you need to keep your cool and keep the situation calm and respectful. If a player insists on being confrontational, as an NPC it is your job to take the high road and be the bigger person – walk away and get a marshal, storyteller or director to handle it from there. I’m not saying you need to suffer their abuse – if they’re breaking the rules and showing poor sportsmanship, absolutely report them! But getting into shouting matches in the middle of a scene never ends well for anyone.

Remember, an NPC should never have to argue rules with a player. Either you’re a storyteller/marshal/director, and players have no authority to argue with your decisions (at least in the field), or you’re not a staff member authorized to make rulings, in which case you have no authority to argue with the players. Either way, there’s no argument! 

NPC Commandment #5: Build Up, Don’t Tear Down

Be a fan of the players, and always look for chances to let them shine. One reason gamers play games is because they love what their characters can do, so it’s always awesome to give them a chance to show off those skills. If your NPC is a humble farmer with no fighting ability and some glowering badass in head to toe armor and weapons growls at you to move aside, don’t act like you don’t care – give a frightened little yelp as you get out of their way! That little extra detail takes nothing for you but it will absolutely make their day. Not that you have to let them win – that gets boring fast, and easy victories make for terrible stories as a rule. But if you beat down the PCs, or take their items, or spill their secrets, or otherwise shake up their world, it should never be just because you can. Of course you can. You’re an NPC. You can make up powers, give yourself amazing items, call on infinite backup and otherwise cheat with both hands if all you want to do is trounce the players. (You shouldn’t do any of those things, by the way, I’m just saying they’re possible if you’re a jerk with no sportsmanship and an over-developed need to “win” at games with no actual win condition.) No, if you hurt them, if you take from them, it should be because it makes for a great story. Some of my favorite larp events were times my characters were completely defeated or even killed – but I loved them because those losses and setbacks weren’t arbitrary, they were part of a great story. I lost fair and square, and I loved it. 

I still remember an adventure a long time back where the NPC guide refused to let the players use their own tracking and knowledge skills as we investigated the mysterious trail in the forest, forcing us to sit back and watch as this super NPC pulled us along down a pre-written path. He even ran to the forefront in fights and took down monsters, his assistance unasked for and very anticlimactic. He was having a great time, completely oblivious to the fact that we were bored out of our minds as we waited for the plot train to pull into the next station. It was one of the worst, longest adventures I’ve ever been on, and probably the worst part about it was that he had no idea he was boring us. Why would he? He got to be a badass! Which would be fine, except that it took all our fun for himself.

———

Addendum #1: It might seem like some of these rules encourage NPCs to let the PCs walk all over them. That’s not the case at all. But there is a bit of judo to being an NPC. You put the plot out there, true, but then you have to take what the PCs throw at you and redirect it in ways that keep them off balance, ways that surprise, challenge, engage and entertain them. Remember, they don’t have access to the big picture like you do, so sometimes their actions and reactions will seem rash or inexplicable. Be patient, stay in character, tell the story you’ve been told to tell and remember you can always came back with another face and another approach if this one’s  not working. Or if the players decide to lure you in the woods and eat you, or teleport you to the surface of the moon, or re-write your mind so that you’re convinced you’re an opera singer from the 1920s (all of which have been done to NPCs of mine for no reason I ever really determined in any of those games).  That’s the blessing of an NPC, after all – an NPC has a thousand lives, while the PC has but one. (Ish).

Addendum #2 (thanks Reddit!): It has been pointed out that I don’t really mention NPCs having fun, which is a pretty glaring oversight. Of course you should be having fun! A crew that isn’t having much fun often isn’t making much fun either. But the key is remembering that as an NPC, your fun is going to be a bit different from the PC definition, at least sometimes: You may be asked to fail, to fall, to screw up, to be tricked or trapped, to enter situations where you know you probably won’t win and have fun doing it. (PCs can and in fact do all of these things as well, but the difference is that you might be basically ordered to, whereas they do it naturally.) One old maxim of great game runners I know is that “If you’re entertaining others, you’ll have fun yourself” and it is pretty much dead on. When you play only to entertain yourself, chances are that’s the only audience who will appreciate it. Which is fine as a PC – after all, you paid your money, it’s your time in game to do with as you like. As an NPC, though, you can’t afford the luxury of self-indulgence – while you’re on-shift you need to think about entertaining everyone you come across. So don’t hide from it – embrace it! Throw yourself out there and be the best possible, um, whatever the hell you are at the moment. Play it up, dive in, really commit – and I guarantee you’ll not only entertain the players, you’ll have a hell of a lot of fun yourself.

So next time you go on your NPC shift, remember that the woods the players walk are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.

And that you are the “who” when they call “Who’s there?”

—————————————————————————-
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 #3: Livin’ On A Prayer

There are three subjects you’re not really supposed to raise in polite conversation, universally speaking: money, politics, and religion. Mostly because unless everyone goes out of their way to be funny and light-hearted about it, before long they’re going to wind up throwing insults if not punches. In this post, the first “by request” column in the Badass Larp Talk series, we’re going to bend that rule just a little and talk about religion from a purely roleplaying perspective. Specifically, how do you portray a character with faith in a way that is fun and engaging for you and everyone around you?

Before we get too much further, however, let’s make a clear distinction between playing real world faiths and purely imaginary ones. For instance, the difference between portraying, say, a Jehovah’s Witness and a follower of Paladine from Dragonlance. We’ll start by talking about the real world faiths, since it’s a bit shorter and more to the point:

Do your research, start small, and be respectful.

Now, that’s true of a lot of things in larp, but here’s what I mean in particular. The research part is easy – if you’re going to be portraying a member of a real world faith, chances are you can draw on hundreds if not thousands of years of material. I’m not saying that you must learn enough to earn your doctorate in that faith’s theology, but at the very least you should get beyond the common stereotypes and generalizations of that faith (if any). It’s kind of sad to see a fiery “born again Baptist preacher” character who doesn’t know anything about what it actually means to be born again or Baptist. Likewise, I remember feeling a little dumbstruck when I met a character who cheerfully gave their faith as “Native American!” and then looked blank when I asked what specific belief system they practiced. It’s not a matter of judgment as much as it is a sense of loss in missed opportunities – with just a little more research, those players could make their character a lot more compelling and three dimensional.

If you’re portraying a real world belief that’s not familiar to you, the best bet is to start small and build up to it more as you go along. Running in and talking constantly about how it’s awesome to be Catholic, how you totally love the saints and the Pope and can’t believe you got such a good deal on this bitchin’ rosary is, ah, strained, to say the least. Start with small touches and add more as you are more comfortable. It’s also good to find out if there are other players who know more about the faith and get their take on it, or at least make sure you’re not out to offend anyone. Yes, larp is a game and it’s all imaginary, but it’s also a social activity, and if you can avoid offending your fellow players that’s good for the flow of the game as a whole. Quite often they’ll be more than happy to let you know what’s good and what’s crossing the line. Done well, however, portraying a different real world faith can yield a fascinating take on a whole different perspective that you never imagined.

Purely Imaginary Faith

When it comes to purely imaginary faiths, one of the big factors to consider is the impact of faith in your setting. Many game settings, for example, feature characters touched by the divine who openly and frequently manifest the power of their faith to heal wounds, smite heathens and even raise the dead. Step back a minute and consider the implications of that sort of divine presence in everyday life. Many people in our world struggle to come to terms with their faith in the absence of direct, miraculous proof – but what happens when divine power is an everyday occurrence, where the gods are an obvious, accepted fact of life? So much of the average 21st century outlook on religion is colored by a sense of uncertainty and skepticism that just would not belong in a setting where evidence of the divine is commonplace. It’s pretty hard to be an agnostic, much less an outright atheist, when gods manifest themselves on a daily basis.

And that’s not even considering the fact that outright evil deities exist in many of these settings, making “the Devil made me do it” not just a legitimate possibility but a serious concern.

So what does that mean for your roleplaying experience? I think it’s important to peel away a lot of our modern ambivalence and uncertainty and dive into the mindset of someone who has never doubted the existence of the divine. Even if you have a strong personal faith in real life, that is often contrasted by contact with a secular culture, which simply doesn’t exist in these settings in a meaningful way. Rather than subtracting ambivalence and uncertainty, then, a believer must consider the implications of everyone in society acknowledging that their god exists, and what a society built on that foundation would really be like. Especially when you factor in that many of these societies have multiple deities, some with competing agendas or spheres of influence.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a simple-minded goof or a frothing zealot, by the way. For one thing, knowing that the divine exists doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be happy with it – a once-zealous character may abandon their faith in the god of battle after some of his friends die in combat, for instance, feeling that his prayers and devotion have been betrayed. In this case, though, it’s not a question of the god’s existence, but a repudiation of their action (or inaction), which is a subtle but very important distinction from a roleplaying perspective. That your character acknowledges that a particular god exists, but has chosen to reject them anyway, is very different from wondering if there is a god at all, and adds good subtext to your roleplaying experience. The ancient Greeks believed in their gods, but not because those gods were especially kind or loving as a rule. The gods were powerful and eternal, and respecting that was just good sense to them. Besides, the love of a divine being can be as dangerous as their animosity, so it was best to avoid any attention if possible and make sure you were on their good side if it wasn’t.

Likewise, the ability to call down miracles on-demand has its own implications – if priests can raise a dead hero who falls in battle, why don’t they also raise a poor farmer who falls in his fields? (And if they do, what does a revolving door to the afterlife do to attitudes about life and death?) Do miracles have a cost – in money, in time, in exhaustion? If so, who determines who receives them and who is left wanting? What does your character’s deity ask of her? How does she uphold her creed? Where does she feel that she falls short? Is she part of an organized group of believers (very likely in a divine-positive world)? What are they like? What parts of her faith do they stress, and what parts do they marginalize? Has she ever sinned, and if so, did she atone? Does anyone else know about it? Is there another deity or faith she just cannot stand? Why not? All of these are just a start, but they should inspire some good character backstory and attitudes.

Of course, faith is in the details too. Some games mandate specific prayers or ceremonies, but many others leave the details wide open for player interpretation. Prayer, in particular, is a hugely telling thing. I can still remember some of the simple prayers and chants I heard at the first fantasy boffer larp I ever played, because they were so emblematic of the characters repeating them and helped set the tone for their faith in my mind. Most were very short and to the point, but that’s OK – it’s hard to remember the really long prayers in the heat of battle! What’s your character’s most common prayer? What was her “baptism” into her faith like? What symbols of her faith does she wear/carry? (If she doesn’t display her faith, why not?) What are her faith’s colors, icons, prohibitions? What religious rituals are her favorite, and why? Which ones does she avoid, or participate in only grudgingly? Are there any holidays she considers especially dear? Why?

If the answers to any of these are “I don’t know” or “I don’t think those exist in game”, that’s fine too, no worries – that just means you get to make them up yourself! Or perhaps better yet, gather a few more faithful and develop them together. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results. Larp is a social activity, after all, and ritual is one of the most powerful binding agents that brings people together. Even years after we left our first fantasy boffer larp, we found out that some of other followers of the faith we had started there were still doing the same prayers and the same rituals that we had created. Many of the people doing them had no idea who we were, either – the rites had been passed down to them by other players. That’s an incredible sort of roleplaying connection to foster, when you think about it, and one reason of many to explore playing a character with a powerful devotion to the divine.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.

Don’t forget to bring a light to find the way.

—————————————————————————-
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 #2: The Joy of Spilling Secrets

Let’s talk a moment about secrets.

Secrets are cool. Secrets are mysterious. Secrets are powerful. Lots of characters have secrets – in their backstories, in their relationships, sometimes even in their day-to-day lives. I have no doubt that, regardless of what town you call home, there are characters walking around whose closet skeletons could rip the community apart if they got loose. And that’s pretty damn awesome, no matter how you slice it. Here’s something else about secrets, though:

Hoarding them sucks.

One thing that I hate to hear, after a character dies or is retired, is the player declare “Nobody ever found out about X!”, which was some really cool character detail or vital piece of backstory that never made it into play. Or worse yet, the same declaration from a villain, talking about some really awesome detail the players never managed to dig up. What’s worse is that these declarations are often made proudly, like the player managed to hoodwink everyone else or something, when all I can think is: “Man, what a waste of all that dramatic potential.” Because that’s the thing with secrets in a game environment – at game, having a secret you never tell ANYONE is to good drama what masturbation is to good sex. As in technically there are similarities, and they’re both fun I guess, but really, I wouldn’t put them in the same league in pretty much any other way that counts.

“But my character wouldn’t confide in anyone!” some might cry. “Why would they tell anyone about their worst deeds or darkest moments?” To which I respond: BULLSHIT. In my regular life I tell my closest friends lots of things, including dark secrets and weak moments, and we haven’t even suffered through a zombie apocalypse together, much less your everyday dungeon crawl or vampire society party. What the hell do you think the bond between friends in that sort of harsh world would be like, where literally any moment might be your last? That kind of stress needs a release, and guess what, that release is pretty much always someone else, whether it’s a friend, a lover, a bartender or a battle brother. Even the most hardened, jaded, cynical characters I’ve seen have at least one buddy they hang around with, and most of them have a whole gang. Sooner or later, something’s going to come out. Everyone is still human, and humans are social creatures. We can’t help it. Even when we know it’s dangerous to share a secret – hell, sometimes especially because it’s dangerous – we have to share because the sharing validates something about us, brings others closer and lets us share a bit of the strain of carrying it.+

And if you’re still thinking, “But! But! But my character is a Lone Wolf who rides alone, wolfishly! He doesn’t need anyone and never gets close to anyone and can’t trust anyone but himself and his sweet Desert Eagle/katana gunblade that he made from the melted metal of his old village and the ashes of his family”, well, I’ve got a whole other speech about what’s wrong with total lone wolves in gaming, especiallyLARP. We’ll save it for another time, though. (Short version: Playing a genuine, absolute loner in a social gaming environment is a bad strategy vis a vis entertainment, and I mean yours and everyone else’s at the game.)

Also, just for the record? Sharing a secret is awesome for drama. Previously you had all the power over this knowledge, which is safe but boring. But now? Someone else has a key to your skeleton closet, and even if you’re super BFFs, now there’s always the chance that they’ll slip and let it out, or be captured and interrogated, or turn against you, or any number of other things. And guess what? That excitement, that tension, is likely far cooler and has far more potential to entertain you than sitting on that secret alone would have been. It also adds a great power dynamic to your relationship that you didn’t have before, not to mention possibly inspire you to get some dirt on them too – you know, just in case.

I should add that I’m not just talking about sharing dangerous secrets either, though that’s what I’ve focused on so far. I’m also talking about things like backstory, inner thoughts and relationship dynamics. So many characters have rich, detailed inner lives that nobody else ever gets to know about, because the player never shares it. For some people, that’s fine – they like being the only one to know certain things about their character, and hey, it IS their character. So if it works for them, great. But for those of you that spend so much time and energy writing those backstories and developing those in-game relationships, I urge you with all my heart: Get it out there! Let other people know about it! Even if it’s just a little bit, you’d be amazed how it changes the way you play; when whole games start doing it, a whole new level of story, trust and betrayal opens up that will blow your mind.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that there is no place for FOIG (Find Out In Game). There is. After all, you probably would tell your best friend what you got them for the holidays if they really REALLY wanted to know, but generally speaking it’s more fun for both of you to surprise them, otherwise you wind up with a pretty dull present exchange down the road. Game secrets can be the same way – sure, I would probably tell you what Doc Rowe, my Dystopia Rising character, been plotting to do to the rest of the town since taking his first death drove him a little bit crazy, but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as finding out when it happens. (Especially for you DR players who will find out about it when the first symptoms begin to surface.) And I’m not saying there won’t be repercussions for sharing certain things either – if your character is in a secret assassin’s guild, for instance, and decides to start posting the names of members around town, you can bet there will be some retaliation, and quickly. Some secrets really are best kept that way, at least for a while, in order to preserve mystery, paranoia and tension. It’s sitting on them forever that’s the real problem.

I’m also certainly not saying that meta-gaming – using out of character knowledge in-game, like using diner conversation after an event to prompt an in-game response your characters would have no reason to carry out otherwise – is acceptable either. Not only is it against the rules, but it’s also what holds a lot of players back from doing this in the first place – they worry that other people will use what they learn out of game against them in game. There not much else to say about it except that it’s poor form, it’s poor sportsmanship, and poor drama besides. It’s not even like cheating at a video game, it’s like cheating at having lunch with your friends – it’s rude, you don’t win anything really and it makes little goddamn sense besides. Respect the divide between player and character, therefore, and just don’t metagame.

Last but not least, sometimes you just never get a chance to share a secret. Maybe your character dies before the right moment arises to reveal their love for that person they’ve been hopelessly taken with for ages; maybe they retire or are forced into exile before they ever get a chance to tell people about what they saw that terrible time during the war. That’s OK, too. That’s what they call “being true to the fiction” in the writing biz, which is another way to say that sometimes not everything goes the way characters plan, but so long as it makes sense in the context of the world it holds up. It’s its own special kind of drama, knowing that you waited just a little too long and now the chance passed you by for good. I call this the “Adama Effect”, and if you’re not familiar with why that title’s relevant, go and watch all of the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s cool – I’ll wait. (Seriously, it’s totally worth it.) OK, OK, for those without the time, let’s just say that – no spoilers – a major character waits the entire series to spill a very important secret, when he finally does, it’s literally seconds too late. The utter joy of the reveal and the utter devastation at the timing is one of the most effective instances of a secret reveal I’ve ever seen. The point is, though, that it was still revealed – just a few moments too late.

That said, I’m not asking you to go around telling other characters things you thought your character never would reveal – except maybe I am, a little bit. Whether it’s a little bit of personal history you’ve never shared, a motivation you never revealed, thoughts on a relationship your character was afraid to voice, or even a dangerous secret that might land you in a whole lot of trouble if I became widespread knowledge, I’m challenging you to find a way to share one secret thing about your character at the next game you play. And the game after that. And the game after that. Your character, telling another character. (None of this “I told them in the parking lot!” or “I whispered it while everyone was eating pizza, not my fault if no one heard” nonsense.) Not enough secrets, you say? That’s not a problem, really. Indeed, it’s challenge of its own – go and find some.

After all, the woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Lovely, dark, and deep … and full of secrets too.

—————————————————————————-
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 #1: Playing to Fail

Play to fail.

Gamers are a wonderful group of people, but there’s no denying that there is a strong core of competitiveness in what our hobby as well. These are *games*, after all, not pancake socials, and even though we all know that there aren’t “winners” in larp in any traditional sense, some play habits die hard. There’s a real temptation to look at larp like tabletop or console RPGs, where min-maxing your skills and equipment is essential to playing the game and where players are encouraged to work their hardest to avoid weaknesses and failures whenever possible. And to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with playing a character who’s awesome at something, or many things. You want to be a badass gunfighter? Go for it! World’s greatest doctor? Amazing, we could use someone like you. Political mastermind? Dive right in, there’s always plenty to do.

Just don’t forget to build in weaknesses too.

Would you want to read a book or watch a movie about a character who was awesome at everything they did, who never made any mistakes, who never lost at anything, who never once found themselves at a loss – for words, for bullets, for love? No, you wouldn’t, and you know why? Because that character is BORING. No losses, no failures and no mistakes makes for one dull protagonist, and in larp, guess what – that’s you. So what do you do to avoid falling prey to the dreaded Mary/Gary Sue problem? You build weaknesses into your character, pressure points that the staff and the other players and occasionally even you yourself can use to knock your character on their ass and force them to deal with things they can’t handle so well. And then you play them no matter where they take you, even if – especially if! – that means they’re going to land your character in serious trouble at times. Make them NEED, and find out just how far they’ll go to get it.

What can you do to encourage this sort of character? Build characters who hate things. Or love them, no matter what. Make your character afraid of something, or utterly unafraid of something that should terrify them. Give them a history, not just full of enemies out to get them, but of loved ones that the world might take away at any moment. (Enemies are easy to figure; family’s damn near impossible.) Give them money troubles, addictions, obsessions, self-deceptions. Give them codes of honor, noble promises, lofty ideals and pure intentions. (Pound for pound, few things screw up your life worse than pure intentions.) Put them in charge of a group or a project that you *know* will end up breaking their heart, or at the bottom of a ladder that will take an awful lot of blood to climb. Give them a dream they’ll do anything to realize, even if it means sacrificing everything they have now to do it.

I’m not saying that your character should suck at everything, or that they must make suicidally foolish decisions just because, or that they must be some sort of whining emo mess in order to be “real.” It’s a balance – too few problems and a character is dull, too many and they quickly become an unplayable caricature. So don’t be afraid of being good at things, or making the right decision when called for. That’s part of characters too. I’m also not saying that you should deliberately screw up your character’s life on a regular basis – well, OK, I kind of am, really. Staff will do their level best to make your life difficult and complicated, but just as it’s difficult for them to scare you if you the player refuse to feel fear, it’s difficult to really challenge your character if you the player refuse to embrace the idea that not only can you fail from time to time, but that failure can actually be a much better story than success.

If you don’t believe me, well, let me pose a scenario for all you Bond movie fans. (Well, it works for all kinds of different movies, but I like Bond and so we’ll go with that.) You know how the villain always gets one over on Bond and the rest of the good guys in the early stages of the film – captures him, kills someone vital, gets away clean to continue their nefarious schemes? Now imagine what the story would be like if Bond just captured them right off and defeated their scheme, with no problems and no complications. Be pretty damn dull, right? Yeah. It’s like that. When everything goes wrong on every conceivable level, it’s rough on the protagonists – and it can be the finest, most brutal, most amazing stories you ever experienced. That is the heart of playing to fail – realizing that some of best stories come from our very darkest hours.

So try it out, ladies and gentlemen. Find a weakness and play to fail, just to see where it takes you.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

—————————————————————————-
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! 


Fear Agents

One of the greatest things you can do in a game is spread fear.

I know, I know, I sound like the Scarecrow, but I’m serious! This is especially true at LARPs, but it’s often worthwhile at tabletop games too. Quite simply, it’s very easy for players to put on the mask of the superhero, fearing nothing, sneering at every villain, never even the slightest bit daunted at anything the world throws at them. I’m not saying players can’t be heroes – it wouldn’t be any fun if they ran away at the slightest threat – but being utterly fearless all the time is actually a lot more boring than players realize. Why?

Quite simply, fear is fun.

I mean, think about it – one of the hoariest old cliches you hear about war is that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid but taking action anyway. (Pain is similar in many respects, as players who routinely ignore wounds and really role-playing their injuries totally miss out on.) In their desire to be completely immune to any sort of negative condition and/or never show any kind of fear or weakness, all too many players inadvertently cut themselves off from the basic element that makes adventure so much fun in the first place. Without fear there is no danger, after all, and without danger you tend to have lukewarm adventures at best. Feeling that moment of fear and struggling to keep it in check makes the ensuing moment of heroism that much more fun, much more dramatic – instead of just taking on the external challenge, you’ve also overcome a little more of an internal challenge as well, something that makes your subsequent actions that much more meaningful.

I mean, playing a horror game and refusing to be scared is like watching a horror movie with the lights on and Benny Hill music playing – if it doesn’t scare you, whose fault is that really? You never gave it a chance. So instead if you want the full effect you do it right – lights out, huddled together with friends or sweethearts who aren’t afraid to let out a yelp or jump in fright if the story scares them.  Gaming is similar, just on a different scale. Yes, the writers and the staff still need to conjure up some suitably terrifying scenarios, but if you’re not open to letting them frighten you in the first place nothing they do will ever work. And then you’re robbing yourself of a lot of your own fun. You wouldn’t pay money to see a horror movie and then put in earbuds and do nothing but play Angry Birds on your phone the whole time, so why would you pay to play a horror game if you’re going to block out all the best parts of the horror?

Think of this way: When you’re not afraid of anything, nothing is scary; when nothing is scary, enemies are just obstacles, not threats; when enemies are just obstacles, the game becomes more like manual labor than high adventure as you trudge from one task to another until you “fix” your setting every session. Plus apathy is all too contagious as well – I’ve heard veteran players complain about how nobody acts afraid of monsters and dangers at a game, only to watch them display absolutely no fear of anything in their own encounters. Where do you think new players learn it from?

So how does one go about calling up this sensation? For me, the easiest way is to forget the numbers and the game mechanics for a time and just let a little fear in, the kind your rational mind normally shuts out. At weekend boffer larps the simplest solution is to just stand in the dark for a moment, at the edge of the wilderness if you can swing it, and just let that primal fear of the dark start to creep in around the edges. Most of the time adults have learned to throttle it back, and with good reason, but you’d be surprised – or perhaps not – at just how close to the surface it still is if you actively go looking for it. Take a moment and push away the knowledge that you’re at a campground with a bunch of other people in funny costumes, and imagine just how dark and terrible the nights are in the world where your character lives. Even if it mostly recedes after, you’ve let in that little bit of fear, and it makes a huge difference.

Don’t be shy about creating and exploiting these elements in your backstory either. Even if it’s only a narrow range of fears, adding those little crisis points and mental stumbling blocks gives you something to add some interesting depth and spice up what might otherwise seem to be ordinary encounters. (Hey, even Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes!) Plus, when you express fear, even just a little bit, you add tension for the other players in the scene as well – if no one’s even a little afraid to charge that zombie horde or mercenary hideout, well, then it’s really not that scary, is it? But fear’s contagious, and when you help spread it, that extra tension adds a thrill that just isn’t there if you calmly walk over and beat up your enemies. So share it, revel in it, run with it. Panic if you think you should, freak out a bit, remind everyone that things do go bump in the night in this world – and maybe they should be running too.

In the end, fear is another tool to use to help make your game world feel more real and in turn heighten your game experience. So don’t forget to let  the cracks show in your character’s facade now and then. Everybody is afraid of something, no matter how deeply it’s buried, and perfect characters who never break down or never get even so much as a cold sweat are just that much less relatable. Especially with nonhuman characters, fear is one of the universal feelings that can bridge the gap and make them something the audience can relate to in a big way.

So don’t back away from it – embrace it. Don’t be shy about showing your fear, spreading it to others, and see where it takes you, your characters, your games.

Be a fear agent.

Trust me.


7 Games That Changed Your Life

So when gamers get together, aside from war stories getting told and retold, another topic that often comes up are the games that really had an impact on you, the sytems and settings that changed the way you viewed the hobby.  I’m not always talking about your favorite games or even the best games, though they can certainly be those too – I’m just talking about the game-changers, the ones that made you sit up and take notice, fall in love with a style of gaming you hadn’t tried before or even re-examine the way you already played.

These are mine, in a very rough semblance of order – feel free to share yours, with or without the commentary!

#7 – Arkham Horror

It was tough to pick a single game line from Fantasy Flight, but when in doubt, always side with Cthulu. Simply put, I’ve never been a huge board game fan, and even when I enjoy a well-designed game like Settlers or some of the Risk variants, my interest level is generally low at best. Then I tried Arkham Horror, and realized that board games had grown the hell up while I was away. I call it “rpg-lite” for the level of character, detail and atmosphere they put into the game, but that’s really doing it a disservice, implying that it’s trying to be an rpg when in fact it’s not trying to be anything but a stellar board game. You can play it seriously, you can play it casually, you can play it dozens of times and not have two games closely resemble each other – truly a masterpiece of design. I quickly went from saying no thanks to board games to stacking my shelves with Arkham, Descent, Game of Thrones, Battlestar (whose loyalty mechanic deserves its own special mention for adding a wicked layer of trust and doubt to board gaming), The Adventurers and more. Board games grew up while I was away, and I’m glad that I finally caught on.

#6 – Pathfinder

In truth, this should be a split decision with the crew that did the original D&D 3.0 reboot, because without them there would be no Pathfinder to praise. So let me give them their props, then go on to say that the Pathfinder team has taken the revolution they started and given it some new fins, fresh chrome, a nitrous tank, and a jet engine. Because man, this system roars. Like many people my age – though not nearly so many as now, or even as started gaming 10 years ago – I began my journey in roleplaying games with Dungeons & Dragons, AD&D in fact. Over the years, though, I discovered other games with different, simpler systems, games that stressed story and setting as much or more than rules and mechanics. D&D fell out of fashion, and while 3.0 did rekindle interest briefly, it soon fell back into the trap that AD&D had, churning out tons of books until you were drowning in paper. (This may yet happen to Pathfinder, but shh, I’m enjoying the honeymoon.) So when I first heard about Pathfinder, I admit, I scoffed a bit. I’ve played dozens of systems, done LARP, done indie games all about story – I didn’t think “plain old D&D” would ever catch my eye again. But let me tell you, for someone who started out with D&D, reading Pathfinder is like coming home years later and finding out that your high school crush is still hot. And single. And wants to go out for a beer before doing freaky sex things that are illegal in five states. What’s not to love? Now hand me my d12, my inish just came up and daddy’s got some rabid baboons to kill.

#5 – Mystic Realms

I’ll admit it, there was a time in high school when – already a devoted White Wolf LARPer, mind you – my friends and I were driving through the Pine Barrens on our way to the shore. One of my friends casually mentioned that some people actually played “like, live D&D or something” at camps out in the woods, and the car erupted in laughter. What did they do, we snickered, yell “Fireball!” while hitting each other with He-Man swords from Toys ‘R Us? And what kind of loser dresses up as a goblin and fights nerds in the wood, anyway? I mean, we were gamers, but there was a limit, you know? Well, as a lot of this list proves, I do enjoy a tasty dish of cooked crow, and I certainly enjoyed a heaping portion years later when I tried Mystic Realms, my first-ever boffer LARP in what would become a long and nearly unbroken line of such games.  My brother and I drove down to an unfamiliar camp and played a whole weekend, surrounded mostly by strangers (as the friends that invited us happened to be running that weekend), running around in the woods battling all manner of things, getting killed a half-dozen times each, and loving every second of it. While this game has changed considerably since then, at the time the rules were everything you’d want – but only rarely see – in live combat, simple and quick and evocative. Roleplaying was incorporated into them, rather than added on, and the whole system was designed to eliminate narration and keep the action moving. I was hooked. Not only did I drag most of my friends in with me over the next year or two, but it gave me a whole different perspective on a lot of tabletop games as well – suddenly the idea of my D&D character effortlessly fighting six enemies at once became laughable, and the idea that a torch could light a large easily dismissed. Not to mention the excitement of really being put to the test, weapon to weapon, staying silent and hidden to sneak around, you name it. It’s a rush, and I’ve never really shaken the addiction.

#4 – Mage: The Ascension

When I first read Mage, I had never played anything but AD&D and West End Games’ glorious old Star Wars tabletop system, and let me tell you, I was unprepared for the awesome. My brother had started playing Vampire, so I’d heard a little bit about White Wolf, and I thought the World of Darkness sounded pretty cool. Mage had just been released, so while we were on vacation I picked it up with precious summer money and started reading it. I soon put it down, though, angry and confused. Where were the lists of spells? Why didn’t they have components? What the hell were “Spheres” and what did they mean, everyone’s magic worked the way they thought it should, because they thought it should? Much as I hate to admit it, I was totally lost. It was magic, but so far out of the cut-and-dried paradigm I’d experienced in the past that I had no frame of reference for it. I might have walked away entirely, except that it was the only book I had with me that vacation, and so I grudgingly picked it back up. Fortunately, this time the magic system “clicked” – everything made sense, and suddenly I got very excited. I realized the freedom they were offering, as well the price to be paid for that freedom, and how great the stories would be that you could tell about those choices. I was hooked, and spell lists have never held quite the same appeal since.

#3 – Dogs In the Vineyard

If I put up much more good stuff about this game, this blog is going to look like a Dogs fan site, but really, reading it for the first time was that much of a fundamental shift. Dogs was my first real exposure to indie games, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A junior version of one of the big games, perhaps, or someone’s half-baked setting with a dose of barely edited house rules. (I know, I know, what can I say, I was young and foolish!) Instead, I got handed a thermal detonator – compact, polished, and cooly designed to blow you away.  White Wolf had introduced me to gaming that aspired to be Art from time to time, but Dogs actually got into the nuts and bolts of how to make it happen in a big way. For example, I’ve always enjoyed creating characters as a group project, adding bits and pieces to each others’ stories as we go, but a game that actively requires it? (And set a trend for other indie games to do likewise, I might add.) One where the type of family you were raised in wasn’t just fluff, but helped determine who you were in mechanics as well? A setting that’s a masterpiece of minimalism, enough to get you started and get you thinking but never gets in the way? Genius. Add in a conflict mechanic so cool it got its own post a while back, as well as loads of potential moral and ethical conflicts, and you’ve got one hell of a game-changer.

#2 – The Masquerade 

LARP is such a constant presence in my life now that it’s almost hard to remember a time when it wasn’t, but it had to start somewhere, and for me, that was a big box with fake fangs and a big book for a little set of rules. Trashing stereotypical vampire LARPers is pretty much a Goth/geek standby now, especially in the post-Twilight era, but let me tell you, there was indeed a time when this stuff was new, and cool,  and even a little bit subversive. When you felt like part of  your own shadow society, because nobody else had heard of LARP and you had your own secret language. This game, like it or not (and I love it), took LARP from the outermost fringes of geek culture and brought it into the discussion in a big way. And over the years I got to watch it grow from just Vampire to include the whole World of Darkness, going from a hobby enjoyed by a few passionate gamers to several worldwide organizations, inspiring any number of other game systems to try their hand at creating live-action systems. It’s been an amazing journey to watch, both as author and participant. And it all started with a high school game of Masquerade, with all the drama, melodrama, shenanigans and reversals that implies. Not only did it have a big impact on my career as a writer, it made me look at the real world and see a playground there I hadn’t seen since I was very small, and help me see it to this day.
#1 – 7th Sea

I almost don’t know where to begin talking about how this game changed my perspective on gaming. Spending points during creation to add disadvantages to your character? (And making you want to do it?) Earning “Drama Dice” for doing cool stunts or sharing witty one-liners? Dismissing most opponents with simple die rolls, while saving complex rules for the fights that matter? A stat openly named “Panache”? I was blown away. And I haven’t even touched on the world, the easiest non-licensed setting to explain to anyone ever – close enough to our own history to make quick, easy parallels (“Ok, so Montaigne is basically France immediately before the Revolution…”) while still containing enough difference to feel fresh and unique instead of dusty and dated (“… but there’s sorcery and monsters and ancient ruins of a lost civilization.”) 7th Sea was one of the first games where I bought and devoured every supplement, not for new rules or game mechanics (though new Swordsman Schools were always a plus), but just to read the setting material, to see what was happening as the timeline moved forward.  I saw complex world design executed with a light, almost airy touch, inspiring players with an endless array of hooks and suggestions but rarely nailing them down to facts set in stone.  In short, it was big and bright and brilliant and beautiful, and I still love it to this day.

Extremely Honorable Mentions

Houses of the Blooded – Really, I could probably do a whole John Wick list, and this is a truly great game, but I went with the original game of his that sparked my imagination in the end.

InSpectresJared Sorenson is a mad wizard of game design, whose books I wait for like some people follow favorite bands or film directors. I read this about the same time I read Dogs, and they both had a huge impact.

Star Wars (West End Games) – One of the first games I ever played, this is a wonderful example of a system well suited to its setting. It’s a fast, simple mechanic well-suited to the breezy Star Wars universe, and I still love it.


The Deadbolt Effect

I was talking to some folks about cheating and game design not too long ago, and it was such a fun conversation I figured I’d share some of the conclusions. Basically, it boils down to recognizing three types of people.

1) A small number of people will basically never cheat, even if an easy opportunity presents itself.
2) A large number of people will cheat, but only if it is relatively easy and seems to carry low risk of getting caught.
3) A small number of people will almost always cheat, even if it’s very difficult, time-consuming and/or risky.

You don’t really have to worry about group #1 or group #3 – well, you do have to worry about #3, but only so far as catching them. You won’t be able to deter them, though; no matter how hard you make it for them to cheat, they will try it anyway. (There are many reasons why they are so persistent, but that’s another discussion for another day.) The trick is setting up the rules to make cheating just difficult and/or risky enough to deter group #2, the people who are normally honest but don’t mind taking shortcuts, especially when they see others doing it. Or to put it another way, you need to balance putting in so many safeguards the test becomes impossibly long and complex against having so few that the honest people find themselves wondering why they didn’t just take a few shortcuts. It’s what security experts call the “deadbolt effect” – you don’t need a deadbolt to keep out honest people, and it won’t stop determined criminals either. But it will deter casual snooping, amateur criminals and other crimes of opportunity.

One of the things that undermines a lot of good game design is the designers feel they have to go beyond deadbolts and install a full-on laser grid. They work endlessly to plug loopholes, scale back rules and abilities to avoid abuse, and otherwise make their games as airtight as possible. The problem is that, after a certain point, avoiding abuse starts diminishing the game itself. This is particularly true when it comes to combat, where a lot of games spend so much time trying to close possible cheating problems that they forget the purpose of gaming is fun, not making sure no one can ever possibly abuse it. They underestimate the power of the table, namely, that game groups can and should police their own.

That very notion, in fact, is one of my favorite trends that has emerged in tabletop gaming, especially in the indie field – the idea that rather than design a game to foil cheaters and power gamers, folks should simply design games the way they want them to be, and let groups worry about sending losers and creeps packing. Houses of the Blooded has my personal favorite mechanic for this: Bad Form. Whenever a player tries to manipulate the rules to do things they oughtn’t, the Narrator simply says “Bad Form” and that’s it. No need to argue rules for hours – if it violates the spirit of having fun, just say “Bad Form” and move on. Elegant simplicity.

Don’t get me wrong – I think deterring cheating is still an important element of game design, whether it means trying to plug a loophole or simply calling attention to it so that groups know it might come up during play. But the more people learn the value of the deadbolt effect, the more time we can spend creating awesome games, and the less time we have to devote in trying to discourage jerks from breaking in an rifling our stuff.

Game on!


The Poetry of Escalation

One of the greatest pieces of relationship advice – argument advice, really – I’d ever gotten came from, of all things, a role-playing game. I know, what are the odds, right? That’s what your surprised face looks like, I’m sure.

Anyway, it comes from a wonderful mechanic in D. Vincent Baker‘s equally wonderful game Dogs In the Vineyard. Many gamers already know it; if you don’t, look it up, it’s one of those great little games that changes the way you look at games afterward. For those that aren’t gamers, or haven’t read it yet, I’ll skip the setting and get right to the good part: Conflict Escalation. You see, when you get into a conflict in Dogs, you gather up some dice based on what type of conflict it is – social, mental, physical – and roll them. You compare them to your opponent’s dice, and if your dice come out ahead, great! If things go against you, however, and you start losing the conflict, you have two choices:

1. Give up

2. Escalate

Giving up is easy – your character loses, admits they’re wrong, gets their butt kicked, or otherwise gets the short end of whatever’s going on. Rough, and hard to accept sometimes, but usually not as bad as what might happen if you stayed in and made things worse. Because if you’re losing and you want to stay in the conflict, you have to escalate it – you have to make the conflict about something more than it was originally. A debate becomes an argument, an argument becomes a fistfight, a fistfight becomes a gunfight, and so on. I thought this was a beautiful game mechanic, because it really makes you consider what’s worth fighting for and what’s worth letting go. Sure, escalating might give you the edge, but it might also make you a bully, and it’s important to remember that the more you throw into a conflict, the more you have to lose.

That’s awesome enough in a game, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was really an interesting point in general. I realized that this tendency is more common than people think, though usually more subtle. Listen to your co-workers if you don’t believe it – keep track of how often a person on the losing side of a debate adds a topic, expands the scope of the discussion or even gets personal in order to stay in the proverbial fight. Pretty much everyone hates being wrong, no question, but it’s surprising how often people try to avoid it by using escalation. If two people are talking who’s the best quarterback in football, for example, and one person presents convincing stats that show their candidate is better, suddenly it’s not about stats, it’s about teams as a whole, or it’s about a particular game, or the other person just sucks and is dumb. Escalating is a great way to save face – by making the argument about something else, you conveniently avoid the need to admit you were wrong about the original subject.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immune. Sometimes when my wife and I are arguing, and she makes a point I don’t have an answer for, or that inconveniently reminds me that I’m being an idiot, I realize one of the first instincts I have is to escalate by bringing up some other matter, usually totally unrelated, where she was wrong (or at least I looked better). I try to stomp on this instinct whenever I can, but sometimes it’s really tempting to do it, because part of me knows it would get a reaction, and when you’re ticked that’s all you want. Since reading Dogs In the Vineyard, it’s been easier to keep track of this behavior, because whenever I’m tempted to escalate, I remind myself that it’s usually just a way of avoiding the fact that I was wrong in the first place.

Gaming that helps with relationships. Who knew?