Posts tagged “gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Table Manners: A Very Special Geek Convention PSA

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

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

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

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

Convention Etiquette 101

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

Be Nice

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

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

Look, Don’t Leer

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

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

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

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

Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”

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

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

Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything

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

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

Ask Before You Touch

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

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

Oh, and About Those Photos

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

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

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

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

Be Cool with “No”

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

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

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

Not All Compliments Are Created Equally

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

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

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

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

Have An Exit Strategy

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

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

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

Speak Up

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

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


Table Manners: Guys, We Need to Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. Not just no, but fuck no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threatening Rape Is Not Just “Trash Talk”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Word for the Guys

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

_______________________

WARNING! WARNING! HUGE

HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
_______________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.


Badass Larp Talk #13: Mind the Gap

I hate character histories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Single Death Systems (SDS)

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

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

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

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

Unlimited Death Systems (UDS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limited Death Systems (LDS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 

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


Badass Larp Talk #10: Select, Start

Let me share a great and terrible secret of larp:

You are not the star.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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