Have you ever showed up at a baseball game and wondered why no one wanted to toss a football around? Tried to enter your ferret in the Miss Teen USA pageant? Or offered to throw down at a Street Fighter V tournament using your sick Magic: The Gathering deck? Of course not! All of those are ridiculous examples, right?
Except that’s sometimes exactly what happens when people come to larp.
Before I get into it, let me just say that I don’t normally pull the veteran card when it comes to larp. For one thing, logging a long time in a hobby doesn’t automatically make me better at or more insightful with it than someone else. For another, like any art form, larp needs youth and fresh perspectives as much as it needs the proverbial age and guile, so discounting people for having less experience is a fool’s errand. So I’m reluctant to make it a factor as a rule, and yet in this instance I feel that time logged actually has merit. So if you’ll pardon me, here we go.
I’ve been larping for 23 years now, not as long as some of course, but long enough to have seen trends come and go and as well as observe all kinds of play styles, game setups, and group configurations. I’ve done everything from homebrew parlor larps to massive networked boffer larps to Jeep and American freeform games. I’ve been a player and game runner and a rule designer and participated in all kinds of stories across a couple dozen genres. And let me tell you, sooner or later the same person shows up:
A player who attends one game, but tries to make it into another.
I’ve seen this in pretty much every venue and genre you can imagine over the years. There are always players who feel that the game and its setting should bend to what they want to play, rather than trying to create characters that work in the world they’re presented. I addressed some of these when I talked about problem players a while back, but it’s worth mentioning that players who want to bend the game can have very different motivations, which means that understanding them and how to approach them requires knowing exactly what type of player you’re dealing with in the first place.
The Commanding Cosplayer
This is a player who has a really cool cosplay, and is less about larping in the setting offered than finding another place to wear it between conventions. The game setting is near enough to the original cosplay source that they feel confident wearing it there, because “close enough,” right? Often they will make a nominal effort at changing some superficial elements, like having a different name than the character, but otherwise they don’t want to change more than they absolutely must, since the costume is what matters. Note that this can apply to people who have excellent historical costumes as easily as cosplayers who base their looks on fiction – I’ve seen Revolutionary War soldiers try to play at fantasy larps in full kit or period-perfect 1920s gangsters arrive at a cyberpunk bar. Having really great costumes can be a boon to any character or any larp, of course, but the Cosplayer is a problem because they want the game to shift to accommodate their aesthetic, rather than the other way around, and can wind up being visually distracting or outright disruptive to the game environment as a result.
The Fanfic Superfan
Sure, this game setting is great, but OMG! You know what it reminds them of! THEIR FAVORITE [BOOK/ANIME/MOVIE/TV SHOW/COMIC SERIES]!!!!111oneoneone This player compares the game to their beloved inspiration whenever possible and immediately tries to figure out how to shoehorn in terminology, backstory, characters, world concepts, or other elements from this source, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea. These are the players who try to turn your local fantasy larp into straight up Game of Thrones, who want to make a Requiem game into a live-action Vampire Diaries fanfic, or can’t seem to so much as see a wand in a setting without endlessly equating everything to Harry Potter. Now, every game has inspirational material behind it and that’s great, but the trouble is that the Fanfic Superfan just can’t let it go and embrace what’s new about the game setting, which does both their inspiration and the larp a disservice.
The Exchange Student
This player brings in a character from another game that they love and want to keep playing, regardless of whether or not the concept really fits the game they’re arriving at now. Rather than change their backstory or other core concepts, they try to bring their original character elements into the game even if it doesn’t suit the world as presented. An example would be a player who tries to bring a vampire character from a homebrew setting into a Masquerade game, but refuses to use the clans and Disciplines of the new setting, instead trying to get their original clan and powers approved instead. Speaking as someone who’s played variations on the same base character off and on for 16 years now, believe me I understand – but the difference between me and an Exchange Student is that I always reshape and reinterpret him to fit the game world, instead of assuming I can walk in as the same person with the same backstory and capabilities regardless of setting.
The Backseat Designer
This type of player can be a little more subtle than some of the other types, but winds up being far more disruptive if their behavior is not caught early. Simply put, the Backseat Designer thinks they know better than the game runners when it comes to a game’s rules or setting or both, and therefore feels free to introduce their own elements instead. Sometimes they can’t help but comparing the game to some fabled game of their past, and constantly try to reinvent this one until it’s a copy of that one, or it might just be that they can’t help tinkering with what they see. This might be making up an important historical event that never happened in the official game timeline, or it might be choosing to ignore a rule they don’t like (or impose one of their own design instead), but whatever form it takes, the Backseat Designer sees no problem in changing the structure of the game in order to make it what they feel would be “better.” Naturally, while larp is a collaborative exercise, changing major elements like rules or important world history without consulting the game runners is a reciper for confusion at the very least, and serious player discord and event problems at worst.
It’s pretty rare in my experience, but sometimes people come with a concept they know doesn’t fit for no other reason than just to mess with the game/see how much game-breaking they can get away with before they get tossed or the game grinds to a halt. The trouble is that a troll can appear to be one of the other types, but while those players generally aren’t trying to deliberately create trouble – they might just be a little confused about the setting, their character, or both – the troll is just there to be as disruptive as possible. Needless to say, if it becomes clear that a player is simply playing a character who doesn’t fit in order to mess with the game, it’s best to toss them out as quickly as possible, and if necessary retcon their actions if they ruined play for others. Giving a supposedly repentant troll a second chance is up to individual game runners, of course, but it is worth remembering that other players who don’t make such selfish and disruptive decisions are worth giving priority.
So What’s to Be Done?
As evidenced above, there are a lot of motivations that might cause players to try to bend a game to suit their needs rather than adapting their characters to the world they’re offered. Regardless of why they do it, though, it’s important to recognize that this is not acceptable behavior – while larp is a collaborative effort, it is still important to respect the role of the game designers and the vision they have for the kind of game they want. Some may not care if players freely add or change elements, but many do, and unless a player has been given specific permission to make changes or bring in characters who don’t quite fit the normal setting parameters, they should work with what they’re given rather than spend energy trying to make it into something else.
This may sound harsh, but at its heart it’s actually advice with the best interests of everyone at the game in mind. For instance, if a game designer announces a new larp set in a four-color superheroic world of her own creation, where the players are going to portray old school straightforward superheroes, attending that game is an agreement on the part of the players to take part in that world. Yes, the game designer needs to make it clear what kind of game she’s putting on – if only so the players don’t make inappropriate characters by mistake – but she should not have to then further defend it from players who want to play a different game and so try to make hers into what suits them.
Sure, a player may wish he could have a darker, more modern superhero character. He might think that modeling his character on Rorschach from Watchmen would be the coolest thing ever, or that it would be great to have Infinite Crisis have occurred in this world, or wish he could bring in his wonderful Dark Knight cosplay outfit based on Batman’s iconic battlesuit in The Dark Knight Returns. He might want to have time control as a power, and have a whole rule set worked out for it, even though it’s not on the regular powers list for this game. All of these might be great elements … but not for this game.
This game is not about those things, and trying to make it so is not conductive to group play.
Let me be clear – it’s OK to ask game runners questions, or even offer suggestions. Nobody is saying otherwise! However, if the game runners decline to make changes a player desires, it’s the responsibility of that player to accept such a decision and either play the game as presented or leave and find a game that better suits their needs. After all, one of the wonderful parts of being involved in this golden age of larp we have going right now is that there’s certainly no shortage of alternative games available if one doesn’t suit you. Or, for that matter, no shortage of players who’ll likely be interested if you start your own!
But if you go to a game, don’t try to make it something it’s not, or judge it for not meeting expectations it was never intended to fulfill in the first place. Instead, embrace the world and the system you’re offered for what they are, because that’s the vision the designers have in mind. It’ll be less stress and more fun for everyone that way.
Don’t be a hardcore fan, be a big one.
Why not? Hardcore fans almost always end up ruining their enjoyment of what they profess to adore, while “merely” big fans go on their merry way, still finding new things to enjoy and explore about what they love for years at a time. Today’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer release has given me ample evidence of this notion, because while we big fans of Star Wars are debating the pros and cons of what we’ve seen (and what’s been left out), the hardcore fan response has been pretty much the same. It’s either a rapturous, no-room-for-discussion “IT IS STAR WARS SO IT WILL BE AMAZING ALL WHO DOUBT IT ARE WRONG”, or more often a close-minded rejection of the very notion that anything could possibly be as good as the sainted Holy Trinity, usually accompanied by some tired lens flare jokes and the obligatory “stop ruining my childhood” screed. Which highlights an important difference in how you, as a fan, approach what you love:
Being a big fan is a statement of enjoyment; being a hardcore one is a statement of identity.
The difference, as any psychologist will tell you, is pretty immense. If you enjoy something, but it doesn’t define how you see yourself as an individual, then that enjoyment is capable of expanding and changing over time as you find new examples of what you like and new ways to enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you automatically find every new thing in your fandom wonderful and great – I’m a big fan of Star Wars, for example, and still didn’t enjoy all the movies, let alone all the novels, games, and other tie-ins – but you are able to put the negative experiences in perspective with the positive ones.
To put it another way, I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, for example, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit when they’ve played a bad game (or season), or that I’ve decided the 1997 team was the single best Eagles team ever+ and that no current or future Eagles team could possibly be better. A big fan takes it as it comes, enjoying some things and not others, but always with an overall appreciation of what they love in mind. They recognize that Godfather III doesn’t “ruin” Godfather I & II, and that when you think about it, the very notion that it could is pretty absurd.
By contrast, when you’re hardcore to the point that you tag something as being part of your identity, whether it’s your Star Wars fandom or your love of a sports team or whatever, you become very resistant to the idea of anything about that subject changing. Because changing it now changes you, and as a rule, human beings are highly resistant to making alterations to our sense of identity. So a hardcore fan inevitably draws inward, becoming either fanatically positive about their fandom to the point of blindness and instant (often harsh) rebuke of the very notion that it could be in any way bad, or bitter and resentful about any new material to come after whatever arbitrary point they’ve decided was the “height” of what they love. They become gatekeepers, protecting “their” fandom from everyone they see as harmful to it, including other fans and even creators if they feel they have strayed from the “true” nature of the fandom.
As you can imagine, neither perspective is ultimately very conducive to continued enjoyment of what a fan claims to love, because either way you’re locked into a perspective that ultimately stifles your ability to appreciate the subject of your affection. You either won’t ever critique it and can’t accept the notion that others will, or you’ll ruthlessly critique every possible aspect of new material to the point where you’re incapable of enjoying any of it. Instead of a source of enjoyment in your life, your fandom becomes a subject to obsess over in a negative way, either because it requires you to block out and shut down any criticism you come across or because any news about it prompts a bitter tirade about how it’s been going downhill since whatever time you decided it had reached a suitable zenith.
No matter what, the hardcore fan always loses.
One particularly relevant case in point is the familiar “stop ruining my childhood” refrain that has been heard in a lot of fandoms but seems to hold a special place in the hearts of certain hardcore Star Wars fans. This is like complaining that, because they built a 7-11 where your own playground used to be, your cherished memories of playing in that park as a kid are now ruined forever. Stop and think about that a moment, because it’s both silly and a little terrifying to have that kind of view of your own identity, your own personal timeline.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to like that they built the 7-11, much less that Lucas inserted a bunch of pointless crap no one asked for in his classic films. As I said before, being a big fan doesn’t mean you can’t critique or respond negatively to things in your fandom, any more than you can’t feel a sense of loss to see something you cherished replaced by something coldly commercial. Those are perfectly normal and logical reactions, but they’re still placed within a context, a perspective – I don’t like that there’s a 7-11 there now, or that the re-releases now have pointlessly awful Jabba the Hutt CGI, but it won’t stop me from enjoying telling stories about playing in the park with my friends, or remembering all the many times I watched the original movies and had a blast.
What I’m saying is that if those sorts of things really do retroactively ruin your past – as in actually make you incapable of feeling any or all of the happiness you used to feel when you recollected those times from your past – you need to take a big step back and really separate your identity from your fandom. Because you’re clearly locked in a relationship with it that is bad for both of you. Seriously. Think about it.
Big fans? Always. Let’s spread our love of Star Wars – or Game of Thrones, or Doctor Who, or whatever else – to others and enjoy the ups and downs of following a creative property over the years.
Hardcore fans, though? Let’s let that notion go.
+Said no one ever, including me, so calm down everyone.
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 Asylum, The Killing Joke, or Year One? Maybe you can’t reach out to everyone in the world who is awed by the Lord of the Rings movies or hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and tell them about other wonderful fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie, MZB, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch or Mercedes Lackey – but you can tell the new potential fans sitting next to you.
We have to put some of our old demons behind us, folks, and accept that as a culture we’re no longer the outsiders looking in. We’re at the threshold of a brand new culture, one that – with a little bit of our help – can bring some of the wonder and amazement and imagination that we love to people who otherwise might never have experienced it in their lives. As my man Hardison likes to say on Leverage – one of the better portrayals of a geek out there recently, by the way, who not only hacks computers but gets to be witty, get the girl and kick a lot of ass too – this is the Age of the Geek, baby.
It’s about time we stepped back of our self-imposed exile and started leading the way to the culture we want.
Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates!