Posts tagged “LARP

Badass Larp Talk #8: Ten Tiny Tips to Keep Old Larpers Young!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #7: The Business of the Stage

So, let’s talk about business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #6: How Not to Talk At Larps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #5: Ten Tiny Tips for New Larpers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #4: The NPC Commandments

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

NPC Commandment #1: You Are Not the Star

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

NPC Commandment #2: Don’t Drop Character

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

NPC Commandment #3: Stay On Script

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #3: Livin’ On A Prayer

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

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

Do your research, start small, and be respectful.

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

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

Purely Imaginary Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #2: The Joy of Spilling Secrets

Let’s talk a moment about secrets.

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

Hoarding them sucks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 #1: Playing to Fail

Play to fail.

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

Just don’t forget to build in weaknesses too.

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

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

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

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

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

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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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! 


Fear Agents

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

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

Quite simply, fear is fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a fear agent.

Trust me.


7 Games That Changed Your Life

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

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

#7 – Arkham Horror

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

#6 – Pathfinder

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

#5 – Mystic Realms

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

#4 – Mage: The Ascension

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

#3 – Dogs In the Vineyard

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

#2 – The Masquerade 

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

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

Extremely Honorable Mentions

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

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

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


The Problem of Stickiness

I have watched a great game slide slowly into oblivion for about a decade now.

(I bet some of you thought this would be a different kind of problem, didn’t you? Cheeky!)

I won’t name the game – if you know me, you know which one it is, and if you don’t know and it’s really bugging you, feel free to drop me a line privately. Anyway, the specific game is pretty much beside the point. Because this is a post about the obligation of a creator to their creation, and in particular about an obligation you don’t hear about much: the obligation to put it down, slide it over to your audience, and walk away.

First, some background. When I started attending my first boffer LARP back in October of 2000, I had already been doing live-action role-playing for seven years. I went to the game on the advice of some friends I’d just met at a local Changeling game, just my brother and I driving to the wilds of south Jersey, excited and not knowing quite what to expect. Almost all of the people I knew were actually NPCing for the weekend, which meant my brother and I were largely on our own, playing new characters in a group of total strangers. We were poorly dressed, poorly equipped, ran around like lunatics and generally had a blast. We quickly pulled in pretty much all of our gamer friends, and after a year or two of playing we started getting involved in writing events and even serving on staff. It was, for about five years, the single biggest unifying factor among my friends – just about everybody went at least now and then.

As a game designer, let me tell you, it was a wonder. The rules were some of the simplest and most efficient I’d ever seen, particularly in the field of boffer LARP, which is notoriously prone to bloated and complicated systems. They blended roleplaying with mechanics, stressed teamwork, encouraged player interaction and made combat dangerous and exciting. When I arrived, the third version of the rulebook had just been released, a rough if lovingly crafted book. I was assured that the “final draft” was just around the corner, and sure enough in another year or two the game’s creator, an intermittently charismatic man with a Faustian knack for getting people to believe in his game, fired everyone up with photo shoots, professional printing and a big release at GenCon. We giggled at some of the mistakes that crept in, editing or not, but we were sure this was it – the beautifully simple game we loved was done!

Oh, if only.

You see, the game’s creator had a problem, one that I should have spotted in those years of rulebook versions, errata every other weekend and the like. It’s simple – he couldn’t let go of his creation. Despite the fact that the game was a success, as boffer LARPs go at least, despite the fact that the players loved the simplicity of the rules, despite the fact that it seemed an ideal time to expand, the creator kept on tinkering. A game that was known for its wonderful simplicity became more complicated; a game that had begun with a lot of flavor become bland as its rules were generalized. Our group left, most after the sort of drama blow-up that LARPs are infamous for, the rest ebbing away over the next couple of years. I still check in with the game every now and then, out of morbid curiosity more than anything else, and the game is pretty much totally unrecognizable (and still changing). The simplicity is long gone, along with a lot of what made it unique and evocative. There a lot more tables and charts, and it has spawned a half-dozen spin-off settings that are simply different skins placed over the rules system.

Sure, you can create a much wider range of characters now… but why would you want to?

One of the hardest things about many creative activities in general and game design in particular is knowing when to walk away, to accept it for what it is and move on to your next project. Projects are sticky – you don’t want to let them go, and that’s the problem. There will always be something you want to fix – a loophole you missed, a rule you wish you had written differently, you name it. But you have to learn when you’re fixing things, and when you’re changing things. It can be easy to get so caught up on the details that you forget what you’re doing to the big picture.With that game, it eventually became clear that he wanted to create something like a universal LARP framework, a game system you could adapt to almost any setting – the GURPS of LARP, if you will. That’s a fine goal. But why gut your existing fantasy game to do it? You’ve already got players that are loyal, enjoy the system, and – most importantly – it works. Shelve the first system, and create another to do what you want. By trying to change one over to the other, you wind up making a bit of a mess of both instead of creating two great things.

I made this argument to a friend of mine once, and his response was to shrug and say “so the guy pulled a George Lucas?” I guess that’s a comparison a lot of geeks would agree with, Lucas now being infamous for tinkering with the original Star Wars films and changing so many beloved elements with his various editions. The game I knew locally, though, that one stuck with me a lot more. Maybe it was because I saw it happen up close, I don’t know, but it taught me a valuable lesson: no matter how much your game sticks with you, you have to let it go, let it be what it is, what other people enjoy.


Three Reasons Your Boffer LARP Is Rubbish

What I See Is Not What I Get

Whether you’re trying to imagine a high fantasy sword & sorcery world, a grim post-apocalyptic nightmare or a shadowy world of occult conspiracies, just trying to imagine that you’re actually immersed in the setting instead of wandering around a hotel, friend’s backyard or rented Boy Scout campground is a major investment on the part of your imagination. Add to that seeing the other players as their characters instead of fellow geeks in costumes, and your imagination is working in overdrive pretty much the entire time you’re in-game. Add to that an extra level of narrative flourish – “OK, guys, I know that looks like a tent, but it’s actually a huge castle!” or “OK, when you see me, I’m 15 feet tall and have two heads and a glowing sword!” – and staying immersed becomes essentially impossible. Don’t tell me you have a glowing sword, show me! Stay as close as possible to what your props, costumes and makeup can already create, and let our imaginations do the rest. If you need to narrate, keep it brief and stay close to what’s in front of us. Our imaginations are already heavily taxed, so don’t add to that burden unless it’s absolutely amazing or absolutely necessary.

The Rules Are In the Way

LARP needs to flow smoothly, because when you interrupt the action, there’s an awkward pause where we all suddenly realize we’re playing a game instead of stayig immersed in our characters. This is especially true in boffer LARP, where maintaining the flow of things like combat and large group social interaction are crucial. Any time I see a skill that calls for a time-out, I cringe a little, especially if it’s a skill that will be used even relatively often. The same goes for skills that call for measurements on the fly – it’s one thing to have a ritual-type skill that takes 10 minutes to create a 15 foot circle of protection. That’s plenty of time to measure out the distance, and indeed creating the space is part of the roleplaying. It’s quite another to have a skill that calls for people to try to measure a 10′ radius in the middle of combat. Keep your mechanics as unobtrusive as possible – try to incorporate them into roleplaying whenever possible, instead of being something you do in addition to roleplaying, and when you can’t, try to make them quick and easy to resolve, instead of chewing up valuable game time.

“PC” Also Stands for “Paying Customer”

The best boffer LARPs I’ve ever seen never forget this – that a player has laid down some serious money for admission, not to mention costumes, props, food & drink, gas, etc. Some games take a very haughty “we are Serious Artists and if you don’t like it or get screwed over or whatever then too bad” approach, where the staff feels free to openly favor characters, do terrible things that ruin people’s fun for the weekend or otherwise mess with people’s entertainment in the name of Creating Art. I remember attending a boffer LARP where a player’s character was hit with a Big Deal Magic Effect on Friday night and essentially removed from play for the rest of the weekend. The staff congratulated themselves for being amazing and daring, but the player was pissed – he’d gotten his gear together, hauled it to the game site and paid his money to play, and less than four hours in his game was ruined. When he complained, they told him he could be an NPC all weekend, and gave him guff for his “bad attitude.” Needless to say, I’m with the player – he paid to play his character, not do their grunt work all weekend. (If you want to NPC for a whole game, fine, but that should be your choice, not one forced upon you.) Mind you, I’m not saying that players should always win/get what they want, or that staff cannot endanger characters, challenge players’ expectations or whatnot, or even that LARPs can’t create Art. But games need to remember that there are different obligations when it’s your friends sitting around your kitchen table, and when it’s 100+ people who’ve paid $50 or more to play your game. One is a friendly meet up, with nothing more than pizza money on the line; the other is a business, and forgetting that is a bad idea.

Pete Woodworth wrote, edited and developed for White Wolf Game Studio’s groundbreaking Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP game system for 8 years, and has been playing and writing both parlor and boffer LARPs for 17 years.