After almost three years without attending any in-person larp events, this summer I somehow managed to schedule back to back blockbuster larps just two weeks apart. (What could possibly go wrong?) My Drachenfest bags had scarcely been unpacked before they were filled to bursting once more, this time with everything I needed to travel to a mysterious academy on a far-off planet. There I hoped to prove myself worthy of joining an ancient order of mystical protectors doing their best to hold together a struggling galaxy in the wake of a terrible civil war. It was time to make the jump to lightspeed and find my destiny at Starfall Academy!
In a similar spirit of my Drachenfest review, I’m going to be doing a bit of an overview as well as relating my experiences and reacting to different parts of the game – the game is big and complex enough to warrant it, I feel, plus as a designer it’s often difficult for me to separate my reactions to things like rules and mechanics from the roleplaying aspects of stories and character interactions. Which means this review will probably be pretty long so, you know, make some popcorn and get comfy. I’ve divided the review into sections so if I’m getting too design nerdy or feels heavy you can feel free to skip to another part you’re more curious about, I won’t be offended.
I also want to make it clear that I am going to be doing my best to make this a spoiler-free review; I will discuss certain foundational plot and setting elements, as well as talk about story beats in a general sense. I will do my best to avoid more specific things such as certain secrets that were revealed during the weekend or the outcome of particular plot points. For those interested in that kind of information, when I have time I will post a “spoilers” version of this review with more detailed information about certain game secrets and revelations later and put a link to it here when it’s ready. I ask that anyone inclined to share and/or comment on this review please respect the spoiler-free premise, for others if not for yourself.
I want to give a brief disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Quest Productions, I did not receive a free ticket or any special perks from them, and they had no input when it came to writing this review. (Though naturally I may edit the review at their request in the event I have reported a factual error about the game.) I attended the second of the event’s two runs, and I have been made aware that certain rules and plot elements were adjusted between events, so those who attended the first run may see differences in the way things worked at my event.
Last but not least, I also want to make it clear that any speculation I put forward in this review about how things might work at future events – as well as the existence of future events in general for that matter – is just that, my personal speculation. While I certainly hope to see more classes at Starfall Academy, that is entirely up to the staff, and if there are future events staff may of course decide to do things in entirely different ways than I imagine. That is 100% their prerogative and as a game runner and designer myself I fully support whatever direction they decide to take on any/all of these choices. So please take any such passages with a big handful of proverbial salt.
An emotionally engaging, highly immersive weekend spent in a cleverly realized sci-fantasy world. Starfall Academy features strong writing, top notch game staff, and clean, innovative game design that takes the classic “unusual school larp” format to the next level. The setting basics and game mechanics are easy to pick up and the game leverages the school setting itself in clever ways that make the experience extremely friendly to larp newcomers, while veteran larpers and boffer fighters will still find plenty of action, intrigue, and personal drama to enjoy. There is also an absolute treasure trove of richly detailed, highly original lore for curious players of all backgrounds to dive into if they desire, which makes the concept of coming back year after year to rise from initiate all the way to master even more enticing.
Should I Play?
If you enjoy the idea of taking fascinating classes in everything from philosophy to alien zoology to galactic history to saber fighting, don’t mind staying in a college dorm room for a few nights, and are attracted to playing a character who has been whisked away from their old life to begin training as part of an ancient order of powerful but morally conflicted individuals tasked with holding a struggling galaxy together, then welcome home! You’re really going to enjoy it here. Of course a love for particular group of mystic warrior-monks in a popular sci-fantasy universe certainly doesn’t hurt, but the game is set in a totally different universe so it’s absolutely not necessary to be a fan of that other setting to enjoy this one. The potential to attend year after year and rise through the ranks is also well worth exploring and combined with excellent event value gives a natural reason for players to keep coming back.
No, I Mean, Should *I* Play, Specifically?
I mean, I dunno? If I don’t know you it’s hard to say, but I suppose you could write me in the comments or privately and I’ll talk to you about your personal tastes.
A Word about That Other Universe
By now you’ve probably noticed that I’ve refrained from mentioning a certain sci-fantasy universe and its iconic mystic warriors by name. That’s intentional, but not entirely for the reason you might think. Sure, part of me doesn’t want to deal with showing up on Disney’s radar, but more importantly the more I learned about Starfall Academy the more I felt like I would be doing it a disservice to constantly compare it to Lucas’ creation. Because while you’d be right to say that Starfall Academy draws on that world for inspiration and I believe it will absolutely scratch the itch for those people who have always wanted to play a Jedi in training – there, I said it, but it’s the one and only time I will – there’s so much more to the experience than saying that might imply. Staff has clearly put in a ton of work and love to bring this world to life, and I feel that deserves its own recognition rather than constantly reducing it to a comparison.
To put it plainly, Starfall Academy is not that other universe with the serial numbers filed off just enough that they don’t get sued – it is a rich, detailed universe that deserves to be considered and explored in its own right. Comparing the two is a bit like saying Babylon 5 is basically the same as Deep Space Nine just because both are set on space stations, or that there’s no need for Dune because Foundation already exists. Just because you have similar subject matter, or one was inspired in part by another, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the newcomer to shine brightly on its own merits.
Oh, and before anyone’s hackles go up – I’m not saying that Starfall Academy is better than the universe that helped inspire it, or anything of the sort. To each their own; I happen to love both! Ultimately what I’m saying is that while there are some interesting comparisons to be made, it’s definitely worth considering the setting on its own merits, rather than always viewing through a comparative lens. Like any great homage, it does honor to its inspiration while becoming worthy art in its own right.
At risk of doing a disservice to that same excellent world-building, for the sake of brevity – and for letting players uncover some of the many mysteries on their own if they would like to peruse the game’s extensive online Archives – I will go with the basic broad strokes of the setting here. Long ago, a collection of sentient species came together after some rocky moments and formed an Empire that spans the known galaxy. The bedrock of this government is the Guardian Order – an organization of individuals known as Radiants who display special powers thanks to their connection to a cosmic force called the Light. For centuries the Guardians have steered the Empire, and while there were some conflicts and turmoil for the most part it was a time of great harmony and growth across the galaxy.
Just over two decades ago, however, one sect of the Order known as the Dominari fell to Shadow, their darker natures taking them over en masse. They rebelled against the Empire, crowning their own ruler (now known as the “false Empress”) and corrupting many Guardians from other sects to their cause. The resulting civil war was brief but incredibly bloody, causing immeasurable devastation and loss of life before the so-called Dominari Rebellion was finally put down. The few surviving Dominari seemingly vanished deep into the uncharted regions of the galaxy, leaving the Order to try to mend a wounded galaxy while still grappling with the aftermath of such grand betrayal among its own members. Not to mention the fact that the trust of the average Imperial citizen for the Order has been badly damaged by the conflict, and to this day many have not regained their former regard for Radiants.
Players enter this universe as students at Starfall Academy, a training center for new Radiants located in the heart of former Dominari territory. The academy was actually taken over during the Dominari Rebellion and was the site of some terrible atrocities; only after a long, fierce debate among senior members of the Order has it finally been re-opened, in the hopes of healing some of those old wounds and making it a shining example of unity and hope for a battered galaxy. It is not the only training academy for Radiants in the galaxy, but it may be the most significant one for what it represents if this re-opening works … or the impact it will have if it fails.
Harmony and Growth: Character Creation
Character creation in Starfall Academy is entirely narrative – you don’t have stats or skills as such, and you don’t receive any Light powers or abilities until you attend classes (more on that in a bit). With no mechanics to dig through, players are free to focus entirely on developing character concepts, costumes, makeup, and backstories. There are a number of different playable species, ranging from good old Humans to the partially cybernetic Vyx to the plant-based Shumi and plenty more besides. Aside from Humans all other species require a level of makeup and/or prosthetics, some quite elaborate, which creates a nicely varied and exotic visual environment in play. The site is very clear about the makeup and costuming requirements for each species, and even grades them based on the complexity and cost involved in playing a particular species so players know what they’re getting into. Where possible links to suitable prosthetics and makeup are provided as well, which is nice, and each species also comes with a good body of lore to help players get into the right mindset.
Since this was the first year of Starfall Academy all players created initiates, the very first rank in the Guardian Order. (Future years might allow new players to create more advanced students as well as initiates, and of course current players can carry existing characters over from year to year as well.) Initiates are individuals who have only recently had their Spark moment – the first time they manifest Light powers, which often happens in a traumatic or dangerous situation – and have been brought to the academy for training. (Note: The Guardian Order is authorized to bring new Radiants against their will if they must, as untrained Radiants are a danger to everyone around them, so you can play a reluctant student if you like.) A Spark moment can happen at any age, so the student body of Starfall Academy has a wide range of age, species, and backgrounds, which was also welcome – as a middle-aged larper it was nice to not have to pretend to be a teenager!
After species and concept, the biggest choice a player can potentially make is which sect of the Guardian Order their character will belong to after initiation – while players can specifically request a certain sect if they have their heart set on one in particular, they are encouraged to leave the decision up to staff after answering a detailed survey designed to see which sect is best suited for their character. (I believe you can also hedge your bet by saying “any sect but X” if you’re fine with not picking your sect but really don’t want a certain one.) In my experience most players trusted the survey to sort them into a sect; while they had an idea where they might wind up based on their survey answers, they didn’t know for sure what sect they were in until they saw the color when ignited their saber for the first time. The drama of that moment left more than a few choked up; I knew which sect I would be in and I still got teary-eyed. The sects themselves offer a variety of ways to engage with the Starfall Academy experience and the power of the Light, not to mention cater to various playstyles (sect/saber color provided):
Bellati – Passionate masters of crystal saber fighting, the frontline fighters of the Order. (Purple)
Vindori – Historians and skilled protectors, these leaders are keepers of tradition. (Gold)
Ouiori – Masters of the wild, capable of controlling plants and animals. (Green)
Medicari – Renowned healers who also use their skills to defend the helpless. (Silver/White)
Venefari – Seers and prophets, these pacifist mystics seek profound revelations. (Blue)
I should note that at least this year there was a special option for players who wanted to play a “true pacifist”, that is, a character who had absolutely no saber classes. (While the Bellati and Vindori receive the most combat training, all orders get at least some saber instruction unless you pick this option.) As a true pacifist you were assigned the Venefari sect by default and received special classes in place of saber training; I was one of three people who chose this option in my run and while I don’t want to say what our special class was (in part because spoilers and also because I don’t know if it will be the same in the future), suffice it to say that staff certainly went the extra mile to make sure we didn’t feel as if we were an afterthought or had a lesser game experience than those with saber training.
Tradition and Preservation: Classes and the Campus Experience
As a real-life college professor, a veteran of several small-scale one-shot school larps, and a professor for two runs of the New World Magischola larp, at this point I feel pretty confident in saying that there is a fine art to creating a good school larp experience. You need to create classes that are interesting and create the right atmosphere for the setting – in this case, ones that really make people feel like they’re attending class in a sci-fantasy universe – while also respecting the fact that players have come to roleplay and enjoy a game, not just sit passively through hours of instruction. You need enough classes in a day for it to feel like a school experience, while also not overloading players with so many classes it feels like there’s no time to do anything else (or just test their patience sitting through hours and hours of classes). You have to take it seriously enough to create a proper student/teacher dynamic instead of having a room full of peers, but not lean so much on that dynamic that you accidentally stifle potential roleplay (especially from players who are looking to portray troublemakers and class clown types). Last but certainly not least, the classes need to be fairly interactive so that players have a chance to roleplay and express their character in class if they desire, which with all due respect to all concerned is not a teaching style every professional instructor can pull off in real life, much less staff members at a larp.
Fortunately, classes were an area where Starfall Academy‘s superb staff really shined. The classes were varied and interesting (and at under an hour each they had enough time to be compelling but not so much they dragged): history class had interesting slides for a visual component but also included discussions that drew students into the ethics and implications of various historical events; one first aid class featured surprise interruptions by local villagers in good injury makeup seeking help from the Guardians; philosophy class was a chance to catch your breath, center yourself, and question the nuances and complexities of some of the “big picture” questions surrounding the Guardians and their mission. All of the courses were enjoyable and the instructors clearly relished their roles and their lessons, but for visual impact alone zoology was a particular standout, featuring interactions with local wildlife that showcased some excellent costuming and makeup, and of course student favorite creature Teddy. (There are no short explanations for Teddy, just know that to a one every student who met Teddy would die for them.) You got a strong sense of the character of each instructor as well, but not so much that they took the air out of the room – staff did an excellent job at passing the spotlight around in class.
Starfall Academy classes also featured an interesting game mechanic that was one of those “why didn’t I think of this” moments as a gamer designer when I encountered it – attending class was also how you learned powers as a Guardian. During most – though not all – of your classes, by the end you would earn a card with a power on it, related to the topic of the class. These cards explain everything you need to know about the power OOC – what verbal call to use, how many hands it takes (and what gesture to make), what its effects are, how long it takes/what it costs to use, etc. – and by giving them out in class, staff gave players a concrete incentive to attend class and participate. Which sounds utterly obvious and logical, and yet is not a mechanic I’ve encountered before in any of the school larps I attended; in other games players already had their powers and classes were sort of a formality of the setting. If you missed a Starfall class where a power was taught, you could approach the instructor later to ask if they would teach it to you individually, but you’d better be prepared to explain why you were absent! Naturally, if you missed for an out of game reason such as a personal emergency or feeling unwell, there was a mechanic in place so that by telling your instructor that you were absent for OOC reasons you would simply be treated as if you had attended and your character would not be questioned or punished.
Students have three designated meal times – the cafeteria staff were great and seemed to enjoy our weirdness – and staff also provides a snack table with water and little things to tide you over. There are also blocks of free time, one right after lunch, another before dinner, and one more afterward, and the faculty offer electives that give you extra time to mingle and roleplay with them outside of class. These ranged from additional saber instruction to tea time to trivia contests, and of course students were free to devise their own activities and amusements during free periods as well. Free time was also when many plot events occurred, especially in the afternoon and evening, and even though sometimes classes were interrupted staff did a good job making sure no matter what was going on mealtimes were not disrupted (not every larp does that, which I think is a terrible notion for many reasons). Game events ended at midnight each night; while you certainly could stay in character and hang out, staff would not be running plot, and it was a good way to encourage people to try to get a reasonable amount of rest.
I don’t want to spoil how all the classes were taught, as some of them featured elements and techniques that for maximum enjoyment I feel are best encountered for the first time without prior knowledge, but I will say this – I participated in several classes and heard about several more that made excellent use of props and staging to really give players the feel of wielding the mystical powers of the Light. These weren’t necessarily fancy razzle-dazzle methods so much as they were the result of clever staff who clearly put a lot of time and heart into thinking about things like “how could I make it really look like students were practicing telekinesis” or “what can we do to give the feel of hands-on medical training without making anyone pass out in the process” and it really showed. Kudos to staff for not taking the obvious shortcuts and instead really making each class shine. And to my fellow Venefari, if you see Yasha please tell them that I miss them very much, and can’t wait to train with them again soon.
Knowledge and Truth: Wielding the Light
Now that you know how Light powers are learned, it’s worth a moment to talk about how they operate. Starfall Academy keeps to a very simple, efficient system for the powers of the Light, relying on gestures and verbal cues rather than complex mechanics. (Though of course we were initiates and learning the basics of being Guardians; no doubt things might get a little more intricate as one rises in rank.) You call out a verbal cue to alert the target of your power to its use – or to make others around you aware of a power you are using on yourself – then make a specific gesture with one or both hands. Shield Self requires crossing your arms across your chest and keeping them there for the duration of the power, for example, while Push is a two-handed pushing gesture with palms out toward the target. If a power requires further clarification, you can add that to the verbal cue; for example, you can tell the target of Minor Manipulation that the effect only lasts five minutes, especially if you may not be there when it would end. That’s all there is to it – a verbal cue, a gesture, et voilà! You’re wielding the Light, Guardian.
As a fan of fast, simple systems with minimal chatter to disrupt roleplaying, this was right up my alley. While of course everyone is entitled to their own take on what they find fun in larp, I’ve played in a lot of action larps where “spellcasting” often involved things like stopping play to measure distances, taking targets aside OOC to explain complex mechanics, or other systems that felt intrusive to free-flowing gameplay. (Again, that’s my preference, YMMV.) So I was relieved to see that the powers of the Light were generally very simple and easy to understand both for the user and any potential targets; most required little to no explanation even if you hadn’t seen them in action before, and those few occasions where I saw players ask for clarification it was resolved swiftly and with minimal gameplay disruption. We learned a number of powers this event, so there was a decent amount to keep track of in your head, but I found that you could generally separate them into situational categories – powers that aided in combat, healing powers, powers that helped you investigate the setting, etc. – which helped avoid feeling overwhelmed.
As noted previously, each power you learn is represented by a very cool-looking, easily readable card that you can carry with you for reference. Their small size makes them easy to carry as well as allows you to consult them on the sly without breaking game/attracting too much attention – you can just slip a card from your pocket and glance at it rather than whipping out a character sheet, unfolding it, searching for the relevant text, etc. Card size and design might seem an odd thing to go on about, but making sure your players can carry what they need to know is an important and often overlooked part of game design, so having small, easy to consult cards that can be stashed somewhere in just about any costume is a real blessing. Plus, did I mention they look cool? Because they really do, and that makes you feel cool by association when you take them out. It’s a small thing but it’s a nice design detail and I appreciate it.
Almost all Light powers cost Focus Points (FP) to use, which can be replenished entirely with 10 minutes of meditation. As initiates every character had 4 FP, and it was my understanding that with each additional year of training we would add roughly the same amount (though this may change). Perhaps unsurprisingly considering we were learning basic powers this weekend, every power that had a cost to use was only 1 FP. However, it should be noted that using a power from outside your sect cost double, so as a Venefari if I wanted to use the Vindori power Shield Self, it would cost 2 FP instead. On top of that, if the power requires a hand gesture and your relevant arm is injured, the cost doubled again, so if I tried to use Shield Self (a two hand gesture) with an injured arm it would cost 4 FP. (Cost only doubles once due to injury, so if both my arms were injured it would still cost 4 FP, not 8.) Remembering those cost increases is about as complex as Light powers get.
Focus Points are visually represented by bead carriers, displaying one bead per point; Guardians create a basic bead carrier during one of their classes on day one, though players are encouraged to customize these bead carriers later on if they like so long as they meet certain basic requirements. Like a lot of things about Starfall Academy, I appreciated the fact that this small but important costume piece was crafted during as part of a class lesson, as it made it feel much less like an OOC element and more of a personal expression. My character was prone to touching his beads when he was worried or upset, almost like prayer beads, and I saw similar habits with other Guardians as well, which made them feel like part of your character. I look forward to seeing what people do with them next year, how they continue to customize and personalize them. And without getting into spoiler territory, it’s worth paying attention to the bead colors on display – most Guardians have beads in either their sect color or neutral tones (black, brown, etc.), but occasionally you might see someone sporting a color that seems out of place, and chances are real good it’s not there by accident …
Compassion and Life: Do All Guardians Have to Fight? Can My Character Die?
While training and fighting with crystal sabers is certainly a draw for a lot of players, I know that boffer combat of any kind can be intimidating or off-putting to others, especially those who have never done it. Let me be clear – not wanting to fight/not being comfortable with boffer combat is absolutely not a barrier to enjoying the Starfall Academy experience. I should know, given that I played a “true pacifist” character who didn’t have any saber classes at all and I still had a great time! Let me explain a bit about how saber fighting works and hopefully that will clear things up.
First off, you don’t need to bring a weapon – everyone gets a crystal saber as part of the price of the game. (I can’t say for sure but don’t anticipate this will change for future events, even for returning players, as it’s important all players have the same gear for safety reasons.) It’s yours to keep, and while you’re at the event you also get a soft foam sleeve – referred to in-universe as a “dampener” – that you put on the saber to make it a boffer weapon, i.e., safe for combat striking other players. Aside from posing for personal pictures, you are required to keep the dampener on in order to avoid accidents. For safety reasons you are not allowed to use sabers other than the one you are issued, so do not bring any “illumination swords” you might have laying around at home.
While everyone has a crystal saber, as noted previously your character’s sect within the Order determines how much of your class experience will revolve around crystal saber training, so you can influence how much time is spent on this activity with your sect choice. For example, as the most militant sect the Bellati spend almost half their day in saber classes (and learn the most techniques and tricks related to saber fighting), while at the other end of the spectrum you can find the pacifists of the Venefari sect, who have just a couple of saber classes. Even the total pacifists still have sabers and can use them – I drew mine during a few scary incidents and even struck down a battle droid with it when my back was against the wall – they just have no extra training or ability with it.
Boffer fans take note, however, that at least for this first year there were very few unexpected combat encounters – for the most part players had to opt-in to combat situations. (There were a few surprise combat scenes involving NPC nefariousness but they were the exception, not the rule.) If you didn’t want to fight wolves with Doctor Vray, for example, you could just choose not to go on that trip; it wasn’t as though wolves would attack out of nowhere and force players to defend themselves spontaneously. It also wasn’t like many boffer larps where random combat encounters were frequent and could happen at any time, or where players could wander off into the woods and expect to find NPCs to battle. This might change in future years, but for this run at least that was how the game operated. So if you’re looking for a more freeform adventure and fighting game this isn’t it, or at least it wasn’t this year anyway. That said, the combat encounters we did have were good and often quite challenging, probably because they were planned and structured carefully (and at base even higher ranking characters are very fragile).
I should also point out that all players learned at least one or two purely defensive powers that could help you avoid combat or keep you from getting hit – the Vindori teach how to shield yourself from all harm for a short time, which is good for weathering a bad situation while waiting for help to arrive, the Ouiori learn to hide from sight near trees, the Venefari pacifists learn how to push enemies away from them without causing harm, etc. Likewise, while characters are easy to injure and even incapacitate with just a few weapon strikes, for this year at least death was not really on the table unless a player really wanted that outcome for their character (to my knowledge, none did). At worst you were rendered incapacitated for a time and needed medical attention from a knight or a master (as initiates could not heal the worst bodily injuries). This level of deadliness may change in the future, but for this year it felt appropriate that things were less lethal given that these characters were just starting out. I certainly didn’t feel that combat was any less tense because of it – after all, just because we couldn’t die didn’t mean we couldn’t fail!
Oh, one last combat related thing: in a nice little touch, the reason it’s called a crystal saber is because in-universe the blade is made of a special crystal and it exists at all times like a regular sword; the blade doesn’t vanish when deactivated as some similar weapons do in other universes. So you don’t have to pretend it’s just a hilt when it’s not active, there’s always a blade there. When you channel your Light into it – that is, turn on the weapon prop – the crystal glows with the color of your sect and the weapon becomes infused with power, making it much more dangerous and able to cut through most targets with ease. You can still use the saber when it’s not infused with Light, however, it just does less damage – it’s essentially a club instead of a blade. So you’re not helpless if the button isn’t working or you forgot to recharge the blade battery overnight. I found this an elegant solution to a common problem with larping similar weapons in other settings, and a nice extra bit of lore flavor as well.
Passion and Glory: OK, So If I Do Fight, What’s It Like? How Complex Is It?
Saber fighting itself is lightest touch with minimal damage rules to remember – first hit to a limb makes it hard to use (and makes Light powers cost more if they require using that limb), second hit to a limb renders it useless, any additional hits to that limb are considered torso hits, etc. Two torso hits and you’re down. Armor simply adds extra hits before a location is compromised. Head and groin strikes are forbidden, as are thrusts, and hand shots do not count. In addition to lightest touch limiting the force involved, sabers require both hands on the weapon and all strikes should be made at a reasonable tempo – no high speed flailing permitted. Due to these guidelines, safety equipment such as gloves or helmets is not required for game, and anyone who fights in a way that hurts people or is otherwise unsafe will be benched or even removed from the event. In a profoundly cool upgrade of the normal boffer larp experience, the saber classes are taught by actual ludosport professionals who teach and compete in this sort of fantasy saber fighting for a living. It’s one of my favorite design elements about the game, honestly – Starfall Academy is a boffer game that has actual fight professionals train its players in proper fighting and combat safety as part of the in-character game experience.
So if you’re thinking “well I want to play a badass Bellati warrior or stoic Vindori defender, but I’ve never done boffer fighting before, can I still make play a character like that” then don’t worry – that’s what your saber instructors are there for! They’ll do their best to make you a capable fighter, and their best is pretty damn good. On my run there were quite a few brand new larpers who had never held a boffer weapon before but became pretty dang dangerous initiates by the end of the event. (As a true pacifist character I didn’t see what saber classes were like, but heard nothing but praise and a certain amount of healthy awe for the instructors.) My advice is that while you don’t need to come in with a lot of fight experience, if any, if you intend to play a fighter type and/or take lots of saber classes you should do your best to be ready in other ways – make sure your costume allows good mobility and helps avoid overheating, stretch before class, hydrate often, etc. Your instructors and fellow saber students will help you with the rest.
While the game is vigorously inclusive and will do their best to accommodate everyone in the roles they desire – and I should note that when the temperature hit dangerous heat levels one day all outdoor classes were adjusted accordingly – saber classes are still active physical activity and so you should be prepared for what that entails. If you have concerns about how your particular physical limitations might impact your ability to play a more fight-focused character, I would urge you to talk to staff in advance when character creation rolls around to see what can be done. They’re pretty cool and communicative that way.
As a final note for curious combat types, neither players nor NPCs had ranged weapons that I saw at this run of Starfall Academy, and as noted previously those Light powers that work at range such as Venefari telekinesis used verbal cues combined with hand gestures – no throwing birdseed packets or firing foam darts or other boffer larp mainstays. That does not mean future runs might not include enemies blazing away with Nerf blasters or Guardians throwing bean bags to represent shooting lightning from their fingers, mind you, but for this year at least staff kept things very simple and close range, which made combat much easier to navigate. Now this is just me speculating, but I have a feeling that even if they do start to add more ranged conflict and powers to the mix they will stay to this sort of simple format and have most such exchanges resolved with simple pointing and verbal calls rather than tossing around bean bags and the like. I suppose we’ll see next year!
Unity and Hope: Player Culture and Final Impressions
Now that I’ve talked probably way too much about the individual elements of the game – character creation, classes, Light powers, saber combat, etc. – I want to sort of bring it all together by discussing that intangible but absolutely vital element, the culture of the game. By which I mean something like a cross between school spirit and esprit de corps, or perhaps you could call it the overall vibe that you get interacting with people throughout the experience. I have played in many wonderful game environments over the years, and I will say it right here: the culture of Starfall Academy ranks among the best I’ve encountered, full stop.
Even if you didn’t see the hundreds of pages of lore they’ve written or the costumes they’ve made or the props they’ve built or the care they’ve taken crafting their characters, it’s obvious within minutes of interacting with them that the staff loves this world and is excited to bring you into it to experience it with them. Even when staff members naturally became the focus of attention, as could be expected when portraying professors at a school game, they did their best to turn it around and invite responses and interactions with students, or at least let the student body voice their reactions even as they engaged in a scripted scene. As a long time game runner myself I know that behind the scenes big games often consist of running around putting out fires all weekend, but I never once saw that stress bleed through to the players – staff never let their problem become my problem, never took out a setback on a player, and that’s damn impressive for a game of this size and complexity. I wasn’t surprised, exactly, because they seemed like excellent humans, but still. Seriously. I tip my cap to them. That’s a hell of a feat.
It was also an incredibly friendly and inclusive environment, with special care taken to make sure elements like player pronouns were properly addressed and that LGBTQIA+ experiences and expressions were welcome and normal as part of the Starfall Academy universe. I’ve heard quite a few players also express the fact that it was a game where they never felt sexualized and where they were comfortable trusting each other even early in the weekend, which is likely due in no small part to the emphasis on consent and raising each other up that starts in pre-game workshops and continues throughout the event. Staff made it very clear that any sort of “but I’m just playing my character/I’m sorry you can’t take a joke” creepy larper jackassery would not be tolerated, and I also appreciated their strong stance on things like “you are not allowed to think the space fascists were right” that can potentially lead to ugly OOC issues. The Guardian Order is not without its moral and ethical problems – in fact, staff was clear that a good deal of Starfall Academy involves letting players wrestle with questions without easy answers (if any) – but they also drew a bright line to make sure fascist apologists and other hatemongers would not be welcome in or out of character.
Perhaps the best expression of the culture that Starfall Academy is going for – and in my opinion at least, achieved with flying colors – is the concept of prisms, and that’s why even though I love it so much I saved it for this final section. Although players are organized into different sects, unlike many other school larps these groups are not adversarial or in competition with each other; while there might be pranks and some friendly rivalry, there are no “house points” or trophies to win. Instead, emphasis is placed on cooperation and teamwork between sects. Because unlike the mystic space knights of that other universe, who tend to be lone wolves or at most a mentor/student pair, Guardians form teams of five or six called prisms, so named because they represent the blending of different colors/aspects of the Light to form a cohesive whole. No Guardian acting alone is as strong as a prism working together.
Watching characters find friends and allies and form their prisms was a wonderful part of the weekend; even some of those Guardians who didn’t find a prism easily on their own still found that a prism hastily cobbled together in a crisis could be an unlikely source of friendship and camaraderie. And maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve wanted to wield a glowing blade since I was five years old, but it was a beautiful sight to watch a prism ignite their sabers and face down a challenge together, watch each other’s backs, use their powers to complement each other, and just be the heroes that their galaxy deserved.
Thank you for letting me raise my saber and finally realize a childhood dream, Starfall Academy.
Go in the Light!
So I recently had the pleasure of attending Drachenfest: Origins, the first game of what will hopefully become an annual event here in the States. (This game is also colloquially known as Drachenfest US to differentiate it from the original German game.) In constructing this review I will also be doing a bit of an overview as the game is large and multi-faceted, and I wanted to make sure to give it ample context for proper understanding. That’s a polite way of saying this review is also pretty long, so, you know, get comfy. Before I go further, it should be noted that this review refers only to Drachenfest: Origins, and so its rules and other game elements discussed here may differ from those found in the original Drachenfest game as it is played in Germany. For brevity’s sake, however, for the purpose of this review I will simply refer to this event as Drachenfest.
In the interest of full disclosure, while I have some friendships among the staff and players – something of an inevitability in the close knit larp community of the Northeast – I am not affiliated with the Drachenfest US event in any way and I did not receive any discounts or comped materials when I attended, nor did I receive any compensation for writing this review. Last but not least, this review is of course based on my point of view, and so I might be mistaken about certain details where I did not have access to the bigger picture. I have tried to make sure this review does not contain any rules errors or misrepresent events that occurred at game, but even so, feel free to take my account with a handful of salt if you feel it’s necessary.
A dramatic, often intense game full of spectacle, featuring varying ways to engage with the story and a strong emphasis on community play. Drachenfest delivers on its premise of a rules light, roleplaying centered, gently multiversal high fantasy setting with lots of combat, ritual, and intrigue, ably balanced with plenty of relaxing socializing and community carousing. As it is a fundamentally competitive game, some players may be turned off or become frustrated if their faction is losing, but the game tries very hard to give people multiple paths to enjoy the play experience outside of the competition itself.
Should I Play?
Provided you are comfortable with camping, are cool with seeking out and engaging in various kinds of roleplaying, and enjoy latex/boffer combat (or at least don’t mind enduring/avoiding it at regular intervals), then yes! Absolutely. It’s a rich, immersive spectacle well worth the modest ticket cost for the great entertainment value you get. No question.
No, I Mean, Should *I* Play, Specifically?
I mean, I dunno? If I don’t know you it’s hard to say, but I suppose you could write me in the comments or privately and I’ll talk to you about your personal tastes. 🙂
Five primordial dragons, siblings who each personify a different aspect of existence, come together once per year and create a special realm to vie with each other for dominance in a competition known as the Drachenfest. The dragons are Silver (order), Blue (freedom), Red (conquest), Green (nature), and Shadow (the void). Each dragon summons champions from across various realms in the fantasy multiverse to form their “team”, who then compete on their behalf to obtain dragon eggs, which are used for scoring the competition. (Despite the name they are not eggs containing actual baby dragons, merely a scoring device.) There is another faction, a neutral – or more accurately, mercenary – group of merchants and trainers known as the Bazaar who set up shop at the festival to cater to the champions, teach them advanced skills and techniques, and sometimes even sell their IC services to a faction that can meet their price. However, they are not directly part of the competition and do not score points. While the game’s numerous OOC vendors are part of this faction by default, players may apply for a spot in this faction as well, though these openings are limited and you must pitch staff a suitable intriguing concept to get one, ideally one that features excellent costuming and props as well as adds a lot of roleplay value.
Players may create characters from almost any fictional fantasy world – or one of their own devising! – subject to two rules: 1) you can’t play an existing fictional character, so for example you can be a Witcher but not Geralt of Rivia; 2) your costuming/tech level should fit into a vaguely medieval/Renaissance larp look. This means things like no personal firearms (cannons exist but are very limited); no sci-fantasy such as Jedi or Warhammer 40K psykers; and no modern/urban fantasy along the lines of the Dresden Files or Percy Jackson. The game also frowns on cultural appropriation in costuming and actively disallows painting your skin the color of real world races/ethnicities, so you know, don’t do that. And I mean that in general sense, not just for Drachenfest.
Other than that, though, you can be from most anywhere – I met characters from Ravenloft, Terra D’Ange, Sigil, Rokugan, Krynn, Golarion, Hyrule, Westeros, Middle Earth, and plenty of others. It was, in a word, awesome. How you feel about being called to this place can be part of your roleplay as well – some people made a big deal of it, others acted as though it was a dream, some mostly ignored it, etc. It is as much a factor as you wish to make it, though it is assumed that having answered the call you are a willing participant in the competition on some level; while you can grumble about being “abducted” or express confusion as to where you are and how you got here, ultimately players are encouraged to lean into the contest and their chosen faction (more on that later).
Review: Giving players this much latitude sounds like it could be a disaster in terms of clashing styles and cultures but in practice it actually worked really well – players didn’t have to learn tons of new lore since they’ve been brought to a strange new world, but instead they could bring favorite characters or come from favorite worlds, making them immediately invested. There were a lot of truly great costuming, makeup, and props on display. I was concerned that some players would skirt the line of what was appropriate or spend a lot of time winking at the proverbial camera trying to get across where they were from, but I needn’t have worried; there was only one character I met who felt like they were constantly forcing their origin reference, and even then it was just a little annoying and not game-breaking. The staff may have to contend with joke characters or people trying to slip pre-existing fictional characters into the mix, but I have the feeling it’s not going to be much of an issue due to the cost of the event – dropping a couple hundred dollars to play a silly reference for a few hours before staff forces you to change your character or leave isn’t something I think most are willing to do. It’s worth noting that while you can play most anything within those guidelines, the game asks for as much WYSIWYG as possible when designing characters. So if you want to be a dragonkin, for instance, you have to represent that with makeup and costuming – you can’t just narrate “you see I’m actually a dragon person” or something like that.
One way all of this works is that character creation is very simple – no matter what world you come from or what capabilities you had there, the dragons make sure to level the playing field for the contest. With that in mind, everyone starts with 2 Health Points and the ability to wear armor and use any one handed weapon. Then you pick two skills or capabilities from the same two groups of choices as everyone else. (You can pick twice from one group or one from each, your call.) Aside from some starting coins and item cards, that’s pretty much it.
The first group of possible choices mostly have to do with your role in battle (or how you stay out of it), as a lot – but definitely not all! – of the competition involves camps battling each other and champions fighting duels and other martial contests. Your choices here can do things like add to your base Health or let you use two handed weapons, shields, fight Florentine, etc. It’s also worth mentioning that players are encouraged to justify their powers as they see fit in terms of roleplaying – a character with the Warden role can negate a single spell effect tossed at them, but whether that’s because of warding amulets, rigorous magical discipline, proficient counterspelling, natural immunity of some kind, or something else entirely is up to the player.
Your next group of role choices to pick from are among learning crafting/repair skills, medical training, and casting spells. You can dabble or specialize – picking a category once gives you partial access to what it can do, while picking it twice gives you pretty much all of it. For example, in the Crafter section there are a total of four crafting avenues, and each time you select Crafter as a choice you pick two of them. As with other choices, while all players follow the same game mechanics for things like casting spells, exactly how those powers manifest is up to the player – innate gifts, enchanted items, rigorous training, etc.
In the end for my two choices I selected one level of Healer and opted for its Surgery training aspect so I could do field medicine to restore Health in battle; my other choice went into one level of Spellcaster, which let me pick five spells from their list of 12 spells.
That’s it. Aside from getting cards for your weapons and armor and your starting coins, that’s character creation.
Note that this is by no means all that characters can do, but other things are locked behind role-playing and guild membership. For instance at base the Alchemist role only gives you the ability to make healing poultices, but if you join the Alchemist Guild in-game and train with them you can potentially learn to make other things like poisons, healing potions, antidotes, etc. Likewise, training with the Warrior’s Guild can teach you advanced combat abilities like knockbacks and shield breaking that aren’t available to those outside the guild. So there’s plenty to learn and do in game, giving players a natural incentive to explore the setting and rewarding those who put in the time and roleplaying for doing so.
Review: Everyone starts equal, and if you want any extra fancy cool stuff, you have to really engage in the game and its roleplaying. Simple, effective, elegant. Which I think is pretty great as it means even the most ardent powergamers looking for advantages to help win the contest must dive into character and invest time in roleplaying and training. It can be a little tough for players like me who are more in and out but that’s my issue, not the game. Also, by design most of the things you can learn from this advanced training are lateral choices, not just straight up better than what’s commonly available, so there’s a tradeoff of some kind involved. It balances nicely. Especially because while you can theoretically join multiple guilds, the time investment involved in training with them and maintaining membership becomes increasingly demanding the more guilds you join, so in practice you have to carefully consider where you want to focus and learn more advanced stuff.
If all that sounds imposing, however, consider by contrast that I didn’t join a guild or learn anything extra during the weekend, and I still didn’t feel cheated or outgunned. I might feel differently if I play the same character for three or four years and don’t learn extra things while others do, but that’s a different issue.
Combat & Spellcasting
Drachenfest subscribes to lightest touch, dramatic combat – act out injuries, exaggerate swings, etc. Larp archery can be performed with professionally made, padded larp arrows. No thrusting attacks are permitted since latex weapons are heavily preferred and thrusting with such weapons can present a real safety risk for neck and eye shots. Real metal or leather – or realistic looking fakes – are required for armor, so plastic or aluminum chainmail is fine but not fabric with a chainmail print. Characters have low, low numbers for Health and armor and healing is very slow, so if you don’t want to get dropped quickly in combat you need to be cautious, lucky, or pretty darn good. (I opted for lucky!) First Aid requires Healer training and 5 minutes to stabilize a downed character, and on top of that receiving First Aid is a prerequisite for getting Health back via surgery or even basic healing magic. Unlike many fantasy games, in other words, you can’t just zap people back up from dying to totally fine in a few seconds.
Combat is very deliberately a rock-paper-scissors affair – arrows bypass armor, shields block arrows, and spells affect shields. Two handed weapons do the same damage as one handed ones, but are the only player weapons that can destroy siege weapons or harm large summoned creatures like elementals that camps can conjure up for an extra edge in combat, so even though they don’t do more damage there’s a reason to use them apart from extra reach. Of course, standing around holding a single big weapon – or two vicious small ones – means that you have no defense against arrows, and so we’re back at the rock-paper-scissors again. It’s a simple but very effective circle that ensures no one combat loadout can totally dominate all situations; each one has a counter that a coordinated and diverse group can use to overcome.
Spellcasting is very simple – 15 seconds of loud, clearly mystic verbalization, then most spells simply require you to point at a target and name the effect. At base the only thrown spell is Orb of Power, which is effective if it hits a shield and bypasses armor to do major damage directly to Health. The balance is that once you cast a spell, any spell, you are magically exhausted and cannot cast again for 5 minutes. (You can fight or move normally, just no spells.) In addition if you are hit while verbalizing you are still exhausted even though the spell doesn’t go off. Ouch. Like a lot of things, the Mage’s Guild can potentially teach you new spells and tricks, such as raising undead or cutting down spell exhaustion time.
Review: For the most part the combat I saw went very smoothly, especially for a first game – the low numbers and simplicity of spells and weapons makes things easy to track, there are no numbers and few calls cluttering the air, and people generally did a good job taking hits, roleplaying pain and injury, and otherwise avoiding just running forward and flailing. There’s always going to be some rhino hiding, players cheesing spells, players getting excited and swinging too hard/too fast, of course, and I saw some of that for sure. I also heard talk here and there that certain players had to be cautioned or even benched for certain combats due to violating the fighting guidelines. By and large, though, people leaned into the fighting style the game is after. The fact that refs are required to be present for almost all combats helps too (more on that soon).
Each dragon has a camp where their followers gather, and dragons often appear there in person as an avatar (great makeup!). Avatars are there to add roleplaying, guide players when they need a hand, assist rituals, or spur action if players look bored or frustrated, but they very definitely do not call all the shots. Players elect a camp council to decide their strategy and make decisions. This council has roles to fill, such as Warlord, Diplomat, Spymaster, Champion, etc. How to pick these people and how they do their jobs once chosen is left up to the players – our camp, Green, favored large meetings where everyone had a chance to speak before our councilors made their final decisions, but other camps could adopt any system that worked for them.
Camps also host the camp’s banner, which other camps can attempt to capture for points in the contest (and where any banners you capture are displayed to be won back), as well as the dragon shrine where eggs are brought to tally points scored. (These two things are always near the entrance, you can’t hide eggs or your banner.) There are also areas like the garden for herbalism and the alchemy lab, plus anything players add. We had some wicked good grillers in our camp, for instance, so there was always food cooking. Our avatar had a lounge and people were often there roleplaying with her and each other, which provided a nice place to rest and re-center in character.
Of course, you are not by any means bound to your camp and can wander around as you like, make friends in other camps, visit the Bazaar or the tavern, take a dip in the lake, cast rituals in the Great Ritual Circle, etc. Diplomacy and intrigue are essential parts of the game as well, and alliances both verbal and written are absolutely crucial. Our strong alliances with Silver and Red helped us stave off attacks or win back our banner when we lost, which was especially key after we betrayed Blue in a big way early on.
Review: As you can imagine, what camp life is like will vary wildly depending on the players and characters involved, though the thematic nature of each dragon means that characters summoned to their faction tend to have similar interests, motivations, and/or personalities, which helps people find common ground. (The avatar also acts as a touchstone to facilitate play.) I did worry a bit that having a council of players with important roles would create a “cool kids” problem where some people get to do all the cool stuff and everyone else just gets pulled along behind them. I suppose that could happen, but for this game and my Green camp at least people were very cool about delegating, getting other players involved and keeping them informed, etc.
There is also an element of “you get out what you put into it” to camp life, as there is with most larps. If you don’t roleplay a lot with people, don’t get involved in camp business, don’t check in often, don’t do rituals, etc, well, yeah, you may feel disconnected from game, but that’s on you at that point. It’s important to remember that between the Drachenfest itself, guild business, and camp politics/roleplay, players can easily have plenty to keep them busy even if they arrived with no specific agenda in mind!
It is assumed that no matter where they’re from or how they feel about being called to the Drachenfest realm, now that they are here all characters are invested in helping their faction win the contest; otherwise they wouldn’t have been chosen or answered the call. (If you want to play a truly neutral or mercenary character, apply for one of the Bazaar spots.) While I suppose technically you could try to deliberately betray or undermine your camp, it’s generally disallowed in the interest of keeping the game fun and fair and to avoid a metagame problem such as players joining to deliberately sabotage a faction on behalf of friends in a rival camp. There’s enough to worry about with other factions, they don’t want camp members to actively worry about their own people! You also cannot switch camps during play, so you can’t trash a faction and then swap to the winning team.
That said, the simplest way to score points is to capture an enemy banner and bring it back to your camp. (You also score points for every banner you keep in your camp overnight, as judged around 9 AM.) As it’s unlikely your enemy will simply hand over their banner without a fight, however, you need to declare a siege. Each camp has dedicated OOC game refs who are onsite pretty much nonstop, so you go to them and tell them you are preparing a siege, then they alert the rival camp’s OOC refs that a siege is incoming. This is done in part to simulate that armies gathering is hard to miss, but also because the enemy ref can actually veto a siege or any other sort of raid/PVP if they feel their camp is demoralized and/or has been kicked around a lot recently. No one likes being repeatedly stomped into the ground, after all, and even though it’s a contest it should still be fun for players.
Camp attacks involve clearing defenders from the defending camp’s courtyard (a taped off area inside each camp’s gate entrance) – if you can clear that ground of defenders and keep it clear for a short time, boom, the banner is yours. You can only attack a camp through the gate into the courtyard; you cannot circle around through the woods or take another path. It’s main gate or nothing. If this sounds stifling, I hear you, but in practice I found it actually isn’t as limiting as it sounds – having a clear victory condition and refs on hand to judge it avoids a lot of sticky questions or arguing about when a banner is captured. Also, confining the conflict mostly to the courtyard means that if your camp is attacked but you don’t want to fight, you can just move away from the courtyard and attackers will ignore you.
Of course, members of the elusive and nefarious Thieves Guild can learn ways to sneak into camps through other entrances and do things like sabotage alchemy labs, burn herb gardens, damage a camp’s weapons/armor, etc, but even then faction banners and any dragon eggs a faction had earned absolutely cannot be stolen – those prizes must either be won in battle or given freely. This also means that camps don’t have to post guards 24/7 since they don’t have to worry about sneak thieves grabbing them. Which is appreciated because few players want to stay up all night for the chance to stopping a robbery, maybe.
All that said, camps may earn dragon eggs via many other means than raw fighting – eggs can be exchanged as part of a diplomatic pact, for example, or earned by completing challenging quests from the avatars or certain members of the Bazaar. I was told that the winning camp this year, Red, came back from an early deficit in part by having members aggressively seek out and complete such quests. Likewise, a member of Green earned a dragon egg for winning the semi-OOC garb competition at the Bazaar, and we won another for having NPCs judge our camp as having the best looking in-game garden (we covered it in props and decorated it extensively because, well, nature is sort of our thing).
Then, of course, there’s the War. On Saturday afternoon all five armies gathered and fought as one of the final acts of the contest, with the goal of capturing enemy avatars and taking them off the field. This is where alliances really pay off, because having no friends in a five-way fight is a good way to get stomped to paste really quickly by folks that do. As it was, weekend allies Green, Silver and Red all agreed to fight the rival Blue and Shadow alliance, and when they were defeated Red asked us (Green) to stand down while they fought Silver because Silver had broken a treaty with them and they wanted revenge. After Red dispatched Silver, we finally took them down in a hard fight. Points are awarded based on order of defeat, potentially turning the tide in close scoring.
It was 2+ hours of almost continuous, intense fighting and no small amount of roleplay (keeping/breaking alliances especially). It was tense and exhausting and awesome, with an incredibly small number of stoppages of play for a huge battle (and most of those very early on).
Review: As the heart of a competitive game, point scoring has to feel fair, logical, and consistent, or everything falls apart in a hurry. I’m happy to report it was all of those things. One interesting wrinkle is that dragon eggs are currency as well as points – some of the most powerful rituals require spending them, for example, and offering an egg as payment is a powerful inducement to cement a potential treaty or make amends for a misunderstanding or betrayal. I enjoyed this because it adds a level of risk/reward – spend or give away too many eggs and you’ll fall short in the competition, but don’t spend/offer any and you might lose because you don’t have allies and your rivals are strong enough to raid you repeatedly and/or beat you in the War.
As for the regulation of violence, requiring players to run most violence by refs first for approval and have them present to do it is a great choice. While yes you can get mugged by a small group if you’re out on your own, and you don’t need a ref for friendly duels and sparring and the like, requiring refs to be present for most physical conflict means that people by and large feel free to move around camp without feeling they need to be in large groups for safety or the like. It’s nice because free fire PVP zones tend to turn games into armed camps of paranoid cliques, but there was really none of that here and it was welcome and conducive to roleplaying.
When it comes to how the OOC coordination of combat worked, for the most part the battles I saw seemed to go fairly smoothly, especially considering it was a first event and it’s no small matter to coordinate multiple camps trying to wage war on each other. There were definitely times when things seemed to get scrambled and it took the refs a while to work things out, but only time did it go seriously wrong that I saw (more on that later). During the War there were several stoppages of play that turned out to be called in error, but again, those seemed to be based on player misunderstanding more than anything else – for example, many of us have been conditioned for years to stop play when we hear “HOLD!” called loudly, but that is a totally permissable term at Drachenfest (“Time out” serves that function instead). So we had several pauses that turned out to be players hearing something like “Hold the line!” and years of instinct reflexively kicking in to make them pause play. Not a huge concern overall – as someone who has run large events in the past, though not on this scale, it’s inevitable that communication and logistics will have issues, especially on a first run. From what I saw, the infrastructure was solid and should only become moreso overall with experience in future years.
Death & Character Loss
Ah yes, that. While characters are easy to drop, they generally take deliberate action to kill. If you’re left on the ground you can try to crawl back to safety after a few minutes. Enemies have to take a moment to specifically act to kill you, and generally most camps avoid this if possible because it tends to set off a chain reaction of retaliatory murder. (And since healing is slow, many times you don’t need to kill your enemies to achieve your goal – you can claim a banner while they’re all on the ground being tended by medics.) If the worst comes to pass and you are slain, you go to a place called the Limbus, which is located near the Shadow camp (fittingly enough).
There a special, dedicated team runs you through an experience that is between a visionquest and a Harrowing from Wraith: The Oblivion – if you succeed, you return to life at your camp’s shrine, with no knowledge of five minutes before your death. (You also cannot fight or cast for a time due to resurrection exhaustion, so people can’t simply recycle right back into action.) If you fail you lose your character, but you can make a new character and join a different camp to return to play.
Review: I didn’t die during the weekend, so I can’t speak to the Limbus experience directly. However, to a person everyone I spoke to who went through it said it was amazing. More than one said it was one of it not the best part of the weekend, and described it as amazing and intense. So there’s that.
The Long Game
Drachenfest is intended to be an ongoing annual event, with characters potentially being called time and again to take part in the competition on behalf of their chosen faction. (Or possibly switching factions between runs due to major roleplaying events during an event!) This means that players are also encouraged to take the long view and plan things like multi-year alliances between camps, as well as dive ever deeper into guild discoveries and secrets. Established characters will never become fundamentally better than newcomers to the point where the game separates into different strata – especially since there’s no guarantee anyone will return from the Limbus! – but after attending several festivals you’ll find seasoned veterans will have more and varied tricks, not to mention friends and favors to back them up. Dangerous, for sure, but not insurmountable by any means.
Review: As the first game here in the US, naturally there was no long game at work when we arrived, but I could already see the seeds of such multi-year planning taking root. Literally, in the case of Green camp – after the War we performed a long, emotional ritual designed to create a divination tree that would bloom in later years and offer roleplaying opportunities for future Green camp members, and possibly help defend the camp too (think Whomping Willow crossed with the Oracle at Delphi). Likewise, while both sides did their best to mend fences after a rocky weekend, I’m pretty sure Blue and Green will regard each other warily for at least another festival or two, and as this year’s winner Red will almost certainly have a target on their back when the Drachenfest reconvenes next year. Being the camp of conquest and honor, I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.
This was an extremely impressive and ambitious first run, and on the whole a very entertaining and successful one. Yes, Drachenfest has been a huge success for years in Germany, but that by no means guaranteed it would work well here. Fortunately I think this run laid a strong foundation for an American offshoot to find its footing. The biggest problem I personally encountered was a failed attempt at a siege, but that apparently turned out to be the result of one or more players violating the honor code and lying about crucial OOC information. So as frustrating as it was I obviously can’t hold that against the game, especially since staff did their best to remedy the situation despite bad faith by some players. I try never to hold those sorts of problems against a game, especially since they seemed isolated and far between, and while I’m sure it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea it certainly seems like there is plenty of enthusiasm even among factions that didn’t come out on top.
I think the best way I can sum up my feelings is simply this: I can’t wait to go back next year.
- You do not need to be a fighter to enjoy the game. I played as a non-combatant, I did not have any offensive spells, I did not even bring a weapon. I was a vulture and a healer during battles and still had a blast.
- If you don’t fight you still need to figure out what you will do if a battle breaks out near you, even if it is just “walk away” or “surrender” or “die and go to Limbus.” Due to the ref oversight required there aren’t many if any spontaneous mass battles but you can get mugged walking around at night or accidentally walk into a situation as it kicks off (I arrived at Green camp on Saturday morning literally 15 seconds ahead of an attack by another camp).
- “Can I play in a different camp than my friends? Like, if I’m in Red but they’re in Blue, will that mean we don’t see each other?” Short answer: No, with a but. There’s nothing that prevents you from hanging out with people from other camps – especially at the Bazaar – but depending on the politics of the weekend you may find yourself facing off against your friends in battle, and there may be times when you are not permitted to be in another faction’s camp (such as council meetings or when planning battles). Likewise, if your friends are in a rival camp, others in your own group might look at you with a little suspicion and ask you to prove your loyalty. My advice? Talk to your friends before game and make sure everyone is ready to lean into it, and just enjoy the drama and roleplaying opportunities that come with being part of different factions.
- Drachenfest issues cool metal currency, and it is yours to keep. The rulebook literally states that these metal coins are player keepsakes. You can spend them or give them away however you want, but they cannot be stolen, and no magic or skill can compel you to give them up. If you are dropped in combat enemies can take all your item cards – weapons, armor, potions, scrolls, etc – but they cannot take your festival coins. Though the rulebook does recommend “tipping” your killer a coin or two if it was a fun roleplaying experience. 😂
- Non-com spectators are permitted at the big War on Saturday afternoon. Bring a chair and snacks. Especially water.
the already larping.
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!
OK. I’ve started to see some of the sadly inevitable smug pushback on various things related to 2016 and the horrorshow it has been for so many people out there, so let me break down what not to say as people express their grief. I like to call this game Terrible Person/Better Person. Here goes:
Terrible Person: “Oh sure, everyone was sad about David Bowie, but what about Person X? Huh?”
Better Person: “I’m sorry that losing Bowie hurt so much; I felt the same way when Person X died. What made Bowie so special to you?”
Terrible Person: “Oh sure, everyone’s upset about George Michael, but nobody cared about an earthquake that just killed 1500 people in Country X! Talk about privilege!”
Better Person: “I know a lot of people are still reeling about George Michael’s death, but if you want to to channel some of that grief into action that will do some good and might make you feel a little better about the world after the shitshow that was 2016, here are some charities that are helping in the wake of the terrible earthquake in Country X.”
Terrible Person: “People are getting so upset about a bunch of celebrities dying, but they didn’t even know these people!”
Better Person: “It really seems like a lot of people lost their artistic/personal heroes this year. That’s rough, and honestly I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the families of those people to mourn a loved one they share with the world.”
Terrible Person: “Well you know Celebrity X did terrible things when they were younger, and therefore you are a terrible person and condone all the things they did by liking them or expressing any feelings of loss regarding their passing, right?”
Better Person: “So Celebrity X did some terrible things when they was younger, yes, and it’s important to remember the whole person. That said, someone who was problematic, even harmful, can have had a positive impact on your life, and it’s OK to grieve that.”
(Thanks to Matt McFarland for this one.)
Terrible Person: “You should be glad for all you have! I’ve had X, Y, and Z horrible things happen to me this year, but I’m not bitching!”
Better Person: “I didn’t realize this year had been so hard for you. I’ve had a pretty rough one myself – want to talk about it?”
Terrible Person: “You know 2016 is just a year, right? A period of time? It doesn’t have motives and it can’t kill anyone. Stop acting like it’s a hitman or something, that’s just stupid.”
Better Person: “I know there have been rough years before, but it seriously seems like we’ve had a bigger than average run of deaths, tragedies, and disasters in this one. We’d better come together so we make sure 2017 isn’t more of the same.”
This may be a bit of an unpopular idea, but please, hear me out:
Larp isn’t therapy.
One of the things I’ve loved seeing as larp has grown and developed over the years is the notion that this art form can produce real, profoundly emotional moments for players. While some games are specifically designed to elicit such responses, particularly in the Nordic and American freeform traditions, I’ve still seen plenty of these moments develop for players in more traditional parlor or boffer larps too. Sometimes they even happen to players who normally scoff at the idea of having such a cathartic moment as a consequence of donning elf ears and venturing into the forest for the weekend or putting in fangs and haunting a hotel ballroom for a night. There is really no question that larp can induce moments of great emotional release or trigger surprising personal revelations. And just to be clear, that’s not a bad thing at all!
But catharsis isn’t therapy, and it’s dangerous to mistake one for the other.
The example I like to go with is the Dr. Phil show. Wait, trust me, I’m getting there. On the show, it’s not unusual for people to hear some pat wisdom and “tough love” from that bargain basement Professor X, and respond by dramatically breaking down and tearfully acknowledging their mistakes and promising to do better about some dire personal failing. And while I know the show has been accused of staging such moments, I’ll give them the benefit of doubt and say that most of the folks who do so are genuine. After all, it’s a high pressure, highly emotional situation – they’re on television, they’re usually confronted by several loved ones, they’re getting sound bite wisdom from a world famous personality. Everyone around them is urging them to do better, to be better, and to do so now where the whole world can see it. In those circumstances, even a stoic individual would have trouble not giving in to the emotions of the moment, and most of us aren’t nearly so reserved with our feelings (or resistant to group pressure). Dr. Phil provides a moment of catharsis, a quick fix of self-esteem and the sense of being “better” for those involved.
The trouble, as any responsible mental health professional will tell you, is that rush doesn’t last. People feel clarity and warmth and direction – for a moment. If it’s not followed up on soon, however, and in a serious way, it fades and the individual is often worse off than they were before, because now they’re back where they started and they’re also beating themselves up with guilt about failing to change when they had such a golden chance. Except it wasn’t gold, it was straight up pyrite. Personal change – real, lasting change – takes time and effort and support. And if you’re dealing with actual mental disorders or psychological conditions, you really need the guidance of trained experts and possibly medication to make sure you’re actually getting better and not simply masking your problem or using bad coping mechanisms.
This is what makes larp as therapy a dangerous idea.
Games almost by definition are exactly that kind of short term rush. You have an amazing roleplaying moment, and it releases all kinds of emotions, maybe even nudges you into looking at yourself or the world in a different way. Games are intense, packing a lot of story and substance into a short period of time. Which is great for entertainment, but it’s not what you need if you have a problem that requires real, long term therapy to treat. At best you’re likely to ride a bit of a rollercoaster, up high around game time and then slipping back between sessions before rising high as the next game approaches. At worst, well, you’re learning bad coping mechanisms to say the least. Yes, a game can be “therapeutic” in the sense that it’s stress relief if you’ve had a rough week and need to blow off some steam, but that’s not the sort of therapy we’re talking about here.
I know what you’re probably thinking. If you’ve been a larper for even a little while, you’ve heard the success stories about people who overcame chronic shyness through larp, or who used in-character events as a springboard to solve problems or confront emotional issues they were facing in real life. You might even be one such success story, for that matter, and if so I’m glad things worked out for you! I’ve known such cases in the past myself, and while I’d argue that most of them were not situations where larp replaced the need for treatment of a serious disorder, there’s no question being part of a community and getting together for regular activities with others is good for anyone, just like eating well and exercising is a good idea all around. The support of a larp community and the friends it contains is a powerful thing that can do a lot of good for a person, and is absolutely to be cherished.
But here’s the thing: support is not therapy, just like catharsis is not therapy. Both can help a person who’s going through changes, sure, but they’re not the same and should not be viewed as replacements for such. Actual therapy is often a long, difficult, and sometimes downright emotionally dangerous process. And if that’s the kind of thing you’re using larp to do, instead of being professionally treated, then do everyone around you a favor. Stop larping, and see a therapist. If the therapist believes that larping can help you, hey, that’s great, but it should never substitute for real treatment for a serious condition.
I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t want to sound unsympathetic. Accidents happen, for one thing – a player with a phobia might not know it’s going to come up in game if it hasn’t in the past, for example, and that’s nobody’s fault if it gets triggered during play. I also know therapy can be expensive, though many clinics and practitioners operate on a sliding scale if you can show hardship, and I’d argue that attending a regular larp often isn’t much cheaper when you factor in event costs, costuming, props, gas, food, etc. But at the same time, look at it for from the other side. The staff and players of your local game are not mental health professionals – and if they are, it’s safe to say that you’re not their patient and they’re still not “on duty” when they’re playing – and putting your well-being in their hands is a disservice to everyone. You’re not likely to get the help you need, and they’re not prepared to cope with the complications if things go wrong.
Which brings up another issue that often gets overlooked as well, but it’s really important to remember: Making other people part of your therapy without their consent is wrong. If you’re trying to confront a lifelong phobia of spiders, for instance, and decide to do so by getting involved in the Unholy Spider Kingdom War at your local fantasy boffer larp – especially without telling anyone about your history – that’s being awfully cavalier with the feelings and enjoyment of your fellow players. They’re not responsible for your therapy, to put it bluntly, and so if you have a breakdown and go catatonic – or start swinging like a berserker as that fear shunts into anger and adrenaline – then you’ve made them responsible for your condition without their consent. Even if you tell them in advance, I’d argue that untrained people can’t really consent to being part of handling a scene involving severe phobia or trauma, simply because they’re not informed enough to know what to do to avoid making it worse.
This also means that games deliberately designed to explore potentially dangerous, emotionally triggering territory need to be overseen closely and with great transparency, for the health and safety of all concerned. Briefings, content advisories, “escape hatch” mechanics for overwhelmed players, and detailed debriefings and “aftercare” should all be standard issue and taken seriously for such games. I’m particularly fond of the growing trend of using simple hand signs to signal other players to slow down, stop, or continue with particular types of scenes, as I feel it is a big step in the right direction. But if you’re not willing to put in that kind of work for an intensely cathartic game, then you’re not simply ready to put on that kind of game, and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near players until you remedy the situation. No, it’s not “edgy” or “shocking” to drop players into such extremely taxing and emotionally loaded territory without warning, it’s immature and irresponsible. Full stop.
In the end, a friend had a very good parallel for this whole situation – larp will not get you in shape, though getting out and getting exercise is still nice, and wanting to wear that beautiful heavy plate armor you’ve been dreaming of or fit into that swanky suit you feel will catch the Prince’s eye can certainly be outstanding motivation to eat better and work out more. But trying to get fit solely through larp just isn’t going to work, and attempting to make it happen ignores important realities of exercise and nutrition that will at best leave you frustrated and at worse actively hurt you. Not only that, but it isn’t the job of the staff or your fellow players to be responsible for your fitness regiment during an event.
Mental health is no different. Yes, larp can be a powerful and wonderful thing – it could generate a breakthrough you take back to therapy, for instance, or even inspire you to recognize a problem and seek help in the first place – but beyond that it’s no substitute for trained professional help. Enjoy your catharsis, by all means, but for your own sake and the sake of others around you, don’t mistake it for therapy.
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!
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.
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!
I see more ghosts
on New Year’s Eve
all of Halloween.
All Hallow’s Eve
is like a tourist town,
one the living
invade once a year.
The dead enjoy
the attention, sure,
but soon they wish
we’d go away.
No, New Year’s Eve
is far worse haunted,
because they gather
around the lights
and across the gap
of tears and sighs
they watch us plan,
and vow, and live.
You can feel them
best at midnight,
if you try, if you listen –
mouthing our promises,
sad and hungry eyes
reflecting the cycle
of hopes and regrets,
seeing all the mistakes
they would gladly make
again, if only.
Yes, the dead are close
on New Year’s Eve.
So as you toast, count
the faces in the glass,
and if you see
some you’ve lost,
don’t be sad, or afraid –
just raise your glass
I feel like a fraud. Always have, and sometimes I suspect I always will.
Nobody likes to hear artists complain, but I’m sorry folks, this one won’t stay caged. I’ve wanted to be a writer almost as far back as I can remember, ever since my family praised a ghost story I wrote when I was little, ever since a friend of mine almost offhandedly said “This is good, you should write more” and unknowingly gave me permission to share my stuff with my friends. To step up and be that artistic writer guy, which is not an inconsiderable risk in the wolf-haunted woods known as middle school, especially for a chubby gamer kid.
So with family and friends behind me, I wrote, pretty much all the time. With the boundless optimism and heedless ambition of the very young I decided I wanted to write games, I wanted to write stories, I wanted to write novels, I wanted to write articles in the paper, I wanted to be able to reach up on a shelf and pull down paper with my words on it and share it with anyone who’d stand still long enough.
I have done all of these things, some of them several times over, even won a few awards here and there in the process, and yet the vast majority of the time it still feels like I haven’t done anything at all. And I’m far from alone in this. A lot of the other artists I know feel the same way, even if they can’t quite put it in words. Hell, I know it’s not just artists that feel this way, really. I know it can strike anyone, so please don’t take this as a dismissal of anyone who feels these same feelings about their own field – business, athletics, academics, parenthood, you name it. I sympathize, I truly do. If I focus on artists it’s because that’s how I relate to these feelings, not because I don’t think anyone else falls prey to them.
So what does it feel like? It’s like running a race and watching the finish line creep along ahead of you, always out of reach, but also looking over your shoulder and seeing nothing of the race you’ve run so far. Which leaves you running in limbo, neither capable of reaching the satisfaction of finishing nor able to at least look back and be proud of how far you’ve come. I know that might sound a bit like ambition, and I think they can certainly have some things in common, perhaps even spur each other on at times, but in the end they’re not at all the same. At the core of ambition is inspiration, a dream of what you can accomplish, can become, but at the core of impostor feelings there’s only a frustrating desolation. Because any time you try to look over what you’ve done, a conversation remarkably like this one plays out in your head:
I wrote a story!
It’s not published, though, is it?
I’m going to be in an anthology!
Yeah, well, how’s that unfinished novel?
I wrote a novel!
Fine, but it was work for hire, not your own original work.
I wrote my own novel from scratch!
Oh, and look how all those agents are just dying to represent you.
I’m going to self-publish!
Have fun getting lost in the crush on Amazon. By the way, ever finish that original game you wanted to write?
I … I don’t feel so good.
There you go.
And so on. Sometimes, just for variety, that mocking voice will take a different tactic, just so you can’t ever be prepared for it. All those accomplishments you stubbornly insist on claiming become dumb luck, favors from friends, cynical maneuvering that happens to favor you for the moment, even a sort of conspiracy if the voice really feels like running wild that night. Anything but something you deserve, something you worked for, and just as quickly dismissed as soon as possible.
Allow me to give another example of the kind of tricks impostor feelings can play on your mind. Not that long ago, I was talking about game writing with some folks at a convention, and somebody said rather wistfully that they hoped to see something of theirs in print some day. I agreed, and another person in the conversation looked at me funny and said, “Haven’t you already been published?” I hesitated, embarrassed, and finally said something to the effect that I hadn’t published a game entirely of my own design. The others looked at me like I was being a bit of a bastard, and I can imagine why – that must have sounded like the worst sort of patronizing false modesty. A “humblebrag” to use the very apt new term, designed to call attention to my publishing resume by pretending to forget about it.
But the thing was, when I answered, I wasn’t pretending. I really, sincerely didn’t feel like I’d written anything that qualified. Hell, at that instant I didn’t feel like I’d written anything at all. I was being absolutely genuine in my sympathy with the person who wished they could be published, because all the game books I’d worked on in the past didn’t count, because nothing I’ve done in the past counts, not for long. I answered honestly in that moment, because that voice in my brain says those books are old and irrelevant, and so I don’t even add them in my tally unless I stop and think about it.
That’s what it’s like to feel like an impostor at what you do. Not only can it poison your own sense of accomplishment, it can also make you seem like a jerk to others, which of course only makes you feel worse about yourself, and even less deserving of any sense of accomplishment. I don’t know why the human mind loves vicious cycles so much, but sometimes it seems like it was designed for little else, I have to admit.
Let me be clear, though – I’m not asking for sympathy here, exactly. And I’m definitely not asking for people to prop me up, sing my praises, or anything like that. Most of the time I get through these feelings on my own, and when I can’t, I am lucky enough to have a wife, family, and friends who know how to pick me up and shout down that voice for a good long while. And that’s a kind of luck I’ll happily own up to, nagging whispers be damned. I’m not always OK, but I’m always alright, and for that I count my blessings most every day.
No, the reason I’m writing this is for anyone out there who knows that voice, who feels like a fraud sometimes, and thinks it might just be them. That those feelings of being a fraud, being forever unable to cherish accomplishments or just take credit for your own well-earned competence in your field, are unique to you. They’re not. Don’t let them drag you down, don’t listen to the doubt and uncertainty – and if you can’t handle them on your own, that’s OK too. Nobody can do it all the time. Reach out and find some help, because trust me, you can do it. Because you deserve it. Because you’re not an impostor.
Disclaimer: This is not intended as a snide dismissal of fan input, or an attempt to crush anyone’s dreams of working for a game company. It’s intended as practical advice for anyone who wishes to contact a game designer, whether it’s to bring up mistakes they feel they’ve uncovered in that designer’s games, suggest improvements they think could be made to the system in question, submit a proposal for a possible game supplement, or even to just inquire about writing opportunities with a particular company or game line in general. For the curious, it’s written from the perspective of someone with almost twenty years of professional game writing experience as everything from a freelance writer to a full line developer, who also knows a large circle of fellow game designers at companies large and small.
Without a doubt, we’re living in an amazing era of game design. Kickstarter, viable small press distribution, improved print on demand services, high quality PDFs, and the increased ability of individuals to reach and capture the attention of the market has transformed the tabletop rpg gaming business. Part of that evolution has been a radical transformation in communication between game designers and their fans – while in the past you might have a company forum that employees occasionally replied to, or some RPG.net exchanges with a favorite designer, a lot of the time game companies of old were often hard to decipher.
Now, though, the world of game design has become increasingly transparent and approachable, with designers blogging about their latest rules or system changes, crowdsourcing advice on game design forums, incorporating backer ideas as Kickstarter rewards and so on. As a result, things like talking directly to the creators of a game about problems you have with a game, submitting a proposal for an idea you have about a possible game supplement, asking about playtesting opportunities and the like are easier than they’ve ever been.
Before we talk about how to approach your favorite designers, though, there are a few general things you need to know about the gaming industry:
About the Business
Gaming Is A Small Industry …
Make no mistake, there are still some larger outfits still out there – Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Steve Jackson, just to name a few – but a significant portion of the tabletop gaming world has moved to a different model, one centered around small design houses or even individual designers. And even the “big” companies aren’t exactly Shadowrun-level zaibatsu, at least compared to what counts as a “large company” in most other industries. With that in mind, you need to understand that most companies either produce everything in house, or bring freelancers aboard on a work-for-hire basis to do their projects. There simply aren’t “entry level” permanent positions available at a lot of gaming companies – you’re either one of a small number of permanent staff, or on a roster of freelancers they hire when they need extra project hands. How to make it on that roster? Read on.
… And Everyone Knows Everybody
When it comes to publishing games, even with the self-publishing, print on demand, and the indie explosion, you’re still not talking huge numbers of industry people, and many of them have been in the business for years. Quite simply, a lot of them know each other, and they talk. Which means that if you develop a reputation as a troll, a pest, a deadbeat, a flake, or some other sort of potential undesirable, word of that behavior will travel a lot farther and more quickly than you might expect. (Conversely, a good reputation as a polite, creative, and reliable individual goes around too, and can pay off in unexpected ways at unlikely times.) Meditate on that a moment before sending a snarky reply to a designer’s email or posting a flamebait review.
Gaming Isn’t A Get Rich Quick Environment
Like a lot of entertainment fields, game writing is not exactly a path to fame and fortune – people do it because they love it, not because it’s going to buy them a separate Gulfstream for their dog. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of successful game design professionals out there who make a living doing it! But generally speaking, the definition of successful is going to be a lot more modest for this field than, say, what we usually think of for a successful actor, athlete, or medical specialist. Be prepared about that reality and therefore realistic in your related expectations.
Check Their Application/Submission Process
If you’re interested in applying for work or submitting a proposal, make sure you read and adhere to any submission guidelines the company has posted. (If they don’t have such guidelines posted that’s usually a good sign they’re not looking for those things, though you can always check to make sure.) When I became a line developer, I was told the SOP was to destroy without reading any submissions that did not follow the posted guidelines, and I’ve since learned this is a pretty universal rule (it’s also often a legal thing). It may break your heart a bit to try to condense your 300 page sourcebook into a two page pitch, but if that’s what they want, trust me, doing otherwise just about guarantees that your submission will be deleted unread.
Read Their Work/Play Their Games
This probably seems like the most elementary step, but when I was with White Wolf, I got more proposals/critiques than you might think that demonstrated a clear lack of familiarity with our games. If you’re going to contact a game designer about working for them or offer a criticism of their work, it’s generally best to at least read through the material once or twice, if not actually log some time playing their games. If they have a blog, that’s usually worth a read too, if only to see what they’re thinking about, learn any pet peeves you might want to avoid, and generally get a sense of who they are as individuals.
Use the Proper Channels
A lot of game designers are easy to contact these days – many have public email addresses, not to mention things like Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and so on. Try to find out how they prefer to be contacted for professional communications, and if none of their available contact information is tagged as such, it’s generally best to send your first message with a “Is this the right way to contact you about X?” message. Sometimes it will sort itself out, of course – if they only ever use their Twitter feed for joking with friends and sharing pictures of their dog doing hilarious things, it’s probably not their preferred business communication tool.
Be Polite, Precise, and Concise
If you’ve never spoken to a particular game designer before, keep your communication as brief and to the point as you can without being rude. A simple greeting, a quick explanation of what you’re interested in – “I was wondering if you’d like my thoughts on X” or “Are you looking for any writers on Y?” is fine, for example – and a thank you for their time is a lot more likely to get a response than a rambling three page breakdown of all the errors you’ve found in their game so far (or worse yet, the unasked-for resume).
If you’re approaching a designer in person, say at a game convention, these rules still apply! Try to judge if it’s a good time to approach them – if they’re drinking with friends at the bar or slammed with a line of customers at their booth, it might be best to try starting your conversation later on. If you think there’s an opportunity, introduce yourself politely and ask if they have a moment to talk about what’s on your mind – if they do, great! If they don’t, they might give you another time that would be better, and they’ll remember you as being polite regardless (sadly it’s often rare enough to be memorable). This is also a great time for business cards, as you can often hand one over even if they’re not able to talk at the time, and it gives you a natural way to contact them in the future.
Remember, Designers Are People
When you talk to a designer, remember that the game you’re discussing is the product of hundreds if not thousands of hours of their effort and care, not to mention expense and often frustration. It’s a reflection of their creative desire in dreaming it up as well as their personal discipline in seeing it through to completion, and in many cases their ability to work with a number of other professionals – artists, editors, layout designers, playtesters, etc. – in order to realize their vision. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their work, but it’s important to remember that personal dimension. I’ve seen otherwise apparently well-meaning gamers cheerfully tell designers that their games sucked, the rules were totally broken, they didn’t like huge parts of the setting, etc., and then turn around and complain that the designer was being a jerk or a wuss for not wanting to talk to them anymore. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism – the former isn’t shy about addressing problems and complaints, but does so from a position of respect, while the latter is insulting and dismissive.
If you’ll forgive an odd extended analogy, walking up to a game designer and telling them you want to “fix” their game is a lot like walking into someone’s house and telling them you want to “fix” their decor. Sure, it might not be arranged to your taste, but they probably have plenty of reasons everything is the way it is – maybe that area rug you don’t like is covering a stain they just couldn’t get out, and so removing “just that one little thing” would actually mean reshuffling their entire living room arrangement to compensate for the alteration. Or perhaps the sofa configuration, which looks odd and impractical to you, is set up for an ideal surround sound experience for their home theater system. Or – and this is valid too – maybe they just like it that way, which is fine because after all, it’s their house. And even if you’re absolutely, objectively correct about how something is “wrong” with their decorating scheme, and they know that you’re right, it doesn’t make it any more obnoxious for a stranger to walk in and loudly declare it when a quieter, more polite way would also have sufficed.
Again, this does not mean that game designers are some special genius/martyr social caste that is above the reproach of lowly common gamers. It certainly does not mean they are infallible – I’ve had people point out mistakes in my own games plenty of times, and I happily signed on writers and approved book proposals that resulted in better ideas than what I would have come up with if I was given the same projects. I’m the first to admit my books had problems ranging from the merely hilarious to the totally tragic. I’ve been taken apart on forums, by email, and in person, and I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t most some of the most technically scathing critiques because they were presented constructively, while other relatively minor points drove me to distraction simply because people presented them in rude and insulting ways. I’ve got a pretty thick skin – necessary adaptation to working in this field – but that doesn’t mean etiquette and presentation don’t matter. I’m much more likely to listen to someone who’s polite and presents their points constructively, or who submits their proposals in the proper format and through the proper channels. That’s just human nature. If you’re rude to me, I react accordingly, while courtesy elicits the same in return. Simple as that, and yet a step that eludes a lot of folks when they post game reviews or detailed rules breakdowns – they forget there are people behind those rules, and thus lose a lot of any potential they might have had to effect real change in the process.
Ultimately it’s important to remember that just about all game designers were regular old gamers long before they designed a system – their passion for the hobby is what drove them to want to make their own games in the first place! (And when they’re not designing’ games, most creators are still avid players.) I’m stressing this because it’s important to remember on both sides – that designers and fans are far more similar than they are different. You’re talking to an industry professional, true, but you’re also talking something that is intensely personal to them. The more you remember and respect that, the better your interaction with them will be, whether you’re offering game feedback, proposing a book or asking if they’re looking for talent for future projects.
Seriously, Courtesy Counts
I’m not exaggerating when I say that pretty much all gaming industry professionals have a thick file of stories involving times when people trashed them, their work, their dubious parentage, etc., whether electronically or in person. More amazingly, these people often don’t actually realize what they’re saying is seriously rude, or at least, that they phrased what might otherwise have been an interesting point in the most insulting way possible. I had one guy send me a very personal and highly insulting two page email detailing at length all the faults he’d found in my various publications, then turned around and – I guess having figured he impressed me with his superior intellect? – ask me to hire him for future projects. I had another person tell me “yeah well no offense but those rules are total shit” and then act completely amazed that I might take issue with his wording, as though “no offense” was a magic incantation that warded off my ability to be insulted. The list goes on, but the point is not that everyone who talks to a game designer is a jerk – just that sadly it happens enough that politeness really makes an impression. If you’re polite, professional, responsible in making contact, you’re ahead of the game. Why not get off to a good start?
So that’s pretty much that. I can’t guarantee that following these steps will mean game designers take your feedback into account for future rules changes or hire you to write that book you’ve been thinking about, but it certainly won’t hurt your chances – and in many cases, might improve them dramatically. Above, always remember that game companies are composed of people – gamers a lot like you, in fact – and that being friendly, constructive and respectful will go a long way toward developing positive relationships in the game design community.
We’ll see you at the panels!
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!
After Watchmen… What Next?
I was on a panel at Philcon earlier today, and I promised the audience that I would post the list I’d made up of some of my favorite comics (since I forgot the handouts I’d made to bring). So hello Philcon attendees, and anyone else who’s looking for comic recommendations! Welcome, and enjoy!
Understanding Comics & Reinventing Comics
Written by Scott McCloud. Perhaps the most definitive works examining where comics came from, how they work their special brand of magic and where the medium might be heading. They are fun and easy to read, yet also quite scholarly and informative.
Written by Neil Gaiman. One of the most ambitious series of all time, this modern myth follows the designs of personified cosmic forces such as Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire and Despair, as well as dozens of the lives they touch throughout time and space. A heavily allusive yet very accessible and intricately plotted tale from start to finish.
Written by Bill Willingham. Exiled from their homelands by a villainous being known as the Adversary, refugees from dozens of fairy tales band together in a small community in modern New York. A good premise executed with wit, humor and endless originality.
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Written by Alan Moore. An arch, intelligent, postmodern examination of Victorian values featuring a “dream team” of period heroes such as Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker and Dr. Jekyll as they battle all manner of evil plots and sinister villains.
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. What if a superhero decided to treat the disease instead of the symptoms? In this alternate timeline, a superhero gives up punching muggers and runs for mayor of New York. In office, the true test of his heroism really begins.
Written by Warren Ellis. Black humor, trippy illustration and cultural satire combine in this sci-fi tale of a gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem and his quest for Truth! in a bizarre yet all-too-familiar future city fraught with idiocy and corruption.
Written by Garth Ennis. A preacher sharing his body with a renegade cosmic force, his ex-assassin girlfriend and their Irish vampire buddy – and that’s just the first issue! This series is a bold, bawdy, bloody look at faith, loyalty, America and second chances.
Written by Robert Kirkman. Son of Omni-Man, protector of the world, Marc can’t wait for his superpowers to develop – but when he at last becomes a hero, he learns just how hard life is under the mask. A sweet, funny and charmingly retro super hero comic.
Y: The Last Man
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. An escape artist named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, are the only survivors of a mystery plague that kills all the male organisms on the planet. Part mystery, part romance, part gender study, pure science fiction.
Written by Garth Ennis. In a world where superheroes are the new weapons of mass destruction, the CIA keeps one group of absolute badasses around to keep the supes in line: The Boys. Bloody, profane and provocative, this series examines the human cost of superpowers and the damage they do on the human mind.
V For Vendetta
Written by Alan Moore. Set in a dismal totalitarian future Britain, this tale follows a freedom-fighting terrorist as he trains his successor to sow intellectual mayhem. A deep and disturbing dystopian tale in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World.
Written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. A young slacker falls in love with a mysterious girl, but before they can live happily ever after, she reveals that first he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends! A hilarious, slightly surreal tale told with lunatic charm, featuring manga-esque art and a lot of truly funny, knowing and often surprisingly touching dialogue.
Written by Brian Azzarello. An old man offers select hard luck individuals a unique gift: a briefcase containing a folder full of proof that someone else ruined their life, an untraceable gun and 100 bullets. A stylishly illustrated, grim, twisting noir action epic.
Written by Mark Waid. What happens when great responsibility no longer accompanies great power? As Superman and his peers grow older, a new generation of irresponsible heroes and depraved villains threatens to tear down everything they’ve built.
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. A group of teenagers run away from home after learning their parents are supervillains, vowing use their own gifts to bring their folks to justice. A mundane premise, maybe, but it’s executed with real humor, wit and heart. Vaughn writes teens with honesty and sympathy, and without talking down to them.
Written by Alan Moore. In Neopolis, a city where everyone has a superpower (however minor), who keeps the peace? This smart, quirky, visually striking “cop show” comic follows the super-police officers working to keep Neopolis safe, and it’s one helluva ride. Beware the volumes done after Moore left, though – let’st just say the quality is different and leave it at that.
Written by Frank Miller. This graphic, brutal noir series follows a number of different characters as they move through the rain and shadows of Basin City, seeking justice and vengeance, addiction and absolution. A highly stylized series of grim, hardboiled tales.
Written by Brian Wood. After the Second Civil War grinds to an uneasy truce, novice journalist Matt Roth finds himself the lone voice for a ravaged New York City awash in martial law, militant gangs and scared refugees. Gritty, idealistic and passionate.
Written by Ed Brubaker. Old school heroics and Cold War espionage mix in this twisting tale of a superhero gone undercover in a league of villains, only to find that he’s no longer sure which side he’s on. A clever blend of two genres, with deceptively simple art.
Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!
[Update: This review refers to the film’s “Festival Cut”, which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film’s “Extended Edition” will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo’s own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]
Full disclosure: I’m a geek.
Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters. (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.
I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Rising, because I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called). I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.
[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]
The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around. (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.
As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.) It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.
Don’t get me wrong – Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film – Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.
For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.
Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.
Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.
(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! – and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++
Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.
And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.
As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.
Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.
So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!
+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.
I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners – a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!
I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.
So! That last Table Manners post had some real legs, didn’t it? Wow. Y’all are amazing, I have to say. One of the responses that came up as the reactions to the post went on, though, was a call for more specific, helpful advice for gamers in general and guys in particular in order to improve or avoid some of the bad behavior that was the subject of the post. After all, these responders reasoned, if I’m going to take these guys to task for being ill-behaved and ask them to do better, shouldn’t I also do more to help them know what that means? I figured that was a fair point, so I gave the traditional Internet response – “Challenge accepted!” – and put the word out to some of the gamers and geeks I knew that I was looking for advice to help people treat each other better in the scene, then collected their answers.
After sifting through some of the responses I got, I decided to split it into two parts, spread across two posts: Conventions and Gaming. Conventions is a bit more general, and covers all kinds of cons – gaming, comics, entertainment, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, you name it. In particular, it focuses a bit on proper etiquette for approaching strangers – celebrities, cosplayers and costume designers especially – since that seemed to what got the biggest response. Gaming is a bit more specific in scope, and talks mostly about tabletop and larp gaming, though I think a lot of it applies to video games, board games and other gaming forms as well. I wanted to make them one post, honestly, but as I wrote it became clear they were each long enough to justify their own post, and I felt lumping them together would also detract from the message of each. You can look for the follow-up to drop in a day or two, promise!
It’s worth noting, of course, that these are tips and guidelines, not absolutes, and what’s appropriate in one situation might not be in another, even if they seem otherwise identical. Some cosplayers love having their picture taken, but others might decline no matter how polite you are, and even that cute couple who gladly posed for your “Dr. Who versus Pinkie Pie Deathmatch!” photo earlier in the day might just want to get back to their room and not be in the mood for pictures later on. With that in mind, as a rule of thumb I encourage you to treat each situation as its own new experience; even if you had a great conversation and photo op with a celebrity earlier in the day, that doesn’t mean you should just walk up to them while they’re talking to their friends at the hotel bar and act like you’ve been buddies for years.
Last but not least, you’ll notice that none of these tips address how to get a date, put the moves on someone or otherwise enter the sexual/relationship sphere. That’s deliberate; I definitely didn’t want people to think this was some kind of “How to Pickup Con Hotties” or “Bringing that Elf Ranger Back to Your Place 101” guide. Besides, I think the whole “pickup artist” scene is creepy as hell, so if that’s your cup of tea, kindly drink it elsewhere. I will say this and only this on the subject: Good manners should not be viewed as a stepping stone to or a guarantee of sexy funtimes, they’re an end unto themselves and should be treated accordingly … but that said, good manners are also a hell of a better start to a conversation than the alternative. Just puttin’ that out there.
Convention Etiquette 101
Conventions are purpose-built sensory overload, but even in the midst of the panels and the demos and the workshops and the previews and the parties and the dealers’ room, there’s still no excuse for forgetting a few basic rules of etiquette when it comes to your fellow convention-goers, whether they’re working the con or fans like you. What follows is a series of tips to help you make a good impression and avoid the “creeper factor” as you meet people, take pictures and strike up conversations around the con. So if you’re nervous about the social rules surrounding the convention scene, well friend, we’re here to help you.
Yep. The Mister Rogers rule. Be nice to people. You might see what you think is a terrible cosplay and be tempted to comment on it right there, for example, perhaps even while that person is in earshot, but my advice? Save it for your blog, if you really feel the need to say it anywhere. It’s not about censorsing yourself, it’s about taking a moment and remembering that everyone is at the con to have fun, geek out about things they love and generally enjoy their fandoms in the company of other fans for a day or two. Why take that away from someone else, just because you don’t approve of their choice of costume or favorite movie or best rpg ever or whatever else it is? You probably don’t like it when people make fun of your hobbies, so why on earth would you turn around and bring that sort of bullying and aggravation into the scene yourself?
So, take the high road when you can. Be nice to people. You’d be amazed how far it gets you.
Look, Don’t Leer
OK, I know this is going to be subjective territory at times, but let me give you a couple rules of thumb – if you’re looking at someone long enough that they look back not once but twice or more in your direction, clearly aware that you’re looking at them, then you’ve probably crossed from “looking” to “staring” (and are making them uncomfortable too). And if you’re in a place where they’re not likely to see you, like looking down from a balcony, then count Nathan Fillion credits backward to yourself: “1, Castle, 2, Dr. Horrible, 3, Serenity, etc.” If you reach Saving Private Ryan, you’ve been looking too long. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, have you ever been riding on the subway or walking down the street, seen a stranger looking at you, then looked back a few seconds and saw that they were still staring at you? Creepy, right? So don’t do that to someone else across the convention floor. Sure, you may mean no harm by it – but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t have to worry about the distinction.
Also, it’s worth noting that openly staring at body parts – especially the sexy ones – is pretty much automatically going to put you in the creeper category as far as most people are concerned. And yes, it is different than simply appreciating an attractive person in general. For instance, you can think a woman is absolutely stunning and still be able to maintain eye contact for a full conversation, as opposed to spending the entire chat staring into her cleavage as though a mystical formula for transmuting d12s into gold was tattooed across it. The former shows appreciation for a whole person, but the latter fetishizes a body part to the point where the person attached to it is pretty much an afterthought. Remember, you might think that this sort of body appreciation is a compliment – “I can’t help admiring how gorgeous that costume is!”, “You can’t dress up like Captain Jack Harkness and not expect people to stare!” – but once again they don’t know what’s in your head. All they see is someone staring, and it’s likely to make them more than a bit uncomfortable.
Of course, if someone is rocking a really awesome cosplay, or is the big star of everything you’ve ever liked in film and television, or wrote that game you’ve been playing nonstop for years, or has created a super elaborate costume you just can’t believe, you might wonder: How are you supposed to appreciate all that magnificence in just a couple of seconds before moving on? Fair question. The answer is that if you think you’re going to need some serious time to appreciate the person and their work, it’s probably best to actually approach them and let them know that you’re a fan or that you’re admiring their handiwork (or both). That way you can express your admiration and not just be someone creeping on them from afar, plus it gives you the advantage of possibly getting to meet a con rock star and take some pictures up close instead of furtive, stalker-y shots from deep in the crowd.
Meeting people give you a big case of the nerves? No worries! Keep reading, we’ve got your back.
Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”
Before you approach someone at a convention, whether it’s a celebrity or an awesome cosplayer or your favorite game designer, take a few seconds to see if you might be interrupting. Conventions are busy places, and people are often juggling several things at once – talking to friends, browsing booths, texting their dinner plans, you name it. That doesn’t mean you can’t approach them until they’re standing alone and staring off into space with nothing to do, but one sure way to get off on the wrong foot is to walk up to someone in the middle of something that’s really demanding their attention – eating dinner, talking on the phone, taking a picture with someone else, having a tender moment with their sweetie – especially if you don’t seem to notice that you might be intruding.
If it looks like the person you want to talk to or take a picture of might be busy, always err on the side of the caution and acknowledge that when you introduce yourself: “I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting, but do you have a moment for a picture/autograph/question?” It’s a lot more considerate than just walking up and demanding some of their time as though you were the only important thing at the con. Plus, if they don’t have time but you’re polite when you ask, you’re more likely to have them tell you a better time later if they have one available. You show consideration for their schedule, they have a polite way to turn you down if it really isn’t a good time, everyone wins.
Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything
OK. So you want to approach someone and it looks like you’ve got a good window to do so. Now, I know introducing yourself to strangers can be stressful as hell, no question, but as a rule it sure beats just walking up to someone and demanding a picture or launching straight into a discussion of your common hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, either; just a simple “Hi, I’m [Your Name Here], how are you?” is a great start. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed at how many people skip this step, which means that suddenly you’re putting a total stranger on the spot by launching right into a topic like you’ve been talking for years.
For what it’s worth, people are also a lot more likely to consider your requests if you approach them politely and engage them first, rather than just walking up and demanding something out of the blue. So even from a bottom-line perspective, this basic courtesy still makes a lot of sense. Practice it.
Ask Before You Touch
Here’s a big rule that a lot of people violate without even thinking about it, even though most of us were taught it back in kindergarten: Don’t touch other people without asking. Simple as that, and yet a lot of people forget it as soon as cameras come out or costumes come into play. So this one’s short and to the point – always ask before you touch someone. Even if you think it’s casual contact, such as if you want to throw your arm around someone for a photo – or shake their hand, or stand back to back, or touch them in any other way really – ask them first. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you so and you still come off being more polite than most; if they do care, you can avoid an embarrassing moment and possibly crossing into creeper territory. When I’ve posed with celebrities at cons, I’ve never had one react poorly to me asking them if I can throw an arm around them or shake their hand for the photo … but I have had some politely decline, and I’ve also seen them get justifiably annoyed when someone touched them without asking first.
Likewise, when it comes to costumes, props and cosplay in general, don’t assume you can touch anything without asking first; even if it’s a giant angel wing sticking three feet off their body, it’s still an extension of their person, and one they probably spent a lot of time working on and don’t want people messing with at random. Not only is it rude, but a lot of costume pieces are lighter and more delicate than they might appear, in order to prevent the cosplayer’s untimely death from sweating under 175 lbs of costuming all day at Otakon, and you might end up doing several hundred dollars and several thousand hours of damage very easily. I’m a steampunk and a larper who’s married to a costumer, so costume etiquette is more strongly ingrained in me than most, but let me tell you that few things annoy my otherwise sunny and amazing wife faster than people walking up and touching her costuming without asking. She’s likely fine with people examining the craftsmanship if they ask first, but if they don’t? It’s intrusive.
Oh, and About Those Photos
Just like you don’t want to touch people without asking, it’s also safe to assume that you should ask people before taking their picture. “But they’re in a public place!” I hear some people say. “And they’re dressed up! You can’t tell me that they don’t want their picture taken!” Actually, yes, I can. Believe it or not, not everyone at a con wants their picture taken, or wants it taken by people they don’t know, and that’s their right. A lawyer may not want opposing counsel to find pictures of him dressed as Weapon X; a woman might have a stalker in her past that makes her averse to any pictures of her showing up online; a celebrity might not want pictures taken when they don’t have their game face on or feel up to dealing with the public. Not that they have to share their reasons – all they have to do is say “No, I don’t want my picture taken” and that’s the end of the conversation. I know it might be really disappointing to come across the best genderbent Deadpool cosplay you’ve ever seen, approach her politely and ask her a for a photo only to be told no, but in the end, that’s her decision. Respect it and move on.
If you’re nervous about asking for a picture, you can also hang back a bit and wait for other people to take pictures – this is pretty likely with a good cosplay or a celebrity – and it gives you a natural moment to make your own request since others have broken the ice. Just try not to follow them all over the con or for long periods of time, or it’s going to make you seem like a creeper because they’re bound to notice you sooner or later.
Also, I’m not saying you can’t take pictures at a con without getting the permission of everyone in the background; that’s just not going to happen. Cons are too crowded to make that practical, and anyway, if you’re really just trying to take a picture of your best friend in front of the Evil Hat booth and a cosplayer wanders into the background of the shot, so be it. But there’s a big difference between taking crowd shots or candids of your friends that happen to include other people in passing, and deliberately setting up shots so that you can get a picture of someone else while pretending to take a different photo.
I mean, I know that right now some folks out there are thinking “Well, can’t I just take someone’s picture anyway, whether or not they tell me no or even ask in the first place?” To which I respond, stop and think about what you’re saying. What you’re describing – making a conscious decision to take someone’s picture in a way that avoids or ignores getting their consent – is really pretty creepy. And if it doesn’t seem creepy to you, that’s kind of scary on its own.
Be Cool with “No”
I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight. What I’m talking about is everything not covered by the above – autograph requests, attempts to share your analysis of a star’s last three movies, offering someone a free T-shirt from your gaming store if they’ll pose with it, you name it. It might make perfect sense in your head, it might be a totally innocent request, it might only take 30 seconds for them while it would totally make your year – and it their answer still might be no. And you have to be OK, not only with that being the answer, but the fact that you also might not get an explanation. Because while some folks will offer one in the spirit of politeness, they don’t actually owe you one – you’re the one who approached them and asked for something, remember?
I’ve seen a lot of fans approach people at conventions with all sorts of requests, and you can see that they’ve played the exchange over and over in their head before they walked up, never once considering it might not work. “I just know Wil Wheaton will think this shirt is awesome,” they’ve told themselves, imagining the moment as he slips on their irreverent “Kobolds Do It In Great Numbers” T-shirt and thereby becomes the envy of the con. “How can he not? He’s a gamer! He’s totally going to wear it!” But remember, just because it makes sense to you and seems reasonable in your eyes doesn’t mean it will line up with what that person is OK with, either at that moment or in general. Maybe he has a policy about not accepting gifts from fans, or he’s running late to a panel and literally doesn’t have the time, or his first TPK came at the scaly hands of a kobold horde and just thinking about the little bastards gives him traumatic flashbacks. Or maybe – and this allowed too – he just isn’t interested in the shirt. All of these and countless more are legitimate reasons to turn down your request, and you have to be OK with that before you step up and ask.
In the end, remember that when you pay your admission, you’re not entitled to anything at a con beyond any special events you sign up for – such as a guaranteed photo op or autograph session – and even those usually have rules that you’re expected to follow. Which means that even things that seem like no big deal to you might not be something someone else is interested in, and that’s their right.
Not All Compliments Are Created Equally
So now you’re talking to someone, and you want to tell them what’s so awesome that you just had to come over and say hi, but sadly, a lot of geeks are master of left-handed compliments, things that they think are positive but are actually mixed at best. You may mean all the best by it, for instance, but telling that game designer “Oh my god, I love your new game! It’s soooo much better than your last two!” isn’t likely to win you much goodwill. Why? Because even though you think you’re saying something nice, you’re essentially saying that you thought their last two games were terrible. You might not mean that – you might also like the other two – but that’s not what you actually said. Another classic is “You look really badass, for a girl” – well, pretty much anything with the “for a girl” phrase suffixed is probably a good example of a bad compliment. You might mean to say something positive, but all that the other person is going to hear is that you track women separately from men in the category being discussed, and unless gender’s an essential and obvious factor that’s not going to go over too well.
Another category of compliments that cause a ton of tension and aggravation are physical or sexual compliments. “You look so sexy!” is intended to be positive, for instance, but it also immediately suggests that you see the person as a potential sexual partner (or object). This is rarely a good way to make a first impression with a stranger, because the other person immediately has to wonder if you’re hitting on them, which can derail an otherwise pleasant exchange as they evaluate that situation instead of focus on a fun conversation. Again, you might know that you have no interest in them as a sexual partner, but they don’t know that, and given that you’re a stranger, they’re likely to assume the worst if you put them in that situation. I know, that sucks, but it’s the world we live in, at least until we change it.
And it should go without saying, but praising body parts – “You have amazing tits!”, “Your costume makes your ass look awesome!”, “Your feet are really pretty!” – is pretty much a bad call all around. Even if it’s an “innocent” body part, it makes them immediately aware that you’re closely studying their body, and that can make them very uncomfortable as they wonder why you’re doing that and if your interest is purely lecherous. You might feel like you wouldn’t mind if people said those things to you, so what’s the harm in saying them to others, but other people won’t automatically feel the same way. Now, if things take a particular turn and you wind up going on a date with them later on, that might be the time to tell them how their Akuma costume made their pecs look fabulous or how their Asuka suit accentuated their curves, but until then? Unless specifically invited to do so, I’d keep the body compliments to yourself and focus on costume pieces and props instead.
With that in mind, take a moment to compose a proper compliment or two if you have a chance. I don’t want to stress people out by making them go over and over their words until they’re absolutely perfect, but fortunately at conventions you often have time in autograph lines, panel crowds or other places to think out what you might say in advance. And if you’re really worried about getting it right, keep it simple – just say one nice thing and a thank you: “Thanks for your work, I love your movies,” “That costume is amazing, thanks for the pics,” “Your games really inspired me, thank you.” You’d be amazed how far a little thank you can go.
Have An Exit Strategy
I know most of us have this secret fantasy – no, not that one, the other one, the one where we meet one of our idols at a convention and wind up hitting it off. What starts as two strangers meeting becomes something more friendly and casual, and before long we’re swapping buddy IMs with Felicia Day or dropping guest vocals on that new Paul and Storm ode to the Valve gaming console that shall never be. Or maybe it’s not quite as star struck as that, just an invitation to join that elite cosplay group we’ve been admiring from afar or an alpha tester spot for a new MMO we’ve heard a lot about. Whatever it is, there’s this conviction that a lot of us have deep down that we’re just one good conversation with our heroes away from realizing our dreams – but while that might be true in some rare instances, it also tends to mean that people wear out their welcome at conventions trying to make it happen, turning what were pleasant interactions into increasingly uncomfortable and one-sided exchanges the other person can’t wait to end.
My advice? Don’t assume that a simple request like a photo or an autograph is automatically an opportunity for a long, in-depth conversation. If the two of you start chatting, great, I’m not saying you need to cut it short for some arbitrary reason, but try to gauge the other person’s level of engagement and excuse yourself when it looks like it’s run its course (ideally a little before it reaches the very end). If the conversation starts hitting some long pauses, or it circles back around to points you’ve already made, or they start glancing around a lot like they have somewhere else to be, you’re likely at the edge of your welcome, if not already tipping over. At that point thank them for their time and anything they might have done for you – pics, autographs, etc. – and just excuse yourself. It might seem a little awkward, but it makes a much better impression than having the moment stretch out out so far it finally snaps and they’re forced to take more direct action to end it.
Worried that you might have accidentally cut short a crucial conversation before its prime? Well, for one thing, if you go to excuse yourself and the other person protests, that’s usually a good sign that you can stick around a while longer – you gave them a chance to politely bow out of conversation and they didn’t take it. For another, this is the reason business cards were invented – have a batch of professional-looking ones made and offer them to people as you’re leaving the conversation. Nothing fancy, nothing too cute, just your name and some basic contact information. That way if they want to get in touch with you later – for example, to get copies of the pics you took of their cosplay – they have an easy way to do so, without requiring them to find a pen or whip out their phone. What’s more, giving them a card means future contact will be on their terms as well – they choose when and how to contact you, which is a lot less pressure than asking for their info on the spot. Plus offering a business card can result in receiving one in return, which can also tell you a lot about whether or not someone is interested in continued contact.
Last but most certainly not least, remember that con culture will only change for the better when it hits a critical mass of people who stand up to the jerks and call them on their bullshit. If you see someone bullying a reluctant cosplayer for a picture, speak up. If you see someone getting creepy and not taking no for an answer at the hotel bar, speak up. If you see someone ridiculing another attendee for how they look or what they say, speak up. I’m not saying wade in with fists swinging – if you think a situation’s tipping dangerously, by all means call security or the cops – but a lot of the bad behavior arises from the fact that nobody speaks up when the jerks act like assholes, which makes them think it’s OK to be that way. If we can get enough people to make it clear that it’s not acceptable, it may not change their minds, but it will take the megaphone out of their hands and give the rest of us a chance to speak our minds instead.
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!
In a recent post about conventions, I added a note about gender bias in the gaming community. It was a little thing, just a “hey, guys, stop assuming ladies can’t be gamers too” for the less-evolved crowd, but it turned out to get a much stronger response than anything else on that list. This post is an attempt to expand on the ideas in that post, and in doing so I found I got pretty heated myself – mostly because for every talking point I came up with I could remember some terrible evidence from my own personal experience, or which was shared with me by the ladies I know. And so I broke my normal guideline about profanity on this blog, because I think sometimes there is no polite way to express a certain measure of outrage, so I hope you bear that in mind as you read.
Let me also make a quick note for clarity: While I do address the geek community in general at points, in terms of specifics I’m addressing gamers for the most part, as that is the specific geek subculture that I have the most experience with on the whole. Likewise, when discussing conventions, I’m primarily talking about gaming cons, though I’ve spent enough time at literary, comic and entertainment cons that I think many of my points apply to those venues as well. OK! Here goes.
The Ladies Have Always Been Here (So Act Like It)
I’ve been a gamer for a long time. Not as long as some, no doubt, but as a percentage of my life it’s higher than most. I started playing tabletop rpgs when I was in first grade, and I’m in my mid-30s now. I literally have trouble remembering a time in my life when I wasn’t reading one game book or another. So while I may not be able to wax nostalgic about the glory days when the only way you got to play D&D was by picking up the original big red box – or by hanging out with Gary and Dave personally, or whatever – I do have a pretty good vertical slice of what gaming’s been like in my lifetime. And you know what? When I was a kid, it really was largely a boys’ club, no question. Yes, there were lady gamers, but they were a tiny minority. I knew two, for example, as compared to the dozen or more guy gamers I knew back then.
Then, around the time I turned 14 or so – and started playing more White Wolf games and less D&D, if you want an interesting correlation/causation possibility to ponder – suddenly there were a lot of girls in my gaming group. When we organized our first high school larp, the ratio was just about even, and while the ratio still fluctuates wildly depending on which gaming subgenre you happen to be into, it has slowly but steadily improved since then. For instance, miniatures wargaming still tends to be a very heavily male group, while larp is much more co-ed, as is tabletop gaming.
And just to be clear? I turned 14 two decades ago.
Now, I’m not saying that everything is peachy keen just yet, and I fully recognize that this is my impression as opposed to sociological data, but it’s still significant. It’s been fashionable in mainstream media outlets to talk about women in geekdom and gaming as though it was something new, when any gamer could tell you this simply isn’t so. Instead, I suspect it’s more like “cultural critical mass” is being mistaken for “new arrivals” – that is, that there are enough women in these cultures willing to speak up about some of their inequities that they’re making headlines. Or to put it more plainly, there are now enough women who are tired of being told to put up with the same stupid sexist bullshit and are speaking up about it that they can’t be easily marginalized or ignored as they might have been in the past.
But seriously, guys, stop acting like you stepped out to the garage to get more Mountain Dew and came back to find girls where there had been no girls before. They’ve been here for a long time now, and pretending like they’re some sort of new phenomenon is equal parts patronizing and unproductive. It’s a way of avoiding dealing with gender issues by pretending they’re something new and unexpected, when in reality they’ve been around for a while and there was simply a lot of subcultural inertia holding them back. Quit it.
… You Do Realize That You’re Not Entitled to the Women You See, Right?
OK, let me make one thing clear: I’m not slamming anyone who earns some money working a convention, whether it’s in costume or otherwise. A job’s a job, especially in this economy, and I’m not gonna judge someone who decides they wouldn’t mind earning some extra scratch handing out flyers or walking around dressed as a Romulan or Red Sonja. And I’m not so naive that I don’t understand the notion of “sex sells” and its utility in the advertising world. That said … come on, people. We can do better than this. We have to do better than this. Because this shit is embarrassing.
Geek culture prides itself on being the smartest guy in the room, on being progressive and forward-thinking, and yet at every single one of the conventions I’ve been at in my lifetime, I’ve heard or seen some guy be absolutely disgusting about so-called booth babes. It’s so prevalent that most guys don’t even notice it unless they specifically tune their frequency for it – though I guarantee you, the ladies walking with you hear it every time. (That there aren’t more “Dozens Missing, Believed Castrated As Lady Gamer Snaps After 1,517th Boob Joke In GenCon Spree” headlines is a testament to their enduring patience.) And even worse, a lot of the guys at these cons not only expect to be greeted with an array of nearly-nude female flesh for their camera phone gratification, they’re completely unembarrassed about the kind of entitled asshole behavior it brings out in them. They leer, they “accidentally” cop a feel while setting up a photo, they make crude jokes and sexist comments as though the woman wasn’t even there. I once heard a guy loudly talk to his friend in clinical and exhaustive detail about everything that was right (and wrong) with the body of a girl he’d just cuddled up with for a photo at a publisher’s booth … while the woman was maybe three feet away, trying her best to smile and ignore it. It was honestly sickening, but what was even worse was what she said when I got to the head of the line and blurted out an apology on behalf of my gender: “It’s OK, I hear that sort of thing all the time.”
No. Not just no, but fuck no.
We can do better than this, or at the very least, we have to try. I’m not so naive to think that we’ll be able to de-sexualize our advertising, but shit, can we at least agree that we’ll call people on it when they’re creepy assholes about it? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I know I wish I had the nerve to say something to that con troll years ago, and as penance I’m trying not to let that shit slide in the future. I know that some folks out there will immediately respond “this is just the way conventions work no one’s forcing them to do it” – to which my response is, and that’s supposed to make it better how, exactly? Because I can’t be the only one who finds it disgusting that geek cons still feel like they must pander to the boys in the crowd with the same level of discourse as bikini girls at boat shows. Or worse, that the bad behavior of said boys is then supposedly excused by the fact that companies are using booth babes in the first place. “If they didn’t want us to look they wouldn’t have them in the first place” is about as much of an excuse for being an asshole to booth babes as saying it was OK to steal because they left the tip jar right out on the counter where anyone could grab it. Just because you can see something doesn’t mean that it’s yours.
And for the guys who immediately jump on the “you’re just gay/a prude/kissing up to feminists” responses to this notion, respectfully, shut the hell up. It is not unreasonable to expect y’all to behave like human beings. That’s not gay, or straight, or sex-positive, or prudish, or even particularly feminist – it’s called being decent and respectful to your fellow human beings. Just because your culture passively let you get away with this behavior for a while does not mean that it’s right, and it sure as hell does not guarantee you the ability to continue doing it in the future.
There Are No Gatekeepers, Mr. Clortho, and You’re Not the Goddamned Keymaster
Over the past year or so the idea of the “fake geek girl” – and backlash against the notion of labeling people as such – has gotten a lot of attention. If you missed it, somehow, it can be summed up as follows: There’s actually a notion out there that some girls you find at gaming and entertainment conventions are “faking it”, that they’re not Real Geeks at all, they’re just there so … hell, I dunno, exactly. The actual accusations are as muddled as Mushmouth on mescaline, ranging from crass marketing ploys to trolling to trying to pick up unsuspecting geek boys (… to do what, exactly? de-nerdify them with evil mainstream vagina powers?), but whatever they’re up to, it’s definitely Something Bad, these defensive guys can all agree. So watch out, geeks, because that cute girl in the “So Say We All” t-shirt you met at SDCC is probably just a hooker your friends hired to take your coveted viriginity!*
The notion is as obviously wrong as it is goddamn absurd, of course. Sure, a lot of people working conventions aren’t actually into the subject matter – going places and doing things you aren’t really interested in is the definition of having a job for a lot of people. (And a lot of them put up with way too much shit because of it, if you caught the booth babe section earlier.) And sure, some of the ladies who describe themselves as geeks or gamers might not have the history that you feel sufficient to have earned that title … but, and I mean this with all the love and respect in the world, who gives a fuck what you consider worthy? You, and if you’re lucky, maybe a couple friends. That’s it. Stop mistaking your personal standards for scientific constants. Because there’s always a bigger fish in the geek sea, someone who knows a lot more than you about something you like to think you’re an authority on, and if you ask them about it you will find out just what kind of sad, sorry judge of human beings you’ve really been.
Honestly, the debate over fake geek girls reminds me a lot of the endless discussions about “poser punks” back during my days in the hardcore scene. You see, according to a number of angry self-appointed punk rock authorities, there are an awful lot of “poser punks” in the scene who just like to dress up in the style and pretend to like the music, but who aren’t Real Punks and therefore don’t know What It’s All About. (Sound familiar?) How to spot these wannabes was a subject of much intense discussion, of course. I remember one supposed authority setting out some very specific advisories, like a poser punk wouldn’t know who people like the Dead Boys or GG Allin were, or that they’d bought some of their gear at that notorious poser store Hot Topic, or that they hadn’t been to any shows in church basements or dive bars like real punks attended. All of which is total bullshit, of course. Plenty of punks have never listened to the Dead Boys, they can buy clothing from wherever the hell they want, and last I checked most of us didn’t actually like going to shitty and dangerous places to see shows, so why the hell would we make it a requirement? Most telling of all, I remember going to see Rancid when I was in college, and standing near the back of the crowd in my Operation Ivy shirt I unwisely remarked about how a lot of the “kids” there wouldn’t know why I was wearing my shirt to a Rancid show. A much older punk, who looked like the CBGB’s bathroom floor in human form except not as well maintained, heard my snide comment and took my head off about how all us asshole kids were ruining his scene, and how he hadn’t seen a real punk show worthy of the name since about 1988. It was a humbling moment, and one I’ve not forgotten – if you think you’re a gatekeeper for a whole scene, think again.
The most common and yet insidious way that this phenomenon is expressed in geek culture is “the quiz” – when a guy meets another guy at a convention, he automatically assumes that guy is as into it as he is and the two start chatting happily about their mutual interests. By contrast, a lot of guys still haven’t accepted the notion that there are ladies in their hobbies as well, and so when they meet they quiz them, sometimes subtly but often not, asking questions in an attempt to determine if the woman is a Real Geek like them. Most of the time, of course, they pick the most obscure or heavily bias-laden questions they can think of, so that when the lady doesn’t answer with exactly the response they wanted they can dismiss her as a fake and feel secure in their authority and their fandom.
Because that’s what it comes down to for a lot of insecure geek guys – they feel put upon because deep down one of the reasons they got into their hobby is often that it comfortably insulated them from the gender politics of middle school and high school, but now they feel that women are invading their territory, and so they lash out in any way they can. Which is doubly sad because there is no One True Authority, not in gaming, not in comics, not in anything geek related. I mean, I guess we could come up with some sort of all-purpose Geek Entertainment and Educational Knowledge Exam (GEEKE, pronounced “geeky”) , and make everyone take it before they’re allowed to register for Comic Con or host a larp, but really, how dumb is that? And yet we let people get away with a personal version of it all the time. And it needs to stop.
Threatening Rape Is Not Just “Trash Talk”
There’s been a fair amount of coverage lately about what women endure on gaming networks like Xbox Live and PSN, not to mention MMOs and other online gaming experiences – as soon as their gender is discovered, they receive a barrage of crude pickup attempts and pornographic images/requests, or are called sluts and whores and urged to “get raped”, and called thin-skinned and worse if they can’t handle it. “Trash talk is a part of gaming,” these boys say. “If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t play.” They’re not wrong about one part of that statement – yes, trash talk is part of gaming. Always has been, always will be. But there’s a difference between mocking an opponent’s gameplay and simply spouting a litany of racist, sexist and/or homophobic language into a microphone. That’s not a matter of being prudish, that’s simple linguistics.
To paraphrase the superb Extra Credits series, who addressed this problem very eloquently some time back, the problem is right now that we’ve given the idiots the megaphone. So naturally they’re shouting into it. We need to turn the culture around, and while I’ll let folks like EC tackle the difficulties of doing so on online gaming platforms, we can do a lot to shut down this bullshit in our gaming groups and at our geek events. So the next time you hear someone talking about “raping the other team” in TF2 or how “the NPCs just totally raped us” at your larp, I recommend that you call that person on their bullshit. Chances are if they’re a decent person they’ll just apologize and not do it again, but if they object, I’ve anticipated some of the common arguments for you:
* “Freedom of speech!” BZZT. Sorry, wrong. The First Amendment only says the government can’t stomp on your speech. It says nothing about what’s allowed on corporate-owned gaming networks, or at public gaming cons, or at your local larp. Also, you are specifically not protected from the consequences of your language. You are free to threaten people all you like, but they are just as free to call the cops on you for it, and guess who’s punished for it?
* “I didn’t mean anything by it! Chill out!” OK, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – but if it’s really not such a big deal, pick a different topic. Rape hits home with a lot more women – and men, for the record – than you know. Would you make a suicide joke to someone you know has suffered through family or friends committing suicide? No? So how about leaving out a topic that many people have only too much history with in their lives?
* “But what’s so different about threatening rape? Lots of guys say they’ll kill each other and don’t mean it!” If you ever needed an example of male privilege, you could pretty much just copy/paste these sentences into the dictionary. Let me try to keep it short, for those out there who don’t get it. Most of us were bullied at one time or another, and if so, you know the difference between a friend joking about kicking your ass as opposed to a bully really threatening to do it. We know one party isn’t a threat, but the other? Different story. Now imagine a total stranger bumps into and promptly threatens to beat you up – are you going to assume they’re kidding? Or, for safety’s sake, are you likely to take them just a little more seriously, just in case? Of course you are. Now throw in the fact that rape is not nearly the remote threat that murder is, especially for women, and you begin to understand the problem. So stop.
Oh, and Please Stop Assuming Women at Boffer Larps Can’t Fight As Well As You Can
This is a pet peeve of mine, but while we’re on the subject, guys, seriously, stop being so freaking clueless when it comes to women who can fight. I’ve been fighting at boffer larps for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is just plain sad to see how often the guys there just reflexively shoulder women out of the way when it comes to arranging shield walls, picking combat patrols and otherwise throwing down. What’s worse is that many of you don’t even seem to notice you’re doing it, you just unconsciously leave them out of the thick of things. So speaking as the husband of a Markland heavy fighter and all-around badass, who is also friends with many other badass larper ladies, please stop embarrassing yourselves. Watch someone fight and judge them on that, not anything else. And if you don’t think you have this prejudice, check your circuits, son, you’re getting bad signals – even I still struggle with this one from time to time and I most certainly know better.
A Final Word for the Guys
I know it seems like I’m on the warpath for a lot of this post, and let’s not kid each other, in many ways I am. I’m sad, and ashamed, and more than a little pissed off by some of the standards that this scene considers acceptable, and I want to help change them. And I know that a lot of you out there probably read sections of it and thought to yourselves, “That’s a pretty big generalization – that’s not true of me.” And I hope – I know – that’s the case for a lot of you. I painted with a pretty broad brush, and I know that gets some paint on the good guys as well as the bad. For that, I apologize. But the best way we can prove these are generalizations, and not true of all geek and gamer guys, is by living up to a higher standard. Not just by not being sexist ourselves, but by calling other guys on it when they try to pull some chauvinist bullshit, whether it’s making a rape reference in an online game, or groping a booth babe, or pushing the women aside when it’s time to stand shoulder to shoulder at a boffer larp. Don’t get me wrong, either – this isn’t about saving the ladies from wicked sexists. We don’t need more white knight bullshit clouding the issue. This is just about us looking at things that are awful and unfair and disgusting, and saying, “Fuck that, it stops here” and really meaning it. We can do it. I know we can. We have to.
Or in the words of John Custer to his son Jesse, from the incredible comic Preacher:
You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.
*Because of course you’re a virgin, nerd! And yes, that is also the plot of an episode of Veronica Mars. Well spotted, marshmellow, well spotted.
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!
Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.
For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:
The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.
OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:
WARNING! WARNING! HUGE
HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.
Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.
And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.
In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.
I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.
There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.
In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.
And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.
Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.
In honor of Dexcon this weekend, where hundreds of gamers are coming together for a weekend of dice rolling and debauchery, I thought I’d share a few little tips to help everyone make the most of their con (and maybe help break some bad habits at the table before they get started):
1) We’re All Nerds Here
Dystopia Rising creator Michael Pucci likes to open his larp sessions with some variation on the following advice: “Look around you. We’re all nerds! Everyone is here because they’re a geek who loves gaming! Enjoy it!” The message goes double for gaming cons: Leave the hatin’ at home, and focus on the fun instead. Try new things, play new games with new people, maybe learn some new tricks or even a new way of looking at an old game you never would have considered before. We’re all nerds. Embrace it.
2) Stay On Target
Most convention games have between 4-6 hours to hand out characters, explain the rules (for new folks), provide relevant background/setting material to set up the scenario and then actually play out a full, entertaining story, usually with a group of strangers who’ve never gamed together before. That’s a hell of challenge. So do your GM a favor and try to stay focused. Don’t be a humorless jerk about it, of course, but those long-winded war stories from other games can probably wait for the bar afterward, you probably don’t need to keep dropping character to talk about your other convention larps, and that game of Angry Birds on your iPad will still love you even if you don’t play for a few hours. You’ve only got a short time to play, so dive in!
3) Play Nice with Others
Don’t get me wrong – I know some con games thrive on PvP action. (The “everyone make characters for system X and have a huge gladiator brawl” is a storied con tradition, after all, as are the equally time-honored “let’s all make Evil characters and screw with each other” games.) But there’s a difference between your characters hating and fighting and scheming, and the players being at each others’ throats. Even the harshest PvP games are still games, after all, so the goal is to have fun. Be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat, and remember, it’s just a game, so enjoy it, and help everyone else at the table do so the same.
4) Respect the Shower Hour
I know that because of the limited convention time frame, gamers tend to maximize their playing time and minimize other needs like sleeping, eating properly and so on. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, and looking at my schedule for Dexcon right now, I’m no different in that respect. On top of that I’ll fully admit that I’m no daisy after six hours of larp in a small convention boardroom or five hours packed around a gaming table, and my nutritional plans never seem to quite be as healthy as I’d hope. I’m not going to say that the convention needs to schedule a designated Shower Hour between gaming rounds. (Though, now that I mention it…) Deodorant, mints, real food, a nap now and then, enough changes of clothes to see you through the weekend and doing battle with shampoo at least once a day – these things not only make you better suited to enjoy the games you’re playing, but your fellow gamers will appreciate it too.
5) Guys. Seriously.
I hate having to write this one, but some guys need the reminder, so here goes: There are lots of female gamers. I know to some of you it might seem like they just suddenly appeared in the time it took to get another case of Mountain Dew from the garage, but believe it or not, they’ve actually been here for a long time now, and not because their boyfriend dragged them into it. In fact, at a con I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that any lady you see with a badge and a backpack is there because she’s stoked to throw down in an Apocalypse World, or to see her Space Wolves wreck on some Necrons, or because her Gangrel is gonna slit throats and seize Praxis as soon as the sun goes down. So really, stop reciting rules at them like they don’t know what they’re doing, talking over them during planning sessions, offering unsolicited advice on the “best” move to make every time their turn comes up, quizzing their “cred” like the geek SATs, or worse yet assume that sharing a table and some laughs entitles you to share a hotel room later. It’s sad and obnoxious, and it needs to stop. For all the guys who don’t need this reminder, thank you, keep being awesome, and don’t hesitate to speak up and back up a lady if you see some tool trying to pull this sort of bad behavior. For all the ladies in these hobbies, thanks for coming out despite all the crap and the cavemen and the creepers, not to mention kicking some major ass besides. All too often we’re still like the short boys hugging the walls at the eighth grade dance, the ones that made you roll your eyes and long for the relative social graces and personal growth of high school guys, but don’t give up on us yet. We’ll catch up to y’all sooner or later, maturity-wise. Promise.
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.
“Santa, will you help me get my virginity back?” – from “The End of Hungry Santa”, a brand new story featured in The Lost
Do you like helping worthy charities? Do you like awesome short fiction? Did you ever wish you could support both AT THE SAME TIME? Then look no further! Check out the The Lost, an anthology of short stories about people who have fallen through the cracks and into the strange and terrifying world that exists just beneath our notice. Some tales are full of urban fantasy, some much closer to reality, but all of them will grab you.
Proceeds will benefit City Harvest, a charity doing genuine good work in NYC. From the great minds at Galileo Games, Brennan Taylor and J.R. Blackwell, and based on Jeff Himmelman’s fantastic Kingdom of Nothing RPG (though you’ll enjoy it just fine even if you haven’t played that), The Lost features nine stories of this other world by the likes of Shoshana Kessock, Sarah Newton, Meg Jayanth, Stephen D Rogers and yours truly.
For my part, writing “The End of Hungry Santa” was a surprisingly moving experience. I’ve long been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, not to mention I really enjoyed playing Kingdom of Nothing, so I jumped at a chance to work this anthology. I started off with kind of a funny concept – “What if there was this skinny old dude with a big bushy beard called Hungry Santa?” – and began working from there, adding all sorts of strange characters to his world as he muddled about on his questionable quest to find Saint Alice’s missing virginity. I didn’t intend it to be a farce, exactly, but there was definitely a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in the early going. A funny thing happened as I went on, however. I really began to care about Hungry Santa and his world, and the more I cared, the more real it became, the more I really wanted this poor screwed-up guy to finally do the right thing and maybe find some peace along the way. It’s not that it became humorless – far from it – but the humor changed as I came to sympathize with him more and more. When I was writing the final scenes, my wife looked over and was surprised to see me getting really choked up – I was genuinely proud of the man, doomed as he was, and the choices he made. And I hope you find him just as compelling.
So check it out, folks, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll help do some real good in this hungry season.
Here’s the link for the IndieGoGo drive itself: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/272507/
Here’s the link for City Harvest, if you want to check them out: http://www.cityharvest.org/
Here’s the link for Kingdom of Nothing: http://galileogames.com/kingdom-of-nothing/
One of the highlights of working in academia is the privilege of teaching creative writing classes. One of the first assignments I usually give is something I call “Artistic DNA”, where I ask students to list the 10 biggest creative influences in their lives. It can be stuff from the distant past all the way up to something that blew their mind the night before, so long as it really gets their heart pumping. I ask them to write 2-3 sentences explaining how they encountered that source, what about it inspires them, you name it. For the record, I usually return the favor – after all, if I know where they’re coming from, it’s only fair for them to hear what drives me too!
After a little while, though, I noticed a curious trend – students almost never listed any rappers or hip-hop groups as influences, or if they did, half of their write-up consisted of apologizing for it. Students who didn’t blink about writing up their love for torture porn horror franchises, sex-saturated HBO shows or video games with more violence than a couple of World Wars, nevertheless felt compelled to do the written equivalent of starting at their toes and muttering apologies. And this is an assignment I give out on the first or second day, so other than my basic appearance – youngish, white & nerdy, thankyewverymuch – I don’t think I’ve given them any reason to believe I’d disapprove of rap or hip-hop.
What broke my heart the most about it was that I’ve seen a number of talented poets, not to mention students with definite poetic potential, yet very few of them are familiar with even a handful of hip-hop artists, aside from what they’re aware of as part of larger popular culture anyway. Obviously, knowledge of hip-hop or any particular musical discipline isn’t a requirement for being a good poet – though the idea of Emily Dickinson throwing down with John Donne in a freestyle battle has definite appeal – but it seems like a particularly terrible loss that a lot of students are embarrassed to even talk about it, let alone admit that they might enjoy it. Especially with poets, who are writing in the middle of another incredibly vital, experimental and explosive phase in the history of the discipline. Because honestly? Some of the best poets working today do it from behind a mic, backed by a beat.
Crazy, right? But you’d be hard-pressed to top a lot of rappers when it comes to an intuitive understanding of manipulating words and sounds, playing with complex schemes of rhymes and repetitions, making smart references and allusions, and otherwise displaying elements of – wait for it – great poetry. Whether or not you love the subject matter – and if you think hip-hop is all gangsta rap or glorification of material excess, hit me up and I’ll hook you up with some serious thinkers who happen to have their lectures on records – it’s hard to argue with the fact that I’d take a talent like Eminem or Nas over a lot of other modern poets without hesitation or apology.
Uh oh. I said the “E” word.
I remember the first time I mentioned in class that I listen to Eminem. I got a lot of blank looks – ok, I get those sometimes anyway – and some actual, no fooling, jaw dropping. It prompted a great discussion, where we talked about separating the artist from the work, or understanding the enjoying an artist doesn’t mean that you endorse all of their personal beliefs. Just in case anyone is unclear, though, let me state it again for the record: I’ve never followed Eminem’s personal life, and there are things in his lyrics I definitely don’t support: drug use, homophobia, and misogyny, just to start. But I watch a lot of Scorcese movies too, and it doesn’t mean I approve of the Mafia or the brutal violence endemic to their culture. And I wouldn’t let my young cousins listen to a lot of his stuff, at least until they were old enough to separate fiction from reality. (See? Apparently even I’m not immune to some need to make apologies when this subject comes up.) Which is ridiculous, because if you sit back and listen to Eminem, just hear the way he weaves his words, finds rhymes in unlikely places and drops allusions from way out of left field, you realize a simple truth:
The kid is a damn fine poet.
That’s it. There’s really not much else to say, except perhaps to add he’s certainly not the only one. I think it’s a shame that there’s such an odd stigma on it, especially considering its popularity- students never hesitate to list other styles of music, or really any other form of entertainment, but rap and hip-hop exist in this curious hole in the world. They love listening to it, but feel it will somehow diminish their standing to admit it, when in actuality it’s like any other art form, with plenty to teach you if you listen. Sure, like any art form it has its vapid practitioners, but there’s a lot of it worth fighting for. Go ahead. Take a listen.
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
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.
InSpectres – Jared 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.
When I teach my creative writing course, one of the most important lessons that I try to pass on is the need to open up to a work of art, whether it’s a novel, an album, a television show, a painting, a live performance or whatever else they’re experiencing. I tell them to actively engage, to not just sit back and let it wash over them, but give it their whole attention and not be afraid of feeling a strong reaction.
For some reason, our culture tends to encourage us to experience art from a guarded, even cynical perspective – it’s the equivalent of going to see a stage magician but rather than relaxing in your seat with a smile on your face, instead sitting down in a huff, crossing your arms and barking out “Impress me.” Which makes very little sense when you consider that you’ve paid for your ticket and made the time to see the show – why approach it with such a hostile point of view? Even a “free” medium such as most television isn’t really free, as you’re still investing your time.
The comparison I make is asking my students to think of a time that they tried to show a friend a movie that they loved, one that their friend had never seen before. They sit down to watch the film, but as soon as it starts, their friends starts talking through it, texting constantly, taking phone calls, etc. The frustration they’d feel is exactly what an artist feels when people don’t give a work of art a chance – and that’s really all it is, giving something a chance. Taking the time to let it do its best, and see what happens. If you watch a movie, and I mean really watch it – not multitask with it as background noise – and it doesn’t engage you, then you’ve done everything you’re supposed to as the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, when I say “open” I don’ mean “uncritical” – if you give art your time, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s fine to express that disappointment. I also don’t advocate giving every work of art the same level of deep analysis – while it’s important to understand why you do/don’t love a work of art, taking apart a Jackie Chan movie the same way you analyze a Truffaut film is doing both of them a bit of a disservice. Over-analysis is as bad as no analysis at all, really, as it sucks out the joy of art just as surely as lack of engagement misses the joy entirely.
But one of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the years is to drop your guard and let art do what it will – make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Rather than sit back with my arms folded and wait for it to impress me, I go to it and encourage it to tell its story. It’s been an amazing transformation.
I was talking to some folks about cheating and game design not too long ago, and it was such a fun conversation I figured I’d share some of the conclusions. Basically, it boils down to recognizing three types of people.
1) A small number of people will basically never cheat, even if an easy opportunity presents itself.
2) A large number of people will cheat, but only if it is relatively easy and seems to carry low risk of getting caught.
3) A small number of people will almost always cheat, even if it’s very difficult, time-consuming and/or risky.
You don’t really have to worry about group #1 or group #3 – well, you do have to worry about #3, but only so far as catching them. You won’t be able to deter them, though; no matter how hard you make it for them to cheat, they will try it anyway. (There are many reasons why they are so persistent, but that’s another discussion for another day.) The trick is setting up the rules to make cheating just difficult and/or risky enough to deter group #2, the people who are normally honest but don’t mind taking shortcuts, especially when they see others doing it. Or to put it another way, you need to balance putting in so many safeguards the test becomes impossibly long and complex against having so few that the honest people find themselves wondering why they didn’t just take a few shortcuts. It’s what security experts call the “deadbolt effect” – you don’t need a deadbolt to keep out honest people, and it won’t stop determined criminals either. But it will deter casual snooping, amateur criminals and other crimes of opportunity.
One of the things that undermines a lot of good game design is the designers feel they have to go beyond deadbolts and install a full-on laser grid. They work endlessly to plug loopholes, scale back rules and abilities to avoid abuse, and otherwise make their games as airtight as possible. The problem is that, after a certain point, avoiding abuse starts diminishing the game itself. This is particularly true when it comes to combat, where a lot of games spend so much time trying to close possible cheating problems that they forget the purpose of gaming is fun, not making sure no one can ever possibly abuse it. They underestimate the power of the table, namely, that game groups can and should police their own.
That very notion, in fact, is one of my favorite trends that has emerged in tabletop gaming, especially in the indie field – the idea that rather than design a game to foil cheaters and power gamers, folks should simply design games the way they want them to be, and let groups worry about sending losers and creeps packing. Houses of the Blooded has my personal favorite mechanic for this: Bad Form. Whenever a player tries to manipulate the rules to do things they oughtn’t, the Narrator simply says “Bad Form” and that’s it. No need to argue rules for hours – if it violates the spirit of having fun, just say “Bad Form” and move on. Elegant simplicity.
Don’t get me wrong – I think deterring cheating is still an important element of game design, whether it means trying to plug a loophole or simply calling attention to it so that groups know it might come up during play. But the more people learn the value of the deadbolt effect, the more time we can spend creating awesome games, and the less time we have to devote in trying to discourage jerks from breaking in an rifling our stuff.
So, there’s an amazing little show called The Wire.
You may have heard about it.
I come back and revisit it from time to time. It’s one of those very rare series that simply gets better with time and repeated viewings. If you’re not familiar, it’s a series that follows a web of criminals, police and civilians in Baltimore. It begins with a single police unit investigating a drug operation in the west Baltimore slums, and grows organically outward from there over five seasons, touching on a lot of areas of the city: the slums, the port, the schools, the paper, the mayor’s office at city hall, you name it. You can feel the love that David Simon has for his city, but also the hurt and outrage that he feels over what has happened to it, the waste and corruption that he sees sinking it. Characters come and go, but one of the most impressive things about the show is the fact that despite the large and shifting cast, it never loses its footing, never feels like it’s casting about or trying to reinvent itself.
And the writing. Sweet mercy, the writing.
The dialogue snaps and pops hotter than bacon frying, and the plots wander as slyly as burglars casing a neighborhood, looking natural but constantly scheming under the surface. Things rarely play out quite the way you expect, but don’t go for sensation, cheap twists or other lazy tricks. Instead, the surprises come from the fact that the series almost never follows television conventions – things unfold more or less as they do in real life, which makes them even stranger and more powerful. It’s a testament to trusting your material, really, and letting it take you where it will, instead of forcing it to take some more unnatural shapes. It manages to employ a lot of moral ambiguity without falling into cynicism or resorting to stage-y ethical conflicts. You find a lot to sympathize with on all sides, and a lot that leaves you feeling really conflicted, and some things that just outright shock you.
Just listening to the dialogue is a master class on its own. It’s not unusual for a series to get one “sound” right – the streets, maybe, or the police. The Wire manages to hit every group and make it sound natural and effortless. You come to love certain characters just because of the way they talk – my favorite’s Proposition Joe, though Omar and the Bunk are close behind. It’s incredible to hear so many unique voices, especially with so many characters to juggle, you’d figure that sooner or later someone would get lazy, write some filler. But it just doesn’t happen.
So sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, or just need a fix of some fine writing to jumpstart my own inspiration, I put it on like some people put on the Beatles, and just sit back and listen to the poetry. If you haven’t, give it a try. I’ll tell you this much – it takes about three episodes to kick in. Those first couple are a little confusing, not because they’re poorly written, but because they refuse to play like the television we’re used to, wrapping things up neatly each episode, with clearly defined arcs and outcomes. Then it kicks in, the shape of the series starts to emerge, and damn! Off you go.
Enjoy. And listen carefully.
In the movies, it’s easy to know when someone realizes how much someone means to them. The music swells, the camera zooms, the dialogue slows down and the actor(s) focus everything on a single point. Realization dawns on them, and then they march off to war, turn the cab around on the way to the airport, put on a tutu and dance in their kid’s recital, etc. It’s simple, and even though there may be more obstacles in the way, we know that they will find a way to express it eventually.
In life, unfortunately it’s the bad more often than the good that pushes these moments. (I blame the lack of orchestral musical cues.) It’s another cliche that we only recognize what we love, what we value, when we are on the edge of losing it. But like folktales and good lies, most cliches have an element of truth to them. Those moments force us to put our hands against the mural we make of our lives and remember that for all its beauty, it’s still just stained glass. It only ever takes a little pressure to bring it down around us. Even if, looking back, we realize we might not have been so close to the edge as we thought at the time, that never really matters. The knowledge we gain is all that counts.
That’s where I am tonight, watching the weather howling on the other side of all the colors and swirls. I love so many people, and I want them to be okay. I want to see the sun come up tomorrow morning and shine through that mural without so much as a single piece out of place. I love each one so much it just about breaks my heart.
Between anticipation for the new Deus Ex installment, reading the superb Eclipse Phase game and a couple of books like Soft Apocalypse and Altered Carbon, the future’s been on my mind lately. A couple years back, I was introduced to the concept of transhumanism, which can be briefly described as a philosophy that seeks to anticipate and sometimes even precipitate what’s going to happen to humanity in the next 10, 20 or 100 years. One of the big things about a lot of transhumanist writing that sets it apart from more traditional views of the future is that it tends to take a close look at the changes that will happen within us, both as individuals and as a species, as opposed to external changes and technologies.
To put it another way, for traditional science fiction, think of Star Trek. In that vision of the future, almost all the technological advancement is external. Human beings are basically unchanged physiologically (though that might have had more to do with the makeup budget in some cases). Sure, they have awesome medical advances, and occasionally you find out that someone like Picard is actually a super cyborg with a crazy artificial heart, but otherwise they deal in external technologies: holodecks, starships, phasers, three level chess sets, Mr. Data. When he looked forward, Rodenberry saw a future like our present, only with better toys.
By contrast, for a more transhumanist view of the future, read the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis’ gonzo, foul-mouthed, hardboiled and venomously optimistic opus. In this future, there’s plenty of external technology – most of it weapons, predictably enough – but it pales in comparison to the stuff that people have done to themselves. Genetic engineering, cybernetic augmentation, neural enhancements, cryogenic statis, even migration of consciousness into clouds of nanotechnology. In other words, Ellis looked at the future and figured that we’d use all of our wonderful advances to get high, score more often and otherwise enjoy ourselves. When we weren’t killing each other in new and interesting ways, that is. Transhumanism isn’t necessarily that gonzo and decadent, but the heart was there.
Personally, I look into the future, and I see the next decade or so bringing big changes. I think we’re going to see a few big leaps – restoring sight, restoring hearing, improved prosthetics, etc. – and I think I may be a little bit too conservative, on the whole. I think of the future and I keep hearing “This Is the Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde, though if you know your musicals, that’s not necessarily the best omen. But I think we’ll manage. I hope we do, because I’m an optimist at heart, and I think we have it in us to go more Star Trek than Transmet.
Though I would love a bucket of caribou eyes.
So here’s my question for you out there in reader land:
What do you think we’ll see in the next 10 years?