May 2018

This is a continuing series of blog posts that exposes the raw ego, naked agony, and rare raptures associated with designing a live action role playing event, The Dreamlands, from scratch. I hope this collection of self-reflections serves you as either an inspirational anthem or a cautionary tale of dire warning—it might be both.

Thanking the GMs, fellow players and Enigma at the LARPY Awards

Mike Tice thanking the GMs, fellow players and Enigma at the LARPY Awards

“I don’t know what all this trouble is about, but I’m sure it must be your fault.” – C3PO to R2D2 (Star Wars)

Larp Design

I postponed The Dreamlands larp. There were not enough players to support the structure (close, but not quite), nor did I have enough time to assemble or build everything I wanted. I overbooked myself this year, and now I pay the price. However, this means that I have more time to prepare the larp for spring 2014 and write some more articles about it. This delay of the larp dovetails nicely with something I’ve wanted to talk about for a while: blame and credit.

To whom do you hold accountable for your experience at a larp?

I see four entities contributing to the overall role-playing escapade:

  1. The larpwright(s), scenario writer(s), or system/rules creator(s)
  2. The event staff/GMs (not always the game designer)
  3. The other participants (NPCs or PCs)
  4. Yourself

Of course a combination of the above is possible and likely. But can you differentiate between each? If you have a good time or a miserable time at a larp, whose fault is that? Here are some examples.

Years ago I designed and ran a western one-shot theater style larp (though we did use Nerf guns) with elements from H.P. Lovecraft, earning it the pejorative description “Cactus Cthulhu” from some players upset that the Mythos elements were (intentionally) hidden from them until mid-game. Regardless, one player playing a thief was cornered by Pinkerton agents and shot near the end of the event. Recently, this player told me that it wasn’t my fault for her character being shot. “There weren’t enough GMs in the game,” she said. She blames the staffing, or lack thereof, for her character’s demise. But I look at it differently: she played a thief. The lawmen (and woman) deduced her secret identity and moved to collect her bounty. This occurred without a GM present. The combat mechanics were understood and properly enacted and obeyed by all participants. Is it the designer’s fault for creating a character that was wanted by authorities and allowing Pinkertons to be in the game, or the GMs for not monitoring every conflict? Are the other players at fault for playing their goals to the mortal end, or is it the fallacy of the thief player herself, for being plugged with lead?

Kevin Moran after his acceptance speech

Kevin Moran after his acceptance speech at the 2006 Larpy Awards

A converse example: at my first fantasy boffer campaign as a PC, I attacked everyone in the game with an area affect fire spell: “By the sound of my voice…5 fire.” Personally I greatly enjoyed the scene, as I spent the next thirty minutes braying in blubbery shame. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to make it up to the PCs. I had a great time, but other players still resent me. They didn’t have “fun,” the false god of larps (read my article on fun here). I don’t know if attacking the other characters was against the rules, so was it the designer’s fault for not telegraphing clear restrictions against character vs. character (CvC) action? Was it the GM’s fault for not stopping me or calling a hold and ret-conning the spell? Was it the NPC’s fault (I befriended a demon in disguise, I thought he was a PC) for encouraging the power display, or was it solely my fault for deciding to go ahead with it?

Another example from the second run of Rock Band Murder Mystery at Intercon, a larp I designed with Morgan Joeck. One of the first turning points of the narrative occurs upon discovering a body. In this run, many minutes went by before anyone saw her–I paid cash to a model to role-play a dead hooker in the con hotel; phrasing that casting notice took finesse. When she was finally found, the lone witness took clever steps to hide and then dispose of the body. But the plot couldn’t really move unless the other players saw the corpse. As a GM, I pushed fiat and made up an excuse to breach the secret among the other players and keep the plot rolling. Whom would you blame for the frozen plot: the design team, who should have constructed the opening reveal better; the GMs for not tipping the scales sooner; the other players for not investigating better; or the person who found the body, who stayed true to character and did everything right to conceal the stiff?

A final anecdote: in a film noir theater larp, one character played a police officer. After the first murder, the cop called everyone into the living room and prevented anyone from leaving. The plot could not continue, the game faltered and then fell. Whose fault? The designer for creating the character, the GM for allowing him to exert his authority, the other players for going along with it, or the cop character’s puppetmaster (player) for enforcing his auth-or-i-tah?

These examples are merely thought exercises for you because, I think, the answers reveal your approach to live action role playing. Are you someone who believes that you pay good money to be entertained, and the GMs damn well better give you what you paid for, or are you a loner who makes your own joy no matter what else is going on?

I don’t believe that any larp system is foolproof. No matter how good the rules (however you define “good”), I feel that a poor GM team or malefic players can derail even the best system. So, too, can a responsive GM or passionate participants turn weak or nonexistent rules into a profound experience.

A 2006 Larpy Award winner and two presenters (including baseball player Jose Canseco)

A 2006 Larpy Award winner and two presenters (including baseball player Jose Canseco)

And of course your own input into the mix is critical. I’ve had moments of incredible joy in terrible larps, and I’ve let myself and others down in extremely well designed, well-run events (sorry to everyone that played in “The Yearbook” with me at Intercon M).

Of course each larp, each larper, is different. But I think it’s important for all of us to know which way the four winds blow that whip any larp: the designers, the GMs, the other PCs, and you.

What can you do to ensure the best circumstances for a good experience? You can’t control everything, but here are some things to think about:

  • As a player, did you read the rules and lore? Did you spend enough time on them to comprehend them, at least for your character? If not, did you ask for clarification? Do you play to make the best larp experience for yourself or for others? Do you play to win, or play to lose? Do you use any metagaming techniques to adjust or reflect on your role-playing before, during or after the larp?
  • If you are a larp designer, did you make your rules simple or complex? Clear or opaque? Did you leave room for others to modify or change your rules, either the GM staff or the players themselves?
  • If you are running a larp, do you know when and how to subtly “rescue” players from themselves or the plot and when to let them twist? Have you adequately explained the rules and mechanics? Have you made yourself available to the players? Do you pick sides and favor some PCs over others?

I hope that a few moments of reflection and constructive criticism—of yourself as well as others, externally or internally—will lead to greater knowledge of yourself, of what you enjoy in larps, where and how to get it.

In the comments below, tell us about one of your favorite or worst larp moments. Who do you think caused that to happen: the game designer, the GMs, the other players, you, or a combination? 


Check out the rest of the series: Filling Space (1), No Fun (2), and PVP and PVE Fighting in a Locked Cage (3).продвижениесайтапродвижениепрограмма для android взлома wi fiбампер для iphone 5варианты оформления договора банковского вклада предусмотренные гкslots gratis casino 770massage parlour in dubaibet casinoPay with phone creditтур на майские с киевастеп братиславская

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  1. Mike Young December 16, 2013 9:28 AM

    I think trying to point the finger of blame in these situations is anti-effective. Instead, what you need to do is look at your design and logistic habits and refine them. Also, communicate your expectations with the players.

    In the local larp scene, the GMs also had the same frustrations as you. The players would sit on clues and information or act in ways that kept the game from progressing as the GMs would prefer. (There is the argument to be made that the game is still progressing, just in a different way. I don’t buy it, because it’s progressing in a way that is frustrating to a good deal of the player base, but maybe if everyone were on board with it).

    So as a GM, you need to communicate expectations. Examples…
    – In this larp, the players are working as a party and player vs. player combat is not expected or appreciated.
    – There is a good deal of information out there that needs to be shared with the player base. If you do not share it, the larp may stagnate and the GMs may take actions to see that the information reaches all the players.
    – In this larp, player character death is possible, even likely. Please be prepared for your character to die and make arrangements to have a backup character or to play a series of NPCs for the rest of the event.
    – This LARP contains a surprise. I didn’t want to even spoil it even this much, but do not expect it to be just a straight Victorian sitting room.

    Let the players know what is expected of them not just as characters but also as participants. Teach them and train them. Reward them for larp-positive behavior and have ways to deal with the times when the players decide to go against the grain of the larp.

  2. Bill McIninch December 16, 2013 9:58 AM

    To me, the ultimate enjoyment involves taking what the game designers have & conspiring with the other players (formally OR by careful tweaking & hints) to take the game in a novel direction and mess with the GM’s heads. In some of the better cases, I’ve ended up with the designers & GMs adding goals or character detail suggestions for future runs. A successful game is always a collaboration of all concerned. The hidden stiff case, for example, is one where I would have hidden the body, but been deliberately sloppy in a way that would require others to be clever, mainly because their reactions give me more to do as well.

    • Mike Young December 16, 2013 10:29 AM

      As a larp GM, I applaud players taking the game in a novel direction; I love seeing the players taking what I’ve written and making something beautiful and brilliant out of it.

      I don’t want them to mess with my head, though. My head is messed up enough as it is.

    • Cam December 17, 2013 5:42 PM

      I like your solution, Bill! I think that role-play is all about context switching, and holding multiple contexts is crucial to good game play. With luck, the collaborative player can consider the characters needs, their own needs, the needs of the other players and the needs of the game as a whole with out giving up conflict or tension in the narrative.

  3. Elin Dalstål December 16, 2013 1:15 PM

    Perhaps our experinces differ a little but I think most times larps are self reparing systems. Often when one element fails for some reasons other elements will step up and adress the issue.

    Take this example:

    “A final anecdote: in a film noir theater larp, one character played a police officer. After the first murder, the cop called everyone into the living room and prevented anyone from leaving. The plot could not continue, the game faltered and then fell. Whose fault? The designer for creating the character, the GM for allowing him to exert his authority, the other players for going along with it, or the cop character’s puppetmaster (player) for enforcing his auth-or-i-tah?”

    In my expeince in most cases the people involves will realize that the move is game blocking and some party will find some elegant way to work around it. The issue will perhaps arise, but the larp structure will most often act as a self reparing system and work around it.

    Or at least if there is a game culture where people know they are expected to do that when there is a problem with some game element.

    • Aaron Vanek December 16, 2013 6:27 PM

      Hi Elin

      I think larps in America CAN be self-repairing systems, but that doesn’t happen unless people are able to determine what is going wrong. We don’t really have larp design schools or programs here (there are exceptions, and we are getting some, but they are rare), nor is there any manual on how to run a larp. Therefore, it’s not immediately apparent to everyone involved that:

      A) Something is wrong
      B) What is wrong (which category, see above)
      C) What to do about it

      The only way to figure this out is to bring it out into the open and discuss it, which is what I am trying to do. In the policeman example you cited above, that group (Enigma) figured out how to play around things like that for future games, but for that one game, no.

      We learn either by experience–iterations, making mistakes–or by rote, e.g., reading of other larps or talking to other larpers about their mistakes.

      Thus if you read the header of my Design articles, each one is intended to do just that for larp designers: either reinforce what you already know/do, give you an idea to try something, or warn you from doing the same mistake I did.

      That’s great if your larp community has these things already figured out. In that instance, you might consider writing for Larping.org yourself of starting a blog to educate the other larp communities that haven’t. You are also free to ignore this column if the points are already inculcated into your participants.


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