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.
“I don’t know what all this trouble is about, but I’m sure it must be your fault.” – C3PO to R2D2 (Star Wars)
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:
- The larpwright(s), scenario writer(s), or system/rules creator(s)
- The event staff/GMs (not always the game designer)
- The other participants (NPCs or PCs)
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?
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.
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?