20
January 2018

larp design

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

Dec 16, 2013

This is Part II in a 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. Part I can be found here. 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.

No fun, my babe, no fun. –“No Fun” by The Stooges

When describing live action role playing, I surmise the most oft-used descriptor is FUN. I am not against fun, I think fun is…fun. But I don’t follow when fun becomes the sole driver or benchmark of success for a live action role playing event.

First, I always have to ask, fun for whom? The players? The designers? The majority of participants? Everyone?

Second, I always look at the fact that fun for me may not be fun for you, and vice versa.

Third, I don’t think larps are required to be fun to be valuable experiences.

What if your larp designer is working out issues and really, really wants to TPK in an explosion of misanthropic self-loathing? If fun for her is directly proportional to the misery of the players, is that OK? If not, why not?

morgan jarl

Morgan Jarl as the last man from “Mad About the Boy”, photo by Li Xin

One of my favorite stories from the New Yorker magazine is “The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte. It begins:

The Dungeon Master has detention. We wait at his house by the county road. The Dungeon Master’s little brother Marco puts out corn chips and orange soda.

Marco is a paladin. He fights for the glory of Christ. Marco has been many paladins since winter break. They are all named Valentine, and the Dungeon Master makes certain they die with the least possible amount of dignity.

It’s painful enough when he rolls the dice, announces that a drunken orc has unspooled some of Valentine’s guts for sport. Worse are the silly accidents. One Valentine tripped on a floor plank and cracked his head on a mead bucket. He died of trauma in the stable.

“Take it!” the Dungeon Master said that time. Spit sprayed over the top of his laminated screen. “Eat your fate,” he said. “Your thread just got the snippo!”

The Dungeon Master has a secret language that we don’t quite understand. They say he’s been treated for it.

Whenever the Dungeon Master kills another Valentine, Marco runs off and cries to their father. Dr. Varelli nudges his son back into the study, sticks his bushy head in the door, says, “Play nice, my beautiful puppies.”

“Father,” the Dungeon Master will say, “stay the fuck out of my mind realm.”

“I honor your wish, my beauty.”

Dr. Varelli says things like that. It’s not a secret language, just an embarrassing one. Maybe that’s why his wife left him, left Marco and the Dungeon Master, too. It’s not a decent reason to leave, but as the Dungeon Master hopes to teach us, the world is not a decent place to live.

Would you like to play in that DM’s D&D campaign? Wouldn’t that be fun? What if it was fun for him? Doesn’t he deserve fun in his role-playing game? Again: fun for whom?

In one of my more memorable moments as a PC, I played a fire mage in a long-running Southern California fantasy—excuse me, “dark fantasy”, like both kinds of music that Bob’s Country Bunker plays—campaign. This weekend camper was my first appearance as a PC, and the second time in my 25-year history of larping that I slept in a tent.

My fire mage was a graduate student that took 20 years to get a degree from the realm’s Hogwarts. He was past his expiration date, solely book-learned, socially awkward, had never witnessed combat, and, although a master of impressive fire spells, he had no idea to what extent they could be used to harm living things.

On the first night of the larp my mage celebrated graduation (at last!) from the magic academy and had too much to drink. After master swordsmen and swordswomen fought for sport, he/I staggered into the dueling pit to showcase my magical abilities in the hope that someone would hire me, since I was now out of school and had student loans to pay. I threw a few fireballs at a dummy target to little notice. I wanted to highlight my biggest spell, so infused with liquid courage and spurred by an NPC demon in disguise (I found out after the game that he was a demon), I screamed at the top of my lungs “By the sound of my voice, five fire damage!”

Thus I nuked everyone to introduce my character.

I heard people screaming “Resist!” and the demon NPC, whom I thought was my friend (he was the only one who was talking to me), said “That was great! Can you do it again?” And then I slowly yelled “By the sound of my voice…” allowing the other PCs to subdue me with the flat of their blades.

I “woke up” in the tavern, sober due to the ice bucket of grievous error. I started crying (fer reals) asking if anyone died, if everyone was OK, I didn’t mean it, boo-hoo, emo me. Outwardly, my character was traumatized, and I spent the rest of the larp trying to make amends. Inwardly, I was having the time of my life! THIS WAS FUN!

But for other players, woodsy rangers and the like, they took serious damage and had to get healed. Was it fun for them to interrupt their role-playing to get mana bactine because some idiot PC firebombed them? Probably not. Different strokes for different folks.

As a larp designer, though, I have to consider everyone’s idea of fun, including my own. Therein lies one of the central conflicts in live action role playing: what makes a larp fun? It is always subjective, dependent on the participant’s personality at that point in time as well as the role-playing of others. What is un-fun at one point in time might lead to delicious joy a few moments later, depending on circumstances that I, as a designer and GM of a larp, can’t always (and often refuse to) control. In a future article I’ll examine the issue of responsibility in a larp; in short, there is a dance between everyone involved as to what is fun or not. I’ve run events, larp and not, that some people hated yet others considered the most magical, amazing time of their lives.

 

Finally, I don’t believe that an effective larp must be a fun larp. Markus Montola wrote a percipient essay entitled “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Playing”, with the following abstract:

Fun is often seen a necessary gratification for recreational games. This paper studies two freeform role-playing games aiming to create extremely intense experiences of tragedy, horror, disgust, powerlessness and self-loathing, in order to gratify the self-selected group of experienced role-players. Almost all of the 15 interviewed players appreciated their experiences, despite crying, experiencing physiological stress reactions and feeling generally “bad” during the play.

I enjoy attending larp-like events such as Accomplice the Show and Halloween haunted houses like Delusion. Last year my wife and I went to Blackout, an “extreme haunted house” that began in New York and oozed into Los Angeles. You are required to sign a waiver and given a safeword before walking through the rooms alone where you will be cruelly pushed, roughly shoved, raw groped, your face smeared with fake blood, force-fed something nasty, your wrists cuffed tightly and pressed to kneel for a long time on concrete with a plastic bag wrapped around your head. In one room, a naked man crammed my face into a messy mattress and “masturbated” over me (onanistic experts would say he was faking)—before tossing me out of the room like soiled tissue because he couldn’t climax.

Blackout was chiefly a repulsive expenditure of two hours (mostly spent waiting in line) and sixty dollars. But I don’t consider it a waste of time nor money. It made me understand myself better in ways that don’t come easily in a semi-comfortable, cushioned first-world existence. I have no plans to attend again and rate it a zero on the fun meter, but do I regret it? Not hardly.

Please note:

  • I am not saying all or even most larps have to be like Blackout.
  • I am not saying you are required to experience an un-fun larp.
  • I am not saying un-fun larps are better than fun larps.
  • I am not saying fun is to be eschewed in larps.
  • Most importantly, I am not saying that I am designing The Dreamlands to be un-fun. I am aiming for fun as a component of that larp, but it is not the only nor the lead goal.

I am saying that defining and rating larps solely by their “fun quotient” is, to me, reductive.

For The Dreamlands I seek to provide an environment and tools so that participants, myself included, can have fun, but primarily I hope to create something that is meaningful, memorable, worthwhile, provocative, or, when my ego is especially bloated, epiphanic. If turns out only to be fun, that’s great, I don’t disparage fun larps in any way. The world is horrible, fun is palliative.

But I also believe that larps can be — and some already are — so much more than fun-making activities. Fulfillment might not be fun, but it is a worthy aspiration, even for live action role playing.

What is your definition of a fun larp experience? Do you enjoy ‘bad’ experiences in character, or does it take away from your ideal game? Join in the discussion below!

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Jun 10, 2013
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