Radio Silence

Sorry, it’s all gone a bit quiet around here. I’m currently expending most of my LARP-brain energy on writing a basic system to use for our next LARP, which means I have less time for abstract theory in amidst all the annoying maths, and trying to work out how to mechanically incentivise certain kinds of behaviour without over-incentivising them.

Regular blogging should resume next week (with any luck) when I shall probably start jabbering on about setting design, because that’s more-or-less next on my to do list, and is generally my favourite bit of the whole thing.

Horror in LARP, part 3

Warning, this one gets a little incoherent.  I’m clearly trying to have an idea here, I’m just not sure what it is yet.

So, having basically said that I think horror is being alone and helpless in the dark, and therefore not terribly well suited to the agency-prizing communal space of LARP, it’s time to look at what I think can be made to work.

The short version is that it’s all about what’s in the character’s heads.  It’s no accident that White Wolf’s World of Darkness games are as popular as they are, being pretty much the only commonly-played LARP system where internalised horror is a mechanical part of the system.

The most effective horror in LARP is the stuff that the characters cannot get away from, because it is them.  As I said yesterday, I don’t think externalised horror works very well – at least not in a way it’s easy to design for.  But internalised horror can work very well.  The battle scene is not horrifying – even with the best prep and make-up in the world, it’s well, it’s not real. But the character who has killed a dozen people with their bare hands, and does not feel bad about it, that can be horrifying.  Not so much to other players (because in many respects they’re just another externalised monster), but to themselves, and to the player playing them.

And of course, it’s a strength entirely unique to LARP.  In every other medium, the monster is other – even in a movie or novel told from the monster’s perspective, the person consuming the medium is not the monster.  In LARP (and roleplaying in general) we have the opportunity to try and see what it’s like inside their head.  And then we can get horror that operates on a couple of levels: firstly the purely IC level as we play the character who is horrified at themselves.  The character who knows they should feel bad about their actions, but finds that there is something inside them that is happy at what they’ve done.  Secondly, we can get the extra level of horror – that we as players can conceive of these things, and, because we’re inside their heads, we can understand, and even empathise with them.

The World of Darkness games do this very well.  They trap the characters between voluntarily doing monstrous things, and having to confront and come to terms with the fact that they are not good people (and of course that realisation can make them capable of worse things), or involuntarily doing much worse things.  It’s actually easier to do the worse things, because there’s a way in which they’re not 100% culpable for them – their curse, their affliction, the thing that makes them other than human, that’s what’s at fault.  All they have to do is externalise it, and they can let themselves off the hook.

And it’s so easy to agree with that point of view.  Of course we, as normal humans, can understand it.  We can find ways to consider their struggle noble, and excuse the crimes they commit in its name.  The horror is all about what goes on in the characters’ heads, and on a meta-level, the horror is that we can understand it.

But for all they do this kind horror better than most LARP systems, in that they leave each character effectively alone in the dark, with the monster.  What the WoD games I have played (and run) have done less well at is fusing that sort of horror with something actually scary.  For any number of practical reasons, we don’t often play what it’s like to wake up in a room full of corpses, covered in someone else’s blood, and to know that you killed them.  We don’t play out the moment of terror itself – it’s almost like we’re always playing the last five minutes of the horror movie, where all that is left is the ruin.

Like I say, LARP is not a form suited to horror.

I’m just going to close this one off with a talk that is not specifically about horror – it’s about a principle of lightweight LARP design, but the LARP used as an example is a horror LARP called Pan, which, from what the designer is saying, kind of proves my point.  The horror they reached for is all born from something psychological and personal, and even then, what they got was creepy and intense but not the full-on horror movie experience.

But of course, that’s OK.  While they couldn’t do a straight horror movie, a horror movie couldn’t do what they did, either.

Horror in LARP, part 2

So here’s my start point with horror in LARP: it is incredibly bloody hard.  It may even be unworkable.  (I should say at the outset that I am aware that one could run special events that get around any of the individual limits that I’m laying out here, but for the sake of the argument I’m defining here, I want to take what I think can reasonably described as a “regular form” LARP – a minimum of a dozen PCs, in a place where we worry about people’s physical and mental safety, and the goal is to have fun in some form.)

I’m not saying you can’t scare people.  I’m not saying you can’t given them a terrific, adrenaline packed hour, two hours, weekend, whatever.  But scaring people is scaring people.  It’s not horror.  I could pack a LARP time in with jump scares and special effects to frighten people, but that won’t make it horror.

The absolute essence of horror, when you boil it right down, is lack of agency.  It is hopelessness, it is the evil you cannot defeat.  It’s the zombie horde, representing the inevitability of death.  It’s the vampire who is simply more powerful than any of her mortal prey.  It’s Lovecraft’s vast and unbearably hostile cosmos.  It’s the unstoppable serial killer.  It’s the deluded protagonist suddenly coming face to face with their own madness and learning they they’ve been the monster all along.

Horror is the thing that cannot be defeated.

Any horror movie that has a happy ending with the heroes triumphant, while it may be a scary movie, is not a horror movie.  The most one can really hope for, in a proper horror movie, is that the protagonist survives their encounter, at the cost of their loved ones, their normal life, their sanity, and that it is obvious that this is the cost.  If they walk off into the sunrise, bloodier, sadder, but unbowed and able to return the real world, then they’ve had a terribly scary experience, but that “horror” movie is copping out badly at the end, in my view.

Yes, I could run a LARP where everything the players tried was doomed to fail.  Where the universe was cold and uncaring and there could never be a happy ending.  (Indeed, a number of my players might argue that I already do, although I’d contest that.)  But having said that scary is not the same as horror, I’ve got to recognise that without it, horror is pretty much indistinguishable from plain old misery.

So how do we make scary work?

Scary is the cold hand on the back of your neck.  The monstrous whisper out of nowhere.  The door that won’t open as the water rises.  Scary is sudden, scary is surprising, and scary is personal.  And honestly in it’s simplest form: scary is alone.

How do you make scary work for 20 people, other than an unexpected loud bang?  Well, you could always face them off against superior numbers.  Scary is being outnumbered two to one by zombies, and running low on ammunition.  (Or is that just a valiant last stand?)  You could put them against an something implacable and unstoppable – just something like being trapped in a room with no food.  (Or is that just a study in how people deal with the inevitability of death?)

I hope you can see what I’m driving at.  LARP is communal – there are other people there, sharing the experience, and in any context, and experience shared is made easier and less frightening.  It may be hopeless, but you’re not alone.  LARP is about agency – it’s about what the players/characters decide to do.  And ultimately: LARP can always stopped, simply by opting out of it’s frame of reality.  Then the zombie is just someone in makeup, the vampire is your mate with some fangs in, and the universe while still cold and uncaring, is no longer actively hostile.  (Well, probably not.)

It’s not a good medium for horror – many of the basic facts of how LARP generally operates as a form work against some of the basic building blocks of horror.

And yet I describe the games I like to run as falling somewhere between urban fantasy and horror.  Come back tomorrow and I’ll spout on about the kinds of horror I think can be made to work.

Horror in LARP, part 1

A friend of mine went Zombie paintballing at the weekend, and did not have a good time.  From the descriptions they gave, and indeed, from the company website, it was clearly paintballing, with a zombie apocalypse scenario added for fun, rather than a “proper” LARP, even though the organising staff remained “in character” all the time – even the weapons safety training was delivered “in character”.  I’m told that actually the scenario was well done, the make up was superb, and it was all very immersive, and generally praiseworthy as a LARP experience, but the company are very clearly a paintball company with a well-executed semi-LARP value-add, not a LARP company.

It was clear that while the event organisers provided all sorts of up-front info and disclaimers to the effect “this will be physical, this will be scary, don’t sign up if you’re not up for that”, they didn’t apply any thought to how to handle people who thought they would be able to cope, and then found out they couldn’t once things had started, or indeed, to better provide tools to help people cope.

The simple thing they did not do: they did not, at any point say, in an OOC context: “If at any point, this gets a bit much for you, find one of our staff, say ‘I am absolutely for real having a problem here, can I stop now, please.'”  They did not include any kind of safeword.  My friend had to ask three times to stop and every time they were rebuffed by a staff member who refused to break character and who did not offer any particular reassurance.  In the end, they left unaided by the event organisers – they just spotted a door they recognised as a way out, and left.

Let’s be clear here: I’m not condemning them or trying to shame this company of their staff (although honestly, the total lack of support my friend got was shameful).  They’re a paintball company offering an add-on experience, not a LARP event.  It didn’t work for my friend.  I think they could do better, easily, but I also assume they know their market, know the common experiences people have, and their failure cases, and have catered for them to the extent they consider necessary.  Didn’t work for my friend, but honestly, I wouldn’t have said my friend was their usual target audience in any case.  (And I’m not condemning them for that, either.  Wild horses couldn’t make me do something that said up front “this will be physical and scary”.  One or the other, not both.)

But hearing about this got me thinking about horror in LARP.  I’m going to bang on about it for a post or two.

The first thing to talk about is obviously safewords.  They’re applicable to more than horror, but they’re especially important there, I think.

The thing about safewords is this: people feel better knowing they’re there.  People who know that they can tap out at any time will probably find they can go further than they think they can.  They will feel enabled to push their limits, knowing that they have the support of the group in both pushing them, and in respecting them.  This is not rocket science.  Indeed, a large chunk of the reason my friend left the zombie paintball was because they hadn’t been told what to do if they couldn’t cope (as much physically as mentally), and they were worried they might not be able to.  They stopped because they felt unsupported by the staff, wanted to stop almost in case they couldn’t cope, rather than risk spoiling someone else’s fun in the moment.  Effectively, they couldn’t cope with not knowing what to do if they couldn’t cope.  Which is fair.

I am actually quite ashamed that I have run live events for years without ever formally saying “this is the safeword”.  In my own defense, I think all my players have always known they could say something like “Time Out: OK, I need to stop you here.” or “Out of Character: I am not able to deal with this bit.”, and that no-one would think any the less of them for it.  But still: I should have made it explicit.  I will make it totally explicit in future.

And this goes double for anyone running an event where fear is an emotion they wish to evoke.  Not having a clear and express safeword in a horror context is flat-out irresponsible, to my mind.

I know that there are people out there would would argue that someone knowing the have the option to safeword out works directly against setting up something properly scary, prevents true horror.  I don’t disagree – I think LARP is a bad medium for certain kinds of horror.  I’ll come on to that next time.

In the meantime: has anyone played any games were there was a particularly effective way that a player could safeword out without necessarily having to bring play to a halt for everyone else around them?  Halting play is of course, preferable to someone doing anything they’re not comfortable with, but I am wondering if there are non-disruptive ways it could be handled – so any player who needs to use them can feel better about doing so.

How Personality Influences Perception

I’ve been playing Dragon Age 2 slightly obsessively recently.  I’ve played it through end-to-end, doing all the side quests and DLC 4 times in the last couple of months (I said obsessively).  There’s a bunch of reasons: the sequel’s out later in the year, and a dead Xbox meant I’d lost my previous save, so obviously I needed at least one save to start off with.  I hadn’t played it in a few years.  I consider it the ne plus ultra of the current generation of computer RPGs.  (The only game I’ve played that remains better is the obvious – Planescape: Torment.  Obviously, the Mass Effect games are great, too, but DA2 hits just about every note right for me.)  And I didn’t have a lot else to do, apparently.

The game offers 3 “personalities” in its dialogue choices.  Once I’d decided to play it through more than once, I decided I would play it through as each personality type, specifically and exclusively – rather than my usual method , of picking which response felt most appropriate at the time to the character I’d mentally decided I was playing (and yes, I do attempt to play computer RPGs as if they were a “proper” roleplaying game).  What surprised me was how much the game experience felt different as I played with the different personality types.  I definitely had more fun playing it with the “sarcastic/funny” personality option that I did with the “agressive/bit-of-a-dick” personality, and I actually found my opinions of the various companions changing with each play through, even though they remained objectively unchanged. For example I liked Aveline a great deal more when I was playing the “teeth-achingly noble” option than I did as either of the others.  (And indeed, in the game’s tracking of these things she liked me a lot more, too.)

So this got me thinking about LARP.  About the views people develop of other characters, and of the game.  How the game can seem different, when viewed through they eyes of different characters.  I’m not quite talking about bleed here – the phenomenon where ones own emotions can get stirred up by a characters’ and vice-versa – but more about perception.

I see it all the time in a variety of contexts – players who talk about other characters or situations in certain terms that are clearly influenced by their character’s perceptions.  They come to believe that the objective OOC reality of what is going on with the game matches, or is at least closer to, what the character believes IC, and indeed, they can become quite vocal in defending that view as correct, and that anyone who thinks differently is objectively wrong.

The phenomenon is obviously related to bleed, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing – I regard bleed as a phenomenon where ones IC opinions of someone else’s character influence their opinions of the player, rather than their opinions of the game reality, if that makes sense.  There are a lot of known techniques for encouraging and then dispelling bleed, but there seems to be a bit of an allergy to the idea that a LARP can even have an “objective reality” – because each player experiences it within their own IC-mediated lens, the common suggestion is that there is no “objective fact” in a LARP, which I think is a convenient way of dismissing the issue because it’s quite hard to get to grips with.  (I’m using “issue” rather than problem, because I don’t think it’s a problem per se – it’s an interesting fact of the medium, that I think merits more thought.)

One of the reasons it occupies my thoughts is that as a ref, I feel a strong duty to be fair, by whatever lights “fair” is reckoned with the context of a given LARP.  The idea that an IC-mediated lens might actually colour people’s OOC perceptions of whether or not the events of a game were adjudicated fairly is one that concerns me.  It see it as part of my job to set a baseline “objective reality” of the LARP and to adjudicate with reference to that, when called on to to so. (Perhaps that’s terribly self-aggrandising of me – I know that no player will ever experience that “Objective Reality”, but I feel it should still be there.)

This isn’t just about rules mechanics, either – the games I run tend to revolve around moral themes, and there tend to be in-character consequences for moral transgressions that are not strictly systemised – for example, in Restitution the act of killing was a dreadful crime that carried long term consequences for anyone who did it.  If one character had killed someone utterly consequence-free, that would have been thematically “unfair” as far as the moral universe of the game was constructed.

I’m also aware that I do make mistakes in the moment, ones that I can’t always walk back, so it’s true to say that I am not always “fair”.  So it’s important to me that I develop tools for working out when a player’s IC perceptions are colouring their opinion of my decision making, and when they’ve actually got a point.  At the moment, I don’t really have any other reference than my own judgement.  One to think about anyway…

Technology As A Tool

Just a little bit of generalised thinking out loud.

I was reading an article on the excellent Gaming As Women about the use of mobile phones in LARP which got me thinking.  In the first place it got me thinking that there might be people reading this who don’t know about Gaming As Women, and they bloody ought to, as it’s one of the best gaming blogs out there, so consider this a general reminder of its existence.  In the second, more pertinent place, it got me thinking about how to consider technology as part of setting design.

My last game, Restitution, was set in a place where there was no mobile telephony or internet, and I have to say, I really liked the effect it produced.  It meant that the characters pretty much had to be in proximity to communicate.  There was a certain amount of IC letter writing and suchlike, but if two characters actually wanted to converse, they had to be in the same physical space.

My instinct, up to now, has been to attempt the same thing in my next game – to continue to find ways to ensure that meaningful real-time interaction requires physical proximity.  But I read the article above, and it did rather set me to thinking about ways to use technology to enhance the IC experience – to actually use the very remoteness produced by technology as a storytelling device.

I’ve never been shy about using technology in an administrative manner – all my games have a custom-written on-line downtime system, they often have a forum and private messaging system, and I probably couldn’t run these games half as effectively without them, but I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about how to use these things as storytelling systems.

Part of the issue, a complicating factor, is that I don’t want to impose too much on my players lives outside of game time.  I don’t want to send them a creepy mysterious text message while they’re having dinner with their significant other – that’s intrusive on their time and others’.  But at the same time, I can’t deny that it would be kind of awesome to ring someone’s phone at a time in, and have an them hear an NPC (or another PC) having a very bad time, somewhere they can’t do anything about it.  Not often, because it’s an inherently disempowering stunt, but maybe once or twice.  And of course there are other tricks that could be pulled that are much less disempowering.

Ideas that have occurred to me while writing this:

  • All IC messaging could be assumed to be taking place in quasi-real time, no exceptions.  Previous games, I have worked on the assumption that it was OK for players to note something like “My character replies immediately, sorry it’s taken me a fortnight, I was busy”.  As much as I want to allow for player convenience, it means that all IC messaging lacks urgency.  You can’t send a messaging along the lines of “if you don’t get back to me within X amount of time, something bad will happen”.  But to allow for jobs/real life, etc, perhaps some kind of compact that there is a way to represent time passing with a less than 1:1 ratio?
  • The messaging is the only IC contact some characters can have outside of time in – ideally the ones who most want to talk in person?  Use it to enforce remoteness and isolation?
  • An agreed window when it is acceptable to message players via phone/email about IC matters with an urgent response window?  Perhaps some kind of “online and available for LARP-matters now” notifier?
  • Technology enabled meta-techniques to represent supernatural powers within the actual time-in are a superb idea, if I can get the toolset together to manage them effectively.
  • All this said: will new players be comfortable giving out their phone number to a ref who may be a more-or-less complete stranger?

What interesting effects/storytelling devices can you think of that we could use technology to produce?

The LARPers vow of Promiscuity

I’m going to deal with another retro LARP-manifesto classic, just so I know I’ve covered it off.  This time it’s a pair of documents, The Manifesto of the Turku School and The LARPers Vow of Chastity.  I’m not going to break them down like I did Dogma 99, I’m just going to flag them up, and then talk about why I don’t like them, which is basically because they’re all about Immersionism.  However, for all I disagree with them I think that, much like the Dogma 99 Manifesto, they provide a great starting point for thinking, and I do encourage reading them.

So Immersionism and Me, then.  Well, basically, I regard Immersionism as selfish.  It is, particularly when taken to the extremes of the Turku school, all about saying “I came here to play this character, and anything that pulls me away from that is bad.  My highest obligation is to my character, which is to say to what is going on in my own head”. It feels like it’s kind of the roleplaying equivalent of Objectivism – elevating the (fictional) self, rather than the group.  (And it therefore doesn’t surprise me that it’s popular with a certain subset of gamers.)

Don’t get me wrong: I know it can be rewarding to look back on a session, and realise that you were thinking as someone else, making decisions that you would never make yourself.  And if that can be done safely, and while meeting one’s obligations to the group, than that’s absolutely brilliant.  But it’s a happy secondary goal, not the primary objective.

To me, the primary goal of LARPing is intrinsically social.  It’s saying  “I came here to share and shape an interactive narrative experience in such a way that the largest number of people have the most amount of fun.  My highest obligation is to ensure that those around me are enjoying themselves.”

I hate the phrase “my character wouldn’t do that”.  I absolutely believe that characters can have an inner life, and can with enough Immersion, suddenly originate new information about themselves in the mind of the player.  That’s fine.  But I also believe that the player is in charge of the character at all times, and that the character can be changed.

An overly-simple example: Character A is holding a gun to the head of Character B. If Character B is executed, it is known that the this will be No Fun for their player, who is up for playing out a fun, dramatic scene where a gun is held to their head, but not for having their character die.  And yet, in the fully-Immersionist school of play, if Character A would pull the trigger, then they should pull the trigger.

Except that Character A is fully under the control of their player.  The player can opt not to pull the trigger, and then work out why Character A didn’t do it later, and in the process discover/invent some new facts about Character A.

And, of course, it doesn’t need to be on this scale.  I’ve seen people (and I don’t exclude myself from this – I have done stupid things I wish I hadn’t in the past) do things that upset other players, ranging from the trivial (slightly inconveniencing of something another player had planned), to the more major (dominating another player’s game experience with their actions, in a way the other player does not enjoy) to the character-death example above, because they were “what their characters would do”.  And it can all be excused, if your highest goal is “Immersion”.

So that’s where I get to with Immersionism: it’s a nice and fun thing, but it does not trump other obligations to the overriding goal of Fun Game.  I’d be very interested in hearing opposing views, because I’m aware that it’s a very popular gaming philosophy, and I’d like to understand the thinking behind why it is considered good a bit better, in a way that the Manifesto’s amusing confrontational style rather fails to get across.

LARP As Safe Space

Nordic LARP Talks just got a bunch of video updates, and I’m making my way through them, but I wanted to flag one up quickly, as it’s a very important topic.  One of the nicest bits of feedback I have ever been given about a game I ran is that players could be confident that they wouldn’t come across racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or anything like that in my games – or at the very least, they could be 99.9% sure that the obnoxious attitude was an entirely IC one.  I was delighted to hear that, because I am absolutely determined that my games should be as much of a safe space as I can make them. I have what I hope are clear policies about harassment and unacceptable behaviour at the time in, and in game-related matters, and it seems to have more or less worked.  I definitely feel the responsibility to make my LARP space as safe as I can pretty keenly.

At the same time, I like what you might call “mature themes”.  I like my LARPs to explore real issues, and that means that they have to deal in a “real” world that isn’t all hugs and puppies.  Violence, as I’ve mentioned, is a feature of these games, often quite extreme violence.  We’ve had abuse victims, and abusers, as characters.  So I am very interested in anyone’s thoughts on ways to manage things so as to be able to include this sort of thing, and still remain a reasonably safe space, so I was immediately drawn to this talk:

This is a talk titled “Ethical Content Management and the Freedom to Create” by Shoshana Kessock.  In it she concludes (among other things) that the maintenance of a “safe” space is a community responsibility, rather than just that of the organisers, and further, that by its very nature, LARP cannot ever be considered a 100% safe space.

I think that’s probably true.  But this talk has got me thinking about what to do to improve for next time.  My mental list is roughly as follows:

  • An “unsafe space” warning – clear notifications of what kind of content may or may not feature in the LARP, to serve both as a warning and a rough code of conduct.
  • Clearer signposting of the harassment policy – in the last game I ran, I had a couple of players not realise it existed.
  • A general reminder to everyone that we’re all collectively responsible for the space.
  • Formally implementing “Brake”, “Cut” and “Hold” as techniques – we haven’t needed them yet, but I’d like my players to know they are there.
  • I’m contemplating a “no IC sexism/racism/homophobia/transphobia/etc” rule, to go along with the OOC rules.

Can anyone suggest anything else I could add?

Seeking Recommendations For A Mood Board

Just in case there’s anyone reading who doesn’t know what a mood board is: it’s basically a collage of images, words, and reference points, used by designers to work up a “feel” for a new project, before they start on actual designs.

I like to use something like them for LARP settings, and I’ve been making notes what I want to reach for with the next game.  I would call them “influences”, but with LARP, everyone brings their own influences in in all sorts of ways, so I find it helpful to think of them as a mood board for the game, rather than influences.  A given NPC might have very specific influences, but the setting has a wider board, if that makes sense?

My previous board had lots of British Children’s television of the 70s and early 80s, fused with paganism, a dash of The Archers, and all the usual supernatural nonsense, and a lot of creepy folk songs and hauntological electronica.  Funnily enough, about six months after I started I was running the game, Scarfolk Council launched, and I instantly recognised it as basically, a hit of the pure stuff.  Taking everything I was aiming at, and turning the creepy-and-weird dial up to the maximum setting.  That gives you the general idea.

So now I’m kind of feeling my way towards I want to do with the next one.  I’m thinking that lots of brutalism, chrome, concrete, a post-war aesthetic, the British modernism of the 50s, would suit – effectively, the stuff we’d think of as retro-futures these days.  Soundtrack to be ambient industrial, lots of heavy machine sounds, clanking and empty spaces.  At the moment, my stalling point is I can’t find the missing pop-culture/fiction link to fuse it with and make it accessible.  Although to be honest given the largely blank looks I got when I went on about the Cosmic Importance of Nigel Kneale, Children of the Stones, The Stone Tape and so on, it’s as much about making them accessible to me – defining an approach to the aesthetics – as it is about giving people an obvious touchstone.

I’m looking for a strain of supernatural fiction that I can fuse with all this concrete and brutalism.  Wondering about Lovecraft, wondering about splatterpunk, finding them both a bit extreme.  Anyone got any clever ideas?  I have just read the latest Dresden Files, but while I do very much enjoy them they’re kind of so generic Urban Fantasy as to be useless in marking out a tone.

Non-supernatural, I’m thinking of something like The Sandbaggers, and its descendant, Queen and Country, and similar, but honestly, they’ve got a similar 70s aesthetic to the one I mentally had last time, so I’m instinctively pulling back.

So, here’s your chance to recommend me fiction.  I’m looking for good supernatural/horror fiction set in 1940s (post-war)/1950s Britain.  Film, TV, radio, book, comic, it doesn’t matter, it just needs to be of the period.  Go!