Vampire LARP: Lessons #1

I wrote a thing on Facebook, wherein I said:

So almost no-one writes about the practical how of running Vampire as a LARP, and very few people are stupid enough to do it more than once. Which means everyone has to make the same mistakes over and over again, and that leads to cliches, usually from people who haven’t run vampire before.

I further noted that I’ve run I think 6 now – if we allow “Vampire LARP” to broadly mean: a serial LARP, comprised of multiple roughly 3-hour game sessions, taking place in essentially, a single-room environment in a broadly modern-day Urban Fantasy setting, running monthly for a period of years. I know plenty of people who’ve run a lot of LARPs, but I don’t think I know anyone quite as mad as I am. So I thought I’d write up some of the lessons I’ve learned. Starting with the most obvious one.

Your LARP Is What Happens In The Timed In Space

Obvious lesson is obvious. But I’ve run LARPs where IC correspondence in between sessions was a huge part of the game, I’ve attended more than one LARP event where a majority number of the players timed in, and then spend the event in a corner with one of the ref team running a quasi tabletop session for them, as their characters left the time in space to go and interact with some element of the setting not present in the room, and to this day, I run LARPs where putting in a downtime between sessions matters.

But I think it’s important to define them as being outside the LARP, because they’re not “live”, and they’re neccessarily constrained to a small subset of the players. The more emphasis they get, the more energy is drained out of the shared space, because the game’s focus is split.

All of these things happen for two reasons, that one-off or large event LARP has an easier time avoiding:

  1. The characters need something to talk about and the relevant dramatic conflict isn’t representable at short notice in the timed in space.
  2. The status quo at the start of event #2 needs to be different to what it was at the end of event #1 and so on.

If one or both of these things isn’t true at least most of the time, the characters will rapidly stagnate – they’ll find a status quo that works for them all, and they’ll stay there. Thresholds vary depending on the exact players, and the specifics event to event, but my experience is that even a group of players who are very capable of generating interpersonal conflict and drama between themselves need fuel to do it with, and if you as a game runner don’t provide them with fresh things to disagree over on a regular basis, the energy will start to drop.

My own personal rule of thumb is that I will generally only allow a session to go by without throwing new “fuel” into the room if the previous session was so jam packed that I actively want to give the character space to find a new equilibrium. Most of the games I’ve run have had one, maybe two sessions like that, but they’re rare.

So it’s not that these tools are automatically bad (although they’re a long way from the only ones a game runner has, but I’ll come to other options another time), but rather that a LARP ref needs to be very aware of how they’re used. My basic rule of thumb is if a player is spending more time on these activities than the minutes of action they generate in uptime, then they’re probably counter-productive.

(So for example, if a player has to spent fifteen minutes filling in a downtime, then what they get as a result needs to generate (at minimum) about five minutes of IC conversation between three players in uptime. Or y’know, a fifteen minute monologue, or something.)

Obviously, this isn’t a mathematically hard and fast rule, because no-one’s standing around with a stopwatch. And some players will take longer over downtimes, some because they want to, because they simply struggle with them, etc etc, and y’know, sometimes, mistakes get made. Something I think will generate game just fails to do so because the player’s not interested, or because there’s something else going on. Honestly, if the latter, it’s definitely not the end of the world – if the players are able to occupy themsevles with something they’re having fun with, then job’s a good’un as far as I’m concerned.

Which leads me on to a topic for next time: what, exactly do I think job of the ref is in Vampire LARP?

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 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…