Gaming, LARP

We who are about to meme salute you: Thoughts on That Larp Meme Page

This is a repost of something I wrote on my Facebook wall in February, but I’ve put it here for better visibility and sharing.

When a meme page exists that mainly spends its time savaging the membership and leadership of multiple LARPs in our community, and if you look at its metrics, this is what you see:

Amtgard is the largest LARP org page on Facebook. It has 8.2k followers. The MES’ page is 3.4k, one of the smallest national LARP org pages, while Dystopia Rising sits at 6.2k and NERO at 6.8k The biggest larp-related page period is Larping.org, at 12k. The largest LARP related group at all is the LARP Haven group at 13.8k.

By comparison, the page in question has gathered 1.4k 2.6k followers in what looks like 2 years – and it’s only really been active for the last year. Most of those pages above have been around over 7 years. At this rate of growth, the page is looking to eclipse all national campaign-style organizations within the year. It might have wider reach than pretty much any LARP org quicker than we think.

So, what does that tell us? That attacking our hobby is more popular than the hobby itself right now. People are gleefully treating attacks on the members and leadership of this hobby as a bloodsport, and like to watch it happen. The best way to get in good with the most LARPers the quickest is drag whoever they can onto the bloody sand and gut them in front of the crowd. And that crowd will laugh while you are doing it.

It’s impossible for them to be responsible for this. They couldn’t have created this situation. They are exploiting it, and will likely continue to exploit it so long as it feeds the dopamine kick of getting a reaction and watching their numbers climb. The crowd packs itself in to watch the show, gleefully mashing that Like and Share button like the plebian crowds in the Colosseum calling for the death of the loser in the arena.

They just happen to be good at it and know how to provoke a reaction. They know how to get their name said, and that’s by going after people’s egos and self-worth. They’ve read social media theory and guerilla marketing; and they’ve figured out how to slice right into the market they are targeting. It shows in how they modulate between light humor, self-effacing ‘that’s me’ posts and brutal savagery that provokes a reaction and throw red meat to the angry. And how they choose or create memes that are inkblot tests that anyone can project either themselves or their frustrations on. I’m even flattered they’ve flat out stolen a couple of my own creations. They are good. I’m impressed, but I know what they are doing for what it is, and I don’t like being manipulated.

But damn if they aren’t piercingly utterly tapping into the zeitgeist and saying the unsayable at times, and getting more of a reaction than ten years of LARP theory, scholarship and accusations with a name on them. But it is a bloodsport, and sometimes, it’s just butchery. And the crowd cheers. Oh, how it cheers, all the same.

The Colosseum and the crowds that packed it were not the fault of the gladiators or their organizers. The crowds in the arena were seeking succor from a decaying empire, rampant corruption, the cruelty of daily life and accepted what was being done because they were ready to hate and dehumanize another person. The bloody games were a symptom, not a cause.

The solutions, those ‘constructive’ comments being demanded, are out there, gathering dust as they have for years. Articles, research, surveys They are literally everywhere. Even the ‘non-constructive’ comments show what the problems are, even though their solutions are often nasty and born of the very pain that fuels that arena. LARP organizations in the United States are remarkably resistant to change and defiant of critics.

Me, I’m tired of it. I don’t like or follow that page for a reason, and I’m not contributing to it. I’ll be running Cyberpunk in May, The Night in Question in November, and got other news on the way. And my players aren’t going to be as interested in seeing me laid out on the arena floor after playing in my games for a year or two. Or at least, I hope they aren’t.

I don’t fault anyone for following the page. They are funny, incisive and it’s a thrill to watch someone who deserves it get kicked up the backside. That’s been the foundation of comedy for years. But the solution is to address the problems, not put on blinders or ignore them; and maybe the dopamine kick we get from the viciousness isn’t worth it?

But in the end, – are you not entertained?

Game Design, Gamemastering, Gaming

You don’t design games, no one does

Featuring a completely contrived but interesting Four Layer Model for Gameplay

So, I create LARP experiences, design games and the like. That means I think a lot about what makes something a game, and I like teasing out how systems work. Sometimes I do this just for fun, and sometimes it reveals some important things we should keep in mind when we are designing, running and playing games with each other.

This is one of those books that either eats your brain or puts you to sleep in 5 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

A few years ago, I started unpacking the difference between a system and a game after reading the seminal and amazing book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a weighty 777 page tome about mathematics, rules and the nature of systems. And in spinning out these ideas, I came up with some categories of what goes into designing and playing a game. And I came to a beautifully weird conclusion

I don’t design games. No one designs games.

We design systems – and we might suggest, cajole, pressure and clear our throats while nudging our head in the direction of how they might be turned into a game. But only a player can choose which game they play.

Beyond that, as a designer, I’m powerless. And that’s wonderfully humbling and utterly frightening.

Unpacking the Game Box

Now, going up to a game designer and telling them they don’t design games is a pretty bold move. It depends on a lot of definitions of what a game means, what rules mean, what a system means; and my choices of definitions here are just one option among many. But I think they tell us something useful about how playing games really works.

Continue reading “You don’t design games, no one does”
Game Design, Gamemastering, LARP

Nerdball: How a LARP becomes the game no one likes to play

…But we end up playing anyway.

Let’s talk about a concept a friend of mine introduced to me that is ridiculously useful for talking about LARP – and how LARPs have gone wrong in the past. This idea is called nerdball – an antagonistic and competitive angry killer bee mutation of long-form campaign LARPs that we need to start talking about.

But before we can talk about nerdball, let’s outline the two healthy forms of LARP – collaborative and competitive. Every LARP contains elements of both, but certainly skew one way or another.

Collaborative vs. Competitive Play

collaborative game is a game built on the consensus of most or all players as to how it turns out. Outcomes are negotiated, information is shared out of character to allow people to steer toward a dramatic conclusion. Everyone has incredible amounts of control over their story, and cannot be compelled to take part in a story they don’t want to be part of. They offer a rich story-focused experience but usually at the cost of dramatic tension, uncertainty and the excitement that comes from those two things.

competitive game is a struggle where the outcome is determined by the skills, finesse and luck of various players in fictional roles within the world. The competition may be physical (boffer combat), political (Byzantine machinations) or anything else. But a competitive game ultimately pits and hopefully refines the skills of the various players in a healthy environment, and where a sense of fairness, healthy competition and sportsmanship prevails.

Both styles have passionate advocates, and I consider both styles to be equally valid. That doesn’t mean all forms of either are healthy or good for a game, but I’ve written more extensively about that elsewhere. But then.. there’s nerdball.

The Nerdball. Impressed?

What’s Nerdball?

When I first heard this term, it was referred to as nerd football but in discussions I’ve been having about it, it rapidly got shortened to nerdball. So, what’s nerdball?

Continue reading “Nerdball: How a LARP becomes the game no one likes to play”

Joke, Role-playing Games

67 Things that Half-Gen the Pander is no longer allowed to do in the Sabbat

So, this list started off as a Vampire: The Masquerade joke version of the notorious and glorious Skippy’s List on Facebook. But it has become too wonderful not to share to a wider audience. So, in honor of the upcoming Sabbat Vampire: The Masquerade LARP event The Night In Question, here is 67 things that the man, the legend, the Half-Gen the Sabbat Pander is no longer allowed to say or do.

  1. Half-Gen will no longer refer to Big Gulps as the Loyalist Vaulderie Chalice.
  2. The Vaulderie is not ‘part of a balanced breakfast’ and Half-gen will stop ending rituals saying so.
  3. Half-Gen is not The Bishop of Awesomeness, and he will stop making org charts for the Diocese that include the title.
  4. Half-Gen is not the Sabbat Harpy.
  5. Half-Gen is not the Sabbat Justicar.
  6. Half-Gen will refer to Caine as the Dark Father, not Our Big Black Daddy.
  7. Half-Gen will not refer to the Regent as “Caine’s Little Helper.”
  8. Half-Gen will stop fiddling with whatever that is.
  9. “Smash Brothers” is not a Game of Instinct
  10. (Later) Fine, “Smash Brothers IRL” in real life is now a Game of Instinct, but Half-Gen will get that smug look off of his face
  11. Lucita is a revered member of our sect, and thus should not be referred to as “Hot Stuff”
  12. “Her Royal Hotness” is not an acceptable substitute either
  13. The discipline of flesh-crafting’s proper name is Vicissitude, not “the Mr. Potato Head Thing” or “Play-Doh Fun Time”.
  14. Anything that makes Half-gen giggle for more than 10 minutes is not allowed as a game of instinct.
  15. Half-Gen is no longer allowed to follow-up every line from the Book of Lilith with “That’s what she said”
  16. The blood bath does not require any toiletries nor should Half-gen call room service demanding some.
  17. The Monomacy does not require a wrestling announcer or ring-side commentators, and Half-Gen will not imitate one.
  18. The Monomacy does not require ‘ring girls’, and Half-Gen will no longer show up in a sequin dress to “correct this oversight”.
  19. Half-Gen will no longer play ‘I got your nose!’ with the Tzimisce
  20. Half-Gen is not allowed to befriend the Szlatchka or name them “Princess Puss-Puss”.
  21. Half-Gen will no longer refer to the Gangrel Antitribu as “Fidos”.
  22. Half-Gen is not allowed to have a flamethrower, ever.
  23. Even if he made it himself. In fact, especially if.
  24. Half-Gen is not allowed to proposition the Lasombra for “that sweet Hentai stuff.”
  25. “I Licked It And It’s Mine” does not apply to packmates.
  26. The Vaulderie will no longer be called “Drinking The Kool-Aide”.
  27. Half-Gen will stop referring to the Sabbat as an ‘anarcho-syndicalist collective’ and inferring that the Regent was selected by “a watery tart lobbing a scimitar at them.”
  28. Half-Gen will stop quoting Monty Python, ever. But ESPECIALLY during the Ritae.
  29. No one in the Diocese is Half-Gen’s senpai and we will not notice him.
  30. Sasha Vykos is not Half-Gen’s “God level waifu”, whatever that means.
  31. Printing body pillows of Lucita or any other Prisci is not allowed.
  32. Half-Gen is not allowed to imitate the hyenas from Lion King under any circumstances, but especially when we say the name of the Regent.
  33. Renditions of “Be Prepared” by Half-Gen will be dealt with, with extreme prejudice
  34. Half-Gen will not demand a strip tease from the Nosferatu for a Rite of Contrition
  35. Half-Gen will not alert the pack to the approaching Lupines by screaming, “The furries are here!”
  36. When selecting his second for the Monomacy, Half-Gen can no longer scream ‘Archibshop, I choose you!’ Also, put that pokeball away.
  37. Half-Gen will not teach the newly embraced that the mission of the Sabbat is to ‘purge the scourge of mimes from the Earth’
  38. Half-Gen will not attempt to shovelhead people with a rake.
  39. Half-Gen will no longer ghoul things on a bet.
  40. Half-Gen is no longer allowed to start any ritual or report to the Diocese with the words, “no shit, there I was”
  41. Half-Gen is not allowed to Rick-Roll any member of the Sword.
  42. The Book of Nod is a sacred text and it is not in need of any updates, revisions or ‘spicing up for the mommy porn market’.
  43. Half-Gen is not allowed to sell the movie or TV rights to the Book of Nod.
  44. Half-Gen is no longer allowed to refer to his pack as the A-Team. He must use their proper name’s instead.
  45. Half-Gen is not allowed to found a pack just to call it the A-Team
  46. Half-Gen is not allowed to track down actors from any version of the A-Team just to embrace them.
  47. Half-Gen will not turn on Animal Planet and ask the Gangrel Antitribu if “they can turn in to that one”.
  48. Half-Gen will not refer to Tenebrous Form as “The Shadow Gimp Suit”.
  49. The Abyss does not have a gift shop and Half-Gen will stop asking for things from it.
  50. Half-Gen will learn that the Salubri Anti’s name is Azrael, not ‘Bowling Bowl Head’.
  51. What any Tzimisce did with their penis when they learned flesh-crafting is none of Half-Gen’s business.
  52. Half-Gen will not play “I’m not touching you” with the Brujah Antis.
  53. Half-Gen will no longer respond to the Tzimisce shifting into Horrid Form by screaming ‘Hulk Smash!’
  54. Half-Gen will stop trying to stick his fingers in the eye sockets of the Harbingers.
  55. Half-Gen will no longer follow each instance of diablerie by saying “There can be only one.”
  56. The Monomacy will not be settled by seeing who can hold their breath the longest.
  57. The Monomacy will not be settled through competitive eating.
  58. The Sword of Caine shall not be referred to as a Wight Supremacist organization.
  59. Half-Gen will not chant “CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!” during a diablerie ever again.
  60. “Flash Mob” is not an Ignoblis Ritae.
  61. Half-Gen shall not refer to a Blood Bath as a “Keg Stand.”
  62. The Creation Rites will not be referred to as “The Cainite Swipe Right”.
  63. Half-Gen will stop making “casual” references to Philadelphia around the Inquisitors.
  64. Half-Gen will not speak to the Blood Brothers and will stop asking which one is Curly
  65. Half-Gen will not ask the Assamite Antitribu if they are the Sheriff of Rock Ridge.
  66. Half-Gen will put the bluetooth speaker away.
  67. Half-Gen will not refer to Lucita as “that spoiled bitch who changes sects as often as I change pants”, no matter how accurate given both the Priscus’ history and Half-Gen’s laundry habits.

Thanks to Cee J. Riordan, Kelly McMahan, Todd Cole, Matt J. Womack, Kevin Whiteside, Jamies Nobles and James Perrin for their contributions to the list.

Game Design, LARP, Role-playing Games

The LARP Antagonist’s Oath

What is an Antagonist?

A protagonist and his or her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

– Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Antagonists are not just villains.

An antagonist is any character which is defined by their opposition to characters, or by creating obstacles and pressures for other characters. They can even be allies, but they exist to push a character’s limits or challenge their assumptions. They create growth and story.

The best antagonists are not limited in the physical or political conflict they create. They create conflicts in the minds of others – moral challenges and inner choices. They are the fuel of another’s character story engine. The challenge they present is meant to taken on and result in a better story.

LARP’s Unique Player Antagonists

The traditional role of the antagonist relies on the existence of clear protagonists on a journey for the antagonist to complicate and oppose. The antagonist can be a guidepost for the story, with other characters growing in relation to them. The antagonist can still develop as a character, but they do not grow with the same visible force and focus as the protagonist.

But in LARP, there is no clear single story. There is no camera following about one particular group around. There are often dozens if not hundreds of players involved in a LARP game.

So, every player might be someone’s antagonist, even though they are pursuing their own arc and story. True, a gamemaster might set up a major plot with an explicit NPC antagonist by which all players must struggle against. But there is another type of antagonist in LARP – the player antagonist, the character designed and destined to be a provocative force in a game.

Continue reading “The LARP Antagonist’s Oath”

LARP

Why Your LARP’s Safety System Will Fail: A Hacker’s Guide to Engineering Player Safety

I’ve been thinking a lot about authority and safety teams in our LARP games. My mind started drawing parallels with my own background in software engineering and security. Part of my job is thinking about complex systems, and how to control the power of users in those systems.

I began to see problems in the ideas and standard policies being proposed. I began to see failures in my community and elsewhere. So, I started to think –

Can you take lessons from the world of hacking and security, and apply them to the meat and bone world of LARP communities? What happens when you start thinking about community safety like a hacker? What problems with our current approach are revealed?

“Can what we are creating to protect people actually be used to make things less safe? How do we stop that from happening?”

Hacking is about how systems can be made to turn against themselves. I want us to start thinking – can my LARP organization be hacked? Can what we are creating to protect people actually be used to make things less safe? How do we stop that from happening?

Continue reading “Why Your LARP’s Safety System Will Fail: A Hacker’s Guide to Engineering Player Safety”

Heresy, LARP, Role-playing Games

Five reasons LARP needs to get over the Stanford Prison Experiment

Note: This article is meant to fuel skepticism and critical thinking in the LARP community. These things are healthy, though sometimes painful to face, and I do not expect this article to be taken as gospel. But it does contain some things that really need to be said about this often-cited experiment in the context of our hobby.

In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment where 24 male students were randomly assigned roles as prisoners or guards in a fake prison underneath a building in Stanford University. According to the widely read recounting of events, dressed in their uniforms and given their fake authority, the guards adapted overwhelmingly to their role and exceeded Zimbardo’s expectations, and began a systematic campaign of authoritarian brutality with little coaxing. Shocked, Zimbardo stopped the experiment after only six days. It became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, or SPE.

In essence, it was a live action role-playing scenario that got out of hand. And that is why when talking with some advocates of LARPing, it is hard to get through a discussion of ‘bleed’ without them bringing it up. Central to some LARP philosophy is that one can descend so far into an assumed role through immersion that one can almost lose track of reality, to feel and react as if you really were that person you are playing.

On the surface, the Stanford Prison Experiment confirms these beliefs quite well – normal every-day college students put in a fake prison with fake uniforms suddenly start acting like brutal prison guards with the proper stimuli and without much encouragement. Here, they say while pointing, serious academic proof that the phenomenon is real.

In fact, some critically acclaimed artistic LARPs have been little more than attempts to recreate the SPE in all its brutal glory. Why wouldn’t organizers want people to feel the ultimate immersion, and walk away with a life-changing, haunting experience?

One problem – the experiment was utter balderdash. Rubbish. Poppycock. And most of all, crappy science. And LARP scholarship and designers really need to get over it. The SPE wasn’t about ‘bleed’, and in fact, it was all about people just playing out characters without feeling anything was real. To turn it completely on its head, the SPE is the strongest evidence against the ‘immersionist’ outlook I have ever encountered. And it ought to make us very skeptical, or at the very least cautious, of self-ascribed success in immersionist LARPs.

Here’s why:

Continue reading “Five reasons LARP needs to get over the Stanford Prison Experiment”

Internet, LARP

The Texan LARP Manifesto

Or more like highly exaggerated barely agreed upon opinion that I’m presuming to tell you the residents of an entire nation (yes, Texas is a nation, deal with it) believe in. Let’s get going. You can blame Johannes Axner for this.

So, listen here, you little shits…

1. It’s capitalized.

LARP is capitalized. It’s an acronym. It’s capitalized. Deal with it.

2. Git gud, y’all.

Even in artsy fartsy games, there’s such a thing as a bad player. If you are bad, stop being bad. If you are good, help others git gud. If bad players refuse to stop being bad, kick their asses to curb. If they complain, tell them to deal with it.

3. Don’t make me knock you off that high horse, son.

If a game does what it set out to do, it’s a good game. Every variety, from boffer battle games to vampire werewolf zombie horror sci-fi games to whatever the Nords are getting drunk then praising this week – anyone else notice the Nords can’t talk up their shit while sober? Well, if they ever are sober. If you think something is beneath you or is having fun wrong, you’re as welcome as a tornado on a trail drive. People make their own fun. Deal with it.

4. It’s capitalized.

I’m repeating this. LARP. L-A-R-P. Deal with it.

5. We ain’t impressed by preaching to the choir.

Yeah, yeah, you really hit it out the park with your crazy political statement told to a crowd guaranteed to agree with it. Either say something new or get off the stage. We ain’t impressed. Deal with it.

6. Don’t holler at a brick wall

Who gives a damn about what happens on Facebook or Twitter or whatever else? Turn the damn thing off. Nobody cares to have Online LARP Fight #554 revisited, chrissakes, so knock it off and deal with it.

7. Take the bull by the horns

You at a game? Take charge of your fun. Nobody wants to hear belly-aching and about how you are a customer. You run a game? Act like it, people are counting on you. You have a responsibility. Deal with it.

8. Rather be round a honest pig than a silver-tongued snake.

We ain’t here to judge. It’s not what you say but what you mean that matters, and actions speak louder than words. Walk the walk. You don’t like being called out for being all hat and no cattle? Deal with it.

9. It’s capitalized.

Deal. With. It.

10. Manifestos are bullshit.

Seriously. All they do is start arguments. And who elected anyone King of LARP? Manifestos ain’t worth spit. Yeah, I know, you worked hard on yours. Deal with it.

Well, I hope that clears some things up. Y’all come back now, you hear?

Yes, this was a joke. Well, half a joke. 3/7ths, maybe? Whatever, Johannes made me do it.

Game Design, LARP

Shades: a freeform LARP about ghosts that’s really about trauma

I finished the second draft of Shades, which is the first presentable version of the game I tested earlier this year. As my players were quick to point out, despite the conceit of it being about ghosts, it’s really about dealing with trauma and regret. It’s appropriate. In the purest Gothic tradition, ghosts are about things that are unresolved or the reverberation of bad events from the past. I am considering submitting this to Fastaval for next year’s competition. Let’s hope it translates well into Danish.

You can read and comment on the Google Doc here.

Photo Credit: Zachariah Birkenbuel, https://flic.kr/p/ypz9D – Creative Commons, Attribution license

Game Design, LARP

Nordsplaining and Amerijerking: How not to be a jerk discussing LARP online

Sometimes we need to ask the question, as a community talking across borders and oceans online, are we really talking to each other and helping each other? Or are we engaging in aggrandizing or hindering behavior? In conversations about LARP online, I’ve noticed exactly two phenomenon – one more subtle than the other – that hinder and disrupt conversations about design and development.

I have dubbed them Nordsplaining and Amerijerking, after the two communities who most frequently indulge in them. I will put this out there to start with – yes, you do these things more noticeably than other groups. You can either deny it or own up to it, but either way, the ancient scholars of India invented the number zero because they knew one day I’d have to count the number of fucks I give.

Enter the Nordsplainer

Webb’s Law of Nordsplaining: In any serious game design talk regarding rules and implementation, the chance someone will interrupt to go on about how this proves some inherent flaw in the very concept of a rules-heavy game approaches 1.

Imagine that you have a car, and you ask in a public forum, “Hey, should I turbocharge or supercharge my engine?” You get a few responses, some useful insights and advice start to emerge. And then someone shows up, and begins talking loudly and repeatedly about how you should not even have a car, but should instead ride a bicycle. Every comment on the engine tuning is met with the keen observation that you would not have to do these things if you had a bicycle and not a car. Several of this person’s friends show up and begin dominating the entire conversation, talking about how much better bicycles are than cars.

The conversation is derailed. The insight you sought is lost in arguments the bicyclists started with the gearheads, or just by the bicyclists high-fiving each other digitally due to their enlightened position. You are not getting a bicycle instead of your car just because this crowd showed up. They are mainly congratulating themselves on their own opinion and evangelizing their preferred choice rather than addressing the question. And you aren’t getting the answers you wanted to make your decision.

This disruption makes them, however friendly and well-intentioned, jerks. And what’s worse, they probably don’t know that they are being jerks. But that’s why I’m here, boys and girls.

Continue reading “Nordsplaining and Amerijerking: How not to be a jerk discussing LARP online”