LARP

End of the Line: Gerald’s Epilogue

She Will Never Know

sun-through-the-parsonage-window Frida slept as the hint of dawn crept across the horizon, her lifeless body resting on silk sheets. And Gerald locked the door to her sanctum with the solemnity and care of a priest locking away the relics of a saint. He stood at the door, placing his palm against the painted steel. His shoulders slumped.

And then Gerald took a deep breath and straightened himself. He walked down the dark hallway and into the main room of the French District haven. He let himself fall into an soft leather armchair. His hand rested on his brow, covering his eyes.

His mind was already running through the checklist of things he would have to do. He might catch two hours of sleep, but he had to make sure Frida was taken care of. The night had cost hundreds of dollars in drugs and other… necessities. His wallet needed refreshing. He always had to have cash on hand every night, for whatever Frida would want. He would check Frida’s purse and replace whatever she had spent of what he put in there the day before.

Frida never thought about such things. That was what Gerald was for.

The front of Frida’s dress was soaked with Sophia’s blood. Frida had asked him to have it cleaned. He would burn it. He knew her measurements by heart and he would spend whatever money was needed to get another of the designer garment. The duplicate would just show up in her closet one night. She might even compliment him on how well he managed to get it cleaned.

And Frida would never know what he had done.

Dawn light cut through the windows of the room, and came to rest on the coach across from him. Just a few nights ago, Sophia and Frida were touching and embracing on that couch. Now Sophia was dead.

“Worthless whore,” Gerald muttered, remembering. Frida had drained her dry, making her last moments a pleasurable ride into oblivion on the Kiss rather than the pain of an overdose. Frida had been convinced Sophia was a hopeless addict who could only be helped by ending her suffering. Gerald had convinced her of that.

Never mind that part of the convincing involved Gerald shoving Sophia against a wall and forcing heroine into her veins, so Frida could find her in a doped up stupor.

And Frida would never know what he had done.

Gerald leaned forward, cradling his head in his hands. Another of Frida’s toys had been disposed of, another worthless piece of trash who wasn’t worthy to even look at her, much less touch her, kiss her… FUCK her. He ran both hands through his hair. How long till there’s another one that needs to be shuffled away? How long till there’s another body lying on the floor? How long till Frida realized that she did not need these playthings when he was there for her?

Dawn was breaking. And in that short time while the monsters of the night slept and the human monsters had only begun to stir, with his mistress’ ears dead and unable to hear, Gerald let himself weep.

And Frida would never know.

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.

"Guards" work during the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Courtesy of Phil Zimbardo

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:

1) Zimbardo got exactly the result he wanted because he forced it, not because of immersion in roles

Generally in experiments, the scientist who drafts the proposal is not allowed to directly modify the experiment in progress to prevent a conflict of interest from arising. Zimbardo, however, was given a direct role in the simulation – that of the prison warden – and had constant contact and influence on the guard’s behavior.

He was already on record as having an interest in the behavior of concentration camp guards and other ‘average people’ being central players in the Holocaust, so it was a bit of a pet topic. So, here he was, prepping his guards and directly observing them, wanting desperately to explain the atrocities which were on his mind. So, he made sure he got results he thought were correct, and kept the brutality turned to high.

I’ve noticed a similar trend in a lot of LARP publications (and more broadly, journalism as a whole) – one on one conversations with interviewers who are free to guide the conversation wherever they want, and somehow they consistently produce the right quotes which confirm the depth and emotional truth of the experience.

2) The guards never experienced ‘bleed’, and even said they were just emulating characters

The central posit of the SPE is that given the right costumes and the right ‘power role’, your average kid turns into a monster and loses track of reality due to immersion. Except the actual participants in the experiment never reported such behavior – Zimbardo just said it was what happened, and his conclusions were never published in any academic journal.

In fact, they were just being ‘actors’. The single most brutal guard player, nicknamed John Wayne, just said he was trying to emulate Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke. He was playing out a role. In fact, movies of the time were awash in prison stories and the news was full of reports of prison brutality, so the guard players were just trying to ‘behave correctly’.

They were acting, not experiencing bleed, and they even said so. They were acting out stereotypes, and were being actively pressured into doing so. Their behavior was tied to pressure to make the experiment ‘go well.’

3) The guards were practically given instructions from Zimbardo about how to behave

Everything Zimbardo did encouraged the guards to behave brutally. The initial instructions to the guards were a long list of horrible things they were or were not allowed to do – they were not allowed to torture, but they were allowed to create arbitrary fear of a controlling system. They were implicitly told to behave that way.

There was even some indication, given how specific some forms of degradation mimicked the input of an African American ex-con who gave research material to Zimbardo months before the experiment, that Zimbardo told them exactly what to do then ‘expressed horror’ at it.

In other words, the actions of the guards were reactions to metagame rules, rather than immersion.

4) The guard players were biased in their selection

The advertisement for the volunteers itself said it was for a simulation involving prisoners and guards. These were not random people pulled off the streets or selected blindly, but these were college students who thought it would be interesting to play a guard or prisoner for a couple weeks. It is pretty easy to see how that might attract certain personalities?

Similar biases might explain the emotional ecstasy and torment often waxed about poetically by some LARPers – maybe the players were just primed for it already?

5) It did nothing but confirm expectations

Real experiments have the possibility of producing surprising results. For all the shock that Zimbardo apparently showed at the results, he actually got exactly what he wanted and what most people would have expected. The guards and prisoners themselves reported that they were just trying to live up to the expectations of Zimbardo and thought it was ‘for science’.

This is the definition of confirmation bias, and as a result, when LARPs like the SPE report great success in achieving the goals set out at the beginning, we should be highly skeptical of confirmation bias.

In the end, as LARPers and gamers, reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment teaches us more about what might be wrong with the outlook that privileges and highlights immersion. The biased conclusions, the biased selections, the ‘forced’ outcomes that are then pointed to as having the same weight as spontaneous results, along with the positive enforcement and feedback given to participants when they play into existing biases and wishes – all these color many articles on LARPing.

There is nothing wrong with the artistic or immersionist approach, however we must remember that this vaunted example, the SPE, is deeply flawed. It merits no smugness, it should not allow echo chambers to form, and its example should humble, rather than embolden. A bit of skepticism and self-critique can improve discourse and create a more honest conversation about what is actually going on in our games.

Further Reading

LARP, Musings

Ryan Wilson, Breaking Embargo and Toxicity in LARP

toxic

There’s an idea called ‘breaking embargo’. Basically, it means violating an understanding that things will be kept out of the public eye. Doing so pretty much frees everyone else involved from keeping their side private as well.

One of my former players, Ryan Wilson – who rage quit from my game and was later informed he was banned – has broken embargo on this, in order to engage in a personal attack on me. Typical of the cowardice of such actions, he made sure I could not respond to him.

So I am responding to it here. And I’m making a statement of general policy – as a LARP runner, I am not required to accept this type of behavior as normal and acceptable; nor am I required to just suck it up when he misrepresents what occurred in a never-ending attempt to make himself look like the good guy.

He isn’t. He is the poster child for the passive-aggressive toxic player that makes LARP a drama fest.

I am not a politician, I’m an creator. And I have a day job, which gives me little time to play these games on top of the games I want to actually play.

ryan0

So here it is – Ryan Wilson has accused me of being an egomaniac who takes any criticism as a personal attack. I accuse him, with evidence, of being a vindictive belligerent whom I feel bad for any LARP runner who hasn’t the ability to kick his ass to the curb.

This from a man who spent most of his time at my game bashing another game he continues to play and bad-mouthing their staff and players.

A bit of history: Ryan and one of my staff members, Rachel, have some bad blood due to details I won’t go into here. Yet. He is in turn accusing her of deliberately excluding the two women he lives with from a social event, Sadie and Mallory. And this is the conversation that got him banned.

ryan1

ryan2

ryan3

ryan4

And then he blocked me, lovely individual that he is. And now you have the whole story. He was told he was banned because frankly, he went from “never coming back” to “not being wanted”. This was done privately among the staff and told to only our player council, in accordance with our governing document. And then he decided to make it public.

It is really simple – I will keep your business private until you make it public. Professionalism does not prevent me from defending myself. I don’t start fights, but I do end them.

And I think more LARP runners should adopt this philosophy. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and a lot of toxicity exists because we’re not ready to tell the whole story. Being transparent about toxicity and those who spread it will make our hobby healthier. We should be polite, be professional … and remove anyone who isn’t the same. By refusing to talk about toxicity, by declining to defend ourselves publicly, by refusing to stand up and declare “this person is a serial problem,” we perpetuate the issue.

Not me. Not today. I speak not only to defend myself, but so that others know what kind of person Ryan is, so they will be prepared to deal with him either as game staff or as a game participant.

As LARP grows in popularity, we must stop scrambling to keep players at all costs, and must realize that this type of player is an inflamed, unnecessary appendix to our growing and healthy hobby. And much like my own appendix, I’m glad to be rid of him.

And thus I consider the matter closed.

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.

Long may we reign.
Long may we reign.

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.

Role-playing Games

The Coming Indie Tabletop Crash?

Just how many 100 page rulebooks with cheap glossy covers are you willing to play once and then accumulate on your library shelf? Especially when you have to wait six months for the Kickstarter to be fulfilled. Especially when it is just a remix of some other indie system made by a friend of that system’s original author.

I’m guessing, not that many. And so  the ride called the Indie Tabletop scene, fueled by earnest Kickstarters and DriveThru RPG downloads, is going to come to an end.

Which is sad, because I was looking forward to the 125th remix of DungeonWorld featuring genderqueer themes set in an underwater space station.

Game Design, LARP

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

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

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.

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.

nordsplain

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.

Hijacking the Question

Game designers and runners often have serious questions about how to overcome obstacles in their game. Design choices have already long been made, rules sets already written and the like. Various design choices have been committed. They are running the game they are running – and that is not going to change. They’ve already bought their car and like driving their car.

So when someone comes forth and asks for advice on the various sticking points of one approach to LARP or another – and there’s plenty of problems with any approach – don’t hijack the question.

Oh wait, what’s that I hear? What if they do not realize there’s a incredibly better way that challenges their assumptions about the very nature of LARP? THE MATRIX HAS YOU, NEO!

The Myth of the Eye-Opening Relevation

On behalf of 95% of people who run LARPs and are active on the Internet, here is my message to those who believe that rules-light systems, Nordic LARP or other things are brand new messages that need to be spread to open people’s eyes –

iknow

Considering that the mainstream ‘rules-light’ movement in tabletop and live action games has been going on for at least a decade now, and Nordic style games are being praised from on high for the last few years, almost everyone knows what you are talking about. Which means we’ve probably considered it, maybe taken a few bits and pieces we liked, and don’t need to be told about it again.

It’s no longer 2010. We know. Cool? Now, I’m trying to have a conversation about XP curves and I really don’t need someone knocking that conversation off course in order to pull a two-penny Morpheus and ask me to doubt the necessity of XP itself.

When to Nordsplain

…or rather, when isn’t it Nordsplaining? I have no problem with WYSIWIG, with rules-light systems, with ‘art LARP’ styles and the like. I’ve played them. Hell, I’ve designed them, one of which you can read further down this blog.

All game design starts with some mix of the theme, the audience and the mechanics. When someone is asking questions about how to create a game around a theme, whip out all the avante garde mechanics and metatechniques you want. If someone says, “I am trying to design a Western LARP, what do you think is the best way?”, that’s an open invitation to espouse your tastes all you want. You are contributing; you are answering the question rather than hijacking it. Good job.

Also, if your new revolutionary idea can operate alongside the existing state of the game, while addressing the original issue, that’s also great. Some of the best contributions I’ve had from art LARP developments have come from integrating and adapting them to my needs, rather than using them as replacements.

And Now, the Amerijerk

merica

Webb’s Law of Amerijerking: In any talk about experimental, unusual or artistic games, the chance someone will interrupt to announce that it does not sound fun to them personally, and their opinion thus renders the entire enterprise invalid and stupid, approaches 1.

Again, imagine the drivers and the cyclists again. You are a cyclist. You have a cycling group that goes cycling, and you are gearing up on the side of the road. A driver pulls up next to your group and proceeds to make your bicycles and explain how much better their car is. They go into how fast it is, how much noise it makes, how much nicer the paint job is, and how they would never consider riding a bike – so it is dumb that anyone rides them at all.

Then, leaving as quickly as they came, they peel away, taking their uninvited opinion with them, satisfied they have shown the world why cyclists are dumb.

There is so many assumptions there. First of which is that the standards they are using are universal. And your very existence disproves that. You obviously knew cars existed, but you chose to be a cyclist. You obviously get something out of that that they don’t, and they did not even bother to ask what it was – you like that it is environmentally friendly; you wanted to exercise; you actually do have a car you drive occasionally but just use a bike because it is more convenient inside of the city.

And most of all, who the hell are you hurting to justify this treatment?

Daring to Have Fun Wrong

The need to wade into a conversation and declare loudly that “I would never play a game like that!” assumes that people rely on your support. Like the folly of the Nordsplainer, they have already made the choices about the type of game they are trying to run. If they are talking about black boxing, metatechniques and how their game is a commentary on how bad being a Ukrainian gay Jew in a gulag is, they’ve obviously given up on the ‘orc slaying only’ crowd a long time ago.

It’s okay. People have different motivations than you. They aren’t going to bite the arm of all your fellow players and turn them into one of them. People can often enjoy many different types of games. And if someone starts playing these ‘wrong’ games, they probably are getting something they missed elsewhere.

Oh, wait. You mean, how can that possibly be fun? It’s so pretentious!

They are not doing anything to you

…unless they are proceeding to Nordsplain and hijack other conversations. Oh, never-ending cycles of antagonism, how I love you. I understand, you are reacting to their perceived elitism and ego. And there may be something to that, but it doesn’t help anyone to start doing the exact same thing and acting like your opinion is the one that matters the most.

If someone actually attacks or denigrates your game style, mount your defense. I will take to the barricades with you. But the preemptive ‘I would never play THAT kind of game, it sounds dumb’ attack is a kneejerk, or Amerijerk, reaction. There’s lots of things I don’t understand the fun of – needlepoint, televised golf, lutefisk – but I don’t see the people who enjoy them as trying to judge and attack me somehow. Let them have their fun.

And no, the existence of one run of an art LARP is not going to destroy the entire hobby and leave us in a post-apocalyptic geek wasteland where Sarah Lynne Bowman is in a chainmail dress and Lizzie Stark runs around in white football pads while we fight over the last scraps of latex and boffer foam in a world gone mad. Though that would be pretty awesome. I do have a hockey mask…

Tastes are not Truths

Both of these problems are just twists in the same road – it is about taking tastes and thinking they are Truths. Even worse, thinking they are the New Way to the Future or the Only Right Way. Which means all criticism must be vociferously attacked, and anyone deviating from that path has to be shown back onto it.

The problem with both behaviors is that they are more than just not useful, they are anti-useful. They actively lower the usefulness of any conversation or community. They end conversations, muddy communication and generally poison things. There are plenty of obnoxious behaviors out there, but these actively detract from the exchange and development of ideas in our community, especially among creators.

Beyond that, they seal people off from the flaws of their approaches. Game design is about trade-offs, and to think that one particular group’s choices is without trade-offs is just disastrously wrong. Rules-light systems have problems. Rules-heavy systems have problems. These problems are roughly equal – give me a white board and a beer, and I will show my math on that point.

Talk about your tastes when you want to, but when you don’t have anything to contribute to a conversation’s actual point – stay out of it. It’ll make everyone happier.

And yes, call people out for Nordsplaining and Amerijerking. It’s rude – and now you have a word for it.

Gamemastering, LARP, Role-playing Games

LARPing welcomes safe drivers: an American’s thoughts on steering

A new term making the rounds in LARP circles is “steering” – a new term for a very old idea. Steering is using out of character knowledge to alter your in-character behavior to improve the game. In other words, it is metagaming with good intentions rather than selfish ones.

The idea is so old that Gary Gygax advocated for it in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I have called it or heard it called “greasing the wheels”, white hat metagaming or “good” metagaming. But the new term is a useful one in that it removes the technique from the bad connotations metagaming has in the roleplaying community.

I have had to struggle to get players to grab the wheel in my games and steer. Because of the well-deserved bias against destructive metagaming, players have felt they needed permission to steer without facing retribution from on high. Ultimately, I have had to resort to a post or rule that shouts, “this is a good thing, do it!” to put to rest the fears of the game master’s hammer.

I would like to contribute my own addition – the delineation between overt and covert steering, and how the acceptability of either can vary, and which one is preferred, depending on your game.

Overt and Covert Steering

I leaned over to Harrison before the game starts, “Hey, Harrison. You want to have killed my brother and now I want you dead?”

Because he’s that sort of player, Harrison barely paused before saying, “Done. Want to have a duel about it this game?”

That was overt steering. It’s blatant, it’s negotiated and it’s very clear what is being done. No assumptions are made, but it lacks any surprise and is not part of the immersive world.

Later in the same game, I see someone who is sitting in the corner while everyone else is talking. Seeing she is not fully engaged with the game, I walked over and begin talking to her. My boisterous baron would not have much reason to have interest in a wallflower, but as a player, I acknowledged that keeping things fun is part of my duty to the game, so I went out of my way to grease the wheels.

That was covert steering. Using a general rule of thumb, I decided privately what I thought was a good idea and acted on it.

This distinction is not purely academic. Different game systems and game groups have separate opinions about two types, and can encourage one while condemning the other.

Why and Why Not Overt Steering

Overt steering is blatant, can become very elaborate and often involves altering the histories and mentalities of the characters in play. But open communication between players can quickly lead to collusion and conspiracy to get some unfair advantages, and while some might call upon all of us to ‘play to lose’, most of us would prefer to lose fair and square.

Some games prefer overt steering and even make it a central rule of their game set – such as Houses of the Blooded where players trade points while entwining their characters in baroque and petty politics. Other games make their initial character creation session a practice in overt steering – encouraging or requiring relationships and ideas for character development be set forth before the game has even begun.

Overt steering works best when it is open where everyone knows it is going on and allowed. Its overtness is the main advantage, and it also means the staff of the game can have a good idea of what the players are cooking. When overt steering is not out in the sunlight, it can easily don the black hat and become metagaming. Here’s some good guidelines:

  • Overt steering should happen when it is not disruptive to the immersion of others, such as before the game or quietly to the side.
  • Consult the staff as to how much of this is tolerated, especially when your steering might give you a perceived advantage.
  • Steer with different people, not just your friends. We all know how roleplaying cliques work and how bad they can be.
  • You are generally more free to overtly steer on things that only affect your character and the person you are steering with. But if your ideas will directly affect others, do so with their consent. Not everybody likes someone’s ‘totally sweet idea’ completely changing things for their character suddenly. If you want your character’s daughter to be exposed as the bastard child of an ill-fated love affair, make sure you have the player of the daughter’s consent.
  • Respect the back story of the world. If the two ninja clans are written as sworn blood enemies who never see each other except in battle, do not change that without consulting the staff and giving them a chance to say ‘no’, or at least, give their input on how to make your cool idea work.

In general, games that involve guarded secrets, politics or elaborate worlds are the least tolerant of overt steering. It’s not impossible, but drive safely and obey all warning signs.

 Why and Why Not Covert Steering

Covert steering requires a bit less negotiation and clearance. Even the most cutthroat Vampire chronicle I have played in encouraged veteran players to involve (and mercilessly manipulate) the new characters in order to involve them. While overt steering is tricky, this form of covert steering is widely accepted. I have never heard anyone admonish it, except when it was so completely out of character it defied belief.

But it can go wrong. Very wrong. It depends on what kind of out of character knowledge you are using to steer and cause story, and how you obtained that knowledge. Because good steering and ‘causing story’ can quickly go south then look like targeting and exploiting out of character knowledge. In other words, metagaming in all its negative connotations.

This can go so wrong that I once had to fire a staff member over it.

The situation in question was a Vampire the Masquerade game where one character had severe nightmares that could haunt her or not depending on a random result. One session, she got hit bad, very bad, and was being haunted by visions of past atrocities the whole night. The staff member who ran this session was a fantastic roleplayer who enjoyed running this scene for her.

But then he took his own character into a room and saw her, amongst all these other characters, sitting in the corner. He thought it would be interesting to provoke her in this state. He targeted her in the middle of the crowd and began to do things not appropriate to his character that specifically tried to invoke her nightmare flaws. He succeeded, and when she attempted to excuse herself and eventually ending up fleeing the room, the staff character pursued her relentlessly throughout the night until the player finally complained to me personally.

She felt her night was being ruined by being targeted. But the staff member felt he was steering, trying to cause story. But instead, he managed to take an interesting roleplay situation and turn it into a farce by so deliberately pressing on something his character would not have done accidentally or even plausibly. It was not that it was made part of her roleplaying for the night, but it was made the only thing she could roleplay because of him.

It was an embarrassment to the staff and circulated widely through the player base, because it was easy to see as malicious and out of proportion. Ultimately, after discussing it with the honestly shocked staffer, I had to relieve him of his duties. And I felt bad about it because his intentions were good, but his execution was ridiculous.

So, my advice is:

  • Steer the game, don’t wreck it. Make sure you are just bending things to help the flow of roleplay, rather than flaunting well-established order.
  • Take a hint. Sometimes, people do not want your help or interest, or are having a good time doing what they are doing.
  • Do not be a one-trick pony. Engage people in many different ways so you do not come off as having a “engage the newbie” script.
  • Make sure everyone is enjoying themselves, even you.

Remember, if you are going to take the wheel and steer, drive safely.

LARP, Politics, Role-playing Games

Lit Matches, an art game about censorship and public opinion

This game is intended as a thought experiment. I’d personally never play it – could not play it – mainly because I do not think I could bring myself to burn a book or let one be burned. But maybe that’s an argument for me to play it anyway.

bookburning

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority… feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

– Ray Bradbury

Lit Matches is a game that explores the themes of censorship and popular opinion controlling what ideas can or cannot be expressed – or even exist. And it will destroy something precious of half (or more) of those who are playing.

It is recommended 6 people or more play and you must have an even number of players, and it requires a private area, suitable for public speaking, where a suitable bonfire or fire pit may be lit. Lit Matches is meant to be played in a single night, but may require a day or more of preparation by the players.

In addition to the players, one more person is required to play the Fireman. Not firefighter. Fireman.

Preparation

Reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent introduction to the themes at play, but it is not required. Other works exploring free speech, free expression, offensiveness, censorship, political correctness and other forms of intellectual control are also encouraged as preparation work.

Each participant must bring to the game a book they own that is important to them in some way. It is recommended that the actual physical copy have some importance as well – heavily annotated or very personal copies are highly encouraged. The literary value of the book has no bearing – a well-loved children’s book is of the same weight as the collected works of Nietzsche.

Before the game, players are paired off into opponents, and informed of their opponent’s book. They should be given time to research their opponent’s choice, at least 24 hours.

The Game

The fire should be lit and brought to a suitable state before the game begins. It is the Fireman’s duty to maintain the fire, in addition to his other tasks. The players should gather around the fire as it is already burning.

The game is played in an order chosen at random. Each paired group takes their books and hands them to the Fireman, and stands on either side of the fire. They are the defenders. The rest are witnesses. The Fireman should put them safely out of the grasp of the defenders, and announce the title of each book and who speaks for it. Who speaks first is determined randomly.

Witnesses are never allowed to speak. Only the Fireman and the defenders.

First you talk…

Each defender is given two minutes to speak. There is no limits on tactics or content of the speech. The defender may espouse the virtues of their chosen work, attack his opponent’s work, engage in ad hominem attacks, appeals to emotion, anything they wish. Anything goes.

..then you vote…

The witnesses to the speeches now must vote by show of hands which book to condemn. The Fireman conducts the vote. It must be done publicly. Any motivation for voting is allowed – including spite for someone voting against your book earlier. The players are allowed to see who condemned their chosen book.

A tie vote ends with both books being condemned.

…then you burn.

The two players take their seats away from the fire pit. At the end of each round, the condemned book is burned, as completely as possible. The Fireman reads the title, and if the player decided to mark one, reads a single short passage from the work. The book is then thrown into the fire and the fire stirred. This should be done in silence.

Play continues until each pairing has had their say, and half of the books brought have been burned.

Epilogue

The game should end with the fire being doused with water, and the players leaving the space. Any discussion, analysis and the like must occur elsewhere. Reading or looking through books that survived is encouraged.

Alternate Rule: A Pleasure to Burn

For a far more brutal game, after half of the books have been destroyed, a new set of pairs made up of the winners is made. New debates and defenses are waged, and the newly condemned books burned. Repeat until only one book remains.

Before the fire is doused, the ‘champion’ with the last remaining book is given the option to throw his own work on the fire.

Gaming, Geek, Role-playing Games

Experimental Tabletop #2: The Quiet Year

It’s been a while since I got the late night inspiration to do an experimental tabletop game review. While our group still meets every two weeks, I must admit it is only when I encounter a game that falls just short of its mark that I feel really inspired to review and critique it. So, that brings us to our latest installment – The Quiet Year.

Quiet-Year-Promo-Wide

The Quiet Year is a story game, not really a role-playing game. It comes from a decent pedigree – the author is also responsible for the seminal Monsterhearts, a popular Apocalypse World hack. It is part of the sub-genre of story games that revolve around drawing a map in order to tell the story of a place, in a similar fashion to Dawn of Worlds. It has a very simple setup – there is a post-apocalyptic community who have just emerged victorious and driven off an undefined enemy called The Jackals. There will be one year of relative peace before similarly undefined Frost Shepherds come in the winter and the game ends. You and the other players will determine what happens in that year to this community.

Notice I did not say you are playing members of this community. In fact, the rules make it very clear you are not. You are instead supposed to be the disembodied advocates of the community and its members, its prevailing thoughts, but at no point do you play out a scene or track a single character too closely. This game is about the players growing and exploring the community and its landscape together.

What happens during each week of the year is determined by a draw from a deck of cards, each player getting a turn. On your turn, your draw dictates what happens to the community and you decide how to implement it. Sometimes you are given a choice – either a project fails but you gain a needed resource, or a project succeeds but you lose an important resource. Other times, you are just given an outcome and decide how to implement it.

Also, the active player can have the settlement start up projects, discover something new on the map, or hold group discussions – the only time other players are allowed to give input.

Yes, the game actively forbids you from engaging in table talk with the other players about what you are going to do. The first way to get players input on the possible path of the settlement is to use your action to call for a discussion and positing a question, and even then, each person talks in turn and cannot say more than two sentences. Other than that, the only feedback the other players can give is non-verbally signalling their displeasure with what you have done by taking Contempt tokens from the middle of the table.

The designer does this with the intent of showing that community decision-making and group activities are actually quite sloppy and it is hard to really get a feel for what everyone thinks comprehensively. In large groups, it is easier to tell that people are unhappy than to find out why. Human interaction is messy.

What Works

The game does create a map and chart out the story of a community as they engage in projects, solve problems, find things that are scarce and deal with shortages. The deck draws are interesting but generic enough you can make anything happen – working ‘the weakest of you dies’ or ‘marauders approach’ is possible in any situation of desperation.

In real play, the limited communication clause is more respected in its transgression than in its enforcement, and it takes a disciplined group of role-players to keep restrained. But, the Contempt tokens to give a good way of ominously but abstractly expressing that not all is well and strain is rising within the group as to the decision that have been made.

What Doesn’t Work

The main weakness of the game is the very lack of definition that makes it possible to be so adaptable. Things can get very odd, very quickly, since there is no GM on board to guide things and people are banned from communicating their displeasure or objections fully. Not only the tone but the metaphysics and assumptions surrounding the game world can rapidly go into the realms of what I would call High Weirdness, where fantasy, science fiction and just plain Fortean elements mix together. In our game, bandits armed with old Russian army equipment and abandoned bunkers hidden in hillsides mixed with psychic healing magic priests and zombies, mainly because of the predilection and prejudices of various players naturally pushing things according to their tastes.

The game taken on its own does not establish a common tone or shared fantasy very well. The tips in the rulebook make mention that the ‘weirdness dial’ should be pretty much set by the mid-game, but in our game, it rapidly became a mess long before that. As is the weakness of most GM-less games, you have to start out with a strong consensus as to the type of game and world the story is being told in before you can begin, especially in a game that forbids you engaging the person making additions and changes to the world that might violate your notions of the shared fantasy.

This outlandishness can contribute to another weakness – the lack of emotional investment. The rules encourage you to not focus on individual characters but advocate for the entire community, but that means each individual player is just a nebulous opinion or will floating amongst the community’s population. For a game that wants us to care and ask hard questions and talk about what happens when communities are faced with crises, it would be better if there was more for our emotions and interest to hang on.

Also, the game and its events table are not hard enough on the community. Many in our group were expecting a rapidly worsening situation especially as summer drifted into autumn and the winter approached, but the random events of the later seasons were not much worse than the ones before. There was a feeling early in the game of establishing hopes and goals only to see things destroy or hinder them as the seasons got more harsh, but this was not supported by the events themselves. If this is supposed to be a somber post-apocalyptic setting, a bit more fatalism and unfair brutality might be called for. There were several points in the game where our players thought the citizens of our community had it far too easy.

Tips for Playing

It’s not in the rules, but I would lay out ground rules as group for your universe before you start drawing the map. This can be as simple as agreeing to a movie or book you’d like the world to mimic – such as Road Warrior – that players can build upon and use as their baseline. Or, you could take a page from games like Microscope and have players say elements that they want explicitly allowed or banned from the game – yes to magic, no to super technology. And allow for objections during play on the basis of those agreed on elements and that alone, e.g. “I don’t think radioactive clown zombies really fit the tone here, Bob.”

Also, actively restrain yourselves as players to think small and personal. Realize how little a group of eighty people trying to survive can actually accomplish in a year. And make an effort to define personalities and groups as you go along, not just when they are specifically called for in the event. Keep track of them, make them more human without exclusively following what particular set of characters. Many of the later events involve people dying – it works better if these people had names and histories to the group before they did.

7/10 – Simple with good execution and beautiful art, but needs a few tweaks.