Game Design, LARP

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

Photo Credit: Zachariah Birkenbuel, Creative Commons, Attribution license
Photo Credit: Zachariah Birkenbuel, – 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.


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 –


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


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.