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.

Gamemastering, Gaming, Role-playing Games

Fortress of Solitude Syndrome (Adventures in Game Mastering #1)

Your plot is not recognized in Fort Kickass.
Your plot is not recognized in Fort Kickass.

What do you do when players make an in-character location that lets them avoid the game world?

You are running a game. Maybe it is a LARP, or an online game, or a tabletop. A player comes to you and says, “Hey, I’d like my character to set up a keep/club/house/ditch in the road that is “safe” and no one outside of the group knows about.”

This is a reasonable request, certainly. After all, every great hero has their home base, away from prying eyes. And like most things that go terribly wrong in game mastering, it starts with something that seems so reasonable.

Be warned. Your player may be showing the first signs of Fortress of Solitude Syndrome, and it is going to cause problems.

Why is this a bad thing?

Some players have a tendency to think defensively. They know the game world is dangerous, as are the inhabits that might be looking for them. They want to preserve their character against death, or just inconvenience, and want to be able take reasonable precautions to make sure their characters have a safe, often secluded, often heavily protected or at least secret place where they can do whatever they wish without worrying about the armies of darkness showing up at their doorstep. However reasonable this move, these ‘fortresses’ can be major problems with the game master if the players begin to overuse them.

Players invest time and effort into these locations, and expect them to be preserved. So, you cannot violate their Fortress of Solitude lightly. But, think back to your favorite television series or movie, where the heroes had some clubhouse or home base. How long did it take for the screen writers to violate that space? Batman didn’t go three movies without the villains tossing around explosives in the Bat Cave. Buffy’s living room, despite vampires being stopped at the front door, is practically a four lane highway for monsters and magic. Violating the character’s home and sanctuary is an easy way to investing and engaging the character against an enemy. But when dealing with a player that invested time and effort in creating their character’s entrenched position, they might find it hard to accept that effort (and often even points spent) being cast aside.

They lead to boring play if overused. For the reasons above, you cannot have the plot trounce into the fortress without creating a sense of betrayal. Also, it makes it very hard to threaten the player characters directly with force. The idea that Jimmy the Fish will be very disappointed if they don’t get him that wetware package before the deadline is hard to make threatening if your cyberpunk operatives can go to their Caribbean island base patrolled by attack drones and wait for the thing to blow over. And that sort of play, while ‘smart’ from a strategic perspective, makes the game crawl and lack tension, danger and conflict.

In larger games, exclusive locations can split the game up and break apart the social web of the game. Especially in large games such as LARPs, these fortresses will often also exclude other players, breaking the game into in groups or out groups. And the situation can quickly become Balkanized, and not in a good way.

Remember, a Fortress of Solitude is not just a location that the players have, but one they expect to be protected and safe.

Dealing with Fortresses of Solitude

1. If they haven’t already made their home base, be honest about what they are getting. If a player wants to set up their ninja mountain castle, just be honest and inform them that while their ninja castle will certainly be useful, it is not impenetrable. Indeed, the very existence of such a place is a call for their enemies to undermine and subvert it. Its servants can be infiltrated by rival clans. It can be besieged (with difficulty) by the Shogun. All sorts of things can happen, and while you are not saying no to having it, you should be upfront as a game master that all the planning in the world from the players will not make their location unassailable. The world is inhabited with foes just as clever as they are looking to get at them.

2. The solitude cuts both ways. Make staying turtled up have a cost. Isolating yourself from harm also means isolating yourself from critical information and resources. Make it clear through roleplay that staying bottled up is allowing the situation to get worse and keeping them from getting what they need. The ninja fortress does not get regular mail service, nor is it easy for even their allies to get to. Being in a place secluded enough to be safe is being in a place isolated enough that they cannot help their friends.

3. Give them concerns on the outside. Batman might have the Bat Cave, but he is not protecting just the Bat Cave. He has all of Gotham to protect. The reason the Bat Cave can exist is that Batman can easily be drawn out of it by Joker and Two-Face taking a few hostages. The ‘distress call’ only works with some types of characters – heroes such as Batman with a cause – but there are other ways. Have a huge castle? Give them a fief to go with it, one that can be harassed by bandits and monsters, villagers who count on their new lord to keep them safe.

4. Nothing is free, you know. Most Fortresses of Solitude need hard cash, or its equivalent, to keep running. Otherwise, the castle stores get emptied, the power gets turned off or the engineers keeping the nuclear plant running stop coming to work when their paychecks bounce. In one game I ran set in the Battletech Universe, the players were running a mercenary company where they had an extravagant defensible home base, but that Fortress never became a problem. Why? Because the contracts needed to keep the company afloat were out there, on other worlds. The home base was a place to regroup between missions and store their spare mechs – retreating back to it wasn’t an option most of the time, and wouldn’t get them the credits they needed if they did.

5. All else fails, have the big violation of the Fortress be a major turning point. If you feel up to it, and want to dispose of the Fortress completely, turn the anger and surprise to your advantage. Have the fact that someone got in after all this time and blew up Moon Base Alpha be the start or turning point of a major storyline. Taking away something that the players invested so much effort into can make it personal, and if you try, you can transfer that anger onto the in-character villain instead of you as the game master, so that the players will not miss their old toy as much as they enjoy the new plotline.