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?

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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.

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LARP

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

I’m 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?

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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:

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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.

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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.