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

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.

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.

Gaming, Role-playing Games

Experimental Tabletop #1: Dirty Secrets

I’ve decided to start keeping reviews and notes of the bi-monthly experimental tabletop night that several friends and I hold. The concept is simple – we find one of the plethora of new indie tabletop roleplaying games available on the Internet, and try one out that night.

We’ve done several already, and it’s been great. Some games have failed, others have been brilliant, but all have taught us something about game design and roleplaying. I am not going to attempt to summarize the mechanics, but rather give a quick overview and review. Less is more, I say. So, here is my first installment. Last night we played a little game called Dirty Secrets.

Dirty Secrets is an homage to the hard-boiled detective stories of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, but set in your own hometown, one week ago. It is about an investigator scouring through collections of sleazy characters in an attempt to find the perpetrators of a small set of crimes. It is a GM-less game. It takes the interesting twist of having only one player portray a single character throughout the game – the Investigator.

The rest of the narrative control (a position known as the Authority) is passed around between the other players around the table, as the Investigator pursues more and more evidence.

The rules deliberately keep any player from actually declaring who committed a crime until a set of criteria are met, so it is a mystery to everyone until the reveal. Conflicts are resolved via a game of Liar’s Dice between the current Authority and the Investigator, and the Authority can pull in the various other players to improvise specific roles in the scene that the Investigator is in, as well as interrupt the Investigator’s activities with acts of violence.

What Works

The game manages to create an excellent collection of sleazeballs rather seamlessly, and our game moved at a good pace to begin with. Evidence was acquired, leads pursued, seemingly innocuous characters became more and more important.

There is an excellent mechanic for becoming unstuck called ‘Revelation Sequences’ where a relationship is randomly determined between two existing characters in order to break open the case – which was amusing in our case when the local Mexican mafia crime boss turned out to be having a homosexual tryst with a illegal immigrant caretaker we met in an earlier sequence.

But all and all, the game manages to parade out a good collection of twists and turns, where everyone is considered a suspect. The Investigator is drawn into a pit of paranoia and tangled webs are woven, all without anyone knowing the eventual outcome will be.

What Doesn’t Work

When I say ‘eventual outcome’, I do mean eventual. The pacing mechanic is where the game can hit the skids. It is slow, which can be very frustrating for players not particularly familiar with the onion layers style of the hard-boiled genre and more familiar with crime dramas like Lethal Weapon.

The Investigator cannot force the story along; the reveal cannot be accelerated by violent interrogations or stunning situations. It can only come when it comes.

Like many games trying to replicate a single genre, the players, especially the Investigator, have to be familiar with the base works and their tone. This game works best with people who already like detective mysteries and understand what the game is attempting to replicate, not with just your average gamer looking for a night’s entertainment. It best produces stories that are tense and shadowy, rather than full of action and showdowns.

While the game has its share of violence (it is not a Miss Marple story by any standard), the violence takes forms more like bullets fired from an darkened alleyway with tires squealing off shortly afterward.

Tips For Playing

If you want to play Dirty Secrets, I suggest the most experienced and rules savvy player be the Investigator. And that the Investigator player be the one most familiar with the genre.

If you are a fan of hard-boiled mysteries who wants to play this with less-inducted friends, you definitely need to take on the Investigator role. The Investigator is really a sort of reverse GM, pushing the story along and producing scenes which the others have to improvise and attempt to play out. The Investigator controls the tone more than anyone else at the table.

In our particular game, the Investigator’s player became frustrated because the increasingly violent path the Investigator was on could not produce the results he wanted within the rules. When confronting the character most likely to have committed the game’s central murder with a gun, there was no easy way to resolve this situation in a satisfactory manner.

No amount of escalation can force the plot to resolve quicker, and the player ran into that brick wall hard as he attempted to achieve his character’s primary goal. While this certainly reflects the pacing of the chosen genre, it was frustrating to a Investigator player who wasn’t used to it.

6/10: Promising and fun, but needs work.

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.

Board Games, Gaming, Geek, Role-playing Games

Top seven games that destroy friendships

Games are supposed to be fun, to increase the bonds between people. But there are exceptions to that rule, the vipers lurking in the grass of geeky entertainment. There is a special class of game out there which seem innocent enough, but playing them quickly shows their true intent. These are the games which try the souls of men, put you to the test and, if not approached cautiously, lay waste to love and friendship.

7. Magic the Gathering

The grand-daddy of all collectible card games, Magic the Gathering starts off innocently enough. You buy a few pre-made decks and play a few games with friends. Maybe you start playing regularly over lunch, or to break up the usual board game night. It’s fun, unpredictable and quick.

And then, someone gets good at it; someone starts to take it seriously.

They start buying booster packs, constructing better and better decks. They buy cards online to fulfill this combo or that combo. Perhaps they even reach back into the game’s horrendous back catalog of banned cards to construct decks that no one has any hope of winning against. They use a multitude of computer programs to run the probabilities on their combos and optimize their mana pool.

What used to be a friend is now a monster. You have to start consulting the rulebook, the real one that’s hundreds of pages long, to figure out whether he can actually do that or whether that card is even legal anymore. You have to confront this jerk who was once your friend, because the game isn’t fun anymore. Either that, or you have to join him in an arms race that will suck up both time and money, and probably not be very fun.

And the worst part is, this is exactly what the designers of Magic want to happen. This is their business model, selling as many cards as possible to as many people in the eternal quest to dominate the competition. Their business model is based around people being jerks. Continue reading “Top seven games that destroy friendships”