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.

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