…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
A 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.
A 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.
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?
Nerdball is an unhealthy form of competitive LARP, usually when games are part of a long chronicle, that arises naturally from factors in human behavior and the nature of the games being played. It is when the game becomes centered around out-of-character teams of players who work to socially and mechanically dominate the game, usually to make sure their preferred type of play is protected and their wishes are enforced upon the rest of the players and even the staff.
Nerdball is when a LARP community is dominated by out of character friends forming alliances, creating not so much characters as interlocking optimized teams more akin to MMO raiding parties than functional parts of the game’s collective fictional fantasy. And these teams (or sometimes just one team because no one else has figured out that the game has changed yet) proceed to try and win Nerdball!
You “win” nerdball by creating a situation where your team has almost exclusive control over a LARP game’s power structures, narratives and plots; and are allowed to enforce your opinion of how the game world should run, including eliminating or sidelining characters and ideas you don’t like. If you are the current nerdball champions in your game, no one can do anything you dislike or threaten your control over the game without risking character death, neutering of their concept and/or out-of-character social ostracism. This might even include the staff themselves if you are playing nerdball really well.
Once nerdball has taken hold of a LARP, everything becomes a myopic team sport with weird rules posing as a story-driven game. And it might indeed have a deep rich story! But that story is only allowed to exist at the nerdball champions sufferance, and they are the ones who get to decide how it plays out.
(Spoiler: The story better be all about how awesome, central or deep their characters are. Anything else will get strangled in its crib despite the best efforts of the staff who should either quit or quickly learn what the new rules they have to abide by are. Or else.)
Now begins the slow death
Here’s the problem with nerdball. It’s when your game turns into a nerdball league. Because once one group starts playing nerdball, everyone has to if they want any hope of carving out a zone they can play the game they actually want to play in. If two or more equally matched nerdball teams take the field, even ones that were formed unwillingly, gameplay quickly degenerates into skirmishes and sieges between nerdball teams, with an emphasis on defense, distrust and lack of risk. Storylines will be avoided since they constitute spending resources or time that do not help defeat the opposing team, or might be squashed as a matter of course.
Players looking for pure role-playing or just like costuming have to align with a team just to survive, or they will risk their effort in building backstory and costuming being wasted because they looked at one of nerdball players wrong. General quality of characters will drop as the pettiness and lethality of the game spikes, because why build out props and back story for a character when they might get kicked aside without any satisfaction two games in? Why play at all if that is your thing?
Staff will be under siege for doing almost anything, since if they empower the nerdball team even accidentally, they are empowering the most despised aspect of the game for some people; and if they endanger the nerdball team’s dominance, they are an obstacle that the nerdball teams will coordinate against in order to manipulate, capture or remove with the same viciousness and efficiency that they apply to in-character opposition. They will be reduced to nerdball referees who better know every single rule by heart – or else.
The staff might even realize one way to get some peace is to become the ‘coach’ of a specific nerdball team and start helping them clear the field so at least only one group is in charge. A game where this occurs is one of my clearest arguments that we do not live in a universe created by a loving god.
The sane among the player base quit, of course. The stubborn, bless their hearts, will hold out like the Wolverines against the Soviets. Until they meet a similar fate gunned down by helicopter gunships that are totally justified by their backstory and are just enforcing setting, or they become what they are fighting and form their own team.
How not to play
Nerdball is ultimately a community problem. So, what can you do as a player or a gamemaster to fight the forming of a nerdball league?
- Allow no praise or laurels for ending stories. Your game culture shouldn’t view killing characters or otherwise crippling their ability to participate as ‘playing the game better’. Make unsatisfying ends into something regrettable, and if necessary, make players feel bad and unlauded for doing it. Also, ‘good at taking out characters in LARP’ is probably the most pathetic resume line I can think of. Now, if everyone buys into an ending, it is narratively satisfying and doesn’t smell of nerdball, that’s excellent. Just be careful, assume good faith but remain aware
- Make people take responsibility for their effect on the game. It takes about 5 minutes to justify dominating the game and targeting another player. It takes 5 minutes and some common decency to figure out how to make conflict an interesting aspect of the game. Meet “it’s what my character would do” with the derision it deserves.
- Stop playing nerdball and convince others to stop. If you are reading this far, it’s probably that this concept resonates with you. Now consider – are you part of such a team? It can be hard to recognize sometimes, but even if you are, it’s time to try and put a stop to it. Out of character negotiation, talking about these ideas and figuring out how to deescalate are good things that make everyone have more fun. It might be the ‘original’ nerdball team in your game has long since left, and no one really wants to play this game anymore. Or it is being kept alive only by a small group of players who need to have their attitudes changed.
But it can be encouraged by the rules and setting. The rules your game plays by can incubate nerdball like a high school locker room shower incubates foot fungus. But only the staff can really change this.
- Break up the teams by imposing consequences. Setting NPCs can help immensely with this. Remaining aware of what is going on and taking out concentrations of power in nerdball teams, or clamping down on players who continually play highly-aggressive optimized sheets by denying them their chosen weapons is a good move. This can be hard socially, and can cause the players in question to gnash their teeth and even quit. Good, they are doing you a favor. If they keep finding new and clever ways to nerdball, patch the rules and then consider showing the offenders the door. If they do not respect your limits on how you want them to play, you don’t have to respect their desire to play.
- Make teaming up and lashing out less effective. Nerdball occurs when players can team up and optimize for control over the game, and remain in this role by taking out opposition. Games with experience point (XP) progression can seriously incentivize taking out other characters early and often, keeping them from gaining the powers and abilities needed to oppose the long-surviving nerdball characters. Death bonuses to XP, accelerated XP for new characters to bring them back up quickly to power, and imposing XP penalties on those who take out characters all help change this.
- Say No. You can say no personally as a game runner, ending and retconning scenes that have flimsy justification. People in real life have qualms about indulging in murder for personal profit or petty reasons, or even vengeance. You can intervene on a more organizational level by having firm rules on when and how characters can be taken out by other characters – or by making such scenes risky and difficult for everyone involved, and where small nerdball teams can easily get overwhelmed and held accountable by the larger population of the game. (If you do not like this because it makes mass combat a possibility, believe me, you are fighting a worse fate.)
Taking this personally?
I’m pretty sure some people are doing a pretty good Queen Gertrude impression right now – doth protesting too much. Take a step back. You can put a stop to this – and you can start having more fun. Nerdball often comes from a place of wanting control or importance you are lacking elsewhere your life, but if you are getting that feeling this way, you are making yourself a worse person at the expense of other people.
As always, remember that people are more important than LARPs, and that we all want cool stories. Make the game better in every way you can.