Gamemastering, Role-playing Games

In LARP, we are never agreeing to CvC

What’s going on surrounding the drama of character conflict and death in Vampire LARP is based in a deeper issue about what a LARP or an RPG is.

“By making a character, you agree to CvC.”

This is a pretty old refrain in every game with permadeath, and I’ve heard it in everything from Vampire to boffer. CvC stands for ‘character vs. character conflict’, also known as PvP for ‘player vs player’, and is usually used in terms of characters being killed by other player character. But I am not actually agreeing to CvC. Neither are you. None of us are.

Not boundless CvC.

When you play a LARP or any RPG, you are agreeing to participate in a shared fantasy with common standards. A fantasy without common standards isn’t really shared. There’s a cool book by Gary Alan Fine called Shared Fantasies published in 1983. It is one of the first serious academic books on RPGs. He identifies the following as a core component of what makes an RPG function –

“Because gaming fantasy is based in shared experience, it must be constructed through communication. This communication is possible only when a shared set of references are available and exist for key images; and a clear set of expectations exist for which actions are legitimate.”

– Shared Fantasies: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds

When we agree to play Vampire the Masquerade, Monsterhearts or Bunnies and Burrows, we are agreeing to participate in a shared fantasy world with a set of expectations and references determined by the source material and the staff. One of those expectations in Vampire is the possibility of legitimate character death. But it is not the only expectation, and that word legitimate is really important. If other expectations are violated and those key references aren’t upheld, everything risks being delegitimized.

So, no, we aren’t agreeing to CvC. We’re agreeing to a shared world that includes CvC but where there are expectations as much on the aggressor as anyone else to uphold all the other key expectations of the shared fantasy world. When someone believes these expectations are violated and that leads to a character death, it delegitimizes the death in their mind.

And that’s when the problem starts.

Artistic depiction of what’s about to happen after a delegitimized character death. Except with more typing and manifestos, like this one!

If you want the crunchy bit of the rules as the only shared consensus, that’s fine. But nothing about Vampire the Masquerade sells the game as a sport with no other expectations. What it does sell itself as is a byzantine political drama and undead soap opera. While death is accepted, it is only accepted within the context of those references and expectations by a large number of players.

Ludonarrative Dissonance and Breaking the Contract

Ninety percent of the drama I see in LARP is from a fun vocab word – ludonarrative dissonance, when the realities and rules of the game do not match the expectations set for the story being told. The other ten percent are unpopular or unlikely shifts in the narrative in a way that seriously alters the experiences of the players, or just conflicts of personality.

To reduce ludonarrative dissonance, it’s not about banning CvC or allowing only consensual character death. It is about analyzing and clearly setting the expectations of the shared fantasy you are creating with each other. It means educating the players and reiterating those expectations to players that violate them, and in some cases, removing them if they are unable to abide by the shared fantasy you are trying to create.

In the original blog post that coined the term ludonarrative dissonance, Clint Hocking says that a game makes two contracts with the player – the ludic contract and the narrative contract. The ludic contract defines what are viable courses of action within the rules. The narrative contract defines what the fiction we are creating is. You have to have both to have a role-playing game.

So if the only expectations you want to exist are the crunchy rules, where only the ludic contract is honored, you are going to be in for a rocky ride. The audience for that is actually quite small. Competitive sheet building with pro-wrestling style shit-talking weirdly laced with game world terminology isn’t much of a role-playing game. It’s like curling – it strains to be interesting as a sport and its appeal is confusing to outsiders. And like curling, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s for a rather niche audience and I’m wondering why it is being featured so prominently sometimes.

I guess this is blockbuster curling, or maybe regional event curling. But no amount of cool lighting from the convention staff is gonna make me understand the appeal. Televised curling just confuses me, okay?

If you violate the narrative reference points for a player, you will be just as much as a cheater in their mind as if you lied about what’s on your sheet. You have broken the narrative contract that they made when they invested time and energy into the game. It might not be fair, but that is what is going to happen. You will be the bad guy, the person who not only broke a deal but never got punished for it.

Chimpanzees beat the crap out of each other for things like that. It’s deep in our social instincts to seek disproportionate amounts of retribution for those who get away with breaking the social expectations and rules of a group. Especially when a deal is broken. We go full Thunderdome.

And saying you don’t like it and it shouldn’t happen isn’t going to stop the fundamental anger and social reprisal from happening. But upholding, reinforcing and communicating the other expectations of the game will help more than anything else will. Especially when the narrative contract tells you what you cannot do, beyond what is just on a sheet or in the rulebook.

Matthew Webb organizes live action roleplaying (LARP) events with his team at Jackalope Live Action Studios in Austin, TX. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Learn about their upcoming events by following Jackalope Live Action Studios on Twitter (@JackalopeLARP) and Facebook. All opinions here are his and his alone.

Gaming, LARP

We who are about to meme salute you: Thoughts on That Larp Meme Page

This is a repost of something I wrote on my Facebook wall in February, but I’ve put it here for better visibility and sharing.

When a meme page exists that mainly spends its time savaging the membership and leadership of multiple LARPs in our community, and if you look at its metrics, this is what you see:

Amtgard is the largest LARP org page on Facebook. It has 8.2k followers. The MES’ page is 3.4k, one of the smallest national LARP org pages, while Dystopia Rising sits at 6.2k and NERO at 6.8k The biggest larp-related page period is Larping.org, at 12k. The largest LARP related group at all is the LARP Haven group at 13.8k.

By comparison, the page in question has gathered 1.4k 2.6k followers in what looks like 2 years – and it’s only really been active for the last year. Most of those pages above have been around over 7 years. At this rate of growth, the page is looking to eclipse all national campaign-style organizations within the year. It might have wider reach than pretty much any LARP org quicker than we think.

So, what does that tell us? That attacking our hobby is more popular than the hobby itself right now. People are gleefully treating attacks on the members and leadership of this hobby as a bloodsport, and like to watch it happen. The best way to get in good with the most LARPers the quickest is drag whoever they can onto the bloody sand and gut them in front of the crowd. And that crowd will laugh while you are doing it.

It’s impossible for them to be responsible for this. They couldn’t have created this situation. They are exploiting it, and will likely continue to exploit it so long as it feeds the dopamine kick of getting a reaction and watching their numbers climb. The crowd packs itself in to watch the show, gleefully mashing that Like and Share button like the plebian crowds in the Colosseum calling for the death of the loser in the arena.

They just happen to be good at it and know how to provoke a reaction. They know how to get their name said, and that’s by going after people’s egos and self-worth. They’ve read social media theory and guerilla marketing; and they’ve figured out how to slice right into the market they are targeting. It shows in how they modulate between light humor, self-effacing ‘that’s me’ posts and brutal savagery that provokes a reaction and throw red meat to the angry. And how they choose or create memes that are inkblot tests that anyone can project either themselves or their frustrations on. I’m even flattered they’ve flat out stolen a couple of my own creations. They are good. I’m impressed, but I know what they are doing for what it is, and I don’t like being manipulated.

But damn if they aren’t piercingly utterly tapping into the zeitgeist and saying the unsayable at times, and getting more of a reaction than ten years of LARP theory, scholarship and accusations with a name on them. But it is a bloodsport, and sometimes, it’s just butchery. And the crowd cheers. Oh, how it cheers, all the same.

The Colosseum and the crowds that packed it were not the fault of the gladiators or their organizers. The crowds in the arena were seeking succor from a decaying empire, rampant corruption, the cruelty of daily life and accepted what was being done because they were ready to hate and dehumanize another person. The bloody games were a symptom, not a cause.

The solutions, those ‘constructive’ comments being demanded, are out there, gathering dust as they have for years. Articles, research, surveys They are literally everywhere. Even the ‘non-constructive’ comments show what the problems are, even though their solutions are often nasty and born of the very pain that fuels that arena. LARP organizations in the United States are remarkably resistant to change and defiant of critics.

Me, I’m tired of it. I don’t like or follow that page for a reason, and I’m not contributing to it. I’ll be running Cyberpunk in May, The Night in Question in November, and got other news on the way. And my players aren’t going to be as interested in seeing me laid out on the arena floor after playing in my games for a year or two. Or at least, I hope they aren’t.

I don’t fault anyone for following the page. They are funny, incisive and it’s a thrill to watch someone who deserves it get kicked up the backside. That’s been the foundation of comedy for years. But the solution is to address the problems, not put on blinders or ignore them; and maybe the dopamine kick we get from the viciousness isn’t worth it?

But in the end, – are you not entertained?

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?

Continue reading “Nerdball: How a LARP becomes the game no one likes to play”

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.

Continue reading “The LARP Antagonist’s Oath”

LARP

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

I’ve 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?

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

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

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.

Continue reading “Nordsplaining and Amerijerking: How not to be a jerk discussing LARP online”