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.

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?

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.

Matthew Webb organizes live action roleplaying (LARP) events with his team at Jackalope Live Action Studios in Austin, TX; and creates augmented reality software at Incognita Limited. 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.

22 thoughts on “Nerdball: How a LARP becomes the game no one likes to play

  1. Interesting. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it’s one to keep in the back pocket.

    I almost feel like this is a superset which contains railroading games, as those are basically games which have become nerdball of staff/STs against the players.

    (I’ll also critique the assertion that it’s an unhealthy form of *competitive* larp in particular, since the primary drivers of nerdball- namely application of out of game organization and social pressures, could as easily arise in theoretically collaborative games- one could argue that those games are no longer collaborative, but that seems like a bit of a no true scotsmaning.)

  2. As someone who has been to a number of LARPS and just as many. NerdBall has been played at all of them. There were times when the teams were taken down a peg at Larp A, but then they just wondered over to Larp B and doubled down. Its probably one of the reasons I left

  3. I mostly agree with the notion, bit it seems like an unavoidable outcome in any game with a heavy focus on politics, like Vampire. It seems inevitable that one group or another will form an alliance to take over the political structure and rule with an iron fist until another group rises up to take them down. I’m not sure that I’d call that nerdball so much as a basic aspect of the game as designed. It can be damaging to the game after a certain point, but how can you prevent it aside from having the city ruled by unbeatable NPCs?

    1. Political alliances in the game world are fine and dandy. They’re the bread and butter of a game like Vampire. Nerdball isn’t about that, though.

      Nerdball is about -players-, in the real world, teaming up to have their characters take out other characters because—well, I can’t really wrap my head around the “why”. I suppose it makes them feel like “winners”? But Vampire is not Street Fighter or Call of Duty. The goal of the game is to have fun and tell interesting stories, not rack up a body count.

  4. If you have mechanics, people will use those mechanics to their advantage. Some people will be better at it than others, and some will not play the mechanics game at all, and will likely end up in trouble.

    If you have player vs player (IC or OOC) conflict and mechanics to settle those conflicts, you will have people perceiving winners and losers.

    LARP can be collaborative storytelling, but you would have set that out immediately and clearly. Different people play the game different ways. Using an NPC to smash up PCs because you decided your story was better is not a good solution.

  5. Interesting, but the flaw in this is quickly apparent.
    1.) OOG friends will still form alliances and play together. This is just a fact of life. they will then form and IG alliance and do everything you described above. This aspect cannot be avoided.
    2.) Death IS the great equalizer, removing death or penalty of death, just reinforces the “nerdball”. If their players cannot die, they cannot lose power and will always have a step up over other players. While other PCs may not be in a position to nock another group down, Plot/staff can, and if should, if the PCs are ruining the game for others.
    3.) Any Plot team worth any amount of respect, doesn’t, nor should it allow any one group to dominate plot that goes out. This is easily avoided and prevented.

    In all, (any maybe I am wrong), but it sounds as if the author was in a losing side of a “nerdball” team and is a bit bitter, or perhaps was not as involved in the game as some others have been and didn’t get the plot he wanted because others put more effort into it.

    I’ve never seen anyone who wanted plot denied it, if they put even remote effort into acquiring it.

    1. I highly suggest checking out LARPs that have consensual storytelling mechanics, like New World Maghischola. It sounds like you would be very surprised at how things turn out when you remove “death or the penalty of death”. It completely changes the way some players think about “winning” and “losing”.

    2. “OOG friends will still form alliances and play together. This is just a fact of life. they will then form and IG alliance and do everything you described above. This aspect cannot be avoided.”

      It can.
      As a German Player, home in another style of gaming than the American way, I saw that phenomenon often, too, but I also saw some trying to get around that problem.
      Because – OOG friends make the best basis for the real stuff, when it gets to the big drama. They trust each other not to play Nerdball and so they can make quite a show. A little, but loud and angry fight to death penalties IG – if you can put trust into each other you can do really mad stuff.

  6. How profound how profound how profound how profound your article is. I was also a victim of nerd ball. Many many years ago I finally found the LARP in my middle to late twenties. I had been wanting to LARP since I was about 12 or 13 years old when I heard of the concept. There was this very basic local group in my hometown that I found. I was a newly married man with small children and a wife. At first my wife was very much into it being that she like to go to Renaissance festivals and such. The group was less than friendly towards my wife at the very beginning when she offered to help them make Garb and things of the sort. Myself I was in heaven! I had finally found the boy of my dreams. They were a PVC duct tape and insulation buffer type LARP. Unfortunately the group had its nerd ball controllers very much in trenched in power. My dreams were quickly dashed as anyone else with any creativity or ideas were killed in the LARP. Also getting back to my wife the less than friendly little group of young ladies made my wife feel very unwelcome. The webmaster and default leader even though he was not also made any comments I said on the web page into something negative. What was funny is one of the warring factions decided to adapt my set of rules. I then was in LARP heaven but unfortunately the damage they had done to my wife made it a very negative situation at home. Also the webmaster and his little faction of people made it very miserable to attend the LARP as well and I didn’t really make too many of the meetings. It all ended in a horrible disaster after many characters were assassinated in such that they decided to join the white trash LARP and where people couldn’t have their personas permanently killed. I won’t say what the LARP is that we call the white trash LARP but you can probably figure it out.

  7. The main issue I have with the article is that it skirts around the problems that lead to griefing and a win-at-all-costs mentality as the optimal plays; bad game design.

    – You can’t build up XP if XP isn’t part of the game.
    – You can’t eliminate characters if permadeath isn’t part of the game.
    – You can’t form cliques that dominate everything if fixed teams/camps/alliances aren’t part of the game.

    This article also seems to fixate a lot on powergaming being a bad thing, which it isn’t. Toxic behaviour is, and someone can be toxic to the community regardless of what is on their character sheet.

    1. If you want articles on other types of toxicity, there are elsewhere on this blog and on the Internet. It does focus on ‘game domination’ as a behavior – powergaming is just often the optimal way of doing. So yes, the article about one thing is about that one thing and isn’t attempting to be a 360 degree coverage of every type of nastiness.

  8. Another complicating factor to this issue is what I have just dubbed “escalation chicken.” Essentially, not going nuclear is always the wrong strategy unless you can trust the victim to not immediately go nuclear. That makes it so you can’t even hold the most optimal strategy as a backup. You have to open with it.

    Not only are you essentially required to take out PCs you have any conflict with if you don’t want to lose, you have to do so the second that you think them doing the same to you might potentially be on the table. Opening with a lesser action is just courting revenge, and the most optimal way for them to retaliate is always going to be taking you out.

    1. I like this. It’s a good addenda to the whole idea, and is definitely a factor. Even if I’m not a fan of taking out characters, if I like my character, I immediately escalate if I want to keep it.

  9. As a long time ST and player of several troupe LARPs for VtM and even WtA in my area I recognize all to well the signs of this in those games. I don’t think I was too willing anparticipant but I do know I was an accessory to several teams. Very interesting read.

  10. Thank you for this article! I am a LARP organiser and we have such a problematic group coming to our game. I hope we can use the tips of this article to make our game a better place to play and enjoy ourselves.

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