Spring and Summer LARPin’

Since Extracon 2021, I’ve been involved in a number of LARP events, mostly online, but also at least one in person.

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A Liminal State of LARP

Local LARP is currently in a weird, liminal space.

Private runs of small theater LARPs have begun to pop up — one shots with limited casts where everyone feels confident that everyone else is fully vaccinated. But larger, public theater events are still of indeterminate status, mostly getting kicked down the road until things settle. Our two usual types of space each have their own issues — universities aren’t allowing events open to non-students this semester, and hotels present a significant risk. What if CDC guidelines change, or not enough people are comfortable attending, but hotels won’t refund deposits? Event space is also in very high demand right now, as people who have been waiting on holding events like weddings pounce on available dates.

Some LARP events are still running online, and hoping that burn out on online interaction combined with people’s eagerness to do things in person again won’t preclude participation. Summer LARPin’ ran online this past weekend with a pretty fully slate of LARPs, and Consequences (not local, of course, but connected to local communities) is scheduled to run online again in November. (And they would love some more bids, by the way!)

Meanwhile, campaign boffer events are also grabbing at dates for the fall, hoping to capitalize on the surge of enthusiasm to get back into live combat LARPing. But most of the announcements I’ve seen have been hesitant and full of caveats. We’ve got dates, we’ve got locations but we’re keeping an eye on CDC guidelines… we’re still figuring out what restrictions we’ll have in place… we might have to postpone or cancel, etc. etc.

And every event is facing the vaccination requirements question. For the small events where everyone knows everyone, it’s largely moot — I am very privileged to live an area where vaccines are relatively available and accessible. I just played my first in-person LARP in over fifteen months, and all twelve of the participants were fully vaccinated. But it’s a much thornier for larger events, especially if sign ups are open to the public.

I’ve been following much of the chatter online, and it seems the local LARP communities are pretty strongly united in the idea that vaccines should be required. One or two lone voices (often the sort that reference HIPAA without understanding it) speak up about violation of privacy, then get drowned out by an overwhelming response. But there is some disagreement about some of the details. Do we make an exception for people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons? Most people seem to think we should, saying it’s ableist to deny admission to those who can’t be vaccinated, but I have heard arguments against it. And if events do allow exceptions, what kind of evidence, if any, should be required? And what sort of evidence should events require for vaccinations? What if people have lost or damaged vaccine cards — are photos of cards enough?

Personally, I think whatever each individual event requires for proof of vaccination, the sooner those requirements are announced the better. Who knows how difficult and/or time consuming it will be for those missing their vaccine cards to get proof, if they have to go through their PCP, the state health department, or the site where they got vaccinated.

For events much further down the road, there is a lot of optimism, but some find it hard to focus on them, with anxiety over changing social guidelines clouding the issue. Some people feel we should be keeping masks on and social distancing for a little while longer, until a larger percentage of the population is fully vaccinated, and that we shouldn’t be essentially giving non-vaccinated people a free pass to go maskless. But attitudes are shifting pretty rapidly, and for the largest events, like Intercon, planning and preparations have to be in full swing months in advance, even if we’d like to wait until things feel more settled and secure.

I don’t want to leave online LARPing fully behind me, but I’m ready to dive back into in-person LARPing, to travel, to do full body costuming and set dressing, to segue easily into pre- and post-game chatter with fellow LARPers. …I wish I had a more insightful note to end on here, but uh… I guess I’ll just say — we’re in a transitional period for LARP, let’s be patient with one another. And maybe also bid LARPs for Intercon U.

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Favorite Mechanics

Recently, a question popped up in an online group, asking people about their favorite mechanics that they’ve seen used in LARP. To answer the question, I went searched for “mechanic” in the long list of all of the LARPs I’ve been involved with. Frustratingly, a lot of the results were something along the line “I liked the mechanics!” which wasn’t enough to jog my memory on specifics, so this will in no way be an exhaustive list. But here are a few of my favorite mechanics that I have encountered over the years:

The Devil to Pay dueling mechanic. In the Golden Age of Piracy themed theater LARP, Devil to Pay, the pirate code demands violence between pirates be settled through ritualized dueling. A pirate’s skill with a pistol is represented by a ring cap with some pre-designated number of powder charges removed in advance by a GM. The better a pirate’s skill, the more charges are left in place. Two duelists are handed their cap guns, walk five paces away from one another, then turn and pull the trigger. If the cap goes off, the other pirate is shot. (Wounded pirates cannot use their special abilities until the wound is healed.) If both players agree (or a special mechanic allows it), duels can also be to the death.

On the plus side, it feels genre-appropriate, and it’s quite immersive and dramatic, far more so than the majority of theater combat mechanics I’ve seen. And it works in real-time.

The downsides of this system that is it can be fairly limiting — you can’t engage in off-the-cuff violence (not in a mechanically significant way, though I suppose two players can always agree to say they’ve scuffled), and it’s GM intensive, which can be rough in games where lots of players want to interact with GMs at once. It’s also prop-intensive — each round of dueling requires a new cap gun ring to be prepared. (I asked one of the GMs if they minded the pre-game prep work, and the response was, “no, because you were the one who prepped all of the rings.” …I guess I had forgotten.)

Personally, I think it can be a good thing when the inability to engage in off-the-cuff violence encourages players to look for other avenues to direct their plot lines. It also reduces the number of times players get bogged down in the dreaded “combat bubbles”.

The travails system of King’s Musketeers, Torch of Freedom, and others. I talked about this system pretty extensively in an older post, but here is a summary. Every character has a list of “travails:, or their “hearts’ desires”. Once a given number of items on the list have been accomplished by another character, that second character has won the first character’s heart, (commonly represented by a new special ability). Often, the lists include options that are very difficult, options that are very easy, and options that are highly customizable, so that players can decide for themselves how difficult (or even impossible) they want to make it for potential suitors to win their heart. There has also been some clever twists to represent character personalities through this system; a cad, for example, might have the ability to always ask for just one more travail.

Some LARPers really dislike having something so personal as romance regulated by a mechanical system, but I find it can be helpful to have this system essentially act as a guideline for roleplay. If you often feel unsure in LARPs about things like when it would be appropriate to have your character cross the line from “mutual crush” to “in Love”, this kind of system can be quite helpful. It also provides a nice avenue to pick up new plotlines and goals mid-game. 
 
Torch of Freedom‘s war mechanic. Torch of Freedom is a weekend long theater LARP about a fictional European country on the brink of revolution in the late 1840s, and should war break out, mass combat is represented by, basically, a life-sized strategy board game where the players are their own pieces. It involves drawing out a giant map of the city with tape across the floors of multiple rooms and/or a hallway (depending on the space you have available, I suppose). Characters’ accomplishments during the LARP up until the outbreak of war can impact the strength of their stats during the war game — the number of troops they command, how well armed they are, etc. Characters also had a variety of different goals — e.g. different locations they wanted to take control of or protect.

This was amazingly cool and exciting… in theory. In practice, I admit, it moved pretty slowly — with a cast of something like 60? 70? characters, a decent amount of time can pass between a player’s turn and their next. I recall a number of romances came to fruition over the course of the battle, as people completed travails for one another while waiting for the next round. If it could be streamlined somehow, or perhaps adjusted to enable simultaneous turns? That would be pretty amazing.

Spellcasting in Magischola. If I’m not mistaken, this system originated from College of Wizardry. Basically, players can ad-lib whatever spell they’d like to cast and project through roleplay what effect they are trying create, with others encouraged to roleplay accordingly. (If another player is the subject of the spell, they can choose to block it or have it fail — it is a consent based system.) For example, a player might say, “check out this Sneezing Curse I just learned. Peppericus!” And the subject of the spell would act out a brief sneezing fit.

This works really well in casual situations — it’s pretty easy to inject some magic into most situations in a way that strikes your fancy. Admittedly, in my experience, it collapsed pretty quickly as soon as even mild competition was introduced. For example, a professor had some students practice dueling, with House Points as a reward for the winner, and this resulted in a very long stalemate. In this type of situation, it becomes more difficult to think of spells on the fly, but more importantly, players will simply cast shielding spells in response to any attack spell. (I don’t know how the duel ended, I watched it go on and on, then finally had to go to my next class.)

Duels with NPCs where players and staff work out in advance how they’d like the duel to progress worked fine though — playing against NPCs who are willing to play out a scripted loss sidesteps the competitive element, though it does take a chunk of the spontaneity out of it.

And lastly — the Accelerant system for boffer combat. I’m a fan! I like its language-like structure and genre flexibility, and the way it integrates into roleplaying scenes. I think there is a lot theater style LARPing can take away from it, if one were to creatively set aside the melee components.

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Forum Based RPGs

You may recall back in January, I shared a bunch of artwork from Hellgate Hotel, a forum based RPG that I had played. This format of online roleplay has gained quite a bit of popularity and momentum in the online community where it began (comprised mostly of theater LARPers from the northeast). I believe it was in part inspired by a someone taking a large, complex one shot theater LARP (Infinite Magic Glories) and adapting it to run on Discord. I have so far PCed or NPCed four such games, with a fifth planned for this summer.

There has been a bit of debate among the writers/GMs, and players over whether or not these games are LARPs. Personally, I don’t consider them LARPs, because players are primarily describing what their characters do, rather than acting out what their characters do, but others feel differently. And to be fair, in many ways, these games resemble theater LARPs more than they resemble the most common formats of tabletop RPGs. All of the writers, and most of the players, have a pretty strong background in theater LARPing, and it shows.) If it isn’t LARPing, it’s certainly LARP-adjacent, and it scratches the RPG itch while being social distancing friendly.

There has also been a bit of debate over what to call these games. Some people have been calling them Discord LARPs, for lack of a better term. I realize “forum based RPGs” is broad and sounds like it might encompass a number of very different text-based roleplaying structures, but that’s the term I’ll use for simplicity’s sake until we settle on something better.

I’m not sure how likely any of the ones runs so far are to rerun, but just in case, I’m adding a cut, below which are mild spoilers.

The four games I’ve PCed or NPCed so far are:

Hellgate Hotel — the first one, a 15 day, 16 player fantasy game with some JRPG-like flavor. The premise involves a giant rift that has been opened up to demonic realms, and the players dealing with the demons as the magic seals over the rift begin to fail. I played an ascetic character whose culture was inspired by the air nomads of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Dinosaur Vacation — a weekend long sci-fi game in which the PCs are passengers aboard a ship that flies through a solar flare and finds the Earth has reverted to the age of dinosaurs, but there is a single signal still emanating from the planet, where New Mexico will one day be. I NPCed a very strange character that shows up on Saturday evening.

Titanic — a weekend long game which plays out the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and the rescue of the survivors. Players were welcome to play actual historical personages on board the Titanic, or to create their own characters, and insert whatever extra plot or storylines they come up with. I played Renee Harris, a historical passenger on the Titanic. (Another player played her husband, Henry B. Harris.)

To Boldly Go — another weekend long game, heavily inspired by Star Trek, where PCs played the crew and passengers of the SC Arcadia, investigating a strange signal in unchartered space, without contact from any allies.

Features

General Structure So far, all of the games have run on dedicated Discord servers. Each game’s server has a large number of channels, divided into categories such as: OOC (announcements, rules, questions for GMs, general chatter, etc.), IC public channels (representing different locations PCs can hang out and roleplay), IC private channels (things like restricted locations, or for private conversations between PCs).

Players engaged in unstructured roleplay in the IC character channels. In three of the games, (Hellgate Hotel, Dinosaur Vacation, and To Boldy Go) events would occur from time to time, and a small group of players would go off on “missions” in temporarily available private channels to deal with the events. Often this involved combat, but sometimes it involved things like solving puzzles or roleplaying with NPCs, and they often rewarded players with new abilities, items, and/or information.

This structure probably sounds pretty familiar to the boffer LARPers of the local Accelerant community (and other live combat LARPers) — it reminded me a lot of the way many boffer campaign events involve PCs hanging out in the tavern while waiting for NPC hooks to introduce them to modules.

Titanic differs in that there are no missions or modules. There are timed events where the GMs/NPCs post descriptions of what is happening in the various IC location channels.

Character Creation This has varied from game to game. In Hellgate Hotel, players created their characters wholesale, with guidance from a series of questions from the GMs. For Dinosaur Vacation and To Boldly Go, players filled out questionnaires and then GMs wrote characters based on the responses. For Titanic, many players picked real historical people, others created characters from scratch, or altered details of historical people. I asked the GM for a suggestion, (and they suggested Renee Harris.) There has been discussion of other forms of character creation for future games, such as GMs creating outlines of characters, and players being welcome to fill in the details.

Roleplay In all games, players narrated via text what their characters were doing and saying to one another. Lines of dialog were preceded by custom character emojis to indicate who was speaking. (Some players controlled additional minor characters besides their primary character. For example, my character in Hellgate Hotel had a dog, and the dog had its own custom emoji. In Dinosaur Vacation, as players tamed dinosaurs, they gained new dinosaur emojis so that the dinosaurs could be involved in roleplay.)

The character emojis lent a feeling of cohesion to the games, and had the effect of making in-game dialog feel like video game RPG dialog. Hellgate Hotel had all players create a character portrait with Heroforge (a website for creating custom minis for tabletop RPGs), which proved popular, and the others followed suit, though To Boldly Go had some players using images from other sources.

Character actions were denoted with italics. (E.g. “Hello.” John extends his hand for a handshake. “It’s nice to meet you.”) Out-of-character text was indicated with double parenthesis, and players were encouraged to keep it to a minimum in the IC channels. Having OOC channels helped a lot with this, and they often served the purpose of running commentary on in-game occurrences.

Roleplaying this way is really interesting. It often feels like collaborative fiction writing, with players exerting a higher degree of control over the direction of roleplay than exists in other formats, because they can describe precisely what other characters observe about their own. For example, a player might write, “‘I’m not embarrassed at all.’ John is speaking loudly and firmly, despite the obvious blush creeping over his face.

Mechanics Titanic was the lightest in terms of mechanics — there weren’t any stats or abilities. Hellgate Hotel had a CCG-like combat system where players had hit points and six abilities, each with a combat score, a damage output, and possible special effects. Dinosaur Vacation had a system where characters have ranks in three primary stats (strength, research, and psychic) which could be modified by items or special circumstances. And characters in To Boldly Go had lists of skills, with possible specialties. Skills were used to bypass challenges in missions.

Advantages/Highlights As mentioned above, these forum based games are socially distancing friendly, and enable players from far flung locations to play together, while still enabling real-time (ish… obviously typing is slower than speech) interaction. It’s also quite flexible scheduling wise — players drop in and out of the games, and run through missions, as their schedules allow. And because it’s all preserved in written format, players can catch up on roleplay that went on while they were offline, if they like. And GMs and players alike can keep tabs on multiple scenes going on at the same time.

The forum structure allows for easy organization and access of written materials at all times, and enables GMs to include evocative elements like images and sound effects. (In Hellgate Hotel, location descriptions for mission channels included links to youtube videos that feature background soundtracks.

Being able to have IC and OOC channels available simultaneously felt like having one’s roleplay cake and eating it too — it felt like one could make observations and comments, often humorous, about roleplay scenes without interrupting them.

Challenges This structure has no natural boundaries, time-wise, and with so many active players, it can create pressure to spend more time than one should on a game. There are nearly always other players to roleplay with, and there’s always tons of reading to catch up on. If you’re the kind of player who wants to be as informed as possible, and stay on top of everything, this style of game can eat up enormous amounts of time. (Doubly true for GMs, who have even more reason to stay on top of everything.)

A game could theoretically place boundaries on playtime (e.g. “the forms are only open for roleplay three hours in the evening”), but that would significantly undermine one of the main advantages of the structure — its scheduling flexibility. I’m of the opinion that it is on players to set and stick to their own boundaries on playtime according to their own needs, and GMs should ideally only step in if their inability to do so is negatively affecting other players in a way that they can’t handle without GM assistance.

Also related to scheduling flexibility — it’s very difficult to predict how much content needs to go into a game for a given length of time and/or a given number of players. Players themselves may not be able to predict how much time they will end up spending on the game — an hour a day? A half an hour or so three or four times a day? From the time they’re up to the time they sleep?

Scheduling of missions can present a difficult logistical challenge, to ensure they run when the relevant group of players and GM(s) can all be present, and ensure that players all get to participate in a roughly equal number of them, and feel like their preferences for which ones they attend and with whom are taken into consideration, especially if GMs want them to be unspoiled surprises.

Additionally, like many other forms of RPGs that don’t primarily consist of a single central ongoing scene/conversation, this format seems to have an issue with players feeling as though inter-character relationships and roleplay are developing unevenly. That is, it can seem as though some players are connecting strongly with multiple other players, or having lots of great conversations, while others are struggling to connect to anyone or get involved in conversations. It’s possible this issue is highlighted by the transparency of nearly all scenes that happen in-game. If I can read all of the long, deep conversations going on between other players, I might wonder why no one is responding to me when I indicate my character is hanging around the public areas and available to chat.

There are lots of design strategies and mechanics that exist from other RPG formats to borrow to address these issues, particularly ones related to character creation, and I’m sure as more games run, this is an issue we’ll see some experimentation with. I’m really looking forward to the next forum based RPG and seeing where this innovative style goes!

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Magic and Camouflage

Back in February, some LARPers asked if I’d give a talk about costuming at an online salon. I put together a 39 slide powerpoint presentation, in part covering my thoughts about costuming and my basic approach to costume design and building a costuming closet, and in part addressing a few specific questions people submitted in advance.

I’m not actually particularly talented when it comes to things like sewing, makeup, or hair styling. I suspect I was asked to give this salon because a) it’s a topic I’m pretty passionate about, and b) I relatively consistently put in the effort to costume, even for very casual LARP events where many participants don’t. So on the one hand, I suspect 95% of the content is not novel or useful for anyone but the beginniest of beginners. On the other hand, it’s all pretty accessible; if I can do the stuff I put into these slides, anyone can.

It’s probably worth noting in advance that while I do like to play campaigns (where I wear the same set of costuming for one character for many events over the course of years), this presentation was created with a particular audience in mind, one that mostly comprises short-form theater LARPers. That is, people who play lots of short one-shot LARPs, with a different character for each, often in the contexts of weekends where people play multiple LARPs back-to-back. So versatility (and low prep-time) are key.

It’s also, somewhat unfortunately but not surprisingly, kind of femme-centric, given that I mostly get cast as femme presenting characters. But I hope there’s something interesting and/or useful for everyone.

(I also do want to mention that a number of LARPers kindly responded to my call for stories of really creative last minute costuming projects, which were included in the salon, but I removed them from the slides before sharing them here for reasons of permission and privacy.)

Fair warning, most of the photos are of me in my costuming, because that’s what I had easy access to when creating it. It may come across as a little… uh, self absorbed.

I think the most interesting part, to me, are the early slides about costuming goals — what we want out of costuming (and the process of creating it) and how we get it. I feel like there’s some potential costuming theory that could be developed out of that stuff.

Here are the slides, along with a cleaned up version of the speaker notes. If you would like to share this with others, please send a link to the blog post, (not the google presentation itself.) Enjoy!

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Letter LARPs

As mentioned in my Extracon 2021 post, on Sunday morning of Extracon, I gave a powerpoint presentation about letter LARPs as part of the Forum@Extracon track.

I talked about both letter LARPs in general, and also a lot about how I designed and ran one of my own, Hawthorn & Ink, and what lessons I learned from it.

Here is the presentation, with cleaned up speaker notes for clarity. If you would like to share this with others, please send a link to the blog post, (not the google presentation itself.) Enjoy!

Posted in arts 'n crafts, conventions, how to, LARP, panels, theory, writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Extracon 2021

Extracon 2021 ran about three weeks ago. It was the first event of its kind, but hopefully not the last.

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Posted in conventions, events, LARP, online LARP | Tagged | 5 Comments

Make a Scene LARP Anthologies

The first Extracon (NEIL’s online weekend convention of LARPs and more) ran last weekend, (and I have a blog post about it just about half finished.) Attendees may have noticed information about a LARP-related Kickstarter that popped up on the event’s Discord.

Make a Scene is an event run out of Minnesota that focuses on newly written LARPs. With the pandemic going on, it was hard, if not impossible to run many of the LARPs written in 2020 that would have run at Make a Scene. Instead, the LARPs were collected into an anthology, titled Gender, Role, Play, so that anyone can run them. The LARPs from 2019 were similarly collected into an anthology, titled Wild, Heart, Land.

You can check out the kickstarter here for more information! It has already been successfully funded, but there are still twelve more days to get your own copies, and there are a few more stretch goals that have not yet been unlocked.

I thought it would be neat to share a little insider information from some of the writers, so I have been in touch with a few via email, who graciously answered a few questions for me.

Below the cut, three writers for LARPs in these anthologies answers to four questions: what inspiration went into your LARP? What unusual mechanics did you include, and how do they shape gameplay? Did this LARP undergo any significant revisions during the writing process, and if so, what were they and what made you decide to make those changes? And lastly, was there anything during a playtest that surprised you, and if so, what was it?

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Secret Santa Character Sheets

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m still currently very busy writing character sheets for a two hour online LARP for 26 players, set to debut in one month at Extracon. Which isn’t leaving a lot of time and writing energy to work on blog posts. But I don’t want to fall behind in my goal for blog posts, so here is another post about small projects I’ve already completed.

Two years ago, around late November/early December, I joined a group of LARPers for a Secret Santa Character Exchange. The structure was simple: everyone who wants to participate writes a custom character sheet for one other participant, one that they think the recipient would enjoy playing in a hypothetical LARP (or other RPG). Participants could optionally create a list of things they like and dislike in characters to guide the writer secretly writing for them.

Most participants created the sort of character sheets that one sees in one shot, lit-form, theater LARPs (that’s the format of LARP the participants are most familiar with.)

It went pretty well, and lots of participants enjoyed writing and reading the results. At least one that I know of became part of full LARP that has since run a few times. And others may yet be part of a finished LARP someday. So it ran again this past year.

Below the cut, two character sheets I wrote, along with some scattered thoughts on the process of writing them.

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Posted in LARP, on a more personal note, theater, writing | 2 Comments

Hellgate Hotel Artwork

With Extracon (NEIL’s weekend long online event) around the corner (Feb 26-28), I am currently pretty busy writing character sheets for a 26 player online LARP (Under the Faerie Hill) set to debut at it, leaving little free time for other stuff, especially other forms of writing (such as blog posts.)

Which means I’m already falling behind in my annual goal of an average of two posts per month. So now seems like as good a time as any for another post consisting mostly of artwork. There are eight drawings below the cut.

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