Time Bubble 2021

I recently played four LARPs at Dice Bubble 2021 — A Peace Summit on Cybertron, Pulse of the Empire, The Borden Legacy, and Venezia.

The safety rules included a requirement to wear masks at all times in con space. I understand the mask rule was somewhat controversial, and resulted in some people declining to attend, but I tried to view it as a costuming opportunity — a way to display some element of your character right on your face! I sewed myself four new masks, (three of which were double sided) to cover the three characters I was cast as, and also cover three broad categories of characters I might sub in as (in case of last minute drops from the Sunday LARP I was aGMing.)

Clockwise from top left, masks for: a transformer, a character named Iron Leopard, a priestess of Dagan, a Renaissance lady, a Renaissance gentleman, and a cardinal.

In practice, I found the masks didn’t interfere with my roleplay. I know some people find them uncomfortable or that they make communication a little more difficult, and I sympathize. They didn’t bother me, though, and I support any LARP event that wants to make them required.

I also made a Pikachu/Ninja Turtles mask to wear outside of LARPs, because… why not. LARP cons are a time to let your geek flag fly!

My Saturday morning LARP was A Peace Summit on Cyberton. It’s a diplomatic LARP set in the world of the Transformers franchise. I’m actually not that familiar with the source material — I’ve seen the first Michael Bay movie, but haven’t seen any of the cartoons or read any of the comics. But I heard good things about the LARP, and I have a soft spot for 80s action cartoons. So I signed up, then watched the first episode of the original cartoon online to get the general feel of it.

I’d never heard of the character I was cast as — Drift. But I found his backstory pretty interesting and appealing as a LARP character — he was once a Decepticon (read: bad guy) who defected and joined the Autobots (read: good guys.)

The LARP is just as it is described on the tin — nine Autobots and Decepticons, along with one neutral bot, sit around a table and squabble over the terms of a peace treaty, try to come up with the basic structure of a new government, and decide what to do with various powerful artifacts. There’s a depth and breadth to the setting lore in this LARP that surprised me, and lots of difficult questions to chew over, both practical and philosophical, and the cast of characters is very colorful. It made for a really fun LARP.

In our run, we argued animatedly in circles for the first hour or so before we realized just much time we were wasting and how little time was left to get through a lot of important decisions. We ended up with a tripartite government, with an elected official, the Prime (as designated by the Matrix of Leadership artifact), and the strongest warrior, as the three heads.

A major factor in our ability to get anything substantial accomplished was the rule that whatever we decided, Grimlock had to understand. Grimlock is primitive sort of Dinobot* (“Me Grimlock! Grimlock king!”) who prefers things uncomplicated and direct. This encouraged us to to keep our proposals short and sweet, and not try to bog them down with lots of provisions and exceptions. And in our run, Grimlock ended up recognized as Prime. I think that will probably be for the best.

We got our casting with less than a week before the game, but I was determined to do some kind of costuming. I would have liked to have based a look on a design from the original cartoon, but near as I can tell, Drift was not a character yet. It seems various iterations of Drift have had very different designs (the Michael Bay version is based on Samurai armor and has a lot of visual appeal) but I really wanted the closest thing to the classic 80s design style. I went with a version of Drift that has a black and white body, with red details, and tried to translate his basic silhouette into a sort of Disneybounding version with athletic gear. With six Autobot logo stickers, blue mirrored sunglasses, and a light gray mask for my face, I think the end result was really not bad, considering how little time I had.

“Autobots, roll out!”

The stickers that survived being stuck and unstuck from fabric with some stickiness intact have since been added to the windows of my car. (Which is what they were actually designed for.)

But the best costume of our run definitely goes to Starscream, who, despite the very short time between casting and game, showed up with a set of jet-wing armor crafted out of cardboard. He had some trouble going through narrow doorways, but looked great.

“Transform and rise up!”

My second LARP was Pulse of the Empire, originally written for MOLW (a LARP writing initiative that resembles Iron GM in some ways.) The required themes were Cycles of HistoryHeists, and Visions/Hallucinations. The required prop was a metronome. I would have assumed all of the LARPs with this set of themes would have characters trying to plan or execute a heist, but in this LARP, the characters are the guards (and one observing bureaucrat) guarding the object of a heist. I thought that was a particularly clever and intriguing twist.

The artifact in question is a magical harp with the power to sustain dynasties and empower new ones, and the characters all have very complicated feelings about the dynasty they currently serve. Meanwhile, new information occasionally reaches the guards via visions from the Harp (and other sources), and the tempo of the metronome gives the players creates an atmosphere of tension while indicating how close the heist is to reaching its final goal.

I really enjoyed this LARP! I thought the characters began play with complex considerations to chew over and discuss while making life or death or honor decisions, and got plenty of new ones along the way to keep the roleplay going. Playing in a space that precluded easily having private conversations enhanced the game, in my opinion. The conclusion of the LARP felt very much like a tense climax. I would love to run this LARP at an event like Consequences, with the authors’ permission… someday when such a thing is possible again.

For costuming as Iron Leopard, the commander of the unit of guards, I went with my go-to basic knightly look — my red and white tabard over simple blacks and tall suede boots. (And lightning bolt earrings, a tiny nod to the Lightning Dynasty my character served.) I really wished I’d had time to sew matching tabards for all of the guards, assuming my fellow players were on board with the idea. Maybe I’ll make it an option for the players of my hypothetical some day run.

My third LARP was The Borden Legacy, which was originally written by British LARPers to run in the actual Borden House, where the infamous Borden murders took place. In this setting, the elder gods of the Lovecraftian mythos have arrived some 300 years before. The characters are gathered for a memorial service and a will reading following the gruesome demise of Andrew and Abby Borden.

I played Pastor Constance Seaborne, a traveling preacher of the esoteric Order of Dagon. I had some interesting mechanics that I kinda botched — I misunderstood how they functioned and basically used them much too early in the game, but I suppose it could have been worse. I also have some regrets about not including two other characters into my shenanigans… but overall, Borden Legacy was a very cute, classic-feeling secrets-and-powers LARP, and despite some early misgivings, I ended up really liking my character.

“Praise Dagan.”

For Sunday morning, I had submitted a presentation and workshop about the Accelerant rules (a system created for boffer LARPs) — specifically, how the non-melee components could be inspiration for theater mechanics that integrate with roleplaying scenes much more smoothly than our usual index card systems do.

It didn’t run. Only a single person ever signed up or showed up — the only other attendee at Time Bubble who already plays Accelerant LARPs. He brought some boffer swords with him, so we sparred for a bit and chatted about the various local boffer campaigns that are running or starting up soon.

I’m not sure if the time slot had some influence on the lack of attendance — people often like to sleep in Sunday mornings if they don’t have a LARP — but I think it was something more than that. Maybe right now people are yearning for actual in-person LARPs and social time, and have less interest in LARP theory discussions. I was somewhat disheartened to hear one or two attendees refer to this as “your boffer thing,” when it was explicitly about the non-boffer elements. Maybe this community just sees the word “boffer” and gets turned off. I’m not sure.

My last LARP was Venezia. Officially, I was an assistant GM, and I spent two days of the week leading up to the event helping stuff this behemoth of a LARP. (I used this an as opportunity to have some fun with acrylic stamps and my rudimentary calligraphy skills, acquired over the periods of strictest quarantine. The character packets got a bit fancied up as a result.)

But LARPs this large have decent odds of last minute drops, so I packed three extra costumes just in case — a Renaissance gown (in fact, the dress I wore when I played Lucrezia Borgia back during Venezia‘s first run in 2012), a Renaissance outfit for men (including the doublet worn by one of the LARP’s writers during that same first run) and a black robe and red sash in case I needed to play one of the cardinals.

The French General

Well, there was indeed a late drop, and I did end up stepping into the role of the French general, so I wore the men’s black and silver Renaissance outfit. I don’t know if I did the role the full justice it deserved — the French general is one of the major players in the war game, and I had not familiarized myself with the mechanics prior to the start of the LARP. I think the general was meant to considerably more self-interested than I played him, but I was erring on the side of being too cooperative rather than uncooperative, for fear I’d end up blocking people’s plots and goals with my rushed attempt to absorb the long character sheet and war game rules.

It felt like a frenetic run to me — Venezia is a very mechanics heavy LARP, with multiple complex interacting systems — besides the war game, there is also a competition for the most influential city, a papal election, a system for commissioning of great works of art and publishing literature, spying, etc. Much of this game is about resource management — political, economic, and religious influence are the three major forms of currency. And besides all of this, Venezia has a three act structure, with every character facing a choice at the end of the first and second act, and receiving a new addition to their character sheet depending on their choices. It was a lot for a single GM to manage (when this LARP would probably be easier to run with at least three GMs), and the run time was shortened to four hours, when it normally runs in five. Despite all of this, the LARP seemed to me to be very well received, and it has since been bid to run at Intercon.

The set dressing of Venezia was worth a mention — the event space was filled with pillars and vases filled with artificial flowers, and there were glittery Venetian masks all over the room.

With Time Bubble 2021  now complete, it’s time to start looking towards the next events on the horizons, including a few private runs of theater LARPs, Winter Boffer Con in December… and the Intercon U schedule should be up on the website in the near future…

*As primitive as a robot that can transform from humanoid to dinosaur shape can be, I suppose.

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GM Fashion

About four months back, a question popped up in one of my online communities — what should GMs wear while running a LARP?

Costuming as a PC (and occasionally, as an NPC) is something I like to think about, plan out, and create, and I’ve written about my thoughts on it and my various projects a lot on this blog. But what I wear as a GM (or aGM) usually comes down to convenience and what strikes my fancy more than anything else… which I think is a valid approach. GMing a LARP is often a labor of love, with a much higher cost of money, effort, time, and emotional energy than PCs usually estimate, (even when they’re estimating high).

But assuming we do want to be thoughtful and deliberate with what we wear as GMs… there are a few different schools of thought on this topic. Some options that came up in the online discussion:

  • Casual street clothes — whatever you might be wearing if you weren’t LARPing
  • Casual street clothes with a nod to LARP premise — e.g. a t-shirt featuring a logo of the franchise the LARP is based on
  • Stagehand blacks — solid, plain black, head to toe
  • Business black — also plain black, but with a more formal silhouette (e.g. a black blazer)
  • An understated branded shirt (e.g. a polo or t-shirt) — maybe a solid dark and/or neutral color with a embroidered logo
  • A loud branded shirt — a bold, attention getting color, and/or with a large logo
  • Low key costuming — something understated that suits the setting in a non-specific way
  • Costuming that reflects a role that GMs might represent in character, e.g. the castle servants, waitstaff, or messengers
  • Full costuming that reflects the aesthetics of the LARP

Some factors to consider:

  • Are you trying to create professional atmosphere? Or a casual, relaxed one?
  • How important will comfort and practicality be while GMing? (Do you expect to be on your feet for many hours in a row?)
  • Do you feel it’s important to contribute to the “magic circle” of the LARP? (As a GM, do you want your outfit to project, “this is a designated space where imaginative play is welcome and encouraged”?)
  • Do you expect non-LARPers to wander by, and if so, do you want them to instinctively come to you with questions rather than approaching the nearest player? (Strangers may be more likely to approach you if you’re something like a uniform, rather than in street clothes and looking like a fellow passer-by, or blending with the players in costume.)
  • Do you want players to feel welcome and not out of place if they choose not to costume or do low key costuming? (E.g. do you hope or expect some newbies, who might find really elaborate, high level costuming intimidating, to sign up?)
  • Are you concerned about being perceived as upstaging players?
  • Does your PC cast list include strangers who wouldn’t be able to pick the GM(s) of your LARP out of a crowd? Or are you only running for people who already know you? If you expect players to range from no costuming to full costuming, you may not be easy to spot as a GM in street clothes or costuming, but stage blacks will likely make a GM team easier to spot in a busy event. A GM team in matching brightly colored t-shirts will be even easier to find.
  • Is it important the GMs to be easy to spot from across a large venue?
  • Would you like to visually blend in, and avoid detracting from the atmosphere or immersion?
  • Do you anticipate many player questions for GMs will be able to be handled IC? (E.g. will many questions be things PC guests might ask the butler?) Would you rather players try to maintain immersion as much as possible? Or would you rather players feel encouraged to drop out of character freely?
  • Will your roll as GM involve more out of character interaction off to the side of game space, or maybe scuttling around through game space (while trying to draw minimal attention to yourself?)
  • Do you anticipate the possibility of playing multiple quick, minor NPC roles throughout the game? Is it important that they be visually identifiable, fully immersive, or easy as possible to swap in and out of?
  • If a player has to leave during the LARP, would you as a GM step in to fill that role?
  • Is opportunity to costume part of what brings you joy when LARPing, even as a GM?
  • Is visual spectacle an important part of the experience being offered to players?

In the local live combat community, a lot of these questions often have default answers based on the structure of the LARP, and GMs typically default to stagehand blacks along with the rest of the NPCs, because they play multiple costumed NPC roles throughout the weekend. (Although I have heard newbies express mild frustration with being unable to easily identify staff and distinguish them from fellow players when hanging out in the local tavern, and feeling pressure not to drop character to pursue answers to questions that popped up over the weekend.)

I find there’s a lot more variety in what GMs wear in the local theater communities, reflecting a large variety in structure of games. I personally tend to lean towards mostly black but with a nod to the setting via an on-topic t-shirt, or some very basic costuming if some of my GMing duties can be done via a minor NPC role. (E.g. playing a messenger if there is lots of new information being delivered to players mid-game.) But I think all of the listed options above are potentially valid.

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Citation Needed and Culture Crash

Two current topics popping up around LARP spaces on social media: the impact of the Delta variant on LARP events and Disney’s launch of an immersive Star Wars experience.

The former is an understandable source of concern, but it’s impossible predict what safety precautions will be necessary even for the near future, and that makes it difficult to have productive conversations. It feels as though everything is in flux. Events seem to be choosing “everyone must provide proof of vaccination, no exceptions” as a baseline. Debates over other safety precautions (including size of events, recent negative test requirements, indoors vs. outdoors, and especially masking) continue.

The latter topic turned out to be more divisive than I would have guessed — some people seem to think Disney will bring positive attention to the hobby, and possibly make charging enough money to pay LARP creators a fair wage more feasible; others are furious over the price tag, and worried it will make LARPs without megacorporation support less appealing by comparison, or make expensive LARPs more common/popular, and the hobby less financially accessible overall. (Irritation with Disney possibly impacting the economics of LARPing is buoyed by Disney’s history of doing things like lobbying against a higher minimum wage.) 

My guess is that it will have no discernable impact on the hobby. (And the price tag is not surprising to me for a Disney World attraction, given that it includes room and board and booze.) Also worth noting — a LARP creator who was a paid consultant for this project has stated in social media posts that this attraction is not a LARP. (And Disney isn’t trying to claim otherwise — thus far has avoided using the term LARP, instead using phrasing such as “immersive adventure”.) But maybe some LARPers will attend and get some inspiration for improving immersion in their own events?

Moving on to the two remaining items in my backlog of LARPs I’ve been meaning to blog about: [CITATON NEEDED] and Culture Crash. Both were written at Peaky weekends  — collaborative LARP writing weekends — with [CITATION NEEDED] written at Peaky Midwest and Culture Crash at Peaky Games (the original Peaky, based in the UK.)

The premise of [CITATION NEEDED] is a group of researchers in the far future using wikipedia articles to analyze the historical era that generated them (i.e. the modern era.) It involves a workshop to first generate characters (and inter-character relationships) and then generate a list of wikipedia articles to use during game play. I chose the sports-obsessed institution for my character’s background, quickly donned a baseball jersey for a costume, then liberally sprinkled sports metaphors into our conversations. I think we generated some really funny analysis of our wikipedia articles, with special emphasis on a page about a failed metal music festival. We had a lot of kooky theories about why the festival was such a disaster. (In a word? Sabotage!) I do wish I could have had more time before the LARP to peruse our wikipedia articles, so it would have been easier to build bizarre theories about connections between them, but I think this LARP will appeal in particular to players who want to poke fun at the vagaries of life in academia, or the culture surrounding the creation and editing of wikipedia articles.

Culture Crash is about two very different alien civilizations (both non-human!) coming into contact for the first time — the civilization that has a launched a Star Trek-like exploratory space craft, and the others being the natives of a strange planet. I don’t want to go too far into details here, because I think part of the appeal of playing a game with this premise is actually being surprised by the nature of the other species/civilization. (I went in a little spoiled because I helped a LARPer from the other civilization with his costume, but the details of their society were still fun to unfold through roleplay!)

I will say that I think the LARP will appeal to fans of classic sci-fi, and the short pre-game workshops in which we built on some of the norms of our various civilizations was a lot of fun, and added a lot to the feeling of two cultures… well… crashing together, with concepts that do not translate easily from one to the other. (It reminded me a little of the mechanics of Strangers, an abstract, no-speaking LARP about immigration.)

Also worth mentioning, while this LARP can and does run online, I was fortunate to get to play in person, and the set dressing, props, and buffet were a lot of fun, and our GMs deserve a lot of credit for them.

If you can easily avoid seeing the costumes of players from the other civilization of your own run prior to game start, I would recommend that. That said, I am very proud of my own costume for this LARP, so I am sharing photos and a few comments on construction below the cut. 

Spoilers for Culture Crash ahead!!

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All Men Must Dine

A little over a month ago, I played in my second post-vaccination in-person LARP. It was Game of Scones, a parody LARP of A Song of Ice an Fire/Game of Thrones, set at a meeting of the Small Council held over breakfast. The characters are eight high lords of Westeros and two stewards, squabbling over various petty nonsense and hiding sinister intent. The Small Council discusses various items on a pre-set agenda (from a proposed tournament to the height of the candlesticks), arrange and rearrange the seating chart for an upcoming banquet, and conclude with a collective toast. Post game, the GM announces which cups at the toast have been poisoned.

“To the King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm!”

I thought it was quite adorable and funny! We argued, we insulted one another, we bribed and cajoled and blackmailed and threatened one another. Sometimes we threw fake pastries at one another (in between eating real pastries).

“Valor Bagullis”

A couple of characters had some Bigger Plots afoot, but I thought the petty nonsense was the best part. I was cast as S. Tyrell, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, twin to the Master of Whispers, and we never let our sense of professionalism, etiquette, or common sense get in the way of our outbursts of sibling rivalry.

For a short parody game, Game of Scones has remarkably high production values. Because the GM is also one of the writers/GMs of Dance of the Dragons (a five hour, 31 player theater LARP), there is plenty of set dressing for it. (At Intercon, these LARPs have run back-to-back.) This run was in a smaller room than the usual function room at Intercon, and so the house banners (which were my contribution to the set) filled the space really nicely. The seating chart, (a white board I decorated with tape and markers, which came with custom magnets for each of the guests), makes for a really cute, fun interactive prop. I think more LARPs should have seating chart planning.

My costume for this LARP was its own saga. I knew that as a short, comedic LARP, most LARPers would approach costuming for it pretty casually. And I could have simply borrowed the white Halloween cape past players haven worn for the very same character and been more than adequately dressed… but I think my love for the source material and dearth of recent exciting costuming opportunities went to my head. The fallacy of sunk cost may have also played a role. (In my defense, I wasn’t the only player taking this costuming opportunity and running with it.)

We had about two weeks between casting and game time, which seemed a bit tight time-wise for sewing a new white tunic and a white cloak… but still doable. Given the time crunch, I didn’t wait for coupons or sales before buying the pattern and many yards of white linen… and then, in a fit of indulgence, I spent even more money on pretty gold floral trim from the Yaya Han cosplay collection. I couldn’t resist — House Tyrell is all about the gold floral details.

Well, some unforeseen real life stuff got in the way and sucked away all the time I thought I had for this project, so I ended up rushing to finish the night before the LARP. ( And I never got around to the green tunic I wanted to make for my character’s twin brother.) A piece of my tunic pattern went missing, and the pattern I picked for the cloak proved more difficult than anticipated.  (It looked so easy on the cover! I will not be using Simplicity 8771 again.) In my haste, I even managed to slash a large hole in the cloak while trimming away seam allowance, for which I will probably never forgive myself. (Other players kindly said they wouldn’t have noticed my patch job if I hadn’t pointed it out, but I still know it’s there!) And then I ran out of time before adding the lovely gold floral trim to the tunic.

My unrealized plans for adding trim to the tunic.

Honestly, the costume did not turn out too terribly. I wore the tunic over my binder (character genders are up to the players in Game of Scones, but I really wanted S. Tyrell to be male; I find it easier to flirt shamelessly when playing a male character. “Lord Commander in the streets, Lord Commander in the sheets!”) I represented House Tyrell with a gold rose pinned to the cloak.

“No, I haven’t been drinking Shade of the Evening. Why do you ask.”

I would still like to add the gold floral trim to the tunic, though there’s a tiny voice inside me saying, “it’s more versatile as a costuming piece without the trim. What if you get cast as a character that dresses in pure white?” There’s also a second tiny voice inside me that says, “the cloak is a source of shame. Get rid of it. Foist it off on Donate it to some boffer LARP NPC wardrobe, then make a better one from scratch.”

Costuming fiascos aside, the LARP was a lot of fun, and between the players’ costuming and the extensive set dressing, it looked really good. I dream of someday taking this LARP to one of the cons dedicated to the source material (maybe Ice and Fire Con, or Con of Thrones).

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Wicked Hearts

Since last I posted in June, I’ve been involved with four LARPs: I played [CITATION NEEDED], Game of Scones, Culture Crash, and both helped run and played Wicked Hearts. Usually, I try to post about LARPs in the order they ran, but currently Wicked Hearts is fresh in my mind, and I think it will be easiest to start there to get momentum on writing blog posts again.

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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.

Posted in LARP, mechanics, theater | 1 Comment

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.


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!

Posted in LARP, online LARP | Tagged | 1 Comment

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!

Posted in costuming, LARP, panels | Leave a comment