This past weekend was the first NELCO– New England LARP Conference. It was held at the Radisson in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, where we usually hold Intercon. I was told the attendees numbered somewhere in the high 30s, so it was a fairly small event, and NEIL lost money running it, but I would still consider it a great success. I’m sort of riding that post-event high, and feeling inspired to work on various LARP related projects, including this blog, costuming for upcoming LARPs (there are three theater style LARPs in my near future), and maybe brainstorming for some of those LARPs that I’d really love to maybe someday possibly write.
I arrived on Friday afternoon, and started with an early dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, followed by the first panels of the weekend. I had a really hard time choosing between the Character Writing panel and Intro to BYOGs- LARP Writing 101. I ended up going with the latter, even though I wasn’t planning on joining the BYOG project (that is, Build Your Own Game), because I was very curious to know what an experienced LARP writer considered the basics. This hobby is so strangely nebulous that LARPers can’t even agree on the definition of a LARP. So who knows what “the basics” could be?
The panel focused around an interesting powerpoint outlining a lot of the common aspects of one-shot theater style LARPs, the sort one typically sees at Intercon, though much of it, I think, could be applied to all forms of LARPing. It’s clearly difficult to sum up the basics, because in even an hour we still went pretty fast through the powerpoint, and I feel as though we could have stopped and spent at least half the time trying to go into each point in depth. Consider, for example, the notion of asking yourself “would this be fun to play?” as you write each character. A great piece of advice, and it seems so obvious once you hear it out loud, or see it written on a powerpoint, but it still needs to be said to rid LARPs of the “3rd spear-carrier on the left” roles that are actually exactly what they say on the tin, no more, no less.
After the panel ended, people still went to hang around the con suite and munch twizzlers and pretzels and discuss LARP writing and experiences. Not on the schedule, but somehow, an integral part of the conference experience. The conversation generated a fair number of panel ideas for future NELCOs and Intercon Pre-Cons, including my own idea for a panel on how to “box” your LARP for other GMs to run. I think would be really great for keeping LARPs that the writers no longer want to run from disappearing into the ether.
My Saturday kicked off with the Game Wraps panel, which was one of the panels I was most excited about. Game Wraps are surprisingly problematic, and I thought the panel was likely to produce some very concrete ideas for improving them- speeding them up, making sure they covered what they needed to cover and didn’t cover what they shouldn’t. I think the panel itself was mostly a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of Game Wraps, an argument about whether or not we should even have them. Two of the four panelists held the somewhat controversial position that we shouldn’t have Game Wraps at all. We did come up with a few ideas, such as making sure that GMs say something along the lines of “we know people have other places to be, so if you need to go, that’s fine”. Not because people don’t know it, but saying it out loud might make people more socially comfortable leaving at the start or in the middle if the want to. The panel started a blog post on Game Wraps for the near future cooking in my brain.
The next panel was Combat Bubbles Suck, which was compelling because of how strongly I agree with the title. Combat Bubbles are the bane of theater style, and I imagine a reason for boffer LARPers to consider their form of LARPing superior. (For the record, my stance on the boffer vs. theater question is that they are both equally awesome for their own reasons.)
To clarify, theater LARPing mechanics for combat are generally not able to function in Real Time, since we want to take actions that take much more time to abstractly perform with mechanics than they would actually take to physically perform. (Stabbing someone takes less time than it does to do Rocks, Paper, Scissors.) Combat Bubbles grow quickly in time as more players want to participate and take more complex actions. Determining which actions go first and produce results first drags out even relatively simple, quick systems like rolling dice and adding numbers, and there’s always a few players rifling through stacks of ability and item cards… Combat often devolves into everyone waiting their turns in large groups, while other players on the outside gather around the bubble and wait for the resolution so they can begin interacting with the combatants again. Combat should be exciting, but it’s often dull and time consuming in theater LARPs.
The panel opened with a discussion of goals for a theater combat system (things like “speed” “flexibility” and “simplicity”). This was followed by a description of a system the panelist likes to use and we talked about its advantages and disadvantages and ways it could be adapted to achieve different goals for different LARPs, especially where the goals for the system conflicted with one another. (For example, many LARPers want to maintain immersion as best as possible, so whatever action they take, they want it to resemble their character’s actions as much as possible. In other words, if a character is shooting a gun at another character, rolling a die breaks immersion a lot more than firing a nerf weapon, since firing the nerf weapon is a much better semblance of the character’s actions.) But this method of maintaining immersion conflicts with the goal of allowing players to perform actions they can’t in real life. If a player sucks at aiming nerf guns, their character is going to suck, and they can’t really play a skilled gun-slinger.
I think the system that was suggested was a pretty good one that would reduce combat bubbles considerably, though not eliminate them all together. I’m waiting on a description from the panelist before discussing it here, in case I’m misremembering some of it.
After Combat Bubbles Suck, I went to a panel called Sets, which was a discussion of how to create effective sets for LARPs. I was glad to see it wasn’t just about how tons of money and time and effort and skill could create the best sets, but about how to keep them consistent and maintain the illusion of particular times and locations, no matter your budget or skill level or amount of free time. Some of the best tips included using lighting to call attention away from the mundane aspects of your location (like the hotel’s wallpaper) and maintaining a particular level of abstraction. (Meaning that all your set pieces and big props should be equally close or far from what they represent- having one piece of setting that is very realistic and detailed will only call attention to the fact that your other set pieces are obviously cardboard and marker… or just descriptions on cards taped to the wall… because of the dissonance in their levels of abstraction.)
One part of the panel that resonated with me: GMs expressed the importance of not actually allowing players privacy, but creating the illusion of privacy. You want players to feel free to plot and tryst and conspire, but not actually have them wandering off into other rooms with locked doors.
The Narrative in LARP panel was next, and that was one of the more abstract panels- a bit harder to pin down as a topic. We talked about GMing styles, and the value of having events in LARP physically represented vs. being described, and ways to convey occurrences in LARPs to players.
Between those panels, I visited the Introduction to Sewing for LARP Costuming workshop. I saw someone learning to create a cool tunic for costuming.
After that, I stuck around to playtest a card game called TV Tropes, based on the website. Be warned: TV Tropes has the uncanny ability to suck you in and waste hours of your life. It’s a fascinating sort of resource, and I’ve used a number of times for LARPing. Most commonly, I’ll be asked on a questionnaire “name a character from a book, movie, tv show, or video game you’d like to play.” Or I’ll even be asked to bid a character from some commonly known source. And I’ll be stumped for ideas, so I’ll think to myself, “what type of character would I like to play?” then find a trope that describes that character and read down their list of examples.
And I think anyone who has spent time on that website has thought to themselves, “man, I could just take a cluster of these tropes and create a perfectly good tale out of them”… which is pretty much what this game was. We took turns using random collections of tropes and tried to tell stories out of them… I found the notion of coming up with a tale on the spot intimidating and botched my first go, but my second turn got a positive reaction. (Side note, I think LARPing has its own set of common tropes, and creating a list would be a fascinating exercise, as well as a good resource for LARP writers.)
In between rounds, I popped in and out of the Interactive Props panel, which looked very interesting and had some neat props that lit up and made noise as demonstrations. If anyone took any notes or wrote a summary of this panel, I’d be very interested to read it, so please share!
A bunch of con-goers crowded around a long table in the restaurant for dinner, where the LARP conversation continued to flow.
Saturday evening, I dithered between going to a panel entitled “Does how we write affect how the game is played: Goal lists, Who you know, Background Stories” (mouthful!) and The Mechanics of Running a Weekend Long Game. The sheer size of a weekend long game compounds the challenges of writing and running a theater style LARP, and I was very curious to hear tips and methods. I went to the beginning of it. It was chock full of very practical advice- stuff that makes perfect sense but still might not occur to people. (Like providing driving directions to players.) Since there was a comprehensive powerpoint to go with it, I banked on being able to read it at a later time and went to check out the other panel. It went over how crafting a sheet affects how players interpret their characters and how they see their goals. (For example, if it’s not spelled out that accomplishing a goal matters to the structure of a LARP, there’s always the risk that a player will choose to ignore it.) One fascinating bit was about inconsistencies between character sheets- inconsistencies writers put in on purpose (to indicate things like time traveling snafus, or characters being delusional) might be mistaken for mistakes on the part of the writers, and this needs to be accounted for in writing.
I then attended Baby Got Bustle, which was a live-action of a livejournal post I linked to awhile back. It was still worth attending- we got to ask questions and try out a few pieces the panelist had created. It made me very much want to create some costuming with real bustle- it’s fun to wear and walk in!
After that I caught the second half of the War Stories panel (people enthusiastically shared their best LARPing moments, worst LARPing experiences, and funny stories,) followed by the Transmedia Techniques for LARP panel (which had gotten moved to 11pm.) We got a phone call from someone who works with transmedia for part of the panel, and talked about different media that could be used to enhance LARPing, such as twitter accounts. (I hear characters in Pop Diva Fashion Show, a LARP that ran at Brandeis’ Festival of the LARPs, had twitter accounts for their characters.)
Saturday night, attendees gathered in the con suite for more great conversations… and somehow, we ended up trolling a LARPer in our community who is currently out in Oregon. A few LARPers created a fake LARP which involved all players being cast as the LARPer in Oregon. They even emailed him a casting list (with a mock notice of someone dropping and being replaced) and sent him a formal looking character sheet. (We got back some very confused and amusing reactions the next morning.)
On Sunday, I played in Barbecue, the LARP created by the Build Your Own LARP project. There were 5 writers, some new to LARP writing, some experienced, under the guidance of the Friday night panelist, writing a 1 to 2 hour LARP about the drama among three families at a barbecue. Very emotional real-life issues. It’s not usually the sort of LARP I sign up for, but I actually had a great time and a very interesting experience. At numerous points I was forced to decide between my goals as a player and my character’s goals. At one point I felt like I was right in the middle between wanting to be an Actor and do the dramatic thing and being a Role Player and behaving as my character probably would. I had a surprising amount of difficulty disentangling myself from my character, possibly because the situation was much more realistic than the average LARP I play. I remember what it was like to be a teenager about to head off to college.
After the LARP, I went to a ConCom meeting for Intercon M. It’s still very early in the process but exciting to be part of. It never ceases to amaze me how much a bunch of people with a passion for a hobby can accomplish.
I think the whole weekend went very well, so we’re likely to get a bigger crowd in the future. I kind of liked the small size- it was a very friendly, intimate environment (and I didn’t have to miss that much since there were only so many events at any given time) but I guess it will also be nice to have more options to choose from and maybe for the event to at least break even on cost.
That all said, if anyone reading this has their own impressions of the event to share, please do! I’d love links to your own posts about it, or access to any notes you took or materials you used for the presentations.