On the Way to the Forum

A short while ago, the Cottington Woods players and staff were discussing the idea of an online forum for the LARP. We’ve been primarily using mailing list for communication, which I admit I don’t think is ideal for disseminating information.

But I understand the staff’s hesitation and ultimate decision not to create an online forum when some players asked for one. And I’m sure many players are happy with the decision. Me, I’m on the fence.

Among the primary objections to having an official forum for the LARP was the notion that a forum discourages roleplay between PCs during events. It becomes both less necessary and is no longer the most convenient form of communication (or the only available form) between characters. When players come across new information, they likely won’t consider it strictly necessary to track down the other relevant characters in game, whether it’s finding who the information pertains to, or who has the ability to decipher it or do something about it. It’s much easier to broadcast the information on a forum later, where people can view it and speak up at their leisure.

A quick example- let’s say someone discovers that an NPC is possessed by a demon. They can go around in-game, asking everyone what they know about the demon or the possessed NPC, and ask people one by one who might have the ability to exorcise a demon. Or they can type up a single post online between events, and wait for someone to respond, “oh, I have the exorcism skill.” Much easier, much less time consuming… and a much less personal, interesting way to roleplay. I can picture a player following the question up in person with, “who taught you to exorcise demons?” And I can picture not even knowing who it was that responded if done on a forum.

Or say someone wants to create a special lock that can’t be picked. They can go around trying to find a character with the relevant engineering skills, and roleplay hiring them in person… or they can just post online, and wait for someone to respond. I suspect the former is far more conducive to haggling over the fee, or trying to come up with ways to guarantee no duplicate keys are secretly made.

Along similar lines of thought, it’s very difficult to reconcile online communication with the diegesis of the LARP. For example, Cottington Woods players are currently emailing back and forth, and some people are phrasing their emails as though their characters speaking in person, while others are composing the emails as though they were writing letters. Neither of which completely makes sense- not all of the characters live in the same area between weekends in the Woods, and yet we’re all apparently hearing the speaker at the same time. Or else we’re all sending letters to one another… and everyone is receiving a copy of every letter and every response, regardless of how well we know the letter writers or receivers, if at all. Which is particularly bizarre when you consider that sending and receiving letters in this setting requires hiring couriers, and is therefore extremely expensive and not guaranteed to be delivered. There is an in-game mechanic for sending letters between events (which costs more than most of characters actually have in their pockets so far.) This sort of reinforces that odd, meta-divide between PCs and NPCs. Why is it that we can instantly send letters for free to other PCs, yet need to spend a lot of money to send letters to NPCs without the guarantee that the letter will arrive safely and intact? It requires an extra layer of suspension of disbelief  that wouldn’t be otherwise necessary without online communication.

(Small side note- isn’t that an excellent word, diegesis? I never heard it before it started coming up in LARP discussions. I know it can refer to any medium, but it’s so mind-bogglingly relevant to LARP discussion, that I’d have believed it if someone had told me the word was invented for the sheer purpose of discussing LARP.)

There’s another issue that I can see being a concern to a LARP’s staff (though I have yet to see it actually causing problems.) And that is being able to control what happens on the forums. If people can roleplay on the forums, how much weight does that carry? Does staff have to stay informed on what happens on the forums, because it’s in-game?

Similarly, how does one explain conversations that get cut off because people don’t have the time to respond to them? Conversations between characters on a forum may represent five minutes in-game, but take months as people post a sentence or two once every few days… and may not be concluded (even if the topic is highly relevant) before the next event. Time in LARP is already frequently fairly “timey-wimey,” as Dr. Who fans like to say, and it becomes even more so when you start roleplaying online, where conversations that would take five minutes in person can stretch out over months.

I should mention that my experience with roleplaying online is fairly limited- Lost Eidolons players made a fair amount of use of the forums, and To Be Continued players were fairly active for a short period following the first event (after which online roleplaying dramatically leveled off.) In neither LE nor TBC were any of the online conversations particularly impactful- it was mostly casual chatting, and whether or not the conversations trailed off in the middle didn’t really affect the difficulty of suspension of disbelief. But I have heard tales of important conversations taking place online in Mind’s Eye Theater LARPs (the World of Darkness theater campaigns featuring vampires, werewolves, and such) that cause issues when they haven’t resolved in time before the next event. More importantly, actions in the forums were almost entirely strictly talking, though some LARPers are concerned about players wanting to perform more impactful actions, like initiate combat, or steal, when roleplaying online.

And some LARPers object to forums on the grounds that they make gathering and sorting information too easy in settings that aren’t meant to include the internet as a tool. In Cottington Woods, this might negate some of the challenge for the characters, whereas it might work much better in a LARP like Occam’s Razor, (a modern supernatural LARP) where the challenges might be written with the internet intended as a tool to help.

The flipside to all of this is that we can reduce the compulsion to make sure everything in the LARP is dealt with in an immediate sense. To wit, there were a series of papers found at one of the modules I went on at Cottington Woods‘ first weekend event. I might have immediately started searching the cabin and making sure I got my hands on at least some of the sheets, but while others were searching, I instead chose to try and engage with one of the skittish NPCs present. If I hadn’t thought there was a very high chance of being able to track down the sheets later, I would probably be more concerned with obtaining them instead of roleplaying out what my character would do.

Information, such as what was found on the sheets, can be hard to obtain in a LARP, especially if the only way to do so is to track them down in-character during events. I can’t count how many times I’ve asked people for information and been rebuffed with, “it’s a long story” or “it’s hard to explain.” Some people relish sharing explaining plot and such in-game, but all too often, people just can’t be bothered. It’s probably one of my biggest LARP-related pet peeves.

Forums allow a player to ask for information once, and only hear back from people willing to explain. And everyone can view the conversation and collaborate at their leisure. Which negates any pressure I feel to find the information as soon as possible in game, lest it be lost. And ideally, my characters shouldn’t be responding to such pressure, because it’s strictly out-of-character. I as a player only see the other characters four weekends a year, but my character may well see other characters in the Woods more often.

In a LARP where the atmosphere is largely cooperative, characters are less likely to hoard items. Endgame, for example, has a culture of heroic PCs (villainous PCs are highly discouraged), and the post-apocalyptic setting creates a need for PCs to rely on one another for survival. There exists among the characters a a very strong sense of dedication to Temple, (the survivor colony where the PCs live) which is cultivated by both plot and mechanics. There’s not much to gain by being strictly self-interested; everyone has a vested interested in Temple being as strong as possible, since Temple is the primary source of safety and sustenance.

Lost Eidolons, by contrast, was a Lovecraftian horror LARP. Even though the safety of the world was threatened (or the safety of the town of Greyhook, the primary setting of the LARP) it was not as central a theme as it was in Endgame, and immoral characters and twisted behavior were encouraged, or at least not strongly discouraged. For example, there were mechanical incentives to take up worshipping dark gods with destructive and ineffable motivations. And as a result, if a powerful item was found in Endgame, it seemed more likely to end up in the hands of wherever it could do Temple the most good. By contrast, in Lost Eidolons, items frequently ended up in the hands of whomever found it first (and managed to hold on to it.)

Cottington Woods has some darker themes, though we players were all encouraged to create heroic characters, (or at least “good guys”.) Though I haven’t quite got a solid feel for it yet (it’s still pretty early), I felt there was a reasonable chance that if I didn’t grab the encoded sheets right away and hang on to them, I’d still get a chance to read them. And I did, thanks to the google group that the players started in the absence of an official online forum for the LARP, which enabled me to track them down fairly easily (even though I couldn’t remember all of the characters involved in the modules, and certainly didn’t know them all by name.)

This lack of a need to rush in a grab things in order to ensure I get to interact with them is something I wish all LARPs could cultivate, though I understand why some people prefer more tension between players and between characters.

As it stands, we currently have two email lists for Cottington Woods– one official one run by the staff, and one created by players for collaboration in collection information and organizing out between-event-skill uses (i.e. players who took abilities that allow them to obtain information between events, which are often more effective if multiple characters are working together.) The staff’s email list combines important game announcements with the out-of-character chatter that LARPs generate. (People use it to send around their top ten moments from an event, for example.) There’s actually very little of said chatter, probably because email is a rather poor medium for that sort of thing.

Which I think is a bit of a shame. I sort of miss the silly threads people posted on the Lost Eidolons forums, not just top ten lists, but humorous lists of video game style “achievements” the characters unlocked, (Taz’s first achievement? “Resevoir Dorrs”- lose an ear), the thread about theme songs people picked out for their characters, threads for hosting photos from events, and more. The in-game forums also helped clarify the circumstances under which the in-character conversations took place, mostly by labeling sub-forums as various locations, so people knew where their characters were.

Part of me wonders whether Cottington Woods would benefit from something like this. The players seem determined to have a forum to organize their between-event-skills and to compile in-game information, whether or not the staff wants to recognize it. One might argue that the staff might as well create a forum, if the players are determined to have one, as the benefits of not having an official forum are diminished somewhat by the unoffical forum’s existence. With an official forum, the staff could at least exert some control and avoid the ambiguity of the nature of the in-character conversations (letters? chats in the Cotting House? The setting even includes a religion that provides a very plausible in-game explanation for the gathering and recording of information.)

Then again, I suspect with the forum being unofficial, the amount players use it gets reduced, which means there’s still some incentive for people to make sure that information sharing and gathering goes on in game and roleplay is encouraged. The benefit of not having an official forum is diminished, yes, but not completely negated.

With one-shots, it’s less of an issue, but not entirely moot. Some communities encourage “pre-gaming” and “post-gaming”- i.e. players chatting in character online before and after a LARP. It expands the time limits of the LARP and allows people to get excited prior to the game, and to think through the events after they’re over. And some strongly discourage it, because they want all of the revelations and information divulging to occur while the players are roleplaying face-to-face, not unlike the issues with forums for campaign LARPs.

The matter is closed as far as Cottington Woods is concerned, but it’s still a conversation worth having for LARPs in general.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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10 Responses to On the Way to the Forum

  1. Brian R. says:

    I really dislike the approach where the staff of a larp takes a stance against forums, but still allows or even encourages the proliferation of google groups to do the exact same thing. (I believe that’s also how 7v did things?). It has all the problems of forums (though I think many of the problems with forums are exaggerated) and all it does is shift all that rp to less convenient platforms.

    Forums, both IG and OOG, in my opinion serve an important purpose in keeping some of the energy and excitement over a larp going between games – especially important in campaigns with only a few events each year. In my experience the roleplay that happens on them tends to be “in addition to” not “instead of”.

    • Fair Escape says:

      That’s a good point- I definitely think having forums helps generate excitement between events. I’m not sure why google groups feels so different from a regular forum to me, but I’m definitely not feeling as compelled to start any of the fun little threads about theme songs or favorite moments in the google group.

  2. Ivan Zalac says:

    Diegesis is an excellent word to use in larp-related discussions. I picked it up slightly over a year ago (larping over a decade without using it) and it’s very convenient.

    I’d separate online role-play from the means of its communication. I’ve seen online RP happen over forums, e-mail, facebook, chat, Skype, Hangouts and many other media. If allowed, it can use any (or all) of those methods. If not allowed, it shouldn’t use any. It’s up to game organizers to decide what goes and what happens where.

    Forums and mailing lists – that’s an interesting subject. In my experience mailing lists work better in three cases: when there’s smaller or no traffic, when mobile access (e.g. over a smartphone) is desirable due to the push technology, and for archiving purposes. Actually, even forums are better for archiving purposes than Facebook.

    Mainstream Croatian larp was once organized over mailing lists, which have then been completely replaced by forum technology, which has been partially replaced by Facebook. Newer larps over here have not managed to estabilish active online communities on media other than social networks (although our steampunk larp Para pokreće svijet has regular forum postings whenever something happens, Facebook is way more active – and Izgon had an amazing online community (in a google group), but it was really active only for a few days following the larp since it was a one-shot event).

    Izgon also had excellent in-character mailing lists which were implemented as a fully diegetic way of in-character communication.

    Personally, I’m a fan of Google groups, as they can be configured either as a classic mailing list or very forum-like. They’re fast, efficient and free. But I’m in minority here – seems that in Europe in general mailing lists tend to be far less popular than in USA as almost nobody uses them anymore…

  3. Albert Lin says:

    As a PC and a Staff, forums are just a better way to track information and player interest.

    – No e-mails cluttering your inbox.
    – Staff members don’t miss interesting directions PCs want to take.
    – Regular announcements can be stored there.
    – New players can get up to speed on town information.
    – Actively encourages between session action.
    – Floon outlet and generator.

    Obviously we’re talking about campaign LARPs here.

    You might get a troll or a deeply problematic PC, but having that be in Staff’s control means you can reasonably issue warnings and deny forum access. In Endgame’s 5 year run, we had maybe 3 total issues that actually needed intervention. The overall benefits, however, made it a no-brainer.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Completely agree with all of this.

      If a LARP staff really wants to discourage between-event RPing online, maybe a forum with no IG subforums is a decent compromise, so players can still get excited between events (posting “ten best moments” threads and what not) and it can still be a place for announcements and compiling general information for newbies.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    The boffer LARP I’ve gone to in this part of the world uses forums, which I found tremendously useful for OOC issues like “how do I get there?” or “how do I create a character that’s likely to remain alive for more than ten minutes?”. The IC discussions are mainly recaps of everyone’s crowning moments and transactions in which a character with money buys weapons and armor from a character with crafting skills.

    • Fair Escape says:

      That’s awesome- stuff like arranging rides and asking for advice is extremely important, but for those aren’t involved, doing it strictly by email can result in some spam.

  5. JJ Bartlett (Trev in CW) says:

    The one advantage unofficial forums/mailing lists/whatever have over official ones is that it tends to reduce the amount of IG posturing you see. There’s something about official IG forums that makes certain types of players want to grandstand about… whatever. I’ve seen official IG forums have a dicussion between two PC characters degenerate until they were basically calling each other out for dueling… and then nothing came of it IG. It was hugely annoying.

    I’m currently happy with the level of activity/participation going on with the PC-generated list for Cottington Woods. It’s nifty to see what other people are doing (in an extraordinarily vague sense), but I don’t feel like participation in that list is necessary for participating in the game. For better or worse, in 7V, if you were not participating in (at least some) of the PC-organized lists, you were just going to fall behind. A lot. And not be informed enough to be one of the big decision-makers. (To be clear, the vast majority of those lists were open to anyone who wanted to join them… but not everyone spends hours sitting behind a computer desk all day and has time to plow through the dozens of emails some of those lists produced daily.) I prefer that you be able to participate in games without having the between-event-stuff be an absolute necessity.

    • Fair Escape says:

      That an interesting advantage that never would have occurred to me. I would think the only reason that our Cottington unofficial forum is less prone to grandstanding is because we’ve been using it almost exclusively for information gathering/organizing. But if we used it more broadly, that kind of RP might pop up. Do you think it’s just the lack of boards designated for RP? Or that being unofficial means it’s used by fewer people and that decreased the likelihood of grandstanding and name calling?

      • JJ says:

        I think the unofficial-ness of it has more to do with the lack of name-calling (or call it increase in civility) than what we use it for. If it’s official, that means that everyone has the right to post whatever they want there (I mean, assuming it’s IG and doesn’t involve ethnic slurs or something ridiculous like that). Staffs tend to avoid policing RP that happens there (cause it’s PC-on-PC RP) until it gets to the point of REALLY being unfun for everyone on the forum. On a private unofficial one, if two PCs start really making nuisances of themselves… they can just be kicked off by the owner of the list. It’s not an official way of distributing game announcements… it’s a fun little side thing, and if they become a problem, it’s not a problem to say, “If you don’t play nice you have to leave.”

        That said, I do agree that not having a board/list *dedicated* to RP is probably a large chunk of why we see less IG grandstanding. If we did have a seperate list dedicated to RP, you’d probably see more of the grandstanding sort of thing… but if it’s unofficial, I can chose to just not see any of it (either by not subscribing at all or setting it not to send me notifications), rather than worry that I’d miss an official post by a staff member or NPC and have to sort through all of the grandstanding type posts.

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