My Friday at the New England LARP Conference, or NELCO, consisted of attending three panels: Set/Sound/Lighting, Writing as a Team — Dividing the Work, and Writing Political Plot.
The first panel, Set/Sound/Lighting, was quite similar to previous panels I’ve attended, (Set Design for LARPs at Intercon K’s PreCon and Sets at last year’s NELCO). But I’d already attended the Introduction to the Build Your Own Game — LARP Writing 101 panel last year, which was the only other option in that time slot.
The panelists of Set/Sound/Lighting spent a fair amount of time on how lighting can be used to affect players’ experience of a LARP. They talked about how colored lights can affect the mood and serve as cues for significant changes in the environment, and how brightness and dimness (and even complete absence of light) can do the same. One LARP, Blackout, came up several times as a notable example of a LARP that runs entirely in the dark. (It has minimal character information to remember, so that players being unable to consult their sheets won’t be an issue.) One major advantage of LARPing in the dark? No matter how little the actual room looks like the interior of a spaceship, it won’t be able to detract from immersion at all. I know this is a set-intensive LARP (there’s a lot of interactive electronic props to set up) so it’s not something than runs very often, but should I ever get the chance to play, I intend to pounce on it.
We also learned a bit about how pin-spot lighting can be used to create separate smaller spaces within a large room, without needing temporary walls. (In the Radisson Hotel, we often use chairs, found in abundance in the function spaces, to act as temporary walls and break up game space.)
The role of sound was discussed a fair bit. Blackout, for example, makes use of a custom made track of background noise, which plays through speakers hooked up to an iPhone. It was made entirely free through the Freesound Project and free downlodable sound mixing software. (It’s nice to know set can be designed on a minimal budget!) Audience members supplied other examples of using background noises to set the scene in LARPs, such as using a looped recording of waves for LARPs set on the beach or on a boat.
I recall a few modules at Lost Eidolons that used CDs of scary noises/haunted house soundtracks. In a vampire’s lair, we could hear faint screams and hysterical laughter in the background, and on another, we heard insect-like chittering while we were climbing through thick webbing to find and slay an evil spider queen. (These kinds of CDs can be picked up on sale, for very cheap, right after Halloween.)
Interestingly, one panelist played his homemade background noise track for a few minutes while the panel continued to run before shutting it off. There were several people in the hall just outside the panel, chatting loudly. It was quite distracting at times, but I realized only after the soundtrack was turned off, that I hadn’t noticed them while the background noise was playing. The background noise was enough to drown out the chatter from the hallway, but still quiet enough to avoid interfering with the panel. That was pretty cool, I thought, and useful thing to know if you want your players to focus on your LARP even when it’s set just outside a hallway that has heavy foot traffic.
We brought up incorporating taste and smell into LARPs. Taste is sometimes included in the form of simple snacks and drinks which are sometimes in character (for example, the LARP High Tea included real tea and biscuits and cookies). LARPs tend not to involve much in the way of the sense of smell, largely because if a smell is powerful enough to guarantee it will be noticed, some people may find it noxious, and things that produce smells can trigger allergies.
The next panel was Writing as a Team — Dividing the Work. We had two panelists, a couple, describe their experiences working on teams for writing LARPs. I think the main takeaway point of the panel was to delegate tasks according to the team members’ strengths and weaknesses. In other words, if one person is good at mechanics, and another is better at writing character sheets, it’s better to let them handle the part they’re best at, and not worry about making sure everyone has a hand in everything. Other bits of advice included designating one person as having the final say (probably whomever’s “baby”- i.e. idea and pet project- the LARP is) and that it is better to acknowledge that you cannot get something done by a given deadline as early as possible, rather than letting deadlines pass and apologizing after the fact. Teammates can work with someone being unable to meet their deadlines, but it’s much harder if they are letting time pass while waiting for something that isn’t coming.
The last panel I attended on Friday was Writing Political Plot. I missed the first few minutes, but I think I have a pretty good idea that it was all spent on introductions and the beginning of a in depth discussion on just what the definition of “politics” is. I don’t think we ever settled on one definition. This is why, when I get a question on a casting questionnaire about how much I like engaging with politics in a LARP, I’m never 100% sure what to say. It depends! What do the GMs think it means?
The panel discussed how to write political plots that are satisfying to a maximum number of players. For example, having at least three political parties in order to ensure some room for complexity and maneuvering, and not just having all political conflict boil down to one-on-one. Or, in election plots, including about five candidates, with only two who genuinely want to win. (So that the win feels more satisfying because more opponents were beaten, but those who didn’t win don’t all necessarily feel bad about losing, especially if they were only in the election to satisfy some other goal, with other potential ways to achieve said goal.) One tactic I’ve personally seen in a few LARPs is having people’s current leanings visible on a public board, so that the candidates know who they need to convince in order to acquire more support.
For any particular issue in a LARP being decided, the panelists suggested that it’s a good idea to have more people start out as neutral parties than people dedicated to achieving one result, with those who are set on one result having useful resources that they can offer to the characters that they want to convince. One panelist suggested having a number of issues being voted on in a LARP, with a handful of characters dedicated to each issue, and no clear groupings in opinions. (To clarify, it’s better to write a LARP where people take a variety of stances on the issues than it is to have one group that all take the liberal stance on multiple issues and another group that all take the same conservative stances on the issues.) I think Be Not Afraid, the HRSFA LARP about angels who have been exiled from Heaven and are trying to establish their own new society, embodies this particular format extremely well. There were a good number of issues the angels voted on, and each angel had its own unique combination of which issue they cared most about and which way they hoped the various votes would go. It helped create a lot of interesting negotiation and conversations among the angels.
After the last panels ended, we had birthday cake for one of the LARPers at NELCO in the con suite. I think I ended up staying up past 2 am just chatting with people about LARPs. Which is probably why I didn’t wake up until about fifteen minutes before my first panel on Saturday, even though it didn’t start until noon.