NELCO 2013 Post Event Report — Saturday Afternoon Panels

Friday night at NELCO, I slept rather poorly. Getting to bed rather late was my own fault. I was enjoying just hanging out in our little con suite (the Radisson’s Executive Board Room) after the last panels had ended too much to get to bed at a more reasonable hour. But the bigger problem was the hotel’s thin walls. I heard the hotel staff and several guests shouting, laughing, and moving around in the hall outside my door well before I was ready to get up. This explains why we need room blocks for Intercon- mixing our rooms with the other guests leads to noise complaints. I never realized how bad it could be.

Quick Costuming was my first panel of Saturday, and my first one of NELCO 2013 as a panelist. I actually was under the impression that the other panelist, lisefrac, was in charge of this panel (she’s a much more advanced costumer than I am) but she had been under the impression I was (and besides, she was already running a panel on costuming for the cavalier era, in part thanks to the upcoming run of King’s Musketeers, and a workshop on hand sewing techniques.)

I’ve run a panel called Costuming for Beginners twice at PreCon (the small conference that runs Thursday night and Friday morning before Intercon, very similar to NELCO). Both times the audience was quite small, maybe a handful of people, and it mostly consisted of costumers sharing tips with one another. Fun, but there was some indication that neither PreCon nor NELCO really has much of an audience for this sort of panel on very low level costuming. I don’t honestly recall bidding Quick Costuming for NELCO, though apparently some people thought the idea came from me? The brainstorming process for panel ideas was chaotic and took place a while ago… so who knows. At any rate, I always love talking about costuming, so I ended up running the panel. I mostly used notes from the Costuming for Beginners panels as a starting point. And it turned out to be about the size I expected — two panelists, three audience members.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned since those two previous costuming panels was how to make a chiton (or peplos), and how incredibly useful that very simple bit of knowledge is. I like the way they look- loose and flowy, and they can look very flattering on one’s shoulders. They’re so simple and quick to make, especially if you choose a fabric that doesn’t require hemming. Plus, they fit in with a lot of fantasy settings, Greco-Roman settings, and any sci-fi that works with the Crystal Spires and Togas trope. I think I’ve worn chitons at least three times since learning to make them, and made one for the base of an Egyptian costume that has been used for three different LARPs. I brought in my shiny, disco ball chiton that I wore for Across the Sea of Stars as an example.

I also brought in a few of the rhinestones I’d stuck to velcro dots to show how to make really quick hair accessories, but discovered that they only work in certain hair types. If your hair is too thick and curly, the velcro becomes harder to get out. Good to know.

Lisefrac, my co-panelist, showed me and the audience how a Roaring 20s costume could be thrown together from thrift store finds. She also recommended a useful book, Instant Period Costumes, by Barb Rogers. We talked about borrowing and lending costumes and the staples of a theater LARPer’s costuming closet. A lab coat is a common suggestion- scientist and doctor characters are pretty common in theater LARPs. I maintain that a white poet shirt with poofy sleeves can cover male characters (and many female characters) from historical or fantasy LARPs set in or inspired by 1000 AD to 1900 AD, and even a bit beyond. (Assuming you’re not caught up on historical accuracy, which few theater LARPs are.) And as I include costuming descriptions in my Master List of LARPs, I was able to look the list over before NELCO and determine that my cropped black military jacket has been a staple of my own costuming wardrobe. I’ve worn it for many LARPs, in a wide variety of genres.


After Quick Costuming, I went to hear Designing Interesting Boffer Modules, which I was quite excited about. I think I may have even been the one to suggest this topic, I’m not sure. One of the panelists was missing, but luckily Dave of Xeph Ink was able to keep the panel going on his own.

I admit the panel was not at all what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be about designing individual modules, with an emphasis on how to structure combat to keep it fresh and compelling. In other words, how can we set up physical challenges for boffer LARPers besides the typical defend-the-ritual or fight-until-we’ve-gathered-the-items structures? I’ve fought in many boffer battles where the PCs clumped up and the NPCs fought in more or less a line until some straightforward objective was achieved or the monsters stopped respawning, But the fights that seemed the most exciting and memorable were often the ones where we were forced to face combat in a new or unexpected way- such as fighting one-on-one duels for some reason, or splitting up into smaller groups because the battle ground was too big to cover more than small fractions of it at a time. (This is why our final battle at Lost Eidolons, dubbed The Battle for Tomorrow, was so exciting!)

The panel actually covered designing and running boffer weekends from a more general standpoint. We talked about preparing for the unexpected, like rain or black outs. A really good tip that I picked up from this panel is that a lot of the campsites we use have old, two prong outlets, and a lot of our modern gear (lights and fog machines and such) require three prong outlets, so converters are a good thing to have. We also talked about the standard pacing rules for a weekend —  things like how field fights are frequently scheduled, and how players dislike being taken off guard when thrown into major fights when they were expecting something minor,  but that it’s still important to do it every now and then to keep them on their toes and not make your LARPing weekends too predictable. Dave presented the idea that players are paying for obfuscation–a LARP shouldn’t be transparent.

Next up was the Designing Non-Physical Mechanics panel, which defined non-physical mechanics as non-boffer (or non-live action) mechanics. Like many other panels, it opened with trying to define and decide what qualifies as a mechanic. We talked about what purposes mechanics serve, besides allowing characters to do things the players can’t (such as cast magic spells) they also prevent characters from doing things the player can. That was a side of mechanics I had never considered. To explain via example, if a LARP has two rooms, and one room represents the secret passages under Paris, a player can simply walk next door with ease. But a mechanic might say that a character can only enter the passages if they have the right knowledge of their secret entrances. Mechanics also serve to highlight what actions are important for players to be taking and characters to be thinking about in a LARP.

The panelists explained their opinions on how many mechanics a LARP needs — that generally, less is more, and it’s often better to simplify mechanics if you can.  We also talked a fair bit about disincentive actions through mechanics- for example, if you want your players to avoid combat, making it high cost (perhaps even if you win you get a wound, or it wastes a resource you could be using on other things) can do that.

The next panel was Giving Players What They Want. Two panelists sat at the front, and after waiting on the third panelist, they suggested I take her place until she showed up. Initially, I hesitated — I wasn’t actually sure what the panel was about — that title could mean a lot of things, and I certainly hadn’t prepared for any of them. But as it turned out, nobody knew what the panel was specifically meant to be about, including the other panelists. So I thought, what the hell, and sat at the front table. When the other panelist finally arrived, there was already a conversation going, and it didn’t seem to really matter where I sat, so I stayed at the front and once or twice offered my own opinions.

If I had to guess, I suspect someone suggested this topic without really going into detail about what it would cover, and enough people voted for it on the survey that it wound up on the schedule. I don’t think whoever initially suggested it was any of the panelists… so no one really knew what the intent was for this panel. But it didn’t really seem to matter. It prompted good conversation about LARP for an hour, and that’s a big part of what I want out of NELCO. The focus wandered a bit over the hour, so I don’t recall much in the way of specifics. But I do recall suggesting that running LARPs at Intercon afforded GMs an unusual opportunity, in that there was an enormous pool of theater LARPers (over 400 last year) and you don’t have to write LARPs that will appeal to everyone, because even if your LARP appeals to a narrow range of LARPers, you can still probably find enough of them to fill at Intercon. But if you run it outside of Intercon, and your cast is filled with whomever happened to be available and willing at some particular time and place, it’s harder to run a LARP successfully unless it caters to the most popular tastes and sticks fairly closely to the conventions of a standard LARP.

…Hence the genre of “pop-LARPs“. They exist because this format is unlikely to put the average theater style LARPer off. They may not break boundaries or redefine the hobby or create life-altering experiences (for the most part)… but they’re not likely to crash and burn, either.

My last panel before dinner was Blogging LARP…  but I think I will save that for its own post.

About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years, in all different styles. I love trying out all different styles and genres and formats. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serving as a board member of NEIL, as LARP Coordinator for Extracon, and a member of bid com for the British convention Consequences. I was also the coordinator of Festival of the LARPs in 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I've also served as an editor for Game Wrap, NEIL's publication about the art and craft of LARP, and served on Intercon staff in various roles over the years.
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14 Responses to NELCO 2013 Post Event Report — Saturday Afternoon Panels

  1. Warren Tusk says:

    “But if you run it outside of Intercon, and your cast is filled with whomever happened to be available and willing at some particular time and place, it’s harder to run a LARP successfully unless it caters to the most popular tastes and sticks fairly closely to the conventions of a standard LARP.”

    That…certainly hasn’t been my experience. I think it’s fair to say that the LARPs I write vary widely in style and concept — you’ve played in four of them, and I don’t think any two have been all that much alike — and some are pretty high-concept and weird. But I’ve never had a problem running my games outside the confines of LARP cons (and indeed have never actually run a game *at* a LARP con). More generally, HRSFA authors write all kinds of things for the HRSFA community, and generally don’t have problems getting players out of that same tiny pool.

    This may just be a function of community and trust? When you know authors personally and you know their work, it’s easier to say “yes, I’ll play that, even if it sounds like nothing I’ve ever done before.” Or maybe there’s something else entirely going on. I dunno.

    • Fair Escape says:

      You’re right, and I think these trends aren’t nearly as strong as I made them out to be. I guess “harder” is a very relative term. I was thinking of LARPs like Venezia, which has a very unusual structure (three acts that are essentially three shorter LARPs running back to back). In order to make it work, it breaks with the player expectation that they will have absolute control over their character decisions by restricting certain decisions to only two choices. This got more complaints outside of Intercon, and I think it’s possible that the pool of players had something to do with it. At Intercon, people could easily pick another LARP if the three act structure turned them off.

      I don’t know how strong this trend actually is… Maybe I’m seeing patterns that I expect where there are none. But I wouldn’t be surprised if community and trust was involved as well.

    • Brian R. says:

      It’s not actually a problem of filling, it’s fairly easy to get players to say “Yes, I’ll play that”, but that’s exactly the problem. When you run at a venue where you run opposite 15 other games, you tend to get the players that are interested in your game specifically. When you run unopposed, you sometimes get players who are just interested in playing a larp that day, even if they aren’t particularly interested in the style or themes your larp is exploring. Running against other games let’s players do some self-selection, which can sometimes be beneficial.

      To give another concrete example: Devil to Pay is a game where the average character has done honest-to-god awful things, and the blurb is pretty up front about this. When it’s run unopposed we’ve gotten a much higher number of casting apps where people asked not to be cast as awful people than when it ran against multiple other games.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Your LARPs can be weird and emotionally bleed-y, but I think what Brian is saying about Devil to Pay doesn’t apply to your games. The three games you’ve written that I’ve played – The Dance and the Dawn, Ex Ignorantia, Soul of the World – all have a wide array of character personalities and moralities, and people can pick and choose. The proportion of truly evil characters is similar to the proportion of players who like playing them, there’s a range of extroverts and introverts, and there are characters from a variety of backgrounds. West Eros, which reads like a game that you’ve written, is the same.

      Those games aren’t even all that different from one another. They’re much bleed-ier than the average theater LARP, and they have a lot of character development. The only one of the three that is plot-heavy is Ex Ignorantia. There’s heavy emphasis on romantic or quasi-romantic plots between PCs, which isn’t necessarily true of other character development-heavy games, like A Single Silver Coin. West Eros is lighter than the others, but in the way players acted out their characters it might as well have been Ex Ignorantia.

      In contrast, Temptemus Papam is not that kind of game – the relationships between characters are transactional, and they’re all cardinals, which limits the range of character background and traits more narrowly than some players would like. So even though Thrud is an experienced writer and the West Eros team wasn’t, Temptemus had trouble filling and some players only went into the game grudgingly, whereas West Eros mostly filled months in advance with people already picking out their favorite characters.

      So you’re getting players who are self-selected for being into a specific kind of game, and knowing that you write a specific kind of game. The pool of HRSFA players under a certain age consists of many people whose first experience, or first interaction with HRSFA, was Dance, so of course that pool would be interested in the other HRSFA games.

      • Alon Levy says:

        It occurs to me that the above comment could be taken to impugn you, or the West Eros team. It’s not meant to. West Eros came out very well done and very emotionally complex (less so for me based on how I interpreted my character, but it’s a choice I made based on my IC personal and family situations). Ex Ig is still one of the two LARPs I’ve found the best to play, and the other, Cracks in the Orb, has a lot in common with the HRSFA game tradition (heavy romantic plots, bleed, structure similar to Dance’s dances, Ex Ig’s conferences, and Soul’s conclaves). I like this sort of game – I just know people who don’t, and either prefer something lighter, or like plot-heavier games, or want games with transactional relationships and concrete goals, etc.

    • Kevin Riggle says:

      You should try running a game at a LARP con. It’s an interesting experience.

      Personally I’m coming from another group with a strong larp community which wasn’t until recently that well-connected to the Intercon community (the MIT Assassin’s Guild). I find that despite writing what I see as very different games in style and concept — and often explicitly trying to write for Intercon — my games still have a strong set of underlying assumptions which come from the Guild. Some of why I get away with writing as widely as I do in the Guild is surely community and trust, but some of it is that while the surfaces may be different, the fundamental structures are not.

      • Brian R. says:

        I’d love to hear sometime what underlying assumptions you’ve found to differ between the Intercon and Guild larp communities. I’ve always found the ways that the unspoken basic assumptions vary from style to style to be fascinating.

        • Fair Escape says:

          I’ve aGMed at the smaller cons… I do want to try running a game at a con, I just… hate to give up a slot where I could play one. ^_^
          …Brian has pointed out that suggestion was probably not directed at me; my apologies.

          I would also love to hear about the underlying assumptions/structures of Guild games.

        • Alon Levy says:

          I don’t know the Guild assumptions (and I gather that the one game I played at MIT, A Single Silver Coin, is different from the usual MIT fare), but I can talk about the assumptions at HRSFA. Those aren’t just LARP-writing styles, but also styles about how to play – for example, the tradition of pregaming.

  2. You can just call me Lise in these things, it’s totally fine 🙂

    I finally went ahead and ordered that book! So now I can stop taking it out of the library all the time…

    I’m not sure a poet shirt is great for 1800s, actually… maybe early on, but once you get into the latter half of the century, men’s shirts were a lot more fitted and a lot closer to what we have today. But then, this may be the kind of thing that only matters to someone like me.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Ok, good to know! I usually just leave names out, but for some reason I felt like I should add your name here, so I just used the one you commented with.

      You’re right, it’s not quite right for the later 1800s, but i find that unless everyone is being perfectly period accurate, a poofy sleeved shirt just kind of visually blends with everything and creates a non-modern atmosphere. Then again, for the late 1800s a lot of guys just wear modern shirts, which also tends to blend just fine with the look of the era. Especially if they couple it with a vest.

  3. Kevin Riggle says:

    Giving Players What They Want

    Oops, I think that was me. Dave, Mark, and I were sitting in the Diesel brainstorming panel ideas, and I threw it out. I think I gestured a bit more specifically at what I thought it should be, but I bet that description didn’t make it out of the coffee shop, and then I didn’t get added to the panel. I’m glad just the title sparked a good discussion anyway!

    I see your point about larps at Intercon not needing to appeal to everyone, and I think it’s well-made — I’ve been thinking about larps for Intercon as needing to be more generally-appealing, because there’s so much variance, but I think your statement of the same observation (of the variance) has the implications the right way ’round.

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