For those unfamiliar, since Intercon J, back in 2010, Intercon has expanded its schedule to include PreCon (originally referred to, somewhat misleadingly, as the “Thursday Thing”). Thursday night through Friday afternoon, before the LARPs begin, now has a series of panels and workshops about LARP. (Its success has given rise to NELCO, an entire weekend of panels and workshops that runs in the summer.)
In general, I’m a huge fan of PreCon (and NELCO). It’s not necessarily about sharing deep insights into the craft of LARP, or picking up lots of takeaway advice from the experience. I find in general, much of the panels consists of rehashing fairly general, broad, and already well known ideas. (Though I’m sure one’s impression of PreCon varies a great deal depending on their background in LARP.) It’s more about the experience of LARP enthusiasts gathering to immerse themselves in discussions of their hobby.
The first panel I attended on Thursday evening was “Tuckman’s Model Doesn’t Apply to Us: Or, Why Teams Fail“, run by Stephen Balzac. Stephen is professional speaker and consultant who addresses these topics for businesses, so this panel definitely had a business-like angle. His panel related the topic to LARP by applying Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development applies to writing teams working together to write LARPs, and how teams of characters that form within LARPs work together.
Unfortunately, I missed the beginning of the panel, but I did catch most of it, and I have a few notes scribbled on a few points that stuck with me. One of the lines that particularly struck me from this panel was, “if the underdogs can work together well, their odds greatly improve.” LARPs are frequently written with competing factions working against one another. If LARP writers want to balance or shift the odds of one team or another succeeding at the expense of others, there are a handful of factors we frequently take into account, like the number of players on a side and the physical resources they have (like money or weapons). But how well the individuals that make up the team work together is also a very important factor. If a writer wanted to increase the challenge presented to a team in their LARP, they could write conflicting ideas on how to accomplish a goal into the character backgrounds, or alternatively, make it deliberately unclear who the leader of the team is (or alternatively, make it a goal of some of the team members who are lower on the totem poll to grab power within their teams and usurp the positions of those above them.)
One other interesting concept that came up during the panel was the idea that consensus does not equal unanimous agreement. In order for teams to work together, they need not all agree on the best way to achieve goals, but they do need to agree that they will support and work with whatever methods the majority (or the leader) wants, even if individuals strongly disagree.
Following the panel on how teams work, I attended a panel called “Meta-information in LARP.” Meta-knowledge, for the purpose of this panel, was loosely defined as knowledge that we have as players that our characters do not. LARPs generally run on the honor system, and in most LARPs, we all try hard to avoid using meta-knowledge. (There are LARPs that explicitly encourage using meta-knowledge, particularly among those that get labeled Nordic LARPs, but they were outside the scope of the panel.)
There are some LARPs that go out of their way to build ways to avoid the problems caused by meta-knowledge. The Accelerant rules, for example, state that there is no out-of-game knowledge about in-game things. Anything you, the player, knows about the content of the LARP, your character knows. (Which presents its own slew of challenges, such as getting in the way of people from collaborating on character histories, but I digress.)
One common problem the Intercon community runs into is that there exists a subset of players who enjoy playing villains in LARPs, but once they’ve played enough villain roles, people will stop trusting their characters, even if there is no in-game reason for mistrust. (Sometimes subconsciously.) This can make things far more difficult for those players, whether they’re playing good guys or bad guys. This is just one, fairly straightforward, example of the ways in which meta information affects games, and I believe it was the one that inspired the topic for this panel, but there are many, many other ways in which meta-knowledge affects games. And in fact, as the panelists explained, there are a slew of unspoken rules that exist in LARPing communities that constitute an unspoken contract, and problems arise when we’re not all consistently acting under the same paradigms.
Which is all a very cerebral way of saying that LARPs don’t exist in a vacuum. We all develop ideas of what we’re used to and what we expect, and when others don’t conform to those expectations, it can cause a number of problems, from ruining a LARP experience to offending people to making them extremely uncomfortable to causing unwanted bleed. For example, not every LARP clarifies exactly what the rules on touching other players. The official rule of Accelerant LARPs is that all person-on-person contact is against the rules. But in practice, people shake hands and put their hands on one another’s shoulders and so on, and many often use the phrase “do you accept my physical role play” as an out of game phrase to ask permission to touch another player in-game. It’s inconsistent, and doesn’t reflect the written rules. The best way to deal with these issues is to ensure that your game maintains internal consistency as much as possible, while recognizing that players are bringing in assumptions from outside your LARP.
Though we had gotten a bit off topic, the panel tied this concept of the unspoken contract in with meta-knowledge through an example that pops up in LARPs from time to time – the bomb plot. Generally, LARPs with bomb plots will write into the rules reasons that the bomb cannot go off too soon before the end of the LARP. (For a weekend long LARP, for example, there are often mechanics that prevent the bomb from going off before late Saturday evening or Sunday morning.) In LARPs where there is no in-game reason the bomb can’t go off sooner, many LARPers will assume that they shouldn’t complete their goal of killing everyone as soon as they can just because they can, and will delay until near the scheduled end of the event.
Operating under this assumption can be an example of meta-knowledge being used for the good of the LARP — knowing that people don’t want the LARP to end too early prompts them to wait before potentially killing other characters. Not ending the game early for everyone present might be an unspoken rule of your community’s contract. Or a player might assume that the bomb will simply fail if they try to early. But this sort of behavior based on meta-knowledge could just as easily be counter-productive. GMs might want a player to set off a bomb, because it’s meant as a trigger for more plot.
Getting to know the community in which you’re running games, especially by playing games in it, is a good way to help figure out what assumptions the players might bring into a game. And if you plan to go against what they consider typical, you can prevent problems by making it explicitly clear in the blurb or other pre-game materials where you plan to deviate from their expectations.
The Meta-knowledge panel also went over some suggestions to specifically deal with the issue of players not trusting someone who often plays a villain. One suggestion was to create trustworthy NPCs who explicitly trust the villian, as the players may follow suit. Alternatively, a writer could alter the background of PCs who have nothing to lose by trusting the player, and create clear indications for how they should interact with them. If NPCs are being seen as treating the player as innocent, or other PCs are, it might help others get past their subconscious lack of trust.
Another suggestion was to simply write games that are robust enough such that people refusing to trust the ingenue won’t break the game. (Personally, I’m not sure “write more robust games” is a very helpful suggestion. It’s more of a goal than a strategy.)
Other suggestions included the mistrusted player really playing up their innocence through over-the-top acting, or creating abilities that compel another character to trust them. Giving the ability an appropriate name, such as “Aura of Innocence” also helps suggest to other players how to react when it is used upon them.
Players who frequently play villains might specifically opt for good guys on occasion, and see it as long term investment. Alternatively, it was suggested that changing one’s appearance significantly (through wigs or glasses) might help people shake their subconscious association with past villain roles. Or a player might simply ask “why don’t you trust me?” in game, which will hopefully make other players realize that they are acting on meta-knowledge instead of in-game knowledge.
Following the Meta-Knowledge panel, I sat on the panel for Religion and LARP, the premise of which was essentially the same as a panel I sat on back at NELCO. This time, we had two extra panelists for a total of four (and each represented a different religion). Rather than rehashing everything that we talked about, I’m just going to share a link back to the post I wrote about the NELCO panel, and then share some thoughts on comparing and contrasting the two runs of the panel.
First of all, even though the audience at the NELCO panel was quite respectful and open minded, I was still somewhat nervous about the PreCon crowd. Happily, my fears were unfounded in this regard. People seemed very interested in the topic, and were actively participating. We received some interesting and thoughtful questions from the audience.
The experience also demonstrated the distinct advantages and disadvantages to having a smaller or larger panel. With only two panelists, the panel was well structured, and we were able to concisely hit all of the points we’d planned to go over. There was relatively very little rambling or wandering off topic. But at the same time, the perspectives from which we presented the topics were fairly limited.
With four people, we had a much more diverse set of opinions and experiences to speak from, but it was harder to control the panel. We definitely rambled a bit more and got off-topic more often. Officially, I was granted moderator status for this panel, but I feel that I didn’t do a very good job. I probably could have interrupted people who started to get off-topic before all of the panelists had a chance to speak. In particular, one of the new panelists got disproportionately little time, and I regret that.
That said, we did run right up until the end of the hour, and it seemed like people were still interested and had things to say, and if the next panel wasn’t a popular one that a lot of people wanted to attend (including me!), we might have hung around in the room much later, discussing religion in LARP.
I don’t want to go too far into details on the last panel of the evening — there’s a good chance that some version of it will end up online for people to read. The British LARPers who fly over for Intercon have something of a reputation for well prepared, very humorous panels, and “Nordic LARPs are Toss” (or, alternatively, “Nordic LARPs are Toss and Nordic LARPers are Twats”) very much lived up to this reputation. The speaker had put together a list of common objections people have with the concept of Nordic LARPs. The funny twist of the panel was that as he went through all of the common complaints about Nordic LARP, he either dismantled the claim against them, explained why they aren’t inherently bad ideas, or pointed out that the flaws of Nordic LARP aren’t limited to Nordic LARP — many forms of LARP have these elements in common. And through it, he referenced a number of LARP publications, particularly the book of articles on LARP put out by Knutepunkt (the annual Nordic roleplaying conference). In particular, he frequently quoted J. Tuomas.
I enjoyed the panel quite a lot, and laughed out loud along with the rest of the audience at the rather iconic British wit with which it was delivered, though I was somewhat disappointed that it didn’t look at trends in Nordic LARP with a slightly more critical eye. After all, this was the same panelist who, in a previous panel that debated whether or not LARP is art, argued that LARP is primarily a form of entertainment, and not art, and to see it otherwise was to risk pretentiousness. I’m not sure if I should spoil the end of the panel, but… what the hell. As the panelist brought his talk to a conclusion, he pulled off his outer shirt and revealed a “I ❤ J. Tuomas” t shirt underneath, much to the amusement of the audience. It was an excellent high point to end the evening on. I very much hope some version of it ends up online for everyone to read, but if some time passes, and it seems to have fallen through the cracks, I will take another shot at trying to make heads or tails of the notes I took between laughs.
UPDATE: A write up of the “Nordic LARPs are Toss” panel has made its way onto the internet. Check it out here. Definitely worth a read!