Intercon Post-Event Report Part VI: Friday Afternoon at PreCon

Intercon N was over two months ago; I think it’s about time I got back to my post-event reports about PreCon.

To quickly provide some context for any new readers: Intercon is the annual all-LARPing convention. In recent years, Intercon has hosted an event we call PreCon (previously misleadingly known as the “Thursday Thing”), starting Thursday evening and running until Friday afternoon before the first LARPs begin. PreCon is something like a mini-conference, during which we run panels and workshops, all related to LARP. It has proven popular enough to give rise to NELCO (the New England LARP Conference) — the first LARP-focused conference in the U.S, which runs over a weekend in the summer. (Well, the first standalone LARP conference, if you include PreCon in that category.) This year, NELCO is happening July 18th – 20th in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and it’s looking for ideas for programming. (If you have any topics you’d like to see discussed, check it out!)

In previous posts, I talked about Thursday evening at the last PreCon, and about a panel I had prepped,”In-Character Art“. On Friday afternoon at PreCon, I attended the “Secret Meeting of Villains”, “Writing Gender Balance in Games”, “The Use of Structured Goal Setting in Games”, and the “Izgon 2 Recap”.

The “Secret Meeting of Villains” was a diverse panel addressing the topic of bad guys in LARP from a few different angles. The masked panelists set the stage by offering villain themed treats (chocolate mustaches and Riddler cupcakes) and invited the audience to glory in Evil with them with a few group “mua-ha-ha!”s.

Riddler cupcakes and chocolate mustaches.

We went over writing, playing, and running LARPs with effective villains. The panelists shared some common pitfalls they had experienced when cast as villains, made some suggestions for how to avoid them, and what to do when you face these sorts of pitfalls as a player.

Some key points I took away from this meeting:

The best villains should see things from a different point of view, and believe in their own motivations.

Villains should have a chance to win both to make them fun to play and satisfying to defeat, and those that are written to fail are borderline NPCs. Giving them nefarious plots that will succeed by default if the heroes don’t actively stop them is one good way to do this. Alternatively, their plans could be already in motion when the LARP begins, but complications have arisen and need to be dealt with. Or the game could start in the aftermath of their success, with the heroes trying to undo the evil the villains have done. Perhaps even the villain themselves want to undo what they’ve done, too.)

It’s helpful to give villains smaller sub-goals to achieve, that way they can make progress even if they delay destroying the world (and the LARP with it) indefinitely.

Villains need resources of their own, and shouldn’t be completely lacking in allies.

Blackmail often needs some kind of mechanical weight behind it, otherwise it’s very difficult to use blackmail material as a resource in a theater LARP.

In a LARP where most of the cast are villainous, the heroes become a form of villain.

Villains often need the ability to use a Fair Escape (the mechanic that allows people to freely get away by declaring “fair escape” without forcing the player to actually run in indoor spaces where running is frowned upon.) Being very clear about what happens after someone has fairly escaped is also important. (Otherwise the Fair Escape rule can become an irritating block against action; I’ve seen it happen.)

Players should be able to express interest in playing more than one point on the morality scale when answering casting questionnaires. In other words, asking “where on a scale of 1 to 10, one being completely immoral, an irredeemable villain, ten being completely pure hearted, a shining beacon of good, would you like your character to fall?” is insufficient, because some people are happy with multiple points on the scale. Some people like playing characters with shades of gray, because it allows flexibility, and some people just want to play either end of the scale, just so long as their character is an extreme.

I grabbed a mustache of my own on the way out.

Following the “Secret Meeting of Villains” panel, I took a break from PreCon to finish the posters for Intercon (they looked sadly rushed — I’m annoyed with myself for this.) I’m disappointed to have missed the panels during this hour, but one of them was “Gaming as the Other” which also ran with some of the same panelists at another con, and you can hear the recording of that panel here.

Once the posters were finished, I ducked into “Writing Gender Balance in Games”. I missed the first 20 minutes or so, unfortunately. I think they were in the middle of discussing how cross-casting becomes a significant issue in romance games, as players can be extremely uncomfortable romancing a cross-cast character. They also discussed writing gender neutral LARPs. One panelist described a LARP set in a storm cellar in the 1930s, in which all of the characters were gender neutral, and any anachronistic issues that arose from casting a female in a role that would historically have likely been male (such as the town mayor) was ignored.

There seems to be a common idea in the local theater LARPing community that it’s very difficult to write a completely gender neutral LARP that doesn’t sound awkward. However, I’ve played in a number of gender neutral LARPs, using different methods, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while it may be far more difficult to write gender neutral characters (I don’t know, I haven’t tried, but it seems logical) the result definitely need not be awkward to read. Star-Crossed, for example, which I played at Intercon N, has a gender neutral cast of characters (which is why all of the names are gender neutral, e.g. Sam and Drew.) I thought the prose of the character sheets worked well. Be Not Afraid, a LARP about angels, allows players to decide their character’s gender identity. The sheets use gendered pronouns, but angels can have any relationship with their own gender that they wish, and players were free to choose their character’s identity.

The next panel I attended was “The Use of Structured Goal Setting in Games.” (Technically not a panel, as there was only one presented.) It was delivered by the same speaker who presented “Tuckman’s Model Doesn’t Apply to Us: Or, Why Teams Fail.” He talked about how goals become points of focus for character actions, and how enormous goals can seem too daunting to try, but breaking them down into smaller goals make them seem more achievable, and allow players to feel they’ve accomplished something even if their ultimate goal isn’t realized. Creating specific triggers can also prod characters to achieve goals. A real life example might be “I’ll start working when the coffee is ready.” A LARP version might be, “I’ll start gathering troops when I receive word that the enemy troops are amassing on the border.” Also, a writing tip from this talk: “never give a character a goal you’re not prepared to see them succeed at.” Which I think is a variant on the “never include a bomb bigger than the LARP” rule.

The last panel of my PreCon experience was another of my own, the “Izgon 2 Recap” panel, in which the three members of Redwood Fen (myself, Ko’ris, and Ty’ris) aka the three American players living in the Northeast, talked about our experiences playing an international, two week long LARP. I’m sad to say this panel was also something of a bust, much like the “In-Character Art” panel. We lacked a screen to project our slideshow onto (the panel running against us claimed it first), and more significantly, we had an audience of two. I’m not going to create another post summing up the notes and images I prepared for this panel, as pretty much all of what I had to say can be found in my post-event report, which you can read here if you’re curious. (Although I will say that post is missing the input from my two fellow panelists.)

Someone pointed out to me that the narrow scope of the panel might have been what caused the very low attendance. Instead of using the panel to describe our experiences in a single LARP, we might have broadened the topic to something like, “Outside the Box: Breaking the Temporal and Spacial Boundaries of LARP.” Most theater LARPs in the New England community are around four hours. Some are one or two, some are eight, and there are also a number of weekend long LARPs,  but anything larger than that is pretty rare, since it would have to work around players’ school and work hours. Campaign LARPs have multiple installations, but each event is a discrete thing. Additionally, LARPs typically take place in a limited space, such as a single hotel function room, a single building on a university campus, or a single campsite. Izgon 2 showed me the ways LARP can extend for longer periods of time and exist simultaneously all over the world. I think a panel on how to expand LARPs in these ways would be quite interesting. I’d love to include ARG writers, writers from the Assassin’s Guild (the LARPing group at MIT, which I’ve heard runs ten-day LARPs from time to time) and maybe some LARPers who are experienced with Mind’s Eye Theater. I’m not very familiar with Mind’s Eye Theater, but from what I understand, content and plot from different chapters can overlap and intermingle.

Perhaps if there’s some interest in this broader topic, it might be something to consider for NELCO.

And that concludes my experiences at PreCon 2014. I still have some thoughts about combining elements of boffer and theater LARP inspired by my experiences NPCing for Rabbit Run and PCing Welcome to the Dragon Palace  that I plan to gather into a post, but other than that, that was my Intercon N. I’ve since joined the Intercon bid panel, so I’m seeing what LARPs are likely to be on the schedule for Intercon O, which makes me quite excited for next year. …More so than I have been, I should say, as I’m always excited for Intercon.

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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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2 Responses to Intercon Post-Event Report Part VI: Friday Afternoon at PreCon

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Gender-neutral characters aren’t hard, depending on the setting and what the authors like going for. Lovers and Madmen conventions pretty much preclude gender-neutral characters, since historical games don’t make gender-neutrality easy. (However, by the 1930s, it gets doable; Ma Ferguson was a governor in the 20s and 30s, so a mayor could also be female.)

    On the other hand, SF conventions make it much easier to do gender-neutrality. Part of Her Design characters are all gender-neutral, with the exception of one who is canonically genderless and uses no pronouns (I rephrase sentences and repeat the character’s name to avoid pronouns). Planetfall characters are nearly all gender-neutral. Half of the Bad Apples characters are gender-neutral; that’s technologically SF and socially early-20c American ethnic enclaves.

    Now, in all three games, the genderless characters have canonical genders. Some are based on tropes that in the early-21c first world are understood as gendered, such as “alpha male boss,” “social worker nun,” and “teenage girl.” Because players’ personalities are rooted in the early-21c first world, these characters tend to be played by people of the same gender perhaps (your character in Bad Apples is gender-neutral, but has been female in every run). But changes happen – for example, the character AJS played in Bad Apples in your run was originally meant to be male, but has also been female in every run – and the games are resilient to them. That’s less the case at a game like Venezia.

    • Brian R. says:

      I think that’s only acknowledging one of the ways that gender neutral characters could be difficult. I think the bigger problem for many larps is not that they are difficult to conceptualize, but difficult to write. (By “write” I don’t mean to come up with content for, I mean the actual putting prose to paper itself).

      The two most common ways to deal with the task of actually writing a gender neutral character sheet are to use gender neutral names and studiously avoid gendered pronouns, or to use some form of markup on your character sheets and then use some kind of find-replace for each run. The former is much harder than it sounds. It has been done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy or even that everyone can do it effectively. The latter is time consuming, enormously so if there is a very large amount of written content in the game.

      It’s true that Lovers and Madmen can’t really do gender neutral characters for the types of games we tend to write, because our most recent games have all cast players as specific people from history, with specific genders. But even if we went and did sci-fi, I doubt that we would ever do gender neutral characters, simply because the sheer mass of written player materials we generate makes the effort of going through and making everything linguistically neutral take an impractical amount of effort.

      With writing gender neutral characters, the question isn’t so much “Can it be done?” as it is “Can I do it effectively?” and “Is it worth the effort?”.

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