Larpcast: Convention Larping

I’ve been listening to Larpcast, “a podcast about live-action roleplaying, and all that goes with it” for a few years now. Podcasters Mickey Golosovker and Bill Tobin have now put out 83 episodes (and counting) of about 45 minutes to an hour plus of LARP discussion and advice, primarily from the perspective of staffing boffer campaigns. (My personal favorite episode, by the way, was an interview with Rob Ciccolini, the creator of the Accelerant system.)

You can support Larpcast through patreon or by using its Amazon link, and discuss their casts on their podcast page or their Facebook page.

I first met Mickey when I signed up to play The Great War Upon Us, sort of sampler one-shot introducing LARPers to his campaign, Invictus, at Intercon M. (I had a great time playing a slave gladiator.) We are both players of Fifth Gate: Silverfire, and when I put out a call for people with experience with the Accelerant system to volunteer as panelists at the most recent NELCO, Mickey answered the call. I haven’t met Bill Tobin, but I have read posts on his blog, LARP Ohio. I was surprised and rather flattered when they asked if I’d join them as a guest for an episode of Larpcast.

I was somewhat nervous about the recording; it felt not unlike public speaking to me, so I don’t think I was as articulate as I could have been, and I also forgot random little things and even made a few little mistakes. (And I could swear I sound like I have a lisp, even though I normally don’t?) So I thought I’d write a follow-up post, with thoughts and comments and the odd correction of my own statements.

By the way, if you’d like to turn this episode into a Drinking Game, I suggest:

Every time your hear the sentence “it varies a lot” (or some variation on how much variation there is in convention LARPing), take a sip.

It’s important to take sips, not shots, otherwise you will die… I used this phrase excessively.

~0:00:33 Mickey calls me a “big wig” here, which was nice to hear but I don’t actually know why. Possibly because I was the one who brought Mickey into the NELCO conference by posting on Facebook looking for Accelerant people to be on a panel. But I still think of myself as a newbie.

Links for stuff in my introduction:

NEIL, or New England Interactive Literature, the organization behind Intercon and various other things. NEIL’s goal is to promote LARP in New England and beyond.

Intercon, the all LARP convention.

Game Wrap, the publication about the art and craft of LARP. (Issue 1 is available for free online.)

My LARP blog, Fair Escape… uh… this is it.

NELCO, or the New England LARP Conference, the first US LARP conference. Involves LARPers getting together and running panels, workshops, discussions, etc. all about creating, running, and playing LARPs.

~0:04:10 I mention there are time slots at Intercon on Friday “before the convention” but as I clarify later, the convention now officially starts on Thursday evening (as I explained later), so it’s not actually before the convention anymore.

Someone double checked the math, the average Intercon attendee now participates in 3 LARPs over the course of the four day convention.

~0:05:35 We use Intercon as the prime example for LARP conventions throughout the cast. Other similar conventions Festival of the LARPs, SLAW, and Dice and Time Bubble, which are all run at universities, not hotels. There’s also England’s LARP convention, Consequences. My impression is that WyrdCon has some similarities and there various small cons in New Zealand as well, such as Medusa, Hydra, Phoenix, and Chimera, but I can’t speak to those from personal experience.

LARPs also run at general geek conventions like GenCon, though in my experience they have their own stylistic trends separate from LARPs run at all-LARP conventions. (Though there is certainly some overlap.)

~00:08:10 Bill asks about how much prep-work players do for Intercon LARPs. Some LARPs will cast you only weeks in advance, and when you’re reading the materials (character sheet, setting descriptions, rules), creating costuming, and doing other prep work, things can get a little tight, especially when you’re getting ready for multiple LARPs in the same weekend.

If you prefer less prep-work, I highly recommend signing up for amnesia LARPs, which is a genre of LARP unto itself. (These are often of a sub-genre I like to call “You’re Locked in a Room and Fuzzy on the Details” LARPs.) Typically, there’s extremely little to no prep to be done for amnesia LARPs.

~00:09:00 Mickey mentions that in many theater LARPs there’s a lot of backstory interconnection, and I feel this is one of theater’s major strengths. As someone who has recently been finding it a major struggle to create characters that fit well into boffer campaign worlds, I appreciate being cast as a character the writers have written to fit in with the specifics of the world they’ve created, in ways I often can’t even tell when I first start playing the game. In boffer LARPs where I create my own character, I often find I haven’t figured out sufficient ties to the biggest elements of the setting.

~00:09:50 We discuss the spectrum between pre-written characters (typical of Intercon theater LARPs) and player-written characters (typical of boffer campaigns). Interestingly, at Intercon, the boffer one-shots tend to fall more towards the middle of this spectrum than most of the theater LARPs. In the ones I’ve played, including the Invictus one-shot that Mickey ran, I noticed the GMs took a lot of guidance when creating the characters from my casting questionnaires, making the process essentially collaborative. And I really loved that. I wish more campaigns followed suit.

~00:10:55 New World Magischola, a blockbuster theater LARP set in a Harry Potter-inspired wizarding school, provides an interesting example of a LARP that falls in the middle of spectrum between staff pre-writing characters and player creating their characters. It was meant to be a collaborative process — the staff writes up the bare bones of characters based heavily on casting questionnaires, and players are encouraged to develop the characters. Players are also given names of other characters with potential links to theirs (XYZ is your sibling, ABC is your longtime rival) and encouraged to contact the other players in advance of the LARP and develop their relationships, which strikes a nice balance between enabling players controlling their own character while still enabling dynamic relationships between players from the start.

I don’t think the system was perfect from the start — I personally found it difficult to develop relationships in advance of the first event I attended this past summer, and I could have used a more formal system of communication besides hoping people would respond to emails or Facebook posts and maybe some suggested ideas for inspiration. But I did develop a friendly rivalry with another character for the Yule event a couple of weeks ago, which a lot of fun to work out and play through. This is another element I would love to see more LARPs with player-created characters emulate and build on.

~00:11:30 It’s interesting that Fifth Gate came up in this discussion of character connections. In Fifth Gate: Silverfire , we have warbands, where groups of players come into the game with a team, often with shared backstories and personal connections among the members. It’s sort of an in-game formalization of the team culture that lots of the local boffer campaigns develop.

It’s something I think my warband, the Eyrie, struggled a bit with while creating our histories. One of the more successful parts of our shared backstory creation was when one of the Eyrie players walked the rest of us through a process heavily borrowed from a Golden Cobra Challenge game called Unheroes, which I played at the last Time Bubble.

Unhereos involves a group of players collaboratively creating a team of superheroes and fleshing out their relationships and backstories by following a series of prompts. (An example might be: “one character has wronged another and seeks forgiveness, while another character urges them to reconcile” and then the players brainstorm on whom the relevant characters are and how it happened. Another example might be, “one of your missions went terribly wrong. What was the mission, how did it go wrong, and whose fault was it?”)

For the Eyrie, we used questions and prompts inspired by Unheroes to flesh out the story of one of our earlier missions, and the story we created has definitely become a touchstone for our roleplay, and one of the shared moments we reference most often. Like the Magischola system, I’d love to see the Unheroes system get picked up by more LARPs and incorporated more formally into their creation process. I would definitely be happy to have reduced control over my own character in exchange for having these systems available for character creation.

I love Mickey’s point around 00:16:35 — these kinds of thing might organically create more situations in LARP where people have good reason to bring up and discuss their backstories.

~00:25:43 Here we start talking about set dressing and costuming, and how theater LARPs can follow boffer LARPs’ examples and try to improve their production values.

My initial, instinctive reaction to this is to agree that boffer LARPs (at least in the local Accelerant community) typically has high quality set dressing and costuming than theater LARPs (at least in the local Intercon community). Then I thought a bit more about this, and I’m not sure this is actually a fair assessment. There are various reasons one might assume this. Boffer tends to cost more ($80 per weekend is a typical fee for boffer LARP, Intercon is very cheap compared to the average con, and the smaller cons are all free), a lot of boffer scenes are both set and run outdoors while most theater LARPs are not set in university or hotel function spaces, which is where they typically run.

But I find the production values of set dressing for local boffer LARPs is actually typically pretty minimal. The tavern where PCs gather is sometimes very well dressed — in Shadows of Amun, the staff put up posters that were period-appropriate for the WWI era, along with some really cool retro props, and in Madrigal, I think it was mostly the players who filled the tavern with lots of set dressing. But in a number of other LARPs, the tavern looks exactly the way it does  when used for summer camp. And I would say most modules in boffer LARPs have, at most, tarp walls and strings of Christmas lights. Meanwhile, while I would estimate more than half of the theater LARPs I have played have minimal to no set dressing, it’s still been more common to see a well set-dressed theater LARP than a well set-dressed boffer module. And certainly most of the best dressed LARPs (or individual modules) I’ve ever played have been theater LARPs.

I guess the lesson here for theater LARPs from boffer LARPs is set and run more stuff outdoors when possible. (Amusingly, one of the examples of a well dressed theater I LARP that popped up during the podcast was of a forest scene created indoors… if there were outdoor space available at Intercon, that would have been a lot easier! Though running outdoors presents its own set of factors and challenges.)

In terms of costuming, I would say boffer LARPs tend to have higher production values, both for PCs and major NPCs. But I think this is primarily a factor of whether or not something is a campaign vs. a one-shot. For PCs, it’s natural to spend more time, effort, and money on costuming if you know you’re going to be wearing it for four weekends a year for 3 to 7 years (basing numbers on typical formats for local boffer campaigns here) than it is to spend a lot of time and effort on something you only expect to wear once.

It is true that in the local conventions, where accessibility is a major goal, because we don’t want to put restrictions on players,  it is more common to see people who won’t even bother to wear t-shirts without logos, and maybe that’s something theater can learn from boffer — for those GMs who want to set standards for costuming, boffer LARPs might have examples for ways to express “minimally, no logos” to players.

(For props, I think the average boffer LARP has the average theater LARP beat, especially for theater LARPs that don’t run repeatedly, for reasons similar to costuming. )

~00:29:55 Mickey mentions preferring to place to the burden on GMs to improve production values rather than on players, which I agree is probably a more effective way to guarantee an increase in production values, though it has been my experience that when GMs put out calls for assistance dressing a space up, players respond to the call. Accessibility for GMs is a goal to strive for on top of accessibility for players. At conventions, there’s definitely a benefit to letting GMs feel like they can run a game successfully without it costing them a lot, or requiring them to travel with several more suitcases.

~00:46:45 Bill Tobin brings up 10 Bad LARPs, which, for context, are a series of short comedic scenarios that are often extremely silly and often involve offensive humor.

~00:53:59 Mickey talks about asking players for a plan to execute so that they’re helping create and coordinate their own modules. I agree with this — I think it’s a great way to help the player experience what they want to experience, and it can be incredibly satisfying when it works. I do think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve personally seen this fail a few times when NPCs are unclear or confused about the players’ plans, because it’s a lot harder to brief NPCs on a plan created on the fly, in-character, than it is to brief them on something crafted by the staff, who have all of the relevant information, in advance.

~01:00:15 When asked if I had anything else to add, I kinda start in on my “trends in local boffer LARPs (especially Accelerant LARPs) and trends in local theater LARPs (especially ones run at Intercon and similar conventions) and how they can benefit from mixing the styles” rant.

I’ve once or twice run into the attitude that these trends exist because people are afraid to stray from what they know, and I feel the need to add here: that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I think such assumptions do a massive disservice to the creativity and innovation that goes on in the local communities, and we wouldn’t see things that already mess with the structure of the typical LARPs (random examples off the top of my head: Fifth Gates‘ two worlds structure, Threshold‘s event structure, MIT LARPs that combine both live and non-live combat, etc.) nor would we be seeing the rise of boffer one-shots at Intercon, which already blend the two styles in a variety of ways. (I did see someone once refer to them as “theater-boffers,” which would be an oxymoron by my personal definitions of theater and boffer, but it’s still indicative of some interesting things about them.) The trends exist for reasons, often very practical and logical reasons, besides “this is what we’re used to”, and basically what I meant was, “this kind of experimentation is already happening and it’s great, let’s have more of this great stuff.”

~01:03:49 One more link from plugs at the end of the podcast! Festival of the LARPs is Brandeis’ annual LARPing weekend, and it’s next running April 28-30, 2017. (If you would be open to running a boffer one-shot, please contact me! I would love to introduce boffer to Brandeis students.)


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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12 Responses to Larpcast: Convention Larping

  1. idiotsavant23 says:

    Set-dressing is something you can do a lot with in one-offs if you want to. In NZ we have people who want to do it and an organisation (NZLARPS) whose primary practical function is to maintain and provide a gear pool for games, so we can set-dress a hall to look like the Ice-Queen’s ballroom or fantasy tavern if we want. And the mere fact that this stuff is there means it gets used, and people make the time to set it up at the beginning of the game if they need to. But it takes time, and obviously if you’re on a tight timetable and only have the room for 4 hours, its something which can easily be cut.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I agree, and there are plenty of local people who want to. Off the top of my head, the Lovers and Madmen GMs (Redemption, Al-Ashtara, Venezia, Devil to Pay, Kingsword) the GM mentioned in the podcast (who also helped create the sets for Osiris’ Gate and Sassy Pirate Wenches), and the team behind Cirque du Fae and An Age Unending have all blown me away with set dressing for their one-shots. I think more GMs would do it if they didn’t have to travel with the stuff, what with limits on luggage on trains and planes and carpooling LARPers running out of room in their cars.

      This kind of stuff does take time, but there are ways to make the schedule work for you if you want to have more than four hours in a room at Intercon (or Dice or Time Bubble… SLAW and Festival have way more space than gets used, so it’s kind of moot there) to set up, play, and strike. Friday evening is a popular slot for the aforementioned GMs for this reason, we have one to two hours built into the schedule between the main three slots on Saturday, and we’ll give GMs the rooms for well over four hours if they request it.

      The idea of having a gear pool for set, props, and/or costuming gets floated in the local community every now and then. It came up during our brainstorming session at NELCO maybe three years back when we were trying to come up with new services that NEIL could provide to further our goal (“encouraging and promoting LARP in New England and beyond”), though it hasn’t gotten any farther than that. Certainly it would cost money to create, store, and maintain, though I think NEIL would definitely be on board with it if we had volunteers to transport, keep track of, and maintain it… but we don’t. Is the NZLARPS one run by volunteers? Did you guys need to offer incentives to get it done?

      • idiotsavant23 says:

        With cons the con handles it, so I submit a gear request telling them what I need, and they ensure that its at the venue for me. In some cases they will also have set-dressed rooms for specific themes (or at least hidden the worst of the venue with fabric, flats, and a parachute to hide the ceiling), so that minimizes my work even more. And leaves me space in my luggage for costumes instead.

        NZLARPS uses volunteers for everything. We can pay expenses, e.g. petrol money when someone has to drive a heavy trailer full of gear to a venue, and in Auckland we pay for professional storage in a storage unit which is a huge money-drain. Each region has a gear officer responsible for it, and its a heavy workload position, since they’re having to pull stuff from the gear library and clean and reorganise it afterwards at least once a month.

        • Fair Escape says:

          The parachute thing is really neat, are they rentable or something? Are they hard to set up?

          I think our local problem is finding volunteers. I think NEIL would consider paying for storage and petrol for transport. But If you don’t pay the volunteers, how do you incentivize them? Or were you just lucky and there happen to be people willing to do it? Is there a plan for when they decide to stop or move away and no one steps forward to take their place?

          • idiotsavant23 says:

            I’m not sure how we acquired the parachute, but its regularly used. Mostly it gets tied or staplegunned to ceiling beams – its not like anyone is ever going to be jumping out of a plane with it. Pop-up gazeboes are another thing we use a lot of – they’re cheap and you can do wonders in breaking up a room and creating semi-private space with them.

            NZLARPS is lucky in that we have a bunch of people willing to do stuff for us to make better larps. Succession-planning is a long-term worry though. We can try and promote a volunteer rather than customer ethos, but it may not stick…

            • Fair Escape says:

              Pop up gazebos/tents do get used quite a bit here, too.

              I think NEIL is also lucky in the amount of volunteering that goes on, but this specific form of it hasn’t been offered just yet. But I can keep my fingers crossed.

  2. Y’know, after all their podcasts I still don’t know what happens at a typical Invictus session … or at their first convention game. *nudge nudge* It’d be just lovely if some kindly player were to recap precisely what went down during that fateful game!

  3. Philip Kelley says:

    There are two interesting things I got from the podcast. Both could be discussed at length, I’m just mentioning them here for now.

    1) It has been my experience that, when exposed to new/different games, larpers who started with WoD games (Vampire, Werewolf, etc.) are much more likely to ask about the rules systems used than about the game itself–as in, the rules/mechanics of the game are the most important part. From the podcast and a few other discussions I’ve heard, this would also seem to apply to boffer-was-my-first larpers as well. As was discussed, for one-shot theater-style games, rules are often secondary. By and large, for “short-form” games, the rules are there to support/supplement the game, not to define it. (I love the point raised, I think in a prior F.E. blog post, about how boffer combat resolution in theater-style games is ideal: lots of wifty role-playing, and if a fight breaks out, it’s over fast–no two-hour time-freeze rules-lawyered combat bubble–and you can get back to the role-playing.)

    2) Early in the podcast, comment was made on how theater-style larpers are more likely to consult with GMs as to what’s going on or how to resolve a situation, whereas boffer larpers are more likely to (I forget the phrase actually used) “stay in the momen”, work it out themselves in-character without consulting a GM. Later, comment was made on how boffer larpers will come up with wifty cool plans to tackle in-game problems, and not tell the GMs about them so that they can be properly factored in to the game. Guys, ya can’t have it both ways… (To be fair, theater-style larpers don’t tell GMs their cool plans, either. Maybe its a common mistrust of the GMs, in that if we tell them our cool plan, they’ll foil it? Shades of high-school D&D games…)

    • Fair Escape says:

      1, I’m not convinced the rule systems really define the games or are considered “the most important” part — so much as there happen to be a few rule systems that are widely known to LARPers in boffer (and WoD). If Intercon had four or five really well known systems that the majority of the games at Intercon used, maybe more people would ask what system does it use right off the bat, too? But my experience has been that nearly all LARPers ask about the genre and setting first.

      That said, I do think combat mechanics are considered more important and/or are given more attention by the average boffer LARPer than the average theater LARPer, probably because it’s a significant source of fun for the LARP, rather than a simply a means to arbitrate actions that a character takes but a player isn’t. (…Can’t explain why it would matter more to WoD people… I got into a WoD combat once, and let’s just say it did not seem like a source of fun for me.)

      I can’t recall if it was a post on this blog or somewhere else that I had a conversation about using boffer systems in theater LARPs, but we’ve definitely had conversations at NELCO and PreCon about how we’d like to develop the benefits of live combat systems for theater (faster, real time, more immersive as an experience, etc.) I recall a story about a New Zealand run of Mary Celeste where they replaced the RTLB mechanics with a boffer system. I’d be curious to try something like that myself!

      2. I think we were speaking about two separate categories of GM interactions. The first one is more about nitty gritty mechanical disputes about general rules, for which people (in Accelerant, anyway) pretty much never get a GM to arbitrate. (Contrast this with some theater systems, which will say “to get into combat, declare combat then find a GM to arbitrate.) For rules that are specific to individual encounters or items or something, we do have some “staff” interaction… a player might ask the nearest NPC (usually, the module “hook”) for a Clarification, as in “Clarification — do I call the Imbue after the second or third time a zombie is slain?”.

      For non-mechanical stuff, like baiting a trap PCs expect NPCs to fall into, PCs will tell GMs by putting it into PELs if they come up with the plan between events, or, if it’s during an event, they’d probably try to talk it out with a hook or other ally NPC, in an IC-way. I think the lack of access to someone operating in a GM-capacity is more of an issue for newbies at their first events.

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