We Have Ways of Making You Talk

This topic recently came up in a thread on Facebook, (and I’m decently certain I’m the one who prompted it), so I thought I’d expound on my thoughts here in a blog post, which is better designed for long thoughts than Facebook comments.

There’s a mechanic that comes up fairly frequently in Accelerant boffer campaign LARPs that basically boils down to “Make a speech about Topic X for Y Minutes, then call “By My Voice Effect Z by Trait W [to V].” (An example might be, “By My Voice, Heal 1 by Inspiration to Townsfolk”.)

This is an oversimplification, as there are a bunch of variants on it (including, often, “perform in some way for X minutes” — most commonly, the performance takes the form of a song,) but let’s start here.

To clarify for those unfamiliar with Accelerant, this basically means giving the speech creates some sort of effect on everyone who hears it. The Trait describes the flavor of how the effect is occurring (e.g. “By Inspiration” indicates the listeners are inspired by what they hear, “By Faith” or “By Blessing” might indicate a holy person is channeling the power of their faith or the divine power of a deity, etc.). Adding “to V” at the end can narrow down the receivers of the effect to some subset of people who can hear it (generally, if it’s a positive effect, it can get narrowed down to the Good Guys/PCs present, if negative, it can be narrowed own to only the bad guys/monsters present.)

I can’t really state with authority what purpose for such a mechanic writers have in mind when they write it into their LARP scenarios, but I can surmise based on some discussions I’ve had, and describe the positive effects I’ve seen them create.

It can create an alibi for certain types of roleplay. This is especially true of public, dramatic forms of roleplay. Players may want to try creating a William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling moment, or Aragon at the Black Gate moment, but need the excuse or encouragement to do it, because they’re otherwise too shy, or worry about other players thinking they’re being pretentious or trying to hog the spotlight. It also may simply not occur to players who would enjoy it if it did. If it produces a positive mechanical effect, so much the better, because it can feel reassuring that other players are that much more likely to take notice and appreciate it.

Related, these mechanics often create some sort of visible, tangible effect on a battle. It might be Healing some hit points, or Granting some amount of Protection, or temporarily preventing the bad guys from attacking (the Agony effect). These effects can enable players to make a sudden push, or noticeably switch from being defensive to going on the offense, or in the case of characters unconscious on the ground, may allow them to literally get back up and get back to fighting. Seeing and feeling this sudden shift in the battle (often accompanied by a rousing cheer) can actually give the distinct impression that the speech really did inspire the PCs, which can, in my experience, actually make a speech retroactively seem like it was that much more effective in improving morale.

It often encourages introspection and internal roleplay, and the externalization thereof. Since the mechanic often requests players discuss their greatest source of hope, or faith, or inspiration, or what they appreciate most about their community, this may be what actually prompts players to ask these questions about their own characters and thus determine (or discover) the answers. By verbalizing it (instead of, say, meditating on it, which has its own potential benefits and drawbacks) players can learn about the inner workings of one another’s characters they may not otherwise have had the opportunity to discover, possibly realizing similarities, or differences, or just newfound appreciation for one another.

Similarly, you can use this to evoke conversations that players would like to have, but have a hard time coming up with an in-game excuse to open. If the component of a ritual is “share a secret” or “tell someone about something you haven’t forgiven them for” it can be a great excuse to have more fodder for dynamic conversations.

It can provide a means for players to develop some elements of the world with their own input. A particular example comes to mind — in Lost Eidolons, two characters who were members of the church had the ability to give a short sermon once per event, and anyone who listened could receive a blessing. This sort of thing can encourage players to think about their religion, maybe even make up factoids about it to include in their sermons, and explore ways faith might affect characters in the setting. Their sermons might change over time, and reflect ways the church is developing in reaction to in-world events. I can easily imagine other versions —  say a political character was given opportunity to make political speeches. The staff could decide this has an effect on how the local government is perceived by the masses.

It offers an alternative action as a way to affect a battle. Not everyone who plays live combat LARPs actually wants to engage in actual combat, even if they still want to be present and relevant for the battles. Common alternatives including healers pantomiming performing First Aid to produce healing effects, or magic casters providing magical buffs to their allies. This sort of mechanic provides players with yet another avenue for having a positive benefit on a battle.

It encourages/enables players to provide entertainment for one another. As mentioned above, one common variant of this mechanic is to instruct players to perform in some way (such as singing, playing instruments, dancing, or telling stories). Even giving lectures or sermons can be entertaining for fellow players.

It can be a means of spreading information. Getting players to spread information among themselves can one of the challenges of writing and staffing a campaign. Sometimes players just don’t feel the motivation to do it, sometimes some players are actively hording information for themselves, often to the detriment of the game. Spreading information can be an incidental benefit of this mechanic, but some LARPs use it for this purpose explicitly, by including abilities such as “spend X minutes teaching players about some topic (sometimes specified, other times not) then call ‘By My Voice, Grant 1 Protection by Education’.” This can provide incentive where players otherwise don’t feel it, or counteract the benefits that drive some players to hoard information. (And some lectures can be on real world topics and actually allow LARP to be a vehicle for real education.)

But of course, this kind of mechanic also poses as series of potential drawbacks.

It can be really hard to ad-lib. Some LARPers just always find it difficult, some find it difficult depending on their mood or how much they’ve slept, sometimes people just happen to hit a mental roadblock. Some people just hate public speaking, and the instructions are necessarily for speech in front of a group, or can’t be done while avoiding any audience entirely. Moreover, the Accelerant system tends to use one minute and five minutes as common units of time, and even those who are happy to do a bit of ad-libbing can find five minutes, or even one minute, too long for them.

Sometimes the prompts just don’t suit a particular character (or group of characters). A common prompt I’ve seen for priests is “talk about what gives you faith for one minute” but I’ve also known priest characters whose concept involved specifically lacking faith. Another prompt might be to eulogize an NPC, but the person receiving the prompt doesn’t actually know or care about the deceased. (In theory, a well thought out prompt wouldn’t make these kinds of false assumptions, or the mechanic going unused wouldn’t cause other major problems, but these kinds of things still do happen.) It can make a player either feel like they’ve failed (in or out of character) or it can put them on the spot to lie, or do something against their character’s nature, which can be very damaging to immersion.

It can get extremely repetitive. This is probably one of my biggest issues, personally. It’s not uncommon for prompts to get reused, and or for the instructions to direct a group of players to go around in a circle, taking turns ad-libbing about the same prompt. Even a single person can easily end up repeating thsemselves, and when you have multiple people (especially when the required time period is longer) repetition is pretty much guaranteed. And that repetition can reduce the speeches’ impact. One can imagine if several of William Wallace’s generals gave very similar speeches multiple times throughout the Battle of Stirling, it wouldn’t be able to rally the Scots every time.

It can make it difficult to hear other calls. Accelerant has a call system, one needs to be able to hear and be heard in order to use much of the system. These speech mechanics can make it difficult for their duration to effectively use and respond to other calls. (Not to mention preventing players from hearing non-mechanical speech or sound effects.)

This is particularly true when there is motivation for the speech to be as loud as possible, because the benefit it provides is effectively extended to everyone who can hear it.

It can trap an audience. While it’s always true that someone giving a speech or performance can pressure people into serving as an audience, out of politeness, even when it’s not given mechanical weight in a LARP, there can be an added layer of pressure when it’s part of a mechanic. For example, say players are expecting, based on previous fights against a particular group of challenging enemies, that an upcoming fight could easily swing towards defeat. The healing or other bonuses granted by pre-battle speeches or performances may be necessary to avoid a guaranteed defeat (and on some meta-level, players likely understand that the stats of the monsters are balanced against the assumption that the PCs will be assisted by the protective effects of the speech or performances.)

In that case, the choice might be between serving as an audience when players prefer not to, or increasing the risk of defeat (and diminishing their own personal ability to contribute in combat). In some cases, the characters might literally be trapped somewhere, waiting for a door to be unlocked, or a module or combat might get delayed despite impatient players (and NPCs who are bored and cold waiting for them). Opting out of serving as an audience (while remaining in-character) can become extremely difficult.

For individual cases, I don’t consider this problematic; I don’t think players are necessarily entitled to speech/performance free zones at any given moment or in any given location (well, with the exception of their cabin/tents during sleeping hours in LARPs that promise to enable a full night’s sleep). But if the ability to opt out of serving as an audience is significantly diminished often enough, it becomes a notable drawback to this sort of mechanic.

So how can we maximize the benefits these speech mechanics provide while minimizing the drawbacks? One of the key things that improves the experience for me is flexibility, with regards to multiple elements of these mechanics. Who is required to speak, when they need to speak, how long the speech has to last, the topic it’s on, the ways in which the player can express themselves, how often it needs to be repeated, and who is required to listen.

(It’s important to note that this flexibility should be on both an in-game and out-of-game level. Lots of LARPs have out-of-game rules that enable players to simply drop out of a scene, but players often feel pressure not to use them, which reduces their value. It would be preferable to also offer players a mean to stay in-character.)

Flexibility on who is required to speak. When these mechanics are opt-in skills, players can choose for their character builds, and the natural result is that the players who most want to use them can and do. But when the mechanics pop up in a module, players who would prefer to avoid them can get pressured into being the speaker.

It’s not uncommon, for example, to come across a tag instructing players something like, “someone with the Wizard trait must speak for 1 minute about what magic means to them in order to call “Imbue by Magic” to unlock the seal on this door.” If there only happens to be one or two wizards on the module, the odds are much higher that the person who ends up doing it would prefer not to.

There are a number of ways to increase the flexibility of who has to do it. One can allow multiple categories of people to perform the speech, or alternatively, one can expand the category with a caveat, such as “if there are no wizards present (or none who feel comfortable doing this) another character who feels magic has touched their lives can take their place”. (This maintains the likelihood that a wizard will still get to do if they want to, if your intention is to ensure there is some focus on wizard characters.) One can also enable multiple people to divide the length of time between them, for example, by allowing six wizards to each give a ten second statement, if they choose.

There a number of common situations where it might be difficult to increase the flexibility on when the speech needs to be performed. For example, if the intention is to include the speech as part of a ritual to close a portal, and monsters will continue to attack until it’s done, the timing of the speech is pretty much “as soon as physically possible.” But there are situations where it is possible to increase the flexibility on the timing. For example, the mechanics for granting a boon often instruct the players to immediately grant the boon after the speech or performance, but if they were permitted to delay granting the boon for, say, twenty minutes, it would introduce some flexibility on when the speech can be given. I’ve also seen instructions to perform a ritual at the tavern at a certain time (say, noon, or sunset) but if one broadens the interval of time during which it can be done, the players can more easily find a time where they aren’t either entrapping an audience or making people move.

I find flexibility on how long the speech must last to be one of the most important ways to be flexible. Since Accelerant often uses one or five minutes as common time units, these are frequently chosen as minimum durations for the speech, but even one minute can be a really long time to ad-lib. The required duration generally has two possible categories of purpose. The first is to give it weight, both internally to the player (encouraging them to put a decent amount of thought and effort into it at minimum) and externally, so that it doesn’t seem like the speaker is being dismissive, or that the speech can be blown through. The second purpose is as a balancing factor, or means of controlling the difficulty of the task (time is often a resource in Accelerant LARPs.) The latter is usually relevant when completing the speech is meant to be a challenge while other things distracting and/or dangerous interruptions (usually combat) go on. (It can also amount to other restrictions, such as preventing people from doing it while actively on the front line or contributing to combat in other ways, if the speech can’t be used concurrently with other skills.)

I think in the cases where only the first purpose, to make sure the speech as a minimum of presence, it’s a particularly good idea to be flexible on the timing. So long as PCs are not abusing the flexibility and giving the mechanic only the most cursory of attempts, it’s more important to maximize the effectiveness and drama of the rhetoric. Forcing someone to speak for exactly one or five minutes often drives player to ramble on pass a good ending point if they don’t manage to fill the given time duration, and cut themselves off before reaching a good conclusion if they happen to go on too long.

But even when the time requirement is meant to be a balancing factor, I think it’s still important to be a little flexible on it, for the sake of enabling more natural speech (instead of forced extension to fill the time, or cutting it off short for pragmatic reasons.) If the balance/level of challenge is very important (for example, the idea is to force players to figure out the best possible timing between attacks), and NPC or the text with instructions can allow players to fill up some of the time with other actions, such as meditation, singing, chanting, etc.

Making the subject of the speech flexible can be difficult — if prompts are very specific, players may not have an answer to them, if they’re very vague, they may not spark inspiration. I think the key here might be to offer a broad topic (as many of these mechanics already do) but if possible, also offer some specific, optional prompts in case a player needs it.

One of my go-to solutions when I don’t have any ideas for ad-libbing a speech is to sing instead (“this song represents hope to me”), and I choose songs in a foreign language, so if the subject of the lyrics isn’t exactly right, I’m not dragging down anyone else’s immersion. (It’s not a great solution for everyone; I use it sparingly, and try to only do it when there’s a fair amount of ambient noise, because I’m tone deaf.) I think generally most LARP staffs are flexible enough to go along with this kind of on-the-fly adjustment to the instructions, but it can’t hurt to make it explicitly allowed. (I.e. including, “alternatively, singing for X minutes, or simply meditating for X minutes is also permitted” in the instructions.)

Flexibility on how often the speech needs to be repeated isn’t often applicable — many of these mechanics are intended for a single use (or it comes from a skill that players can self-regulate the use of). I do think, in general, keeping caps on how often these mechanics can be used is a good idea to cut down on repetition, as are out of game suggestions like, “when everyone who wants a turn has had one, you may consider the ritual complete”.

Flexibility on who is required to listen is generally already well built into these mechanics — many don’t even specify any audience at all, or specify something like “any one person”. But if you do want finding the audience to be part of the experience, making the requirements narrow may end up pressuring the few people who qualify into a situation they prefer to avoid. (Also, this can be a good way to spread information from one group of PCs to another, so a flexible but meaningful audience requirement might be “at least one person from outside your family/team/class/nationality.”)

There’s another helpful tactic: providing information in advance. There is something to be said for speech and performance that gets produced spontaneously, but one of the best ways to prevent creative blocks, reduce nervousness, and other difficulties with ad-libbing is to inform players ahead of time, giving them a chance to mull over what they might say, flesh out their speeches, consult other people for ideas, practice delivering it, or even write something down to help them when the time comes.

We often get instructions for the rituals we perform just as a module begins, with no downtime between the instructions and the performance, but there are many cases where an NPC should logically be able to speak to the PCs in advance (“pre-hooking”) and offer some specifics on what players can expect.

I’m not suggesting that all of these adjustments be explicitly added to all uses of these kinds of mechanics. After all, many people LARP to challenge themselves, and this is just one of the many ways we can introduce an unusual challenge to players. I’m simply suggesting that these tools be considered available should LARP staffs decide they want to try adjust the players’ experiences of using these mechanics.

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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 We Have Ways of Making You Talk

  1. Lise says:

    Good stuff here. I generally agree that factors like variety, player choice, and the ability to prepare play a part in how difficult I find speechifying to be.

    I mentioned over on FB that I think the Lorekeeper mod at Shadowvale event 2 did this pretty well, but I’ll elaborate a little bit more here.

    Basically it was a ritual sorta thing that we had to perform to evoke certain emotions in the Lorekeeper, one of the NPCs. For each emotion, we needed to 1) have someone give a short speech about their experience with that emotion, 2) show some sort of artistic expression of the emotion, and 3) sing a song. When we had done that, a scene would play out, showing us the Lorekeeper experiencing that emotion. Then we would fight mistwraiths in between rounds.

    I think this ritual worked well because it offered:

    – Flexibility in who was involved. We were giving several different ways that people could participate in this mod. You could sing the calming tune that they taught us. You could talk about your character’s experience with loneliness/rage/determination. You could perform some sort of artistic representation of the emotion. (And this was itself pretty open-ended — for loneliness, I read a poem; for rage we staged a mock fight; and for determination someone did a martial arts kata). And there were a goodly number of people who just showed up to the mod to fight mistwraiths, too.
    – Flexibility in how long it took. The speeches or artistic expressions weren’t restricted to a certain length.
    – Providing information in advance: we were given most of Saturday to prepare for this mod.
    – Repetition. The only repetitive part was the song, which we had to sing three times, but which was at least short, only a couple of verses.

    By contrast, I’ve had bad experiences when it was something like “every time a player takes this Drain effect, you need to spend a minute talking to them about how awesome they are before they can be Cured” — where the Drain effect happens five or six times over the course of a fight. It gets pretty tiresome, pretty quickly, in that circumstance, especially if you get stuck doing it because you’re on the back line healing people, so you’re the only one with any freedom to spend a minute speechifying.

    • Fair Escape says:

      This sounds like an amazing module!

      I think mechanics like that Cure Drain effect can be really cool (some of my favorite battles were PC vs mind controlled PC, where RP would bring them back) but it would help to come up with some kind of way to avoid the repetition, like “the first time you take a Drain effect, do the RP thing. After that, you may choose to Rest it off in one minute instead.”

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