NPC Bait

A discussion that pops up from time to time among LARP staffs, especially ones of the boffer campaign variety, is how to attract and keep NPCs. NPCs are often a limited (and therefore highly valued) resource for LARPs, and their numbers can have a huge impact on enabling or limiting what kind of content one can run for their PCs.

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Just a humble NPC farmer passing through at Madrigal 3

Before I start listing the things that compel me to NPC for a LARP and then return for more, I want to make clear that this isn’t a list of demands or expectations. I think creating and running a LARP seems like such a monumental task that creates such an enormous drain on so many types of drainable resource  (time, money, talent, emotional fortitude, social capital) that frankly, it often seems miraculous to me.

Rather, this is just a collection of things I’ve enjoyed or desired while NPCing. Food for thought. And as the vast majority of NPCing I’ve done has been for Accelerant boffer campaigns, and this will mostly reflect that. (For a little context for those unfamiliar, this community generally has people playing NPCs for the whole weekend — rather than, say, instead of having NPC shifts for PCs — and while some people NPC every event, often people will NPC for only a few events, or even just one. If stuff in this post doesn’t seem applicable to your format of NPCing, that’s ok! There’s no One True Way.)

Logistics. It kind of goes without saying that this is going to be a huge and limiting factor for everyone. Getting to and from sites is really rough on people without their own cars. Most campsites aren’t public transportation accessible, and even if they are, the amount of luggage needed to NPC (which often includes suitcases, LARP weapons, and sleeping bags) is often not feasible on the bus. If you don’t have anyone able to offer rides, that’s entirely understandable. But if you do, you might want to make it known what are the appropriate channels to reach out and ask for transportation options. I’m often shy and hesitant to ask for help, especially if I have no idea if anyone from the LARP lives in my area — am I bothering the head of staff if I ask for help finding a ride? Am I spamming if I email the whole staff or post on a player forum? Some LARPs offer incentives to PCs for providing rides (CP maybe?) which I think is a great idea.

(As a side note to NPCs accepting rides — don’t forget to thank your driver and offer to chip in for gas if you can.)

LARPs differ a great deal on what they can provide in terms of room and board, and this information should ideally be easy to find upfront. Some NPCs want to know before they end up on your email list or chat groups, so it’s helpful to have it available on your website, and not just sent out in individual emails. How how many meals and/or what snacks are provided, if any? Do NPCs sleep in cabins, in one building together, or some combination, and how many to a room? Can they pick their roommates in advance? Does the site allow tents? What are the accommodations like? Can I bring electronics that plug in, can I store my food in a fridge? Is there heating, AC, indoor plumbing? If this changes event to event and you don’t know the answers until, say, a week out from the event, that’s ok, just say so on the website along with how to get information.(eg “we may not have catering at every event. We try to get the menu emailed out the Sunday before an event to our mailing list.”) A suggested packing list on the website (and minimal costuming expectations) is also nice to see.

Obviously it’s great if you can provide meals and snacks for NPCs so that’s one less major thing they have to worry about prepping and packing, but if not, you don’t want NPCs to have to scramble and poke staff to find the information, or worse, accidentally come unprepared. (Electricity, climate control, and indoor plumbing also tend to make packing and preparing an easier process.)

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Monster Camps that provide sports drinks, caffeinated beverages (especially hot coffee on cold mornings and iced coffee on hot mornings!) and healthy snacks like veggie platters. (Providing chemical hand warmers for cold weather is also a good idea.)

Comfortable Monster Camps. I know this is something most staffs can’t be picky about and they just get the site that works for them in terms of location, size, and price, but all other things being equal, a Monster Camp that isn’t too cramped, has comfortable furniture and room for NPCs to relax between modules will retain more NPCs. Electricity, a fridge, temperature control are also all major selling points. Some camps have pretty unclean furniture and/or weird smells, which can turn NPCs off. (It also might cause them to hang out in their tents or cabins, which can make wrangling them for modules involve a bit more effort.)

This dovetails with Monster Camp hygiene. Bathrooms in the same building are always nice, especially since NPCs tend to get sweaty while fighting PCs and often have lots of makeup to wash off. Keeping the makeup counter clean (and having methods to clean makeup applicators) and well stocked with makeup wipes is appreciated. Reminding NPCs to wipe off masks after use is great (plastic and rubber masks can really trap sweat and condensation.) It’s really tough to remember to wash costuming between (or even during!) events and find someone willing to take that job on (especially if costuming tends to get shoved into the back of storage units between events) but NPC costuming often gets sweaty and dirty and just… unpleasant. Bonus points for sites that have washing machines and LARP staffs that make use of them during the game.

General In-game Information. I find surprisingly few LARPs do this, but it really helps my NPCing experience to feel sufficiently well informed before an event. Having a concise summary of the setting (maybe in bullet point format?) that NPCs have access to before an event is really appreciated. I’ve had access to giant wikis that contained way too much information to absorb, especially in limited time (and also access to zero information in advance), but giving NPCs the basics of the setting and an overview of the relevant setting information and plotlines for that particular event would be really appreciated. NPCs often dislike going into situations where PCs may try to ask questions they don’t know the answer to. (I’ve walked into LARPs and realized half-way into my first NPC role I didn’t know the name of the local town or why the PCs were there.)

Specific In-Game Information. The earlier write-ups for specific NPC roles go out, the better (especially if you’re hoping the NPC will provide their own costuming.) And while brevity is great (especially if they don’t get out so early) I wouldn’t complain about excess details that are specific to the face roles (roles who engage in a lot of RP with PCs) which helps me keep conversations rolling. (And will cover a wider range of possibilities for PCs who get into unexpected topics.) A detailed write-up along with an abbreviated version that highlights the most important facts is ideal. I’ve also really appreciated when the staff hands me a bit of information about the characters who are likely to approach me and how to identify them. (Bonus points for actual photos.)

I find this kind of thing can even be useful for crunchy sorts of monsters who don’t talk to PCs. Knowing what kinds pf crunchies will be going out during the weekend is particularly useful to players who might not want to use face paint, but can supplement with a mask or other costuming, with advance warning. And during the event, having stuff available in writing (bonus points for multiple copies so multiple NPCs can reference the materials at once) so that if you miss what a staff is saying or want to review it before a module begins is great. For crunchies, one or two sentence descriptions of behavior and mechanical information, as well as module structure (how often do they respawn? When do they stop attacking? etc.) is useful. A general idea of how the staff is hoping/expecting a module to go is also a good idea. (Eg how pressed do you want the PCs to feel? How likely to succeed? How long would the module ideally last? Do you want a long sustained fight, or short bursts of action? Are the NPCs “death strike active”? etc.)

Out of Game/Mechanical Information. One of the great benefits of the Accelerant LARPs is that you know the basic rules no matter which game you’re playing, but some Accelerant LARPs have their own individual rules outside of the standard ones, and NPCs should have access to a summary of those changes. This can be glossed over thanks to “Clarify?” but it’s even better if it’s not necessary. This also goes for non-standard indications for things like PCs who are non-combat, or off-limits locations to re-spawn from. And of course, some of your NPCs may be brand new or relatively new, and an abbreviated copy of the rules, with emphasis on the most common calls, available to review prior to the LARP online and during the LARP in Monster Camp, is a good idea.

Roles available. This probably goes without saying, but having a wide variety of roles available and being permissive with what NPCs play, even if they’re not committing to future events, is likely to result in a happy NPC returning. Some NPCs only want roleplay/face roles, some only want to crunch, some need a solid mix, some want specific roles in combat (like only ranged, only healing, “lieutenants” — ie special bad guys more dangerous than the average mook, or even the Big Bad themselves.)

I want to give a shout-out to Madrigal here. At one event I NPCed, they had a box full of one-off roles to go out. They were all ghosts who needed something in order to pass on. Some were pure RP (“get three PCs to toast to their fallen loved ones with you”) and some were puzzle based (“find someone who can answer your three riddles”) and some were combat based  (“find a PC who can beat you in one-on-one honorable combat”), and they could go out at any time, whenever an NPC wanted to. Each ghost had its own little packet with a description and any possible props they might need. I think it was brilliant and would love to see more LARPs create NPC content inspired by this idea.

Additionally, support for Monster Camp tasks can be a plus for some NPCs, whether it’s general instructions on the wall (how to organize costuming and props bins that got messy, where to find batteries to replace the ones in lights, where to find cleaning supplies, etc.) or having a staff member designated as someone who can delegate these tasks. Sometimes NPCs don’t want to go out to interact with PCs, but they still want to feel useful and not like they’re just sitting around.

Some LARPs have a system for creating a “townie” role — a role an NPC gets to customize for themselves that they can use when they hang out with PCs during meals or downtime, or even have minor plotlines that directly involve the townie role, which is a really nice bonus.

Scheduling. A Monster Camp that has a schedule and sticks to it is huge — it’s really nice to know when I can take time off for a nap or a meal because I’m not scheduled for anything for an hour. (Or that it’s safe to go to bed because there’s nothing left that evening.) I also love being able to tell staff about my scheduled preferences and have it taken into account. Personally, I’m a night owl and I’m happy to stay up to the wee hours if I know there’s something specific going on, but I prefer to avoid being scheduled for anything in the early morning, and I’m more likely to NPC for a LARP that is willing to try and accommodate that. (Special shout out to Shadows of Amun for their scheduling skills here.)

Personal requests. This comes up a lot in NPC discussions; being personally asked to play a particular role is pretty flattering and lots of NPCs will specifically show up to a LARP if contacted about a specific role for them. NPCs who can’t commit to a whole weekend will also often make time to show up for a portion of the event to play a particular role. Which reminds me…

Make allowances for NPCs to attend for part of the weekend. This can be as simple as offering instructions for people parking mid-event and offering partial CP, and in my experience, you’re more likely to get more people who wouldn’t otherwise attend at all than people who might have stayed the whole weekend but stayed for less time because it was a supported option.

Encourage (positive) PC Feedback. Lots of staffs have figured out that encouraging their PCs to express appreciation for NPCs, and reference specific characters and specific moments. I’d like to add a note about trying to mention the NPCs who spend the whole weekend crunching if possible. Crunching can be hard, tiring work, and as it’s not a roleplay role, NPCs who only crunch often don’t get recognized by PCs. PCs — if you can remember a moment where an NPC made combat particularly fun, either by how they acted out their role, or how they used their skills, thank them in your PEL! (Post Event Letter — a common feedback form for Accelerant LARPs.)

Some LARPs have a Three on One rule/guideline., meaning PCs are discouraged from having more than three melee attackers attacking a given NPC at once. NPCs are often heavily outnumbered by PCs in combat, and lots of NPCs find getting repeatedly swarmed simply not fun. I much prefer combat as an NPC if I feel like I can actually pose a threat to PCs instead of just getting immediately taken down by hits from all directions at once. (Otherwise you spend most of combat just walking back and forth from the fight to the spawning points.)

I know it’s tough when the ratio is heavily skewed, and I know this can often lead to some PCs just not getting to fight. I dislike swarming an NPC almost as much as I dislike being swarmed as an NPC, and there have been many a battle where I simply stood there because there weren’t any NPCs not being engaged by three or more PCs already. (This can really drain immersion for me.) It’s not uncommon for LARPs to have a subset of PCs who are aggressive and will always take the front lines and actively engage with NPCs, preventing those who don’t want to swarm NPCs from getting to fight.

I don’t really have a great solution for this other than for a staff to try and be aware of it. Providing NPCs with mechanics (like Repels and Disengages, but really any mechanic that will temporarily disable some PCs) to delay the most aggressive PCs can really help the flow of combat. (In my opinion, every Accelerant LARP should have a blanket rule that NPCs can have as many Disengages as they want, not to use to gain advantage against PCs, but to reduce the swarming effect of too many PCs, and to get out of bottlenecks at doors and tight bunches in corners. Bottlenecks and getting cornered often make a low NPC to PC ratio that much worse, and the fight is that much less fun for both sides.)

Another shout out to Madrigal, which has a totally optional system for PCs to take temporary NPC shifts, to help adjust the NPC-PC ratio.

Similarly, be aware of your most aggressive PC fighters. Some LARPs develop reputations for having groups of PCs who consistently swing too hard, and this will turn some NPCs off, especially from melee combat roles. It’s something to keep an eye out for even if you aren’t receiving official complaints — some NPCs are too worried about being labeled as fragile and overly sensitive to register complaints. Sending out (and taking to heart) NPC PELs can help with these kinds of issues (and a number of the ones listed above.)

This is all stuff a LARP staff can address, but PCs can help in a number of ways. (And I know as a PC, I love to see a large NPC base for the staff to draw from!) Besides putting effort to thank NPCs in your PELs (be specific about people and things they did they like, and again, don’t forget the crunchies!), I think the main thing PCs can do is to be kind and patient with NPCs, including but not limited to newbies. I’ve seen a few out-of-game arguments over rules or aggressive combat escalate on the battle field, and it leads to bad feelings all around. Some LARPs publicize strategies for handling on the field disagreements (such as just rolling with the mistake, unless it would result in something like a character death) but if you really feel something must be said in the moment, using a friendly tone is a huge improvement over trying to correct someone with an angry or accusatory tone.) And of course, don’t forget that you can be a recruiter for NPCs, not just the staff members. (maybe even suggest to a staff you’d like to see someone play a particular role from your background?)

So how about you? What encourages you to NPC for a LARP, and what gets you to come back for more?

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NELCO 2016 Part IV: Healers

In effort to get a start on one of my New Years resolutions, I’m going back to a topic that came up at NELCO 2016 which I continue to often find myself thinking about. It was a topic I proposed: “MEDIC! : Healers in LARP and Other RP Media“.

I used to love to play healers in boffer LARPs and tabletop RPGs before that, but I slowly grew to dislike it because of the way healers are conceptually treated in LARPs (much of which is directly related to how they’re designed in tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs) and the way other players treat healer characters in-game. The panel mostly focused on healers in boffer and/or campaign LARPs, but some of the discussion applied to healers in theater and/or one-shots. My fellow panelist was a boffer LARPer who frequently plays healers in boffer campaigns. (I should note we both play a fair amount of Accelerant campaigns, so a lot of the discussion at NELCO and the content of this post will reflect that, but most of the principles can be applied to other systems.)

 

I opened the panel with a personal anecdote. Years ago, I played a half-elf healer in a Dragonlance tabletop campaign. When my character offered some kind of minor petty insult to a minotaur fighter, he tried to kill her. I decided my half-elf would refuse to heal him until he apologized, which he refused to do. This quickly became a problem, as much of the mechanics  of D&D are based around the idea that every party has an active healer. Eventually, one of the other players got fed up and told my half-elf if I refused to cast healing spells on the minotaur, the party would ditch her at the next town and hire a cleric to accompany them.

That wasn’t my last healer character, but it was the start of my relationship with playing the healer in RPGs going sour.

There’s a lot that can be rough about playing a healer, both in tabletop RPGs and LARPs. Some issues healer characters often run into include:

1. They’re often treated as secondary to the fighters, especially the melee fighters. We toss around terms like “backpack healer,” which implies they’re an accessory for a fighter character, or even “girlfriend healer” which has a sexist little twist of implying it’s a feminine role that exists to provide support for a masculine fighter.

2. Healers are often taken for granted — it’s just assumed they will heal any PC, anytime it’s needed or asked for, regardless of the situation or their relationship with the injured party. (See the tabletop RPG story above.) People feel entitled to their abilities. Healers are often looked down upon if they want to get compensated for their healing, even though many boffer games have an economy that disproportionately rewards melee fighters by inserting much of the currency/loot into the game via monster drops, which usually happens at the feet of melee fighters. Some LARPs even have a culture of “killing blow gets the loot”. (The topic of loot is discussed more in depth in a previous post.)

3. The mechanics for healing are often a lot less exciting and dynamic than the mechanics for other roles in combat — in my first Accelerant campaign, I spent a lot of time pantomiming suturing and counting to 60 in my head, over and over. Boffer combat is a sport — it’s inherently fun for most LARPers who play live combat LARPs. Healing often isn’t.

4. In some campaigns, there are many different flavors of fighters, but only one or two flavors of healers; for example, you may have to play a religious character in order to have healing skills (likely influenced by clerics being the primary healers in Dungeons and Dragons.)

I think in order to brainstorm ideas for improving the experience for healers in LARP, we first have to ask why people choose to play healers, whether as someone whose skills are exclusively related to healing, or as a primary healer with other secondary sets of skills.

Reasons for playing a healer include:

1. A player wants to contribute in combat but are afraid their combat skills aren’t up to snuff, or they just don’t want their contributions dependent on their personal skills. (Healing mechanics are often divorced from actual player skill, aka “a soft skill”, unlike combat which is often dependent on player skill, aka a “hard skill”.)

2. Some players simply dislike violence, but don’t want to be left out of a major part of a live combat campaign LARP entirely, so they choose a role that is present in combat but has the most distance from the nexus of battle.

3. Health concerns lead can lead players to choose a healing role; for example, more physically active roles may exacerbate asthma, or they may have a bad shoulder that gets painfully sore if strained by wielding a weapon or throwing packets for too long, or they may have mobility issues (and would like a role that may spend a fair amount of combat seated in a “triage area” — a clump of healers separated from the bulk of combat, where injured fighters go — or get dragged to — for healing before returning to combat.)

4. Some players are looking for a role that is primarily about conferring positive benefits on fellow players. This might be because it will be useful in as many modules/plotlines as possible, or perhaps because it informs a relationship with characters who stick around, unlike combatants, who often don’t have long term relationships with many of the people their mechanics are designed to affect (that is, enemy combatants.)

5. A player may want to roleplay a character who is self-sufficient, though this is often a reason for players who create characters that dabble in multiple skill sets, rather than focus on healing primarily.

6. Some players are interested in the roleplay opportunities healing provides and want to experiment with playing a pacifist (or at least want a character that is less likely than most to fall into the role of a “murder hobo”), or they want play a character who wrestles with moral questions like whether they should heal or withhold healing from people who commit crimes. Or they want to be able to roleplay more with enemies who refuse to treat with hostile combatants.

7. Players may like the flavor that comes attached to the healing mechanics (for example, they may have interest in the church that worships the god of healing in a LARP’s setting.)

8. The reasons may not have to do with a personal draw towards the concept of healing per se. A player may simply be playing on a team that doesn’t have a healer yet, or may want to play an underrepresented group in a campaign that doesn’t have many other healer characters. Or maybe they’ve played a lot of fighters and want to try something new (especially if they have been stereotyped as a fighter because of past characters, or their physical appearance.)

As you can see, there are lots of reasons why players might choose to play a healer role; I’m sure the list above is incomplete. A staff can poll their players to find out the reasons behind their players’ choice to play healer . Asking these questions could be part of the character creation process, or part of the ongoing dialog between a staff and their players (via between event feedback forms.) It’s also a question that becomes relevant for non-healer characters who branch out into healing mid-way through a campaign.

So how can we mitigate some of the common problems mentioned above, and support the type of play LARPers want when they create healer characters?

I’m personally not a huge fan of economies in LARPs based primarily on loot drops, but if you have one such in your LARP, and healers aren’t getting a reasonable amount of currency or items, there are a few ways to address this. You can introduce skills available to healers, such as medicinal herb craft, where they know how to identify and properly collect and prepare plants used for medicinal purposes, and can either use them themselves or sell or barter them.

If the players want to organize a healers guild, a LARP staff (and fellow PCs) can support the effort, especially if other players are less than supportive. (Or the staff can even initiate one.) This can be as simple as allowing them to register for it, and then providing them a stipend at each event. Some LARPs have a cost of living applied to each event — for example, if you turn in enough gold, you can have “eaten well” or some such and gain a temporary extra hit point, or you can avoid the “starving” trait and an accompanying subtraction from your hit points, by turning in some amount of gold. A healers’ guild could also simply automatically cover those costs. A LARP staff could write in wealthy NPCs who require healing and will reward it generously, possibly by individual rewards or donations to the healers guild, or they could donate items of value to healers, such as bandages or antidotes with special properties that improve a healers’ skill.

It may be necessary to introduce measures to prevent the healers’ guild (or other group that serves a similar purpose, such as a medical school or church worshiping the god or goddess of healing) from being abused. (You probably don’t want it to be a source of free resources to those who regularly loot on the front lines of combat and have only bought the a single healing skill or whatever the equivalent is in your system.) One may want to make it open to those who are exclusively healers (and don’t dabble in other roles in combat, or have never wielded a weapon) or primarily healers (eg characters who have at least 3/4s of their skills purchased under the healer header or have at least 10 skills with the tag “healing skill”– obviously this needs to be adjusted according to however your system works. For example, if your system doesn’t have skills, you might include in-game requirements, like spending X hours every event in the infirmary, or in emergency situations — ie combat — one must report to the head of the healers guild.)

In fantasy settings, this can be reinforced with magically binding oaths — perhaps an oath of pacifism, or some alternate version of the Hippocratic Oath, one that players cannot choose to break while they are under it, or can break but only with dire consequences. If there isn’t a supernatural way to reinforce an oath, there could still be an investigative organization dedicated to rooting out those who break the rules of the healers guild.

These sorts of structures and restrictions dovetail with the idea of presenting plot directed at healer characters, as they can make good fodder for plot. It might be tempting to make the oaths simple, or as ethical as possible, but if they’re extreme or potentially viewed as problematic by players, it can create more opportunities for roleplay and plot. The oaths (or rules) could be extreme (complete pacifism) and players can wrestle with what the question of under what circumstances are they willing to keep or breath their oaths, or they could be complex, and players can debate the meaning and practical applications. (If an oath of pacifism permits violence in immediate self-defense, what qualifies as immediate self-defense? If they’re required to treat anyone who asks for it, must they do their best? Are they required to save a life, but perhaps not a limb of, say, an evil assassin? What about a prisoner who may then be tortured?)

These kinds of things are ideal for players who create healer characters because they’re looking for unusual opportunities in roleplay, both with fellow PCs and also NPCs. I recall once in a historical LARP, unarmed members of Red Cross were permitted by enemies to cross their lines and assist with hostages. It was a small moment, but it left a huge impact on me, and taught me that healer (or pacifist) characters have great potential for creating personal, non-violent interactions with dangerous enemies. Maybe they’re the only ones enemies are willing to treat with, or the only ones enemies will let into their headquarters, perhaps because they’re required by international law, or want a healer to see to their hostages or injured members. This can also be an opportunity to introduce information to the PCs — maybe while treating hostages, the healers note the enemies’ numbers, or new weapons, or spot a map marked with their planned targets, and this information can be brought back to the other players. Or maybe the hostages want to use them to pass secret messages, but if they’re caught, they won’t be allowed to return in the future.

Besides designing plot-lines around healing, the mechanics themselves can be designed (or re-designed — ongoing campaigns can always improve) to be more fun for players. As mentioned above, some players choose to play healers because they want to be able to contribute in combat, but don’t want their contribution to be based on any real life skill. In this case, they’re looking for healing that doesn’t require a success at any sort of challenge to go off. But some players do still want a fun activity to participate in (and pantomiming suturing or bandaging or blood pressure taking can be fun, but the fun doesn’t last the way the fun of physical combat often does for many players). What if one form of healing is provided by a book of spells, and each spell is a puzzle, and solving a puzzle allows players to call out “By My Voice, Heal 5 by Magic”? (Perhaps the book is gift from Hermes, both a trickster and a healer god?) Players can choose the slow and steady form of healing (eg “roleplay performing first aid for 60 seconds, then call “Heal 1 by Medicine”) or they can try the more powerful, but more time consuming and difficult path of solving puzzles. Alternatively, healing could involve art — say, a series of runes have to be in calligraphy onto a bandage in order to cast a “Heal Maim by Runes”. (What can I say, I love arts ‘n crafts in LARP.)

It’s important to remember that while many players do choose the path of healing in order to avoid being in the thick of things during combat, there are lots of players (including yours truly, during the first two boffer campaigns I PCed) who play a healer,  but really would still like to be physically active where the excitement is. I often found it frustrating that the most efficient way to handle healing during combat was to set up triage in the safest area, sit all of the healers in it, and then have injured combatants come over to the healers (or get dragged over) before heading back to where the excitement was. I ended up taking a melee weapon skill just to have an excuse to leave the triage area.

This kind of issue can be difficult to fix, especially since it’s difficult to alter the tactics of general combat without introducing a host of new issues (and reducing the benefits of playing a healer for the players who specifically do want to spend combat sitting in triage), but there might be ways to mitigate it. What if dragging unconscious bodies to triage was dangerous (eg you had to call “1 Damage by Dragging” when moving another person) and therefore it was beneficial to have healers come to the front line? Some LARPs have mechanics where someone concentrating on a non-combat task has extra defenses (such as scholars working on puzzles being allowed to call Resist or Short Repel if an attacker tries to interrupt them), which might also encourage PCs to bring their healers towards the front lines. Pacifism in particular can be so limiting in a live combat LARP, that extra defenses for healers who take vows of pacifism so that they can have more mobility in violent situations is worth considering.

I know some players really dislike when NPC monsters are re-spawning from every direction in the dark, but I find this structure for combat precludes players easily setting up triage areas, so it’s worth considering if you’d like to discourage or outright prevent the “triage area”.

Some campaigns really like to emphasize the slow, steady form of healing (eg the 60 seconds of roleplaying first aid for “Heal one by Medicine”.) It’s understandable in that it can be easier to balance when determining the difficulty of combat when healing isn’t dependent on a player skills (if solving puzzles was the only way to heal in-game, what if the players got stuck and simply couldn’t solve one?) or players don’t have much instant-healing to access. It can also convey a grittier tone when healing is time consuming and mundane, whereas instant magic healing can reduce the sense of danger any given encounter might have.

But the slow healing can just be so incredibly dull and repetitive, that it’s worth looking into ways to reconfigure the healing mechanics to make playing a healer less unappealing, while still maintaining as much of the constancy and grit as possible. For example, in one LARP I played, one of the common forms of healing was instantaneous for the healer, but necessitated the heal-ee still refrain from combat and rest for 5 minutes. (“Heal 2 and Drain by Medicine.”) This way, the healer didn’t have to spend minute after minute counting down the time, but combatants still couldn’t just pop back up into battle. Other LARPs had similar systems, but the costs/drawbacks were varied, depending on the treatments “side-effects”. (Eg “Cure Maim and Agony by Medicine” or “Heal 1 and Short Drain by Medicine”.)

I’m a particular fan of a couple of other ways I’ve seen LARPs limit the power of instant healing. The first is to make healing come at an interesting price to the healer, which could be as simple as the healer spends their own health to heal another (“Heal One to Victim and One Damage to Self”) or more complex, (“Heal 5 and short agony to Victim, Double Maim to Self,” or “you have a boost of healing so long as you root yourself to the ground for five minutes”) or far more dramatic (“Cure Death to Ally and Death to Self” or “Cure Death to Ally and Death to Other Ally” — this can be great fodder for emotional roleplay.) I usually find it more interesting when I have to mentally calculate whether or not an ability (or resource) is worth spending. Or it can be a roleplay cost (eg the healer and/or heal-ee now owe a favor to the Devil in exchange for restoring a  permanently maimed limb.)

The second is to have the healing be tied to an in-game relationship. I’ve seen players enter essentially magical body guard contracts with one another, for boosted defense (and also healing), which incentivized (or possibly required) them to watch one another’s back, even in difficult combat situations where the PCs were frequently getting split up by the enemy. I felt as though there was a much more noticeable roleplay element to that battle for me. In another LARP, characters who could become a member of a witch’s “hearth” such that the witch could apply extra healing to them (the hearths were of limited size), and joining the hearth took different forms depending on the witch. For one witch, who was also a lawyer, it took the form of an extensive, complicated legal contract. This sort of thing goes over well with players who create healer characters in order to build interesting and/or complex relationships with fellow players.

And remember that the relationships between healers and other characters need not always be warm and fuzzy — what if mad scientist-type characters had healing they could apply to other players they experiment on, or having healing spells they can apply to other players playing summoned demons in their thrall? Or a sci-fi game where healing requires allowing the healer to infest them with an alien with whom they have a psychic link, but the alien can sometimes take over? These kinds of ideas also work well for players who want to play healers, but feel restricted by the flavors that healing often comes in (eg clerics of a benevolent, gentle god.) Healers can be mad scientists or necromancers or alien psychics; healing can be dark, or weird, or clinical, or even selfish.

Individual modules designed for healers often appeal to the players who don’t want to be in the thick of combat, but also often feel like secondary characters when relegated to the back lines or triage. I once went on a module that was set in an old fashioned operating theater, where a creepy surgeon taught us healing skills by demonstrating surgical techniques. An NPC got beneath a sterile blue cover, and a fake version of the crown of his head (fake hair over a plastic dome on hinges) stuck out. We opened the top of his skull, where a jello brain was visible, and we were given tools to surgically remove bits of his brain (small items stuck in the jello mold.) In another similar module, we cut into a fake arm sticking out of the sterile sheets. Inside the arm was a wooden bone to saw through, red and blue tubes for arteries and veins to cut and clamp, and fabric muscles to cut and stitch . We replaced the arm with a set of tentacles that got stitched on. These modules were a ton of fun, very creative, and taught the healers new medical skills.

While I do highly recommend this sort of hands-on activity for healer modules, they doesn’t necessarily have to involve such elaborate set-up and props. NPCs could teach players how to identify and combine herbs to create remedies, or different techniques for bandaging. (Along with techniques for inscribing healing runes if it applies to your setting.) In a module in a different campaign, the players showed up to an impoverished area and set up a temporary clinic, where players performed interviews and examinations on a series of patients, then diagnosed and distributed pharmaceutical treatments. With a little research into the principles of triage, NPCs could stage a scenario where players learn the principles, then apply them to the scene of a large accident, or the aftermath of an attack from enemy forces. (In one LARP, my character learned a triage ability, which allowed healers to determine at a glance who on the field was most in need of help — “By My Voice, Expose Unstable”. That ability was a lot of fun.)

And there’s always the idea of a monster who is harmed by healing magic. (This needs a bit of finagling in Accelerant, where most healing is touch cast, and one generally doesn’t want touch casting being used offensively; perhaps healers can channel their healing into ranged/gesture attacks?)

If you want to enable non-healers to come on these modules, there can always be other activities (including even combat; say, some NPCs are trying to prevent the surgery from being completed) just make sure your healers still get to be the stars for once.

Other ideas for healer plot lines and themes to explore include plagues, distribution of vaccines (including identifying counterfeit ones), medical experimentation, and quarantines. (Try looking up medical ethics for inspiration.)

Much of this advice is aimed at the staff side of a LARP, but fellow PCs can also help. Offer to split loot with healers (and others not on the front lines, where the enemies are falling) if the healers are unsupported. Support a healers guild if they want to develop one. Appreciate your healers — it’s easy to see them as just another piece of the combat machine, and forget that in-game, we go to them when our characters are often in a lot of pain and they are the ones who alleviate that pain. Don’t take their healing for granted — if they refuse to heal for some reason, don’t get annoyed on an out-of-game level, but see it as an opportunity for roleplay in-game. If someone who is a primary healer wants to spend time on the front lines, you can roleplay concern for them, but make sure you don’t come off as annoyed on an out-of-game level that having them on the front line isn’t an efficient approach to battle. And maybe leave the term “girlfriend healer” behind. (Personally, I kinda like the idea of being a backpack healer, but if your healer doesn’t like it, that term can be avoided, too.)

I’ll conclude this post with an idea for a healer-centric plot I’ve been kicking around.

An NPC hook comes into the tavern, furtively trying to find local healers. They want their help with someone who has been poisoned. It’s all very hush-hush. They take any healers who agree to help to the victim — it’s one of the high ranking members of one of the enemy groups of the PCs. Curing them involves a logic puzzle to figure out the symptoms, what combination of poisons might have been used, and what antidotes can treat the symptoms and/or counteract the poison without killing the NPC. (Retrieving the antidote ingredients and crafting the antidote might be their own separate stages of the plot line.) The NPC hook is willing to bargain for their help, perhaps they are willing to give up information on where the enemies are gathered, or the schedule of their guards, or information on where the enemies plan to strike next. The PCs have to decide carefully how to use this information, so as not to compromise their new asset. Maybe eventually the Big Bad enemy hears about this, and would like the healers to return to treat another member (blindfolding them to bring them into their lair). The healers have to figure out how best to take advantage of this opportunity, gain as much information as they can, perhaps find a way to sabotage the enemy, without possibly ending up hostages themselves.

Please do feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

What has motivated you to play a healer character?
What did you like about it? What did you dislike?
What kind of healing mechanics have you found most enjoyable or unenjoyable?
Have you, as a healer, ever felt like the star of combat (or non-combat) scenario? What made you feel that way?
What kind of plot lines or modules have you run for healers as a member of a LARP staff, or have you played as a PC?

Posted in boffer, conventions, LARP, mechanics, writing | Tagged | 7 Comments

For Auld LARP Syne 2017

My annual retrospective on my life in LARP.

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A look back at 2017…

LARP Count According to my LARP List, I PCed, NPCed, and aGMed 47 LARPs this past year… which means I unintentionally set a new record. (It was previously 44, in 2015.) My year opened with a LARP at Arisia (a Boston geek con), there were road trips to NY and NJ, and I played a weekend long theater LARP about superheroes during the Renaissance. I even tried LARPing over video chat. I think playing Kingsword at Festival of the LARPs has been one of my best theater LARP experiences to date.

Events I attended six LARP cons over 2016 (which helps explain the record breaking): Dice Bubble, Intercon, Festival of the LARPs, Summer LARPin’, Time Bubble, and Consequences. I also attended NELCO (New England LARP Conference) 2017. The Winter’s Revel, an event put on by Incantrix Productions, may or may not have technically been a LARP, but it was a lovely evening of fairy politics and dancing and puzzles (and raising money for charity), and is definitely worth mentioning. I hope there will be more opportunities for Revels in the future.

Campaigns Fifth Gate, the LARP in which I played Sabri/Cricket came to an end in 2016. I also PCed Threshold as DEXEMBER, or DEX, an AI. And I reprised my character Quill for one more event set in the Cottington Woods (one of a series dubbed, “Tales of the Cotting House”.) I also played one more event in New World Magischola, though I’m not quite sure I classify it as a campaign; I’d probably label it a series. I’ve been NPCing for Madrigal 3, and I also NPCed the After Dark playtest. (I missed the first After Dark weekend event, but I am still hoping to give After Dark a try as a PC in 2018.)

 

Contributions I continued to serve as a board member of NEIL and as a member of Intercon’s proposal committee. I helped staff NELCO, served as the coordinator of Festival of the LARPs, and was an editor for Game Wrap Volume 2 (yes, it’s coming out soon!) I’ve also volunteered as Housing Coordinator for the Living Games Conference. Early in the year, I created a series of banners for Kingsword, representing the royal and knightly heraldry of various characters in the LARP (along with painting a few other props.)

Additionally, I wrote and ran Cry Havoc and Let Slips the Elves of Yule, which I hesitate to call a LARP for two reasons — it’s more of a long, complex module than a full LARP (though I did write characters, a history, and a plot line), but more importantly, the run was just so chaotic, and I’m not sure it actually accomplished what I intended it to. I wanted to enable the players to get a feel for what a typical boffer experience is like, and to learn the basics of the Accelerant system. I think if I could polish up the structure (for example, instead of having all of the challenges at once, set it so that the players can focus on one at a time) I might call it a LARP.

Travel/Other Communities I finally ticked off a big item on my bucket list — LARP in another country! I went to Consequences in England this past November, had a complete blast, and met lots of LARPers from all over Europe. Additionally, I traveled to Virginia for Magischola, Pennsylvania for Under the Mask, and made several road trips to NY and NJ. It was a good year for travel and connecting with new communities.

Blogging Once again, I missed my goal of increasing my number of posts from last year. I tried to do a bit of a push over December, but sadly my laptop crashed, so I missed my goal by one post. I also failed to get into the backlog of PreCon and NELCO panel/discussion posts, which bugs me because I believe NELCO and PreCon are important and warrant being recorded and shared. My twitter and instagram accounts continue to gain followers, though the latter is mostly just a bit of visual interest for the blog, and the former… I could probably be using for promotion of the blog more, but I just hate self-promotion.

Much to my surprise, the blog post that garnered the most attention and response was my recent post about nametags, which I thought was just a tiny topic I dashed off to try and help meet my self-imposed yearly post quota. I figured everyone who prefers to use nametags already knew everything I had to say, and everyone who didn’t wouldn’t bother reading it. But I was way off. There were people who found the topic useful, and others who had a surprisingly impassioned negative response. But the primary reason I started this blog was to kick off interesting discussion about LARP, so all of the responses were a pleasant surprise, and also reminder to do more posts about LARP in general, and not just posts about the individual events I attend. (And not to assume I know which topics are worthwhile.)

I still feel surprised and get a kick out of people, friends or strangers, mentioning that they’ve read my blog.

Costuming and Other LARP Related Art Projects The largest projects of this year included my outfit for the Fifth Gate masquerade ball, my costume for playing Olwen, the daughter of the giant king, Ysbaddaden, for Kingsword, and my Sith costume for Grasp for the Senate.

The cream colored top for the Fifth Gate masquerade was a hot mess, but the skirt came out beautifully and it was the project through which I learned to install zippers. (Thank you, lisefrac!) My costume for Kingsword was inspired by a Scottish doll I found online; I developed an interest in Scottish culture through this LARP and a love for tartan in particular. My Sith costume involved a lot of pleating, which proved very difficult for me. The end result is flawed, but I still enjoy wearing it and I learned a lot about pleating through this project.

(I also made my fifth pair of hakama pants this year.)

My other major sewing project for LARPs this year was finishing the set of banners for Kingsword. Simple in structure — long strips of fabric with velcro loops and iron-on charges, though it was a time consuming process. I’m proud of this project; I think they add a really nice touch to the Arthurian atmosphere of the LARP.

 

I also made a set of prank banners for New World Magischola (a Harry Potter inspired LARP,) copying their house crests into a cartoonish style (complete with famous cartoons replacing their mascots) with fabric markers onto large pieces of muslin. I went sneaking through the house common rooms at night, covering their banners with the silly versions. They caused quite a stir, and I received a lot of compliments after the LARP. I’m quite proud of this prank.

 

I worked a bit on my costume makeup skills this year. I tried the fishnets makeup scale trick (and improved on it for my second attempt) along with fawn makeup, and experimented with bright weird colors and unusual styles for LARPs like Threshold, Fifth Gate, and a few theater LARPs.

I had a number of failed projects this year — dragon horns which I threw out after one use (and considering my costuming hoarding tendencies, that’s really saying something), and two hoodies for Threshold that function, but I’d really like to remake. But I did learn something about sculpting with polymer clay and sewing with fleece and knit fabrics thanks to these projects.

2017 Resolutions As mentioned above, I fell one post shy of my number of posts written last year and failed to write about NELCO panels. I did get to one boffer practice in Boston Common with a local Dagorhir group, though I do wish I had made it to a few more. I learned a few new things about sewing and makeup this year. I like to think contributed to the local community through things like the NEIL board, Intercon volunteering, Game Wrap, and Festival. (And GMing and aGMing a few times, which is rare for me, including writing and running Cry Havoc.) I believe I got in my PELs on time (with maybe one exception) and thanked my GMs after LARPs, whether through emails, post event feedback requests, or PELs. But best of all, I made it to the UK for Consequences.

And a look forward into 2018…

2018 is already shaping up to be a busy year. I have a bit of breathing space in January (other than our NEIL board meeting to elect Intercon S’s con chair). I’ll be spending the month finishing up some costuming projects and a new banner for the next run of Kingsword. But then February kicks into high gear with Dice Bubble (which I hear has some exciting changes underway), a Threshold event, Shogun (a weekend long theater LARP set in 17th century Japan), and then Intercon R!

The rest of the year, I’ll be PCing Threshold, and I’m hoping to try After Dark, and then there’s Hellcat Jive starting in the fall… Haven’t yet had the opportunity to play a dieselpunk LARP, and I already have a character concept brewing, inspired in part by Commander Frankie Cook from Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow.

There’s also a Pokemon based comedic horror LARP running this summer called Pocket Monsters: The Hunted, and as a long time Pokemon fan (and current avid Pokemon Go player) I am extremely excited. I’m having a hard time figuring out which pokemon to play. I spend a lot of time daydreaming about the costuming possibilities.

I’m also looking forward to helping out with NELCO, Festival of the LARPs, and the Living Games Conference (and Intercon S, of course). Haven’t yet decided if I’ll run for NEIL board again.

2018 Resolutions I’m renewing my resolution to increase my number of blog posts, get stuff written about past NELCOs and PreCons, and again, to write more posts about general LARP topics, not just descriptions of events I’ve attended.

Also, sadly, this past year, Photobucket, where I used to store my photos for this blog, decided to no longer allow 3rd party hosting. This is why, if you’ve been looking over old posts recently, you may have seen my images replaced with that hideous photobucket “please update your account” ad. I’ve started downloading and then re-uploading images to WordPress, and then editing my old posts, but it’s a very slow, tedious process (in part because Photobucket’s website has become miserably bogged down with pop-up ads — it’s practically obscene. I finally had to install an ad-blocker just to be able to use the website.) One of my resolutions for this year is fix my old blog posts that have images that used to be hosted on Photobucket.

I’m also renewing my resolution about continuing to work on and improve my costuming/set dressing/prop making skills, and to try at least one pattern that I find challenging. (Since all sewing skills end up relevant to LARPing for me, I will consider it valid if my sewing skills advance through non-LARP related things, like cosplay.) And similarly, I want to keep up my streak of timely PELs and thanking GMs. I’d like to keep up dance practice, but more importantly, get back to boffer practice. Maybe arrange a few gatherings in the park when the weather warms up again. And I’d like to continue to contribute to the LARPing community in other ways. Perhaps if an opportunity to run it appears, polish Cry Havoc into a real LARP and run it again. And when the opportunity to travel for LARPing and connect with new communities appears, I resolve to take it.

So, how about you? Any resolutions for LARPing in 2018? Any exciting LARP plans for the new year?

(I’m going to reuse an old toast because I found it in an old New Years post and it still makes me laugh.)

Here’s to 2018 being fun of LARP! May your spell packets fly true, may your contingency envelopes contain shocking revelations. And may your character go through the resurrection mechanic a full half hour before the lead GM knows you’re dead.

Cheers!
Fair Escape

Posted in LARP, on a more personal note | Leave a comment

Cricket Chirps

Yesterday evening, I attended the epilog dinner of the Fifth Gate campaign. It was a gathering five years after the campaign closer, a chance to gain some closure, find out what became of various people and places and institutions after the destruction of the Wrathborn world, and the resumption of war with the Silverfire barons and Ebon Order on the Silverfire world.

Now that the epilog is over, I think it’s time to put my thoughts on my character down on paper, so to speak.

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The Lady Sabri, aka Cricket

I began the way I usually do for creating characters for both LARPs and tabletop RPGs. I read over all of the material provided by the game staff — game concept, setting information, character creation options — then just started doodling. There were two options for settings for this LARP — the post-apocalyptic steampunk Wrathborn world with its six Origins, and the high fantasy Silverfire world with its six Orders. I settled on the Silverfire world for various logistical reasons (for example, Wrathborn started out with a longer waitlist.)

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Early character design doodles.

For those curious, the Wrathborn concepts I doodled up included a Docent who constantly talked to her Spirits and held her half of the conversations out loud, a Silver Bearer whose item was, rather unfortunately for her, a pocket-watch the size of car tire that she had to lug around on her back (“pocket”), a Ranger in a Plague Doctor mask (I just love the way they look) and a Landsworn looking for somewhere to plant the last seeds of a destroyed grove.

Among the Silverfire Orders, the Veiled Ones (undead from a Middle East inspired culture), the Horned Ones (Celtic/Viking inspired worshippers of a war goddess) and the Disciples of the Tempest appealed to me the most. (Although I did really want to try the mechanics of the Maori-inspired Primarchs, with their stone arms that could be used to block.) I finally settled on Disciples of the Tempest, in part for their austere, flowing costuming aesthetics and in part because I liked the idea of belonging to a mysterious, ancient Order whose members dwelled up high in the mountains, descending from the peaks to defend the villages at the foot of their mountains whenever a threat arose.

I like to create ties to multiple regions when writing backstories, to increase the likelihood of being able to connect to disparate plotlines, so I decided my character would be originally from another region, and raised in a third. I picked Asharia for its Middle Eastern flavor for her region of origin, and Kaleris, as the center and breadbasket of the kingdom for where she would be raised. And because she’s originally from Asharia, I gave her an Arabic name meaning “patient”. (It’s usually a male name, but I like giving female characters male names for some reason.)

At this point I got a little stuck, so I reread the history of the setting. The recent history involved a warrior who united many Orders and lead them to victory over the evil Ebon Order, then became a king who appointed his lieutenants as barons to govern the various regions. The barons seemed like they wouldn’t necessarily have the skills and connections to their regions to effectively govern them (they were skilled in fighting and possibly military strategy, but not necessarily in things like civics or diplomacy), and therefore I thought political strife, both amongst the barons and between the barons and their subjects might be a significant portion of the game. (At least until the Silverfire King turned on us and the Ebon Order resurfaced; both of these things seemed extremely likely to me.) I decided to write a background involving courtly life and a connection to one of the barons, so that I’d have an excuse to be involved in political plot.

I took inspiration from the A Song of Ice and Fire books (I am a huge fan), the character of Sansa Stark in particular. (I know she’s a polarizing character among fans of the books, some readers really hate her, but I consider her the most realistically written child of all the Stark children, which makes her progress the most compelling.) I liked the idea of being right in the thick of politics of a dangerous court, learning through observation, subtly trying to influence things while appearing perfectly innocent, being entitled to treatment as a noble, yet never being able to relax her guard. So I settled on the idea of  a character who spent most of her life as a political hostage. At first I couldn’t decide if Sabri was a hostage of an Ebon Order court, or the court of one of the Silverfire barons, as I wasn’t sure which was likely to be a larger part of the campaign… then I figured, why not both? So Sabri started out as a hostage of the Ebon Order, then after the end of the War, became a hostage of the Baron set over Stormcoast.

For personality and mannerism ideas, I also looked to Sansa Stark. I was inspired by the line, “a lady’s armor is courtesy”, so I ran with that. I’m an avid reader of Miss Manner’s advice column, and the idea of playing a character who always maintains perfect manners and perfect etiquette seemed like a fun challenge. (And perhaps it might provide an opportunity to create or reflect drama by suddenly dropping them.) Can’t say I always succeeded at this challenge, but I do think other players took note and remembered Sabri’s efforts in the realm of etiquette.

Sabri was inclined to pretend to see the best in people, as manners dictate. Her backstory included a bit where she had put an arrow through the eye of her first archery mentor (an acolyte of the Ebon Order) then took his valuable bow and left him for dead. If anyone asked where her bow came from, she would say it had been a gift. Surely if he had lived, he would have bequeathed it to her. (This is why her bow was black, painted with red scorpions, and too large for her.)

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“It would have been impolite to refuse a gift.”

I have a strategy for building tabletop or LARP campaign characters, developed over years of playing RPGs with dysfunctional team dynamics and trouble inserting myself into plots that appeal to me. (Have you heard the story of the time the fighter tried to kill my healer, or the bard who threatened to ditch her at the next town?) I try to always answer two questions: what personality trait or motivation does my character have to avoid conflict with her teammates? And what personality trait or motivation does my character have for potentially following any and every plot hook that appears?

The latter is rather often “extremely curious by nature, and cannot control it” (Taz) sometimes coupled with a poorly developed or complete lack of self-preservation instinct (Quill). The former has been things like “a bit of a doormat” (Quill) “often high on weed and doesn’t judge people” (Sunshine) or “convinced she’s reliant on her teammates for survival” (Taz). In DEX’s case, it’s “literally has to do exactly what she’s told because she’s an AI with built-in programming”, (although as DEX is from a LARP with a dark, dystopic cyberpunk tone, I don’t expect her to necessarily avoid conflict with all PCs for the duration of the entire campaign.)

Developing answers to these questions (why does my character always or nearly always get along with their fellow PCs, and how do I make it always possible to stay in-character and follow any plot-hook, which often involves approaching and talking to strangers) is something I recommend to newbies trying out LARPs where players create their own characters for the first time.

For Sabri, I decided it went beyond impeccable manners. Growing up as a hostage of a court, one that could decide to execute her at any moment for crimes she had nothing to do with, must make her feel acutely powerless. She’d constantly be trying to make herself as inoffensive to those around her as possible, to avoid giving them any excuses to harm her. Moreover, charming any of them might be one of her only avenues to power, however small and limited that power might be. I decided Sabri would be pretty desperate for people around her to like her, and this instinct would be too difficult to shed even once she was no longer a hostage. This hunger for power and desire to use it and exert it over others once she acquired a more direct form of it (that is, becoming a Disciple of the Tempest) was also my answer to the “what excuse will I have for this character to follow any plot hook that might happen by.”

To the end of trying to make everyone like her, I initially decided Sabri was prone to mimicking people around her. Among the serious, cerebral Arcane Circles, she might be try to use bigger words, among the somewhat wild Horned Ones, she might act more boisterous, among the emotionless Veiled Ones, she might be more reserved and lower her voice to their typical hush.

This didn’t work out — I often found myself in situations where personality traits being expressed weren’t unusual enough to be noticeably mimicked, or else there were multiple conflicting ones present, so I often just defaulted to a sort of coy, demure affect. It seemed to suit this character well enough. She would try to be charming, without actually ever opening up and letting herself be vulnerable in any way. Sabri was extremely defensive, and pathologically slow to trust. A little known fact about her: she always had at least one, if not multiple, daggers secreted about her person.

In addition to her courtly manners, I decided that Sabri should perceive fashion and beauty as a source of power. Again, a very small, limited source of power, but one that was available to her, even as a hostage. She would always try to make the best of her appearance, always making sure to do her hair and makeup, and tended to wear the most expensive and appealing clothing she could, despite the fact that most Disciples of the Tempest tended to dress in austere styles.

This afforded some more fun with costuming; I felt justified in creating custom jewelry, using pretty prints with a bit of shine in the patterns, wearing flowers in my hair, and playing around with makeup, though I did, at some point, come to resent my own character a bit. She was a diva, and she made it that much harder to resist new cotton prints at the fabric store. (Sabri ended the LARP with a fairly sizable wardrobe, including a haori made from silk from Japan, and a gray shearling winter coat that proved to be one of my most difficult projects ever.) It also made packing more difficult, and getting ready in the mornings that much more time consuming.

 

My next character may well be a salt-of-the-earth type.

In addition to hidden daggers, Sabri also had a habit of always carrying small mirrors on her, and she would check her appearance in them often, even at seemingly inappropriate times, such as just before heading out to a battle, or just after one ended.  (She would also stop in front of any mirror that popped up in modules.) People generally assumed this had to do with being shallow and vain, and Sabri never disabused anyone of the notion, since her concern with her appearance made a nice cover-up. (I don’t think Sabri was actually vain, since vanity implies thinking highly of her own appearance, which she didn’t — just just tried to always do her best with what she had. She also wasn’t exactly shallow, as she wasn’t into beauty for beauty’s sake, but rather saw it as an avenue to a minor form of social power.)

In truth, there was a bit in Sabri’s backstory about a spirit who would communicate with her by manipulating her reflection, and though she didn’t fully trust it, its hints and suggestions always panned out, so she would often check to see if it had anything to tell her. I think this habit was memorable to other players and tended to amuse people, so I’m very happy I developed it for Sabri.

 

Sabri’s obsession with power proved to be a rather interesting and fun flaw to play with in a LARP character. I remember I once played out a scene from her backstory in which Sabri was offered a choice: she could return to her courtly life to continue to undermine and sabotage the Ebon Order from within, or she could follow a Disciple of the Tempest, and accept training and attempt to become a member of their order. When she chose the latter, the PC she’d known from her court life, who was secretly a double agent and wanted them to continue on this path of sabotaging the Ebon Order together, said sadly, “why would you send a chess master to play checkers?” That left quite an impression on me.

Now, I think “chess master” is a bit much — I wrote a short story about Sabri using table place settings at a formal dinner to orchestrate one of the Ebon Order’s military failures, but then in-game, I failed at the two social/courtly sort of modules, so I suppose Sabri’s spy-craft skills were mostly “informed abilities” (though I did take satisfaction in always having a hairpin for lock picking and a mirror to peer around corners when sneaking about). But the point is, I realized Sabri was actually more self-interested than any other character I’d played, and this could lead her to make costly (and rather interesting) mistakes. I decided she had taken the test to officially become a Disciple at the earliest possible opportunity, and nearly died for it. When war broke out with the Silverfire King in the very first event, Sabri actually felt relieved — she wouldn’t have to return to the Baron of Stormcoast’s court and could go back to being a warrior. (She felt guilty over feeling relieved, though she would never admit to either the relief or guilt.)

A note on names — most people knew this character as Cricket. I thought it made for a cute character name, so I wrote a short backstory piece about how she once leapt through a window and made a bunch of noise to distract a guard for her co-conspirator in the Ebon Order court. Many of my characters have multiple names, but my intention for this specific character was to create a choice for fellow PCs. I recall a LARPer once saying she liked having a veil as part of a costume because it became a means for expressing levels of formality or intimacy — the veil covered more of her face to create distance with people, and she uncovered it to indicate trust and intimacy, and this inspired me.

My intention for my Fifth Gate character was that people could refer to her as Sabri or even Lady Sabri if they wanted to express formality or emphasize propriety, and use Cricket if they felt close enough to use a nickname. This didn’t really pan out; Cricket is just easier to remember, and learning lots of PC names can be very difficult at the first event of a campaign — even if she introduced herself as Lady Sabri to people, people heard others calling her Cricket and that’s what stuck in their memory.

Similarly, there was the name Ibis, which was originally intended to be a callsign sort of thing amongst the Eyrie. (The ibis is known for being the last creature to take shelter before a hurricane, and the first to return.) I thought it might be cool if the Eyrie had bird names to call one another during combat, like callsigns, but this didn’t pan out… so Ibis ended up as simply a false name Sabri gave to people she didn’t trust and didn’t expect to develop a relationship with. For example, Sabri initially gave the name Ibis to the Survivors at the first capstone event. My intention was to eventually be able to offer her real name (or even her nickname) as a sign of developing trust in the Survivors, but I don’t think anyone noticed it was a false name or even remembered it. Lesson learned — using multiple names doesn’t easily work in campaign LARPs.

A few events into the campaign, I realized I was having an issue with this character. I had learned a long while back, through tabletop RPG, that one can’t rely on other players to provide opportunity for the type of character arc you envision for a character. (It’s a similar rant to the dysfunctional teammates in tabletop RPG rant.) I knew I couldn’t assume that Sabri would ever have reasons to trust others, let down her guard, show her real self, allow herself to be vulnerable… But I did consider it a possibility, especially since we came with built-in teams (warbands) who would likely always have one another’s backs. But I would be fine if Sabri remained behind her walls until the end.

Several events in, I realized I hadn’t really been allowing Sabri to develop trust, even in the other members of the Eyrie warband. And I realized something else. Most people seemed to generally like Sabri just fine; after all, she was desperate to be liked, and therefore inclined to do things like offer flattery and gestures of generosity or kindness. But it was all fake. My character was a total fake. And I wasn’t really developing a better sense of her inner self or her relationship with others because I was never asking myself, “what does my character want? What does my character think?” I was always asking myself, “what do I think this other character wants to hear?”

Arguably, I might have used this as an opportunity to develop my character by adding another layer. I could be asking, “what do I think Sabri thinks they want?”… but often I just wasn’t able to tease apart that subtle nuance. I didn’t really know what Sabri thought of things, and how could anyone develop closeness to her even they never had any opportunity to see any part of her real self? What was her real self, anyway? So I tried to tone down her desperation to be liked a bit as her power grew. I don’t know if I ever fully corrected for this, but I don’t think Sabri ever really developed the ability to trust others.

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A Stormsworn at the Crossroads

At the final event, she lacked the faith in the other PCs to not vote to save the Wrathborn world. And she probably didn’t press hard enough for Ruin to win the vote, because that would mean giving up her own access to Power. (This was influenced by out-of-game factors, but I do think Sabri’s lack of trust in others and desire for power played a significant role.) So Sabri decided instead to take matters into her own hands.

Some time back, the Eyrie had a plot where we stole a jar of an incredibly potent poison out of the vault of the Silverfire king. It was powerful enough to ruin an entire land, and was intended for use on a river that fed the lands of the Primarchs. We had no means of destroying it, so the Eyrie just carried it around, trying to figure out what to do with it and keep it out of the hands of the Silverfire armies and the Ebon Order. We still had it at the last event.

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land-destroying poison

Sabri decided if the Survivors (and possibly some Champions) were going to vote to save the Wrathborn world (and condemn hundreds of millions to a refugee crisis… and her along with them) she would take the option off the table, and use the poison to destroy the Twilight Vale, the piece of land many of the people of the Wrathborn world had been surviving on, which had been the Survivor’s home during the campaign.

I knew, on an out-of-game level, the staff wouldn’t allow a player to remove a possible outcome of the vote from the hands of the PCs, but in-character, Sabri spent much of the hour leading up to the vote trying to convince an NPC to take her to the Twilight Vale. She tried being upfront about her intention with some, she tried being cagey and offering deals to others. They told her they couldn’t do it before the vote happened. But Sabri did her best to commit an atrocity, one I knew the Survivors would never forgive her for if she succeeded, regardless of whether or not the Twilight Vale and all of the Wrathborn world would be destroyed anyway by the outcome of the vote. (I suspect they wouldn’t have forgiven her for even attempting it, if they had known.)

It certainly made for a bit of really fun internal roleplay. I rather hope I might have shocked some of the Fifth Gate staff playing those NPCs.

Over the course of the three years of Fifth Gate, I became quite attached to this character, despite my initial struggle with creating her. I really liked playing a character for whom manners and etiquette mattered, and I would certainly like to do that again. Sabri proved more complex than I initially realized, and more deeply flawed, I think, than any of my other campaign characters yet. Closing out her story is bittersweet. She’ll influence my characters of the future, I think.

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With the Banners of the Wing and Crest

Sabri’s Fan/Geek Profile

Harry Potter House: Slytherin to the bone
(Bonus for Magischola LARPers: House Croatan)
Song of Ice and Fire House: solid Tyrell
Pokemon Type: electric/water
Pokemon Go Team: Mystic
Major Arcana: The High Priestess
Western Zodiac: Virgo
Chinese Zodiac: Snake
Avatar Nation: Fire
MB Personality Type: Probably ISTP?

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Cricket as a Pokemon Trainer

And if you’ll excuse a bit more self-indulgence (playlists are self-indulgent by design, aren’t they): Excerpts from Cricket’s Playlist*

Halsey. “Castle”
Oh, all these minutes passing, sick of feeling used
If you wanna break these walls down, you’re gonna get bruised

Mumford and Sons. “Monster”
eyes with a fire, unquenched by peace

Lorde. “Yellow Flicker Beat”
I’m a princess, cut from marble, smoother than a storm

*A number of members of the local community like to create custom playlists of songs for their characters and/or campaigns. I like to play mine while packing and working on projects for an event.

Posted in boffer, LARP, on a more personal note | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Nametags

Here’s a random little topic about a small element of LARPs that often seems to be a given in some LARP communities/styles, but unheard of in others… Nametags! We don’t often think of them as a mechanic, likely because their use is often fairly passive in nature, their purpose often intuitive, but it is a non-diagetic means of representing something diagetic (namely, in-character knowledge that a player lacks), which describes the average LARP mechanic (though not all of them, as the term has recently come to be used to describe actions that don’t represent anything in-game and aren’t meant to interact with the diagesis).

I was first introduced to LARPing with one-shot theater style LARPs, and for years, through many LARPs, from several hour long to weekend longs, they all used nametags. Boffer LARPs (of the one shot or campaign variety) seem to mostly eschew them (particularly if it’s difficult to think of a reason for them to be diagetic) but I believe the first LARPs I played with the HRSFA crowd were the first theater LARPs I experienced that didn’t use nametags.

The biggest benefit to nametags is probably fairly obvious — characters in pre-written LARPs often should be able to identify other characters on sight, even when the players can’t. Even if a GM sends out a cast list in advance, it can be difficult to memorize who is playing all of the characters your character should be able to identify, especially if the list is long. And it’s even more challenging if you don’t know the other players outside of the LARP. Some LARPs are cast at the door, precluding committing this information to memory in advance, and some LARPs specifically conceal the list of who’s who prior to the LARP to prevent pre-gaming. (A number of weekend long theater LARPs I’ve played had this policy.)

And nametags can serve additional purposes. Lots of games have used them to encode information, whether it’s simply writing out what titles a character holds on the nametag, to including symbols or colors or fonts to indicate information (eg character pronouns, or “blue nametags indicate elves, red nametags indicate humans”) which may be public information, or only available to characters with specific knowledge or skills. (Eg A psychic character might have a secret ability to decode the string of numbers printed below the names on the nametags. Any number that ends in 5 indicates they have arachnophobia, any number that begins with 2 means they have been possessed by a ghost, etc.) Or alternatively, I’ve seen LARPs where nametags enabled people to play with the fact that characters might be identical (secret clones, or alternative timeline versions of the same person) by giving them identical nametags, even if the players look nothing alike.

It need not be limited to in-game information; lots of LARPs use symbols on nametags to indicate openness to engaging in romantic relationships between characters, or the level of touch a player is comfortable with, or whether or not the player is interested in being offered alcoholic beverages.

And in the odd setting where nametags could be diagetic, they can reinforce elements of the setting or enhance immersion. (For example, in a LARP set in a prison, players might be referred to by the numbers on their shirts, which can set the tone.) Generally, I’m of the opinion that any LARP for which one can create an in-game reason for nametags to exist (even if it’s a thinly veiled excuse) should use them and specify, if necessary, to players that they are diagetic.

Of course, they’re not a perfect solution to disconnect between the characters’ ability to identify one another on sight and the players’ inability. They require players to get up close to one another and perhaps squint at one another’s shirts, which can often result in one of those awkward, “sorry, do I know you? ‘Count Winchester’… Let me check my sheet… hm, nope never mind, my character wouldn’t have had any reason to approach you” moments. And of course they can be lost or obscured, and in situations where characters should be able to recognize one another from a distance or various angles, if they’re not immediately readable, in that moment, they aren’t helping.

Nametags also might be providing information that characters shouldn’t yet have access to. In other words, characters who have never met before perhaps shouldn’t be able to identify one another on sight, but the nametags still allow them to. If one were to set a game in a time and place where engaging in unusual etiquette is meant to be part of the experience, nametags might have the downside of discouraging players from seeking out and making proper introductions. I’ve played LARPs set in Victorian England where such etiquette is described and encouraged in the introduction materials, and I thought it was a shame it didn’t see much, if any, in practice.

I have seen some LARPs which use nametags, but rather than writing names on them, simply display number codes, and each player receives a list of numbers, which short descriptions of what they know about the person behind each code. This has the downside of causing players to spend more time consulting their sheets during game time, but it enabled characters to go by different names when in different company, and to vary what characters knew about one another on sight, from “I know this person by name very well” to “you’ve never seen this person before, but the sword they’re carrying is of foreign design.”

The mere presence of nametags, if they’re not diagetic, can be somewhat disruptive to immersion, and can detract from the aesthetics of a costume. They can also be literally damaging to a costume, if they’re of the pin type (even tiny holes can be permanents and really show on some fabrics) or of the sticky type (I have a faux leather jacket which has had a faint outline of residue that I’ve been unable to remove for years.) The pin type is particularly troublesome, as some materials (particularly ones used for costume armor, such as metal, plastic, and leather) may simply preclude anything being pinned to a player. (For players who find themselves wearing armor or other such unpinnable costuming to LARP — consider incorporating a ribbon sash into your look — it’s super easy and quick, and provides a pinnable surface should GMs provide nametag pins without obscuring much of your costume.)

There are some badges that come with holders, worn on strings hung around the neck, which are my personal preference, as they are safe for any costuming, though I find they can be the most disruptive to the aesthetics of a costume and to immersion. (This is unfortunately particularly true of the thick black badge holders at Intercon — they’re nice and convenient in lots of ways, though I do wish they had less of a presence in active game spaces.)

Smaller LARPs benefit less from nametags, as players have an easier time getting everyone’s name down early on the LARP, especially for LARPs with fewer than ten or so players. LARPs where pre-gaming is enabled or even encouraged also have less benefit, as players can take the time to learn and memorize the cast list of LARP in advance. (“Pre-gaming” meaning players connecting with one another in advance, sometimes in person, usually over the internet, to develop their characters’ relationships and histories, often while producing and increasing excitement over and upcoming LARP in themselves and one another.)

Conversely, LARPs with large player numbers derive more benefit from nametags, as it’s much harder to connect the names of a large number of characters with their appearances on the fly. Similarly, LARPs which don’t enable or even forbid pre-gaming, or are likely to have a significant number of players who don’t know one another in person from outside the LARP, derive more benefit from nametags, as do LARPs that don’t lend themselves easily to distinctive costuming, or don’t require it from players.

For such games (games with a large number of players, no pre-gaming, players who don’t know one another, and a lack of costuming) GMs who want to avoid nametags might consider introductions prior to the start of game, which can be as simple as everyone going around and saying their character’s name, and making sure people who have in-game connections get a moment to reify those connections, or as complex as a workshop with the sort of ice-breaker games designed to help strangers learn one another’s name quickly. For an in-game reinforcement of this, a LARP can open with “staging” — meaning GMs directing players to begin game in a particular area, or arrive in a particular order with particular groups of people, so that players don’t have to fumble around, trying to figure out where their family members are or who the host of the function is.

If you do decide to include nametags in your LARP, I recommend large, bold lettering in an easy to read font, whether the names are printed or handwritten. (A bit of flavor in the font choice is always nice, assuming it doesn’t reduce legibility.) Or reminding your players to take care to write legibly, if you plan to let players fill out their own blank tags.

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Nametags can alert players to the fact that multiple NPCs are being played by the same GM.

 

Posted in LARP, mechanics, theater | 16 Comments

The Cult, the Song, and the Club

I went to New Jersey this past weekend to play The Song and the Sunrise, the wuxia themed mechanical and spiritual successor to The Dance and the Dawn“, the gothic fairy tale themed game about six ladies and seven lords looking for True Love at a ball. The Song and the Sunrise replaces the lords and ladies with kung fu fighters and waltzing with displays of martial arts. In addition, a new LARP was scheduled to run the night before, but travel difficulties caused a change in plans, and we played Tyrant Lizards Kings instead. (Tyrant Lizard Kings is running at Intercon R; you can read the blurb for it here.)

Tyrant Lizard Kings is a small LARP for five players. The length can vary a bit, but I think our run went for about two hours. It’s about five friends who were involved in a cult in college that communed with the spirits of dinosaurs, now reuniting six months before an apocalyptic meteor strike.

“Dinosaur cultists at the end of the world” might sound a bit silly on its face, but the LARP actually features some heavy themes (as per the blurb, “loss, reunions, memory, facing down death, and the difficulty of caring about something for which the wider world has no use… It discusses violence, drug use, and spiritual abuse.”) The players have some amount of control over how dark it gets — the character sheets outline the characters’ lives and their relationships (including some broad descriptions of what has gone wrong) but players are welcome to work alone or together fill it in with details.

I particularly liked the mechanics for the ritual in which the characters cast their minds back to their various dinosaur guides, to have experiences that can resemble those that a literal dinosaur might have, or one a more mythological spirit guide might have. As it was described at our run, the players ad-lib something like a verbal version of a text-based adventure for one another, providing brief descriptions and prompts for decisions for the player communing with their patron spirit.

I think this mechanic has a lot of potential for use in other LARP scenarios. I’ve often thought boffer campaigns, for example, could benefit from providing specific avenues for players to provide content for one another, as PCs often have a deeper understanding of other individual characters in a way a staff trying to write and run content for 60+ players might not. And as these rituals involve sitting in a circle and using one’s imagination, the resources it requires are minimal.

I had a really good time playing Tyrant Lizard Kings, but my one regret is that I didn’t have more prep time, either in advance online or in person before the LARP ran, as I think I could have benefited from a little more time for fleshing out my relationships with other characters and inventing memories of shared events. (My suggestion for those who like creating angsty secrets for their characters would be to reach out to fellow players and have one or two of them aware of your character’s secrets before the game begins, to increase the odds of it coming out dramatically during play.) And while the scenarios and dilemmas we created for one another during the rituals in our run worked out well, I think with a little more time, I could have tailored my contributions even more directly to the characters experiencing them.

I hope this LARP gets boxed and released online for purchase — the small size and the fact that it’s set in a private home (ie doesn’t require much space and almost any location can suit) makes it a particularly useful LARP to have on hand for rounding out con schedules or just an impromptu private evening of LARPing.

We played The Song and the Sunrise the next day. The premise of the LARP involves “[t]he six greatest fighters in the land—women, one and all” (rather refreshing) receiving invitations to the citadel of the White Phoenix, where they will have the opportunity to prove their skills and valor and possibly earn the chance to defeat a Demon Prince, win a reward from the Gates of Heaven, and leave with their True Love in tow.

As advertised, it has a lot in common with The Dance and the Dawn in terms of structure and concept, though I enjoyed The Song and the Sunrise even more than The Dance and the Dawn. The LARP is similarly scheduled as a series of blocks of time. Warriors can have Swords test their forms and judge their martial prowess (an opportunity for private one-on-one conversations), they can train one another in martial arts techniques, or they can have conversations with one of the NPCs (the hostess, White Phoenix, the mysterious No-Name, the zither player, or the prisoner Demon Prince.) Between rounds, there is an opportunity for dueling and/or poetry competitions. The end culminates with a duel against the Demon Prince and each Warrior choosing a Swords to accompany them when they leave.

I played Plumblossom Shadow, possibly the strangest of the Warriors competing. She did her best to maintain perfect etiquette, while also having extremely poorly developed social skills. The character has elements that remind me of two campaign characters I’ve played: Quill, my wind-up doll character, and Cricket, my etiquette focused archer. I rather enjoyed channeling a bit of both of them into my portrayal of Plumblossom Shadow. I definitely think I got the best possible casting for me.

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Plumblossom Shadow

Much to my surprise, I won the right to challenge the Demon Prince first at the conclusion of the tournament, though he went undefeated by the Warriors. I also successfully found and took home my True Love from among the Swords, so it was a fairly happy ending for Plumblossom Shadow.

I had plenty of fun occupying myself with the basic interactions prescribed by the schedule, but there’s are also a number of other levels to the LARP if players choose to engage them. The combat system is a complex version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, with additional rules for how one can teach and learn new moves, both from other players and possibly the NPCs. For a short while, I was trying to work out the puzzle on how to ensure certain players ended up with certain techniques, and how to best ensure I, or one of the other warriors, would be able to defeat the Demon prince. There were one or two other plotlines and mechanical systems in the LARP that I never got around to personally engaging with because I was busy enjoying conversations and training with the Swords. Having now read over the backstory and GM and NPC materials for the LARP, I do wish I’d dug a bit further into it with the NPCs.

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“Closed Fist Methodology!”

I happen to know there’s one other LARP in this fantasy matchmaking LARPs — The Tale and the Twilight uses a similar structure and concept, but is set in an Arabian Nights setting. Here’s hoping I can someday catch a run.

Shortly after the end of The Song and the Sunrise, I returned to Boston to get to Sin-o-matic, an event that runs monthly at a nightclub. “Cyber/industrial” is listed among the suggestions for attire, and some of the players of Threshold, acyberpunk campaign, decided to take advantage of it and attend as our characters for an evening of dancing and light RP.

Sadly, I forgot my wig at home, couldn’t find my makeup in the depths of my cluttered suitcase, and my costume contacts were bothering me… so my character, DEX, didn’t look like her usual self, but I decided that as a drone pilot (who usually pilots a combat drone or a medic drone), DEX might also have a party drone for corporate events, and that can look like anything, right? Fortunately, I did happen to have my Project Threshold ID badge and glowing armband all AI are legally required to wear.

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Party Drone DEX

Dancing in-character at a public event was a new and interesting experience for me. I liked making use of the atmosphere created by the club (which includes having a background filled out with nameless NPCs for added realism). I had fun working out how DEX, as an AI, might be programmed to dance — an upbeat sort of style, kinda silly, very repetitive. Like a video game character, who has a simple movement pattern that they do whenever you click the “dance” option. (For some reason, the moves of background dancers in Samurai Jack episodes came to mind.) In a certain way, I felt more self-conscious about my dance moves, especially at one point when a couple at the bar seemed to be watching, as they didn’t know I was trying to role play a very upbeat, inhuman character, but at the same time, it was sort of freeing to have the alibi, and an excuse to deliberately not try my best. “No one can judge my actual dance moves, because this is how my character dances, not me.” I’d definitely like to see the employees of the Threshold Project back at a future Sin-o-matic, and experiment further with roleplay in explicitly public settings.

Posted in LARP, LARP Reviews, theater | Tagged | 3 Comments

Through the Fifth Gate

Recently, the boffer campaign Fifth Gate held its final weekend event of its three year run. The Survivors of the Wrathborn world and the Champions of the Silverfire world came together one last time to determine whose world might be saved, whose world would be destroyed, and what the future for the people of both worlds might look like.

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Ten of the Champions of the Eyrie

To summarize the premise of the campaign for those unfamiliar: Fifth Gate is a boffer (live combat) campaign that uses the Accelerant system. It is actually two campaigns in one: one campaign takes place on the high fantasy Silverfire world, and the other on the post-apocalyptic steampunk/steam fantasy Wrathborn world. Each of the two worlds has one spring event and one fall event, then the two worlds come together for a crossover event each winter. (We’ve been trying to call them the “capstone events” to avoid confusion with another boffer campaign called Crossover.)

In the final event of Fifth Gate, the Champions of Silverfire and the Survivors of Wrathborn met at the threshold of the Fifth Gate (some of us are trying really hard not to call this the Threshold event because there’s also a campaign called Threshold). We’d known for sometime that we had an impossible decision waiting for us as soon as we arrived. Both the Silverfire King, the great enemy of the Champions, and the Wrathborn Emperor, the great enemy of the Survivors, were on the brink of Ascension to immortality, which would destroy their respective worlds in their wake. We had the collective power to prevent only one ascension, which meant moving the entire civilian population of one world to the other for their survival, then siding with either the King or the Emperor in a battle against the other.

In the year or so leading up to this final event, we’ve been gathering information about the two worlds and various other cosmological factors (including Ruin, the opposing force to Power, Power being the force wielded by the Champions, Survivors, Silverfire King, and Wrathborn Emperor).

For me, barring any cosmological factors that would involve the safety of multiple other inhabited worlds (which there were, but I’m not going to go too deep into them here) the biggest factor was the size of the refugee populations and the state of the world that would be receiving them. Silverfire’s population was listed at 243 million, Wrathborn’s at 37 thousand. Beyond that, as a post-apocalyptic world, much of narrative from Wrathborn was around struggling to provide for its population — it barely had any resources or infrastructure. The refugee crisis we would be creating defied imagination.

An NPC had given us some kind of estimation that an equal number of people would die from hunger on the Wrathborn world as would die in the wars on the Silverfire world. To be honest, this was the point that interfered with my suspension of disbelief, and though I suspect this information was intended to be taken as reliable, I found myself primarily arguing about how illogical this seemed to me during the hour long discussion leading up to the vote on Friday evening.

I had also heard a fellow Champion confidently predict the Survivors would vote to save their own world, and the Survivors outnumbered the Champions. I suppose I might have spent the hour trying to talk people out of it, but this seemed hopeless for someone who had missed the last year of events, so instead I spent it fuming and making dire predictions about how long it would take before people began resorting to cannibalism (I’ve done some morbid wiki-binging on the subject). I made several of my fellow Champions promise to burn my body should I die on the Wrathborn world.

When I wasn’t fuming and speculating about cannibalism, I was chasing down NPCs and trying to convince them to enable me to commit an atrocity; unsurprisingly for out-of-game reasons, none were willing. I will probably save the details a future post summing up my thoughts on my character.

At on point, an emissary of Ruin arrived to offer us a third option — let Ruin win on both of our worlds, which would save both worlds but permanently cut us off from Power. I do think, both in- and out-of-character, this was the right choice (though it would have spelled the end for all of the undead Champions from the Order of the Veiled Ones), though Cricket was selfishly relieved it wasn’t chosen. I suspect this option might have stood more of a chance if it had been introduced earlier, but it very few selected it, though a number more might have if they thought it stood a chance. (Cricket would have, but by the time she cast her vote, it was mathematically impossible for Ruin to win.)

I was shocked and relieved when they announced the Silverfire world won the vote and then was immediately flooded with guilt for having doubted the Survivors and having expected them to vote to create hundreds of millions of refugees. But in actuality, we hadn’t voted to save the Silverfire world — we had voted to try to save the Silverfire world, and there was still a battle to fight.

Between the vote and the big battle, I went on three modules, and spent time solving puzzles to open some boxes that would reveal information on how we could influence the nature of the Wrathborn Emperor as an immortal in the moments leading up to his ascension, a brief window during which he was vulnerable to suggestion.

The big battle itself was something like a four hour ordeal, during which we held off the forces of the Silverfire King while trying to earn the ability to influence the Wrathborn Emperor. (This involved denouncing the Silverfire King dramatically after defeating one of his lieutenants — it was often lost in the din of combat, but it was a rather satisfying mechanic nonetheless.)

Occasionally, the emissary of Ruin would try to break free and corrupt one of our Gates to gain access to our worlds, and groups of Champions and Survivors would split off to stop him… In retrospect, some of us wished we had tried to help him succeed, as that is essentially what we might have voted for, had we taken the third option. This was almost guaranteed not to succeed, but… I think it would have been a really nice role-playing moment to try.

When it was my turn to join the group trying to influence the Wrathborn Emperor by instilling him with Compassion, I went into a building on the side of the field where the battle was being fought. I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know what methods we were expected to use to instill him with compassion. Inside, we found the ghosts of his mother and father… and a little boy wearing the Wrathborn Emperor’s crown, sitting alone at the far end of the room.

Cricket laughed.

This moment was among the highlights of the weekend for me — one of the most impactful and emotional, where my character’s feelings washed over me. Many LARPers call this experience “bleed”. (The other two highlights were the moments where the results of the vote were announced and then later, when the Wrathborn Emperor ascended.) I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the child was played by an actual child, rather than an adult who either needed some sort of verbal roleplay cues from the other NPCs and/or other visual cues (I don’t know, maybe a teddy bear and a lollipop?) to indicate that this was a child, one who would one day be the Wrathborn Emperor.

The sensation of shock upon seeing the very young NPC reminded me quite a bit of a moment in another LARP, Unheroes, in which someone unexpectedly showed up to NPC a role that I had only imagined moments before. My character assumed that NPC was still trapped in the body of a cat, and I, the player, assumed no one could possibly have had time to coordinate that NPC role. My character and I experienced shock from two different (though related) sources, and the surprise I felt specifically came from me thinking I knew the parameters of what was possible in this LARP, only to have them violated. The effect was sort of a positive feedback on bleed.

I’ve had extremely little experience LARPing with kids — I can probably count the number of instances on one hand. Certainly I’ve never done it during a boffer LARP event (for plenty of extremely valid logistical reasons), though I’ve seen adults play child characters tons of times. (I played one myself at the last Madrigal event.) Having a child that young (I want to say… eleven years old?) at a boffer LARP seemed outside of the parameters of what I thought was plausible (not impossible, but extremely unlikely)… and the resulting shock was a very immersive moment.

I didn’t want to crowd the NPC, so I hung back while the others talked to him and his parents (he had killed them), laughing and shaking my head. It was absurd to think that the undead monstrosity that had slaughtered over a billion people, rendered uninhabitable the vast majority of an entire planet, and raised an undead army in order to ascend to immortality… had once been a small child, with loving parents no less. And it was equally absurd to realize the notion that he had once been a child had never occurred to me. It had never been relevant, but on some unconscious level, it had always seemed… incongruous. So inappropriately for the moment, I laughed at the absurdity of it, and the absurdity that Cricket wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it, and then I laughed at the contradiction of those absurdities.

After a long, grueling fight, we slew the Silverfire King, and the Wrathborn Emperor slew the emissary of Ruin. And then we watched the Wrathborn Emperor cross through the Fifth Gate. In that moment, the Wrathborn world was destroyed, and the Survivors became untethered, homeless.

At previous capstone events, we had gathered in the Crossroads, and occasionally met people wandering through who were Remnants — people with access to Power who had made it off their worlds before their own worlds were destroyed through Ascension. They all seemed to be fading, somehow. Some sought ways to anchor themselves to new worlds, others accepted that they would fade away entirely at some point.

When the Wrathborn Emperor crossed the Fifth Gate, he called, “By My Voice Inflict Trait Remnant to Survivor by Power. By My Voice Remove Trait Survivor by Power.”

All of the campaign closers I’ve been involved with as a PC or NPC thus far, (and all of the ones I’ve heard about) are primarily about evoking a sense of victory. Lots of them are tinged with loss and mourning as the victory comes at a price, but still, the prevailing emotions are positive ones, things like triumph and relief. I think the final weekend event of Fifth Gate was unique in that, while we did achieve a victory over the Silverfire King, the prevailing emotions seemed to be loss, grief, frustration, anger, and doubt, without creating an unsatisfying ending, which I consider a unique and difficult accomplishment by the Fifth Gate staff.

For me, the overwhelming emotion was guilt. I felt it both in and out of character (hence the moment being another highlight brought about by bleed.) I felt horribly guilty that we’d sacrificed their world to save our own, I felt guilty that I’d been vocally angry and frustrated with the Survivors when I thought they might have saved their home, that I’d doubted they’d make the right decision (well, the right decision according to Cricket after Ruin failed to gain the vote). And moreover, by saving our world, we’d sided with the monstrosity who had slaughtered most of their population and laid waste to their world, whom they’d been struggling against most of their lives… The Survivors had allowed themselves to be forced into a position where they had to help the source of all their suffering achieve his deepest desire and ultimate victory… The moment when the Emperor walked through the Gate and achieved immortality was so devoid of justice, Cricket couldn’t bear to look any of the Survivors, no Remnants, in the eyes.

Cricket might have tried to offer condolences or reassurances, but instead she covered her face in shame and ran off the field.

There was one more emotional kick to the gut that night. I spotted a member of the Eyrie, my Warband, headed out of the main building that night, one whose history involved sleeping for years beneath the earth and then awakening just before the Silverfire King turned on us and the Ebon Order resurfaced. I asked him if he was on his way to bed. He said yes and wished me good night. When I sat down with the other members of the Eyrie, the mother of his children explained to me that he was returning to sleep beneath the earth again… not to awake until her time as general of Xo’lal was up, at which point he would awake again to take her place. If the Angels were good, he would wake a few days early. There was a lot of (in-character) drinking that night.

The next morning we built a small bonfire and offered toasts to the fallen, before enacting a short ritual to welcome the Remnants who wanted to create new lives on the world of the Champions (it probably needs a new name besides Silverfire — it was always interesting to me that we called our worlds after the most dangerous and evil people on it). The trait Champion was Granted to those who wanted it; a few chose to join those who wander the paths between the worlds.

And so concludes the Fifth Gate campaign. We have a final dinner at the end of this month, a sort of an epilogue… after which I’ll probably share some thoughts about Cricket as a character, the process of creating her and what it was like playing her.

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Cricket (with storm themed makeup and heterochromia)

It was Fifth Gate‘s innovative concept of two worlds, with two separate PC bases, coming together that drew me to the campaign; I liked the idea of playing around with the standard structure of the boffer campaign. Lots of LARPs feature multiple worlds, but I think it was really the separate PC groups from wildly different backgrounds with limited time together that really made Fifth Gate special. I think the concept proved very successful and it afforded some wonderful roleplay opportunities that I haven’t had in any other campaign I’ve PCed or NPCed. My one major regret from this campaign is never having PCed any of the Wrathborn events. I meant to, but it didn’t work out for scheduling reasons. I NPCed one of their events, but I wish I had gotten to roleplay being a Champion on the Survivor’s home turf. I think this multi-worlds concept still has even more untapped potential, and I would love to see more LARPs build on this in the future.

 

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