Not So Tiny LARPCon

Back in November, I was contacted about a run of Trial of Lancelot, a relatively new Arthurian theater LARP. Once plans for a run firmed up, and I realized I’d be in NJ for the whole weekend anyway, there were proposals for another LARP, followed by a few more proposals for LARPs I’d been hoping for a chance to play.

I ended up with a schedule of five LARPs — not quite as full as a typical LARP convention weekend for me, as three of the LARPs were 90 minutes or under; still, a solid weekend of LARPing, hanging out with LARPers, and some extra time in the morning to sleep in a bit. (There were also a couple of LARPs that ran that I did not play.) I certainly packed just as much costuming as I do for a typical weekend LARP con.

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Juniper: The Unofficial Mascot of the Weekend?

The first two LARPs of my weekend were Orc and Pie LARPs. Back in 2001, the shortest, yet technically complete, tabletop RPG adventure was created, featuring an orc with a pie in 10×10 ft room. This spawned a number of variants, parodies of the writing styles of tabletop RPG writers. This meme in turn inspired some of the LARP writers in the NY/NJ community to write their own short scenarios featuring orcs with pies, parodying their own LARP writing styles.

Aorch and Pi is a beautifully written 90 minute LARP of political negotiation set in a fantasy world, and it didn’t read to me like a parody. In fact, I wouldn’t have realized it was an Orc and Pie LARP if the divine artifact and magical resource we all coveted wasn’t called the Picene Disk (aka the “Pi”), and the PC who begins the LARP in possession of it wasn’t an adherent of the Aorchish faith (aka an “Aorch”).

I played the head of the New Aorchish church, looking to improve the lives of the peasants. I debated and negotiated with the Aorch, the head of the Academy of Sorcery, and the monarch, over what to do with immense magical potential of the Picene Disk, which of our various political projects to pursue, and how to handle our relationship with our aggressive neighbor to the south. My church ended up with the Picene Disk, which was nice, but to be fair, I did think I had one of the easier positions to argue. In geeky, liberal communities, the social justice angle of this character and the advancement of technology represented by the sorcery academic are the two positions most likely to be viewed favorably. I suspect the Aorch has the most difficult role to play.

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the Patriarch of the New Aorchish Faith

For costuming, I wore an off-white colored poncho in a loose weave fabric, over a red kaftan-like thing, and I thought the effect was actually decently clerical. The red had a bit of sparkle, but the poncho’s material is prone to fraying, and the edges looked rough. I thought it nicely reflected my character’s humble beginnings and dedication to remaining an advocate for the lowest class.

The second Orc and Pie LARP was called Scions of Sorrow, and this one is rather more blatantly a parody. It involves the three children of Sorrow facing a test to determine who should be heir, at the expense of a rather nonplussed orc, who just wants to enjoy his pie. We indulged in our most melodramatic acting and ad-libbing and made the orc very uncomfortable; it was all very silly.

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“I demand you fight me for the pie!”

On Saturday, we played in Route 108: A Dream of Glam and Cities, a LARP about “the meaning of artistic movements, the stories we tell about ourselves, and mid twentieth century America”. Last year, I played in a LARP titled Dreamlands, which is about fantasy worlds inhabited by dreamers. Each world has two Auspices that reflect its nature. (For example, my character was from a fairytale world, with the Auspices of Snow and Starlight. Another world is a pirate adventure world with the Auspices of Brine and Gold.) I rather like the concept of the setting; it has a lot of potential for future LARPs in a variety of styles and tones. It didn’t surprise me that Dreamlands inspired another LARP, Dreamlands: Heart and Shadow was written with new worlds and new Auspices.

Not exactly a sequel, but set in the Dreamlands setting, Route 108 is a LARP about four rock stars and four personifications of cities facing the end of their Dreamland, and figuring out what comes next. Playing a rockstar in a LARP is always appealing (Slayer Cake is a total blast), and I find the idea of playing the personification of a city to be terribly intriguing — for a while, I was toying with the idea of creating a character based on the personification of Boston for a boffer campaign.

The four cities in Route 108 are imaginary, but based on real world locations: Sireva is inspired by New York, Losmilenos by Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Redwater by New Orleans, and Cascadia by Seattle/Portland/the Pacific Northwest.

I think if I had been cast as a city, I would have most enjoyed costuming as Redwater (I have only fond memories of beautiful New Orleans)… And I spent a bit of time dreaming up an interpretation of Sireva that would have involved a Pizza Rat costume and use of a loud car horn sound effect. (It’s probably for the best I was not cast in this role; I would likely have offended the New Yorkers.)

Instead, I was cast as one of the rock stars, which was also a lot of fun to costume. I wore a jacket with a bejeweled collar, a rhinestone skull t-shirt, bright red leggings, and tall black leather boots with lethal spike heels. I was incredibly impressed with the other costuming in this LARP — Cascadia’s combination of hipster skirt with a techie t-shirt, Redwater’s Old World charm with a layer of Mardis Gras excess on top, Nureva’s professional cosmopolitan attire, and Losmilenos’ slick suit and trilby.

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Nuriella, the vocalist and guitarist

Route 108‘s plots and mechanics take inspiration from Toil and Trouble (a LARP I really like, and ran at Consequences) and Trial of Lancelot (the LARP I would be playing the next day.) I like how this community takes particular effective ideas and finds new ways to explore, combine, and expand on them. I rather wish I had spent more time preparing my speech about the meaning of art, as I got nervous and ended up just sort of stuttering through it. I also got pretty nervous for my monolog describing my performance, meant to represent a story of Cascadia. However, two of the other players wrote actual short pieces of music for Redwater and Losmilenos (in a rather small amount of time) and gave really impressive performances, which was incredibly cool.

I was also particularly impressed with Losmilenos’ roleplaying as a slick city that emphasizes taking big risks, lures people in with the promise of big rewards, can wheel and deal with the best of them, and just might chew you up and spit you out. My character most valued Style as an artistic virtue, so Losmilenos was my choice for the city to essentially become the new member of our band in whatever future we might end up in.

On Saturday evening, I played in Ars Longa, a one hour, two person LARP about two old classmates deciding which of them should confront an evil, powerful sorcerer — their ex-teacher and mentor. In some LARPing communities, the notion a LARP that is, in its entirety, a two person, hour long conversation might be met with some skepticism, but I think it’s a successful formula (and it’s no surprise that there have been a number of other such LARPs written by members of this community that I’m hoping to play.)

My costume was a variation on the Route 108 outfit. I swapped out the rhinestone t-shirt for a ruffly white top, and red leggings for black ones. I think the result had a distinct equestrian vibe.

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The One Who Left, and the One Who Stayed

The character sheets of Ars Longa are long and detailed and clearly indicate the writer’s extensive experience in academia, with all the pride and frustrations that come with it. The characters are well fleshed out, with well developed relationships with both the evil ex-mentor and one another, and there is plenty of fodder to keep the conversation flowing for the hour. In the end of my run, my character was the one to confront the dread sorcerer, but I felt as though we could have easily gone the other way. I’m looking forward to trying some of the other one hour, two person conversation LARPs.

Ars Longa, by the way, is now available online on the Paracelsus website.

The final LARP of my weekend was the one that got the whole “Not-So-Mini Con” rolling — The Trial of Lancelot. It features King Arthur and eight of his knights (including the defendant himself) gathering around the Round Table to discuss potential verdicts and sentences, in the context of the ongoing decline of Camelot. While I do love LARPs produced by this community, and Arthurian LARPs in general, what initially drove me to want to drive 4+ hours each way to play was this phrase from its blurb: “[i]t is about the struggle for honor and virtue, the meaning of masculinity, and the great difficulty of being dedicated to a grand ideal.” (You can read the full blurb here.) This is the first LARP I’ve personally come across that is explicitly billed as an exploration of the meaning of masculinity, and that intrigued me.

I was cast as Sir Bedivere, whose name, to be honest, I did not recognize (though I’m not entirely well versed in Arthuriana.) In Trial of Lancelot, he is Arthur’s marshal, one of the oldest knights, and notably one of the more mature, level headed among those at the Table. I wore my red and white knightly tabard for costuming (a piece originally made for Quill, hence the giant ragged hole in the back, ripped to make room for her wind-up key.) Bedivere is also described as having a prosthetic silver hand, and I’m still kicking myself for having forgotten the glove I wear for my Winter Soldier cosplay at home. (In some Arthurian tales, Bedivere is known as the handsomest man in Christendom; this description wasn’t in any of the game’s written materials, but I can head-cannon that, right?)

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The “handsomest man in Christendom”

Like many other LARPs coming out of this community, the LARP has a structured schedule, with three evening phases (free roleplay time) and three daytime phases, during which the knights gather at the Round Table and each has a chance to make a brief speech. As part of the speech, each character (with the exception of Lancelot) can tell a short tale, which takes the form of two or three of the players acting out a short scene which represents a decision regarding which of the four primary virtues of Camelot (Duty, Faith, Brotherhood, or Love) to uphold.

All of the tales are pre-written, with the exception of Sir Bedivere’s. As Bedivere, I was welcome to make up my own tale, and support whichever of the four virtues I chose. In the weeks leading up to the LARP, I went combing through online collections of Arthurian tales, trying to find one to modify into a story a decision of virtue, but came up blank. Then I remembered reading in an online blog that “a heart at war with itself” was one of George R. R. Martin’s favorite themes to explore, and on Saturday night, inspiration hit. Borrowing from the stories of A Song of Ice and Fire, I wrote up a quick tale about Sir Bedivere deciding whether or not to knight someone who seemed unworthy of knighthood to save a life. Instead of choosing between two virtues (like the other tales), I tried to reflect all four.

I’m actually somewhat proud of the little tale I came up with — I think it has a lot of room for interpretation, as it seemed there was a lot of debate to be had over which of the virtues Sir Bedivere had upheld. And afterwards, a number of the players came up to me to ask what happened next. (I hadn’t made that up so I just responded, “I don’t recall” — I do wish I had come up with a fuller ending in advance.)

I found the concluding moments of Trial of Lancelot to be particularly emotional, and I came away from the LARP thinking about running it at Consequences. I hope it will be available for others to run in the future.

Following the last LARP, I went off into the basement to attend the NEIL meeting over video chat, where we elected the next president of NEIL, a con chair for Intercon T, and a chair for NELCO. There’s a good chance I’ll be back in NJ in two weeks to judge a small LARP writing contest, but in the meantime, I’m looking through lists of T words to try and come up with a suggestion for the Intercon T theme. So far, Time Travel seems pretty popular. I rather like Time and Tide, or Trapdoor, or Teatime.

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For Auld LARP Syne 2018

My annual retrospective on my life in LARP.
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A look back on 2018…

LARP Count This year, I’ve PCed, NPCed, GMed, or aGMed 46 LARPs (which is one shy of the personal record I set last year at 47.) My first LARP event of the year was Time Bubble. I played a weekend long theater LARP in the UK towards the beginning of the year, then returned towards the end of the year for Consequences. I took a road trip to New Jersey for two LARPs, flew to Chicago for a new convention, played another weekend long in New York, played a LARP over video chat, and PCed and NPCed in two one-shot live combat weekend LARPs.

Events The LARP conventions I attended this year included Dice Bubble, Intercon, Festival of the LARPs, Summer LARPin’, Little Boffer Con, Be-Con, Time Bubble, and Consequences. (That’s four different states, two different countries!) But even cooler, I attended four different conferences dedicated to discussing creating, running, and playing LARPs — the Living Games Conference, NELCO, TheoryCon, and the PreCon programming at Intercon. (If I tallied up the numbers, I suspect I’d find that I broke a personal record on number of talks, panels, presentations, and workshops attended in one year.)

Campaigns This was the second year of Threshold, the cyberpunk LARP in which I play a chipper Artificial Intelligence. I also attended my first event of After Dark, though sadly, that was my only event of After Dark so far, so I can’t really say I’ve been PCing that LARP. (Sadly, I didn’t manage to NPC any campaign events this year, though I did NPC a few one-shots.)

Contributions In 2018, I continued to serve on the NEIL board, and I served on both Proposal Com for Intercon S, and on Bid Com for Lucky Consequences (the boards that review proposals/bids for LARPs at the conventions). I’ve also been an editor for Game Wrap (NEIL’s publication on the art and craft of LARP.) I chaired NELCO 2018 and helped bring about the first Little Boffer Con (though I made some mistakes for NELCO, so I consider it less of a contribution that it sounds like.) I did some Housing Coordination for the Living Games Conference, and did a little volunteering during the Week in Boston events. I also ran a few of the discussions at PreCon and NELCO.

It’s funny, I consider GMing to be one of the biggest ways people can contribute to LARPing communities, and yet I realize in previous years, I haven’t mentioned GMing here, possibly because I associate GMing with writing, and I do essentially no writing. So I’m going to mention it here — I aGMed two LARPs at Intercon, ran Drink Me at Living Games (and some of the players had never LARPed before!), and then aGMed and GMed two LARPs at Consequences. (In all honesty, though it sounds cheesy, GMing at Consequences and hearing how much the players enjoyed the experience and feeling like I contributed to their weekends was probably my highlight of Consequences.)

Travel/Other Communities As mentioned above, I made it back to the UK for LARPing — twice! — and, I like to think, strengthened my connections with that community. I also met some LARPers from the Midwest at Be-Con.

At some point this year, I had a revelation: I realized that I felt very much like part of a bridge between various LARPing communities — between the boffer and theater communities, between the New York  and Massachusetts communities, between the US and the UK communities, between the New World Magischola and Intercon communities (and possibly the Be-Epic community?)… but not actually a member of any of them. There was something slightly melancholy about this realization… but I’m also very proud of being a bridge. And that’s something I want to focus on — helping different LARPing communities connect, if I can. (Someone once phrased this as being conduit, or a catalyst for LARP styles and communities blending… I like those terms, too.)

Blogging Well, I entirely failed at my resolution to beat my number of posts from last year (29). My number of posts continues to decline from my first year of really blogging (2012, when I wrote 107 blog posts… I’m not even sure how I managed that)… but I did hit the readjusted version of this goal… 24 posts, or an average of two per month.

On the plus side, this means actually achieving my resolution of reversing the decline in posts per year got a little easier for 2019! But more importantly, my number of visitors per post and views per post is still rising, which is nice. I think this blog continues to be an important part of being that bridge/conduit/catalyst I talked about, and I suspect it played a role in me being asked to join Consequences’ Bid Com, and possibly other some other opportunities that popped up… so I’m still proud of this blog and inspired to keep going.

My LARP-centric twitter account passed 500 followers this year, which I guess is kinda cool? And my Instagram account… continues to exist. I tried the drawing challenge Inktober this year, and focused on a LARP and cosplay theme… which was an interesting experience I will probably post about when I actually finish it. Looking over the sources of my hits, though, makes me think I should be making better use of twitter, and Instagram… and Reddit. I really hate engaging in self-promotion, but if I consider this blog a part of acting as a bridge between communities, and if I mean it when I say being a bridge is important and meaningful to me… then maybe I should follow through.

Costuming and Other LARP-related Art Projects I’ve been lax recently about sewing, but the first half of my year was pretty busy with sewing and other creative projects. I tried new patterns, used unfamiliar fabrics, and tried some new tutorials. There were several pieces for a friend’s Shogun costuming, a skirt for Slayer Cake, a new dress for Dreamlands, a scuba knit hoodie for Rabbit Run, a beholder hood for Dungeon Owners Association, and a bunch of Pokémon costuming for Pocket Monsters, not to mention a couple of large geeky tote bags as prizes for the Bubbles’ raffle and the Consequences charity raffle.

 


Of these, I’d say I’m most proud of the beholder hood and the Sandshrew costume — both took a lot of time and effort and involved getting creative with unfamiliar materials, and the end results made me feel proud.

 

And while the sewing for Slayer Cake was a just a simple circle skirt, and I did no crafting at all for my 1920s look for Thicker Than Water, those were two of the costumes I really enjoyed wearing the most. Thicker Than Water was the first time I ever got my hair and makeup done professionally for a LARP, which was an item on my LARP bucket list.

 


2017 Resolutions As mentioned, I missed my blog post goal (…I notice there’s a distinct pattern of me saying that in my retrospective posts) and I failed to put a lot of my experiences from PreCon/NELCO/Living Games conversations into my blog. (I think I did slightly better on that than last year, though.) I pushed off my resolution to move all of my old photos off of Photobucket when they allowed third party hosting again… but I should get back on that, because who knows if that’ll change again. I also failed at getting back into boffer practice, and I know I missed a few PELs for Threshold. I think I thanked most of my GMs after LARPs, but there is a chance I missed one or two.

But! I did keep up dance practice, I did try new patterns and worked on my sewing and other costuming skills, I did jump on opportunities to connect with different LARP communities, and I did contribute to the various conferences. (I even helped a random new LARPer who found me over the internet join a LARP community during his post-high school year abroad.)

…And a look forward into 2019.

My 2019 already has a bunch of LARPs scheduled, including trip to NY/NJ for a weekend of small one-shot theater LARPs in January. I’ve got a full schedule for Intercon, which includes a presentation for Forum@Intercon, aGMing one or two LARPs, and a bunch of games I’m really excited to play. I’ve got costuming in the works for myself and another LARPer for Intercon, plus some set dressing projects. I’ve signed up to play A Wicked Wind, a one-shot weekend boffer LARP about pirates and musketeers on the high seas. It’s running this summer, and I’m particularly excited about it, as I missed the first run in order to play Pocket Monsters, and I had thought there was a real chance it wouldn’t run again. (And I just love swashbuckling LARPs!)

This will be the concluding year of Threshold, which promises to be rather dramatic. Not sure yet what campaigns might replace it for me. Maybe I’ll manage to get After Dark back into my schedule, maybe I’ll give Thaumatrope a try. I’m hoping to do some NPCing, some combination of Invictus 2, Madrigal 3, Shadowvale, Crossover, Hellcat Jive, Cottington Woods… maybe one of the Be Epic LARPs? We’re so spoiled for choices in New England.

I’ve still got some lingering post-con blues from Consequences… here’s hoping I’ll be back in 2019.

As for Resolutions… I read over my resolutions from all my past New Year’s posts, and I think I need to approach them a bit differently this year. Rather than just listing a bunch of stuff I’d like to do, regardless of whether I’m certainly going to, or almost certainly not… I’ll try focusing on things that I’m actually more likely to do if they are mentally framed as resolutions. This means tweaking the ones I check off every year to be a bit more difficult, and tweaking the ones I don’t to be a bit easier.

I’m renewing my resolutions to thank GMs post-LARPs. (Framing this as a resolution pushed me to email some Consequences GMs even after a bit of time had passed.) I’m also resolving to get my PELs done, even if they’re short and rushed. I’m expanding this to include “respond to all requests for feedback from writers.”

I’m renewing my resolution to keep working on my costuming and sewing skills — but in particular, to try to improve my hair and makeup skills. Even if this means just attempting a few tutorials on YouTube.

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And maybe picking up a crown like this one I borrowed for a photo at Dreamlands.

For blogging, I’m resolving to at least match the number of posts I wrote this year, and to at least write a short summary post of any conferences I attend (even if I don’t go into detail about all of the topics.) Forum@Intercon, NELCO, TheoryCon (this is the year off for Living Games)… they’re important and deserve to have some form of record of their occurrence.

I’m also resolving to plug my blog… a minimum of three times, even if it’s just in tweets.

And lastly, I’m going to finish my article on registration systems for LARP events, which is almost certainly too late for Game Wrap Volume 3, but not too early for Game Wrap Volume 4.

If anyone has any LARP related resolutions of their own, or just exciting LARP plans for 2019, feel free to share in the comments!
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Here’s to all the LARP in 2018, and all the LARP yet to come in the new year!

May your spell packets fly true; may your enemies’ packets feed birds. May your bubbles of combat last no longer than bubbles of soap. May your contingency envelopes surprise you, may your costuming last until the final Game Off call. And may your characters go through the resurrection mechanic a full half hour before the lead GM knows they’re dead.

Cheers!

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Three Wishes for 2019

I have missed my goal of a higher number of posts in 2018 than I wrote in 2017.
So I have adjusted my goal to that of an average of at least two per month. And in the interest of hitting this new goal, here is a short post on a topic suggested to me by a fellow LARPer:

Three Wishes for LARP Experiences for 2019

This isn’t…. three LARPs/LARP events that exist I’d like to attend. (I pretty much want to attend nearly every LARP out there, anyway…) Just experiences off the top of my head I’d like to see written/inserted into LARPs that are accessible to me in 2019. In no particular order…

1. Interactions with live animals

I know of some examples that have already happened. There’s a western LARP in the Czech Republic that had real horses. I know of a small theater LARP that ran locally with a real rabbit (a kindergarten class’s pet), and there was a dog running around at the event of Beyond the Wall that I played. (The dog was very cute, and really added to the immersion — it was very logical for our outpost to have one.)

I have seen online discussion on this topic, in which people state “animals in LARPs cannot and should not be done”. This is a little odd to me, as I saw this sort of statement pop up a few times in a thread where people were offering examples of it actually having been done. I think people sometimes walk into such conversations with a live combat-centric LARP point of view (and maybe aren’t reading the entire thread before responding). But I have seen it done and heard of it done, and I’d like to experience it for myself.

(Think about it — animals are always perfectly in-character.)

2. LARPing in water.

I know this kind of thing also happens — there are short theater LARPs written to run in pools (and now at least one that runs in a hot tub). I have had at least one encounter with mermaids in a pool. (Didn’t get to swim with them, but it was still pretty cool.) But I have played a great many live combat campaign events at campsites that have lakes, and never gone near the docks to go swimming, or boating, or have encounters with water dwelling NPCs. (Or played a water-dwelling NPC for PCs to encounter in an actual body of water.) There’s something about the somewhat unexpected nature that appeals to me, beyond “here’s a LARP in a swimming pool” (though that sounds good, too.)

There are multiple excellent reasons for this, involving what campsites will permit/the terms under which LARPs rent the sites, safety reasons, logistical reasons, etc. But even if this is a logistical impossibility for the local LARPs that are most accessible to me, I can still dream. (And hopefully catch a run of Prawn at some point.)

3. Modern spy, cloak and dagger stuff in public spaces.

Every time I see this kind of thing on tv or in movies, I want to try it in a LARP. Dead drops of packages, meeting strangers and having back to back conversations with them on public park benches while pretending to read the newspaper, passing verbal codes, all that stuff.

I recognize that there’s a lot that is logistically extremely difficult about the kind of LARPs that run through public spaces, especially with potentially suspicious behavior, (an actual dead drop of an unaccompanied package is for sure a bad idea), but who knows. …And ideally, it would conclude with a black tie party. With martinis. Shaken, not stirred.

If anyone has any wish lists of their own for 2019, please do feel welcome to share in the comments!

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NELCO 2018: Workshops and Foreplay

Back at NELCO 2018, I attended a workshop about workshops. On the schedule, it was titled “Workshops and Foreplay“, though unofficially, I have been referring to it as the “Workshop Workshop.”

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Workshops aren’t as popular in the local theater community as they are in some other communities. This workshop was about addressing the question of what is the definition of a workshop, what are our preconceived notions of them, and what purposes can they serve. Plus a little bit of tongue-in-cheek re-branding. (Hence the “Foreplay” part — maybe they would be more popular locally if we emphasized that they can be fun in and of themselves, rather than work we have to do in order to access fun?) The methods we used to address these topics were borrowed from actual LARP workshops, and part of the process was also discussing why we used the techniques we did. It was all very meta.

Here is the blurb for the topic:

In the last few years, I have played in more and more LARPs that integrate a workshop as a central design feature. Maybe you have questions about what that means. Maybe it just doesn’t sound appealing — the word “work” is right there in the name, after all! Maybe it’s time to rebrand workshops as something more fun, perhaps indicating that it is part of the play that comes at the fore of a LARP…?

Let’s talk about what workshops are, how they are being used, and why you might (or might not) want to have a little foreplay for your next LARP. We can engage in some LARP foreplay and collaborate on some new ways to structure them so that they’re effective and fun.

The order of activities was somewhat unexpected but chosen deliberately to get participants’ thought process going, rather than letting people passively absorb ideas from the facilitator . I’m not sure I remember the exact order of all of the parts, but we started with getting a sense of the population present (“who here has played a LARP with a workshop? Run one? Written one?” etc.) then, rather than moving straight into attempting to define workshops, we went through checklists of assumptions about them (e.g. “I will need to be creative during a workshop” or “this LARP will not have secrets”).

We then ran an exercise where the facilitator read off some statements about workshops, and we lined ourselves up across the room depending on how strongly we agreed or disagreed with the statements. Another exercise included dividing into small groups, and on the count of three, pointing at whomever we thought best fit various statements, such as “most likely to produce the next workshop LARP.” We worked on individual attempts at writing out definitions of a workshop, read one another’s, and considered whether or not to revise our own. We brainstormed lists of topics workshops cover, methods of covering them, and strengths and weaknesses of using workshops.

One of the interesting ideas that was addressed during the Workshop Workshop was the notion that we draw a distinction between rules briefings (and other common pre-event activities, such as introductions and explanations of pre-game logistics) and workshops, but one could easily define and understand all of these things as sub-types of workshops.

The dictionary defines a workshop as “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.”

To apply this a more specifically relevant form of the word, my definition of a LARP workshop is a directed, interactive activity that occurs before a LARP (or before at least part of a LARP) for the purpose of facilitating the LARP.

To clarify, directed implies staff is somehow involved, or at least initiates it. So players who initiate contact with one another and work out some stuff between their character, whether it’s a little pre-game roleplay or just chatting about physical boundaries, are not technically engaging in a workshop.

By before the LARP (or before some part of it) I mean a workshop is outside of the typical flow of a LARP. It doesn’t necessarily have to be completely out-of-character (for example a workshop might include doing some improv and creating three short memories for each character) but this would be distinct from a flashback mechanic that runs during the LARP itself.

Every LARP workshop that I’ve attended thus far has taken place before the entire in-game experience of a LARP, but I can easily imagine calling some activities workshops if the LARP is put on pause in the middle to engage in the activities designed to facilitate some element of the LARP that occurs in the later part. (Especially if we’re talking about a campaign LARP, where the LARP gets put on hold for some block of time, usually months, by design, but I can also see a mid-LARP activity in a one-shot being labeled a workshop.)

This does exclude post-LARP stuff (e.g. game wraps, de-rolling and de-briefing exercises, post-game dinners and war stories, etc.), even though they can resemble workshops. I’ve never heard an activity run after a LARP fully concludes be referred to as a workshop; probably because they aren’t facilitating any part of the in-game experience itself, though they are sometimes designed with facilitating some element of the post-LARP experience. (For example, lots of de-briefing exercises are designed to help decrease and/or manage post-LARP bleed.)

One could make the argument that knowing the post-LARP activity is coming up might facilitate some aspects of the LARP experience itself. For example, knowing that I’ll have a post-LARP de-briefing might facilitate a more intensely angry fight scene with another player, because I’m assured we’ll have a chance to talk about it post-game. This feels like enough of a stretch to me that I still wouldn’t press the label of workshops on post-game activities, but I wouldn’t necessarily argue with someone who felt otherwise.)

By interactive, I mean the players must be engaged in the activity on some level beyond passively receiving information from the staff. On this, the Workshop Workshop facilitator and I disagreed — he didn’t think workshops had to be interactive. By his definition, a LARP staffer standing in front of a crowd and reading over the rules could technically be a workshop. By my definition, this wouldn’t be a workshop… until some members of the audience are invited to get up and try out/demonstrate the techniques. (…Maybe. I suppose we might be getting into grayer areas where we start asking questions like, can something be a workshop for some players but not others, and what percentage of the players have to be interacting, rather than passively absorbing, to cross the line from briefing into workshop?)

We also disagreed about one other part of the definition — the facilitator felt it had to be in person to be a workshop, though I can imagine a workshop taking place online prior to a LARP.

I expect there is a lot of disagreement over the exact boundaries of the definition of a workshop; by the definition I’ve written above, handing out name-tags and having players write their character names on them would count as a workshop, though I think most people wouldn’t instinctively categorize that as a workshop.

While I try to look at this sort of thing with a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, approach (that is I try to work out definitions that reflect popular usage, rather than trying to determine what I think should be the definition), in this case, I don’t think my definition is very useful in one of the more personally relevant contexts for this term: blurbs for LARPs running at Intercon, and similar conventions with overlapping population (such as Consequences, Be-Con, the Bubbles, Festival, etc.), where there are more specific connotations involved. (These connotations likely stem from a tradition of using different labels — such as rules briefing, or tutorial — for common pre-game activities that might be labeled as workshops if they came up in other communities.) The strongest association LARPers at Intercon and similar events have with the term “workshop” is probably generative workshops, where players create or expand on their characters (and possibly other elements of the LARP, such as setting information.)

These common interpretations and assumptions are why I think this Workshop Workshop was a great addition to the NELCO schedule — to start the ideas of what else workshopping can mean percolating in the community, (and also why I often recommend that LARPs that include mention of a workshop in the blurb follow up with a line or two talking about what the purpose of the workshop is, and/or what sort of structure it will have.)

Through the workshop, we came up with a list of strengths/advantages and weaknesses/disadvantages of workshops.

Strengths/Advantages include:

  • Reducing prep time for players and GMs. When content is created through workshops, this can reduce the writing load for staff, and result in less required reading for players. Also, when rules are reviewed and practiced through workshops, players may not have to learn rules in advance, or at least spend less time committing them to memory and/or ensuring they understand them.
  • Extensive workshopping in a design can be friendlier to players who walk in at the door, rather than having LARPs primarily accessible to players who sign up well in advance.
  • Reducing awkwardness/easing players into a LARP. It can be difficult to get into the swing of things with LARPs that start abruptly, especially for newbies. Opening with simple, straightforward ice breakers and improv exercises, or heavily directed scenes, can help players get over feelings of awkwardness or self-consciousness.
  • Reduce confusion around rules that players have only heard described but haven’t practiced, decreasing the need for out-of-game rule clarifications.
  • Create muscle memory for in-game actions (e.g. combat)
  • Gives structure and support for pre-negotiations
  • Individualized customization.  Often increases the likelihood players get to play characters and scenarios they like best, and can increases player sense of ownership and buy-in of experience

Disadvantages/Weaknesses include:

  • Encroaching on play time. If workshops aren’t fun, it can feel like they’re taking away from the enjoyable experience of actually getting to play a LARP. (And even if they are fun, they are often perceived as less fun than in-game experiences.) This is particularly true when the structure of events creates hard limits on LARP time. For example, LARP cons like Intercon strongly encourage running LARPs in four hour time blocks, which often creates something like three and half hours or less of actual LARPing. Dedicating a large chunk of this time to out-of-game activities can make players feel like they’d rather choose another LARP that maximizes in-game play time.
  • Struggles with creative blocks. Workshops dedicated to generating content for LARP (creating or developing characters, setting, or other elements of a LARP) can be very difficult to do on command, and players may feel like they aren’t able to create something they would enjoy playing in the context of a workshop. I know I’ve been in a number of workshops where I was stuck for ideas, and felt like I enjoyed the LARP less than I would have if the writers had just handed me the content in advance.
  • Decentralized control over content. Generative workshops can sometimes produce content that isn’t well suited for the content and structure of the rest of the LARP (or content other players brought in through the workshops.)
  • Reduced buy-in. Though giving players control over content through generative workshops can increase buy-in, lack of content in advance (such as knowing what character you will be playing) can reduce excitement and the amount of effort players put into a LARP in advance. Some players may not bother putting in effort to learn rules and mechanics if they assume it will be fully covered through workshops in advance.
  • A sense of infantalization. This is something I’ve personally struggled with — some workshops, particularly those designed to teach and reinforce very simple mechanics, or emphasize safety, can sometimes feel overbearing or “nannying” to some players.

Some of the issues common to generative workshops can be mitigated through heavier guidance from the designers. For example, simply asking players to come up with a character might result in characters not well suited to the LARP, or very simplistic character. Giving players a basic character to start with, and walking players through specific questions with lists of options to choose from may avoid these issues.

A form of workshop that I haven’t personally seen much of, but I would very much like to see more LARPs use are those that help teach and familiarize players with the customs and etiquette of an unusual setting. I’ve attended a fair number of LARPs with a historical or pseudo-historical fantastical setting, where royalty is not actually treated any differently from anyone else, or Victorian LARPs where strangers of different genders or classes are expected to seek introductions before conversing… but don’t. Sometimes it’s an issue of people not wanting to bother with the inconvenience of slowing things down to tell with etiquette and other unusual social norms, especially in a busy LARP where the world may be at stake, but often it’s simply an issue of not being familiar and comfortable with it. I’d like to see workshops on things like proper forms of address, table manners, proper ways to request a dance (and workshops on teaching historical forms of dance as well!) I think it would be especially worthwhile for longer LARPs, as a way to enhance the sort of immersion that draws people to non-contemporary settings.

I hope the Workshop Workshop will run again at other events, like Forum@Intercon — it’s a fun, interactive way to introduce workshops to LARPers unfamiliar with them, and get everyone to think more about ways to take advantage of their strengths and ways to address their weaknesses.

Posted in conventions, LARP, theory | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Threshold Mission Day 8

Two weekends ago, I tossed all of the costuming I hadn’t yet unpacked from Consequences out of my suitcase, and replaced it with all of the costuming and props I use for Threshold, the cyberpunk boffer LARP, for the closing event of the second year.

This is the LARP in which I play DEXEMBER, or DEX, a extremely chipper AI whose primary purpose is to provide encouragement and positive reinforcement to everyone, particularly psychically powered Mentalists. She’s the kind of AI who chirps reminders at other Threshold personnel to “do their best” and hands out stickers after missions.

I like to play around with this character’s silly, non-human nature. A few sessions back, I brought in a mayonnaise jar, and snacked on spoonfuls of its content throughout the event. When people asked, Sunday told them he had put DEX on a “mayonnaise cleanse” which was supposed to “make your skin glow”. The jar was actually full of vanilla pudding, but it had the desired effect, a lot of people grossed out or amused or some combination of both. (A “mayonnaise cleanse” card appeared in the homemade Threshold version of Cards Against Humanity, which staff and players like to play at the post-event suite parties; I was very proud.)

For this event, I tried another iteration of this prank; I washed out an empty bottle of dishwasher fluid and re-filled it with blue gatorade, and took sips throughout the day. When people asked what it was for, I pointed at the label and said, “it prevents build up and removes spots.”

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DEX’s beverage and warp device

I do worry that this character can get a little annoying — she pretty much only has the one mood, regardless of how terrible things get, say, when missions go horribly wrong, or when people express hatred of AIs. So I’m quite happy with how her personal storyline is developing; her body (“social chassis”) occasionally ends up remotely piloted by a technopath named June. June is also optimistic and encouraging, but her mannerisms are largely toned down.

Also, one of my favorite relationship tropes to roleplay in a LARP is one of a pair of a bodyguard and a ward, a protect-r and protectee. In Threshold, I feel like this relationship of mutual protection has developed between two characters, both of whom are played by me. You might not think this sort of relationship would be satisfying when it’s almost entirely internal roleplay, and the two characters cannot co-exist, but apparently, that isn’t the case.

In addition to occasionally taking breaks from playing DEX to play June, one of the other players has the ability where he can enable AIs to temporarily shed their own abilities and personality, and use a copy of his. (He has a “Cure Death” ability that is particularly useful to copy.) This character, Sunday*, is an ex-telenovela star and a self-assured diva, with a reputation for flirty eye contact, and that was a lot of fun to mimic. A few players came to speak to me post-game, and told me they felt like they were able to tell from observing my body language for just a moment which personality I was portraying (DEX, June, or Sunday), which was really nice to hear. I’m really enjoying the personality swapping roleplay.

This may sound rather weird, but one of the highlights of my weekend was filling out employee evaluation forms. We each had three forms to get filled out, one self-evaluation, one for any member of Command to fill out, and one for a peer to fill out.  I filled out a few evaluations for others as DEX, then took on the Sunday template, and filled out a few more, trying to write them using Sunday’s voice. The eval forms provide a lot of potential for funny roleplay between PCs.

We also had another fashion show, much like the one last year. I missed the planning emails that went out, but the NPCs rolled with it when I requested to join last minute, which I really appreciate. This year’s show was a bit more chaotic than I remember the last one being, with multiple assassination attempts and an eco-terrorist attack.

I don’t mean to imply Threshold is all comedy — I think the staff has achieved that rare balance of comedy, tragedy, and darkness that is hard to strike in LARP, where the light elements serve as contrast to highlight the dark. Now that we’re headed into the final year, I can see how plot threads from over the past two years are coming together in complicated ways, and I’m really impressed with the storytelling going on.

In this event, the connections between the AI War in Berlin and various catastrophes that have struck, along with others still threatening to strike, came to the forefront, and retroactively, I saw the threads and connections stretching back to my first event, particularly through modules that were designed to be geared towards AI. And it all came to a head in the final two events of the day.

First, TARA, the agency responsible for creating and regulating AI, informed us that they were under attack. As our Cubes — the devices that contain our programming — were stored at the TARA facility, we had to assist, retrieve our Cubes, and move them to a new, secure location. This may have huge ramifications in the upcoming events for the AIs pursuing freedom from the Asimovian restrictions created and enforced by TARA.

Second, we received a message from ATLAS, the AI at the center of the war in Berlin, who informed us that we were past the point where humanity could be saved from the various looming catastrophes, and now it was just a matter of how many humans, if any, we could save.

I wish I could do the scene justice by describing it through text. The NPCs put all of the PCs under the paralyze effect, then took down the air-walls separating us from the next room over. It was an amazingly effective way to feel like the “fourth wall” was being removed, that reality was melting away to make space for a message being introduced directly into our minds. The next room was filled with glowing lights, trippy music, and surreal videos, reinforcing the “this is all in your Mind’s Eye” concept of the scene. Thanks to its one-day only, all indoor structure, Threshold has a really high NPC:PC ratio, and they made good use of it here. Each PC was taken into the next room by an NPC who was somehow meaningful and connected to their character, to relay ATLAS’ message in a way that would be most likely to be accepted. I heard the message from the fan who had exchanged letters and then cosplayed as DEXEMBER at a convention that ran at the previous event.

The whole thing was deeply weird and personal.

So humanity is doomed. We have some hard decisions in the next few events. And even in the face of the apocalypse, I feel like DEX isn’t distraught. She just wants to know, did humanity try its best? Things don’t always work out, but it’s ok, so long as everyone tried their best. (Besides, depending on the nature of the disaster that dooms humanity, the AI might come out of it just fine.)

*Technically, he sold his name and personality and is now… Mr. Zazou? Or The Artist Formally Known as Sunday?

Posted in boffer, campaigns, LARP, LARP Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Consequences 2018

I’m back from my second Consequences — the all (mostly? there was some tabletop) LARP convention that runs in the UK in November.
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On the Tuesday and Wednesday before the con, I got in a little touring around London. Highlights included the London Mithraeum, a visit to the Tate Modern, walking along the Thames, and a ride on the London Eye. (I’m not normally afraid of heights, but the Eye inspires a little acrophobia, though it’s worth it for the view.) One evening, I attended a performance of The Play Where Everything Goes Wrong, which was very funny. I also got to catch up with a couple of British friends for dinner and drinks, and had tea in a cafe in a crypt.

My schedule at Consequences this year was a bit lighter than last year (in part because I was deep in the woods of Maine with spotty internet access during the final round of sign-ups), but as it allowed for later sleep in the mornings, and thus later nights at the chalet parties, it still felt like I had a jam-packed weekend, especially with GMing two LARPs.

On Thursday evening, I didn’t have a LARP, so I joined the trivia contest. My team, the Masters of Cat Lore, came in second place, within a point of first place! And I actually managed to contribute a few answers, which is a large step up from last year (and every other trivia contest I’ve participated in thus far.)

Friday morning, I played in The Omega Expedition, which is about a scientific research mission to Antarctica, and the unexpected discovery the team makes there. It’s highly spoilerable, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will say I got to play one of the characters not from the original expedition, and I loved my casting. The GMs told us that our run had a particularly unusual ending, compared to earlier runs. I get the sense that how players choose to play out the first moments of the LARP can have a really big impact on the tone of the rest of the LARP.

On Friday afternoon, I ran Toil and Trouble with a friend. When we saw there were no open player slots on Friday afternoon after the last round of sign-ups opened (and a number of people on waitlists) we decided to bid a small LARP. Toil and Trouble is a six person LARP about three witches casting a spell to alter the fates of three heroes: one will be king, one will be happy, and one will die.

For awhile, I didn’t think Toil and Trouble was going to run; it went up on the schedule very late, and didn’t see any sign ups for awhile, (though we posted about it on the Consequences Facebook group). Then, with only a few weeks until the convention, we got six players, so I rushed to get casting done. I was a little worried about casting — a couple of characters didn’t quite fit any of the responses we got, but we did the best we could and crossed our fingers.

Set up took a bit longer than we expected — we tried to give a corner of the room a dark, magical feel with string lights, loosely woven fabrics, and a cauldron. I hope the players weren’t too bothered by waiting for that to be finished. The LARP itself ran for the remaining hour and a half, and I think it went pretty well. I try very hard not to be the sort of GM who hovers over players’ shoulders, so I don’t really know what was said during the many hushed conversations, but from where I was sitting, the players seemed to embody their roles well (as far as I could tell, the casting worked out), and kept tense conversations going throughout.

The players also mentioned after the end that they wish it could have gone another half an hour, which makes me feel a drop guilty about the set up time, but I also think with this LARP, there’s a chance that players will want extra time at the end regardless of how long it runs. I suspect having stronger cues for the end of the LARP and making them clear during the introduction would be helpful. I’ll try to keep this in mind should I run the LARP again. I think there’s a good chance of that, since the LARP seems to have gotten some good press at Consequences.


On Friday evening, I assisted with GMing Stars of Al-Ashtara. I helped run this LARP twice at the last Intercon, and I remember the process of digging up all of the old materials and trying to piece together plotlines and puzzles, which wasn’t easy. This LARP hasn’t really been properly boxed, but the lead GM did a really impressive job creating a functional run out of materials we had. I made a few mistakes while GMing, but I think nothing disastrous. Overall, it looked like the players were having fun. I wonder what other LARPs by these writers would go over well at Consequences.

After a late night of hanging out at a chalet party, I slept late on Saturday morning. Then on Saturday afternoon, I played in Five for Silver. The scenario involves a group of pirates gathering one year after the loss of their captain to toast her memory, with lots of classic pirate tropes sprinkled in. The experimental twist on this LARP is that the players run through the scenario five times. One standard run, then once with exaggerated emotions, once with heightened sexual tension, once with muted emotions, and the final run is totally silent.

It was interesting to see how the directional instructions affected the experiences. For example, three of the runs ended up much faster than the original. In the heightened emotions run, instead of letting anger build slowly, characters exploded with anger right away, and this tended to bring about the conclusions of interactions much faster. Muted emotions also sped up the scenario — characters just couldn’t be bothered to discuss things or stay focused on a particular topic or moment very long. The silent run was also very fast — no one was spending any time on the small talk, or hemming and hawing, that happened in the first run. We mostly just hit the highlights and the moments that could be made obvious with dramatic motions and interactions with props. I think a lot also got forgotten, without us able to give verbal cues to one another as reminders.

I also noticed the anticipation of future runs impacted the first run. For example, I think during the first run, players were setting themselves up for innuendo and double entendres in the third run. I also think some of the more dramatic gestures and interactions with some of the props in the first run might have been done with the intention of creating markers for the future runs, especially the silent one.

I think we also strayed a bit from the original intentions in two of the runs. For the sexual tension run, I’m not sure it was intended to be so farcical, but in LARP, where overt sexual tension is concerned, it’s easy to go very silly. In the muted emotions run, I think the original intention was to just try and express all emotions very subtly, but instead, we played it out as though we were all dreadfully apathetic, which came across to me as though the entire cast were rather depressed.

After Five for Silver, we sat around in the chalet where it ran to discuss our impressions. The GM wanted to know how it was for the non-British players in particular. I wish I’d given a more thoughtful response, but I mostly talked about how the British accents reminded me of Hollywood depictions of pirates (and one player’s performance reminded me of Captain Barbossa in particular.) I also noticed that I was repressing the urge to do my own yarr-stereotypical-pirate voice, which players likely would have been doing if this had run in the US (especially during the heightened emotions run) — I didn’t want to offend people with my own terrible version of a British accent.

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Sasha Dumont, interpreter of the Mandragora

On Saturday evening, I played in Mean Street, which was my pick for the first round of sign ups. Ever since I saw the first season of Westworld, I knew I wanted to play in a LARP inspired by it, so seeing “a dark science-fiction game inspired by Westworld, Dollhouse and the 1920s noir genre” in the blurb grabbed my attention.

I got to play Butterscotch, one of the chorus girls working in a club frequented by gangsters. I reused most of my costume from Thicker Than Water. I also wasted a bunch of time fussing with my hair and makeup for this costume, and didn’t really like the results. I think it’s sort of a shame that after some 15 years of LARPing, with costuming being one of the things I love most about it, I still haven’t managed to learn even the basics of either hair-styling or makeup. (I’ve tried following youtube tutorials; it usually ends with me giving up.)

Mean Street was as advertised — a angst filled story, low on mechanics and high on roleplaying intense relationships in a dark situation. I somehow found the guts to do a quasi-lip synch performance. The music in the background was all vintage covers of modern songs (I think by Postmodern Jukebox?); I picked “Sweet Child of Mine” because I thought I knew the lyrics well enough, and would be able to mostly muddle along even though I wasn’t familiar with the arrangement. I had a great time in Mean Street, and particularly enjoyed some roleplay moments with other characters who knew much more about my character than I did.

On Sunday, I played in Best of the Wurst, a LARP heavily inspired by the British sitcom, Allo, ‘Allo. Like the sitcom, the LARP is set in occupied France, and involves the characters getting into shenanigans at a wurst contest, thanks to stolen art (“St. Francis with the Large Boobies and the Great Tits”) and the schemes of the French Resistance.

I marathoned all 85 episodes of the tv show in the months leading up to Consequences, but I don’t think I did my character, the source material, or the LARP itself justice. (I’d like to blame the lack of sleep.) There were a few moments where the situation worked out rather nicely to set-up some quips or over the top excuses, but I just couldn’t think of anything clever enough in the moment. I very much appreciate my fellow players, who ran with the wackiness and references to the tv show. (Amusingly, I did notice players once or twice accidentally calling one another by the names of the tv show characters who directly inspired the LARP characters.) Best of the Wurst is a very funny game, and I recommend it to fans of the show.

Besides playing LARPs, I also really enjoyed the late night chalet parties, where I got to know a number of my fellow Consequences attendees better. I never got around to trying out the hot tubs, which were new features for some of the chalets and were left running all weekend, but I hear there was an impromptu LARP about early life forms floating in bubbling primordial ooze that I’d would love to see get put down on paper so that it can run again.

On Sunday afternoon, I watched the prizes go out for the Consequences charity raffle, and I was rather happy to see my own donation (a homemade Harry Potter tote bag) was selected second. After the end of the closing ceremonies, I tried out Dragoon, a board game about dragons demanding tribute from or burning villages for gold. I spent most of the game being uncharacteristically nice (for a dragon) to my villages, building them up into cities and failing to collect any tribute from them, before burning them all to the ground in the last round for the win. I like how Consequences slowly winds down over the course of Sunday evening; it makes saying good bye a little easier.

The ride home was also rather nice — the locals who gave me a ride back to London made a few stops along the way at some really cool sites, which included lunch in Dorchester, the Cerne Abbas Giant (which might be iron age art, or 17th century political satire), the Nine Stones near Winterbourne Abbas, and the ruins of Old Sarum, (where Henry II used to imprison Eleanor of Aquitaine from time to time.) We also stopped for tea at a beautiful historic hotel, called Great Fosters.


Now I’m back in the US and finally getting over my jet lag… and I have a pretty hardcore case of the post-con blues. I think it’s hitting me harder than it ever has before, not just because Consequences is such a nice convention, with really friendly attendees and a welcoming atmosphere (and I really enjoy meeting new LARPers and experiencing new cultures and communities.) I think the post-con blues are particularly bad this time, because at other events and conventions I attend, I generally know I’m going to see a large percentage of the attendees again in the foreseeable future. And last year, at my first Consequences, I knew I had Shogun in about three months, so I’d be seeing a lot of the attendees again soon. This year, the UK Freeform weekend event in February is Torch of Freedom, which I’ve already played. Right now, I’m wishing I was signed up to play again.

I guess I should be focusing on upcoming LARP events (I have a boffer event this weekend, and I’m making plans for another trip to NYC for theater LARPS in January). Casting questionnaires have started going out for Intercon, and I have some sewing projects I should get started on. (More banners for set dressing.) But I miss Consequences! Here’s hoping I’ll be back next year.

 

Posted in conventions, LARP, theater | Tagged , | 4 Comments

NELCO 2018: Climaxes in LARP

As the end of the year approaches, and I look back on my post count for 2018 and compare it to 2017 (and previous years)… I realize it’s highly unlikely I’ll meet one of my New Years resolutions — to beat my previous year’s post count. I had another goal to actually write about the topics covered at NELCO, and similar events LARP theory discussion events. And while I did cover TheoryCon this year, I failed to cover most of NELCO, and entirely missed covering Living Games Conference and PreCon.

In effort to address this in some small way, however inadequate, I’ve decided to write about one of the topics we covered at NELCO 2018. One of my topics got added to the schedule to replace some last minute cancellations. I wish we could have recorded all of the great conversation we had — but it’s been long enough, that all I have is my own thoughts.

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The topic was Climaxes in LARP.

Get your giggles out now.

Here is the description I wrote for the NELCO website:

“It’s hour three of a four hour LARP (or Sunday morning of a weekend long LARP), and the time for the death moratorium has run out! It’s time to finally take down the Big Bad Villain, appoint a priest to marry you to your sweetheart, and find out who is getting crowned! …This should be exciting, but you’re stuck in a time bubble, your ceremony has become a mass wedding, and people are too busy for the coronation. Why does this distinctly feel like an anti-climax?

LARP is a unique medium, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but we seem to want to recreate the sense of climax one sees in other media, like books and movies. Is it possible? Let’s discuss how to create a satisfying climax for individual players and a LARP as a whole, and ways to avoid the common pitfalls that create unsatisfying climaxes in LARP.”

As you can see, for this topic, I was primarily focused on one-shot theater LARPs. (I think the climaxes of campaigns and/or boffer LARPs is its own important, fascinating, and complex topic — some of which overlaps with the stuff we talked about it. But such LARPs also have their own unique sets of needs, advantages, and disadvantages, and I wanted to be able to narrow down the focus a bit for the hour and fifteen minutes at NELCO.) We also mostly discussed it from the point of view of a LARP with (fully or mostly) pre-written characters (I think we’re starting to call this “litform”?), though a lot also applies to LARPs with player-generated characters.

Before I begin, I should note that I don’t believe every LARP needs a climax, and in fact, in many cases, might be better off without one.

When preparing notes for this topic, first I listed all of the common forms of climaxes in LARP, based on my personal experiences. At the discussion, I solicited additional items for the list.

Here’s the list I came up with:

  • combat (usually a “mass combat bubble” — all of the players involved in a single fight, possibly against one another, possibly against NPCs)
  • weddings, coronations, and other ceremonies that mark/create status changes
  • escapes
  • rituals
  • transformations
  • decisions
  • announcements of decisions/results (eg votes/elections, contests/competitions)
  • death

Then I thought about the factors that can make for a satisfying climax, and ones that don’t.

Ones that do include:

  • success at in-game goals
  • It feels relevant to your character
  • It feels personalized/specific to you/your character
  • Reflection of your efforts during the LARP
  • Whatever the “big” thing is (whether for an individual or a crowd) it has proper focus/spotlight
  • Something significant is accomplished (including the prevention/erasure of a threat. Often a wrong has been righted, or prevented.)
  • Transformation was achieved (either personally, or within the setting — it can be that your character increased in power, or the style of government has changed)
  • immersion is maintainted
  • a sense of choreography (see below for an explanation)

Ones that don’t include:

  • failure (especially failing with a whimper, rather than a bang)
  • redundancy/repetition (multiple characters with the same climax)
  • lack of agency/control during the climax, or over the factors that lead up to it
  • lack of spotlight/attention on you as an individual, or on PCs as a whole (e.g. it is on NPCs)
  • spotlight is too divided, either in terms of subject (on multiple targets at once) or timing (spotlight moves too quickly from subject to subject)
  • lack of significance
  • status quo is maintained
  • mood whiplash (eg sources of great happiness and great sorrow are happening at once)
  • lack of immersion (e.g. standing around waiting while mechanics are resolved, or people dropping out of character to argue about how the mechanics should go)
  • awkwardness/lack of choreography

By choreography, I mean elements of a LARP coming together in an aesthetically pleasing fashion in a way that enhances drama, or the tone of the LARP. It can be deliberate, or merely feel deliberate.

Compare this with a movie, where the drama and excitement (or comedy, or tragedy, or whatever the intended tone is) is enhanced via pre-scripted lines, music, lightning, cinematography, etc., many of which are elements that are extremely difficult, or else impossible, to reproduce in a LARP. The divided agency over a LARP among the staff and players and improve nature of the medium provides a unique, challenge to creating a sense of choreography, and its lack is probably why LARPers often like to say that “LARP doesn’t film well.”

Direction (as in, manipulated by a director) might be another word for it, but I felt “direction” was more likely to sound ambiguous in some contexts.

Interestingly, a climax can feel satisfying in the moment, but then get retroactively damaged, e.g. someone negating some element of it during the denouement (a word I definitely didn’t look up how to pronounce right before running this discussion), or even through a poorly handled post-game events. Conversely, experiences during a denouement and a well handled post-game event can retroactively enhance a climax, (though I personally find this to be less common.)

We can illustrate some of these traits of satisfaction/disatisfaction by relating them to the list of forms that climaxes often take. For example, take combat bubbles. Lots of theater LARPs use combat for a climax, especially mass combat, where a large number of PCs (possibly most or even all) are involved. But many theater LARPs employ abstract mechanics for combat that quickly get bogged down when lots of people are involved, creating the phenomenon of “combat bubbles” — where time suddenly slows way down (in-game time no longer runs 1:1 with real time) for everyone involved in the combat, and every one not involved in the combat (or “outside the bubble”) mill about, waiting for it to end.

I’ve seen some theater combat rules that are designed to be fun games/experiences in and of themselves, and that can sometimes be ok for a climax. But many of them aren’t, and while a giant combat involving everyone sounds exciting on its face, standing around in a combat bubble, waiting your turn to attack or defend while a GM sorts through all of the many actions everyone is taking… can be really dull and make a climax unsatisfying.

I’d like to mention one of my favorite forms of theater combat here — systems that determine the outcome  quickly and privately, the enable the players to physically play out the combat, with foam swords or cap guns or whatever is appropriate. This is usually a lot more entertaining to watch and participate in than forms such as Rock, Paper, Scissors.

We can also look at the example of weddings. I’ve been in a number of theater LARPs with multiple romances going on, and other characters, often clergymen, with the power to officiate at a wedding. Suddenly, just before the close of the LARP, five or six different couples want to be married, and the clergymen go through them rapid-fire. None of the ceremonies feel special, not to people watching, not even to the brides and grooms. This might be alright in a silly LARP, but in a more serious LARP, it can suck the romance out of the situation. (After one such LARP where a bunch of couple got married in a rush, one right after the other, I made a personal to decision to avoid marrying in any LARP with multiple romance plots running through it. Private declarations of love and/or betrothals will do.)

The repetitiveness of the situation (and often the ceremony itself) lends itself to multiple weddings feeling anti-climatic, but it need not be characters all going through an identical process. When multiple such announcements and ceremonies go off one after the other, they can step on one another, so to speak. It can be really exciting to hear that you won an election, but if mere moments after your victory is announced, someone else is granted the Nobel prize, and then right after that, someone declares they’ve retrieved the Holy Grail… each one can feel like it’s diminishing the other, almost how much time and attention each is given creates a zero sum game of significance.

This diminishing effect can stem from the nature of the plots and mechanics that tie into the climax — if you’re writing the sort of climactic scenes that typically have an audience, or else the significance of the scene is in how it affects large populations/the setting as a whole, it’s natural for LARPers to expect that to be part of the experience. Of course, the diminishing effect can also come out of a LARPer’s personal play style. For many LARPers, the significance of any given accomplishments or change or decisions is directly measured, in full or in part, by the attention it receives (hence the presence, lack, and/or division of spotlight appearing on the lists above. Trees falling in the woods and all that.)

However, some players can be really into internal roleplay, and find a lot of satisfaction in their characters’ various accomplishments and changes and decisions that come to a head at the end of the LARP, regardless of whether or not others know of it or acknowledge it. Still others may not be able to find satisfaction in the climax if no one else knows about it, but so long as least one or two other people know, that can suffice. And of course many LARPers vary, sometimes wanting lots of attention, sometimes needing none, or very little, depending on the context of the LARP, and the context of whatever is going on in their lives outside of the particular LARP they’re in (including, for example, other LARPs recently played.)

So now that we’ve looked at what climaxes often look like in LARP, and elements that contribute to their success and failure, we can think about how to create/encourage the successful ones, and avoid the failure ones.

Some of the items on the list have more to do with overall writing of a LARP than designing for the climax in particular, so I’m not sure I have any good thoughts on this other than “keep them in mind from the start when plotting/writing your LARP”. Namely, things like “players should feel like the climax reflect their actions/efforts” and “the climax should feel relevant to all players”.

Items like significant accomplishments or transformations being satisfying, and maintaining the status-quo often being unsatisfying, are a little tricky. Unless the LARP is designed to be on rails (and advertised as such), or even designed with a finger on the scales in favor of change, it can be very difficult to both encourage the more satisfying result without reducing the important element of player effort mattering. In fact, I’d argue that so many LARPs are designed to favor the Good Guys succeeding in their Important Task, that it’s usually better to write and give the Good Guys a decent chance at failure and the Bad Guys (especially if they’re equal or near equal in number to the Good Guys) a decent chance at success.

While the Bad Guys winning can be a downer sort of climax, players can be both rather perceptive about picking up on cues that the Good Guys were likely to win anyway (and rather skeptical about their own efforts making a huge difference in the outcome even if there weren’t any specific cues.) While this is particularly true of players who have been LARPing for a long time, this can also still be true of newbies, who often come in with assumptions based on other forms of media, especially roleplay forms of media, that they’ve already consumed.

Spotlight is also a very tricky thing to manage when it comes to climaxes in LARP. There are some adages regarding writing these styles of LARPs, “every character should feel like a star from their own point of view”. The larger the LARP, the more difficult this becomes; in weekend long theater litform LARPs with 60+ players, there are often multiple large plots coming to a head towards the end of the weekend, each relevant to different (often overlapping) subsections of the players. In fact, I think most of the weekend long, litform theater LARPs I’ve played had a bit of a rush on Sunday, with large moments (coronations, elections, duels to the death, competitions, weddings, deaths) competing for spotlight, and some amount of emotional whiplash as well (several wedding announcements and deaths coming in rapid succession).

In some cases, I’ve seen enforced separation of the climaxes of various plots, e.g. the results of the election are to be announced at 11:00am, the ceremony for installing the religious relic in the church will be at 11:30, and the wedding will be at 12:00. This has the benefits of ensuring players who want to bask a little in the moments that are important to them, won’t find attention suddenly rushing away from them on to the next thing. (Which can have more of a negative effect on satisfaction with a climax than not having had much of the attention to begin.) This rushing can also decrease the realism of the moment — in real life, no one sprints away from a one minute coronation to observe a duel.

The downside is that whatever is scheduled last tends to seem like it is the “biggest” of the plots, and plots that wrap up too early can leave players feeling adrift for longer periods of time until the LARP ends, especially if no thought in terms of LARP design was given to their experience of the denouement.

Speaking of denouement, providing options for what players might be doing after their biggest plots wrap up can not only avoid the feeling of “now what? I’m just sitting around waiting until they call game off” but importantly, provides something to do in case the various forms of climaxes don’t interest the players. Sometimes players just don’t want to attend the ceremonies and duels and announcements, perhaps because they lost the competitions or failed at their goals, perhaps because they don’t feel they’re relevant to their characters either way, or they had a particularly emotional moment, such as the death of another character, and prefer to focus on the roleplay of grief rather than, say, attend celebrations. Maybe the mechanics of the big battle just don’t interest them.

Providing alternatives can be a difficult thing to do, especially in LARPs that take place in a single room, but in larger LARPs, this can be as simple as providing a comfortable, immersive space, possibly with some immersive activity to engage it. (For example, on Sunday of Shogun, with so many deaths going on around me, I withdrew to one of the very well dressed rooms upstairs and tried some meditation and origami, rather than remaining overwhelmed by the chaos in the main room.)

Creating alternatives to attending the big climactic moments in the LARP might raise the concern of reducing the audience and thus the spotlight that these moments might need to feel properly momentous. In a LARP with a large enough player base, this might not be an issue, so long as some percentage of LARPers want to attend, but if GMs are concerned, maybe that’s a moment for GMs to temporarily take on NPC roles that are somehow meaningful as witnesses?

Working on choreography is another way to increase the weight of the dramatic moments of a LARP climax, even if the audience is small (or non-existent). Lighting and music cues can go a long way, though obtaining equipment, dedicating staff to it, and getting the timing right may not be worth it. Props, set dressing, and costuming for NPCs, brought out for the first time during the climax can be impactful (but it does mean budgeting time, money, and effort towards items that will only be out for a short part of a LARP.) An example might be creating royal banners for the various potential new monarchs, and hanging the ones bearing the new king’s coat of arms for the conclusion of the LARP.

The trickiest form of creating a satisfying climax might be encouraging players to engage in internal roleplay, or highly personal interpersonal roleplay with one or two other LARPers, and feel that it makes for a satisfying climax. Plenty of players are inclined to do so on their own, but how does a GM contribute to its likelihood? Or increase the level of satisfaction with it?

One method I’ve seen pop up a few times is to introduce some sort of prompt for a highly personal decision just before the end of the LARP. This might be some sort of questions like, “will you go into exile or stay here? You may only take one person and one item with you”.

Here I want to mention The Wonder Walk of Musica Universalis. Musica Universalis was a weekend long one shot LARP, with pre-written characters and boffer mechanics for combat, though combat was a much smaller part of the experience than it is for most weekend long boffer events, with many players never engaging in combat if they preferred not to. On Saturday night, the staff went out into a wooded area, and created lots of winding paths with glow sticks and string lights. There were stops along the paths, with random little interactive encounters, some simply meant to be surreal, or whimsical, others designed to evoke internal roleplay. Players went through the Walk one at a time, for a quite, introspective experience. I thought it was tremendously cool, and would love to see more like it in LARPs. It might also make a good template for a nice send-off for a LARP, with the end of such a path corresponding to the end of a LARP — with players choosing the path out of the labyrinth when they’re ready to step out of character. (You can see photos and read more details here.)

While many weekend boffer events hold their climax Saturday night, and the Wonder Walk could have served as a climax of sorts, the actual climax of Musica Universalis was the final ritual, in which all of the PCs and NPCs came together to sing one of the songs that had been sent out in advance for everyone to learn. With all of the voices joining in almost a spontaneous fashion, this finale both felt like it had a high level of choreography, and also enabled everyone to contribute their voices and join in equally. (Another musical LARP, ‘Tis No Deceit, and its sequel, Interesting Times, also make good use of music and have closing songs to create a nicely choreographed finale.) A good example to follow.

If you have thoughts on what makes for a good climax for one-shot LARPs, please do share in the comments below! What makes them satisfying or unsatisfying for you? In what ways do you think some of the common forms could be improved?

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