Thursday, September 6, 2012

I am So Jealous of the Danish

Over the past weekend, I attended a small local convention, Strategicon Gateway. Strategicon is mostly a board game/strategy game/miniatures game convention. However, the game I staff for has been working for several years on our relationship with the convention, and as a result have been able to carve out a niche for  LARP. Our game has a presence there 2-3 times a year, running personal-plot tabletops on Saturday and a live-action game on Sunday.

While the tabletop games are mostly designed for established players, we usually rely on a few curious convention-goers to show up and NPC for us. We write out roles with some bite to them. A new player isn't relegated to just playing a guard or a courier, we can make them senators or ambassadors. At this game, a very lovely new player showed up, speaking heavily accented English, and said she was interested in NPCing for us. So I set her up with one of our available roles, a bureaucrat obsessed with the danger necromancers presented to law and order. She seemed very much to enjoy her role, and I found some time to chat with her and another staff member as game was winding down, about LARP in Denmark (where she lives).

I am so very, very jealous.

In Denmark, LARPs are usually run through an established, national club. Members pay a yearly membership fee... and then get matching funds from the government. This usually, according to my new larpfriend, equals out to a yearly operating budget of about $15,000.

What could your larp do with $15,000? Or $10,000? Or even $5,000? All the awesome pictures you see of Nordic LARPs aren't just reflective of a passionate player base - American LARPers are just as passionate about our hobby as others. It's reflective of a country which supports LARP as an outgrowth of theater, music, film and other creative entertainment. LARP is supported in schools, as well - instead of quietly studying and memorizing dates, students researching the Napoleonic era will spend a week creating their character and devising a setting. And then at the end of the week, go and LARP Waterloo. I'd probably know a lot more about Waterloo and French culture during that time period if I'd LARPed it as a teenager.

I know many Americans, for one reason or another, have a bias against role-playing (despite the fact that other Americans effectively created and established the hobby). And we're currently embroiled in a national debate on the philosophy of appropriate government spending.

But wouldn't it be cool if we could the sort of government subsidies that the Danish and other Nordic countries do? What would it take to make that system work in America? Even just on the state level?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Character Retirement

In most of the persistent games I've played in (fantasy boffer games & World of Darkness MET games), characters could be played for as long as they survived within the system. For very long-running games, this could mean that a particular PC has ten years' worth of experience on his sheet (I've seen it). Even for games which haven't been running for a decade, older PCs still have a significant power advantage over new and mid-level PCs.

This, unfortunately, has the side effect of creating several problems for the games. I've seen this occur in both World of Darkness and fantasy games, and the issues tend to be the same from system to system.

First off, power creep. In order to provide a sufficient challenge for the high-powered PCs, the Storytelling Staff has to continuously devise newer, stronger villains with more puissant powers. If the power creeps high enough, then only the high-powered PCs become the ones capable of facing the villain; everyone else is sidelined. And why should the low-to-mid power PCs get involved? The established PCs can do everything and know everything anyway. And since the rules for such high-level encounters are so complicated, each encounter takes up Storyteller resources. While the high-level PCs are fighting the bad guys, the other characters run the risk of being neglected.

Related to that is player perception. A new player coming into a game with these high-powered PCs can look around, and realize that he or she will never be able to displace them. An attendant risk in PvP games is that new players will lose more characters than older ones, which also creates feelings of frustration. Such feelings can be quite disheartening, and turn new players off what might otherwise be a wonderful game. After all, an established PC usually has enough defenses and combat ability to be able to survive conflict; while a new PC does not.

Some games have come up with a variety of solutions to this problem. The Mind's Eye Society (formerly Camarilla Fan Club) usually does a full chronicle reset every five years or so - the world 'ends', and a new one begins, with all-new characters and plotlines. Other systems give new players a significant XP boost when creating their character. While this helps those players be able to survive and feel effective, it however does nothing to solve the problem of power creep. Some games insist there is no problem, or that such a disparity is part of the setting, or that long-term players should be rewarded and new players should expect to prove themselves. Well, I don't necessarily object to that sentiment, as long as it's made clear to me who that game views as priority. But most games do want to recruit new players and do want everyone to be able to have fun.

And so I want to talk about a mechanic I've seen used to great effect - the character retirement cap.

This is a mechanic used by Dying Kingdoms, a game I played in for several years and now serve on Campaign Staff for. The basic rule is: once your PC hits a specific point threshold, you must begin talking with Staff about your retirement arc. You have quite a bit of leeway on how you want your story to end. Some players have written their own assassination; others have ascended to positions of political power. Either way, your character decides to retire from the adventuring life and retreats to the background. They might make cameo appearances as the story requires, but for all intents and purposes, they are not your active PC any longer; time to make a new one.

If a player consistently attends every game, this threshold is reached in about two or three years. Players with more intermittent attendance will obviously take longer, but even the most dedicated player can reasonably expect several years' worth of playtime with their PC. In addition, players who have gone through this cycle once get a retirement benefit - they now have access to special mechanics, which brand-new players cannot have on their first starting PC.

The retirement cap solves many of the problems listed above. Power creep is no longer much of an issue. Though the power level of the player base will ebb and flow, it will never go past a certain point. A challenging villain in 2006 will still be a challenging villain in 2012.

Players also take turns being the one in charge. A given PC might, after a year or so of play, come to be a respected, powerful leader. However, this PC must eventually step down and make way for a different character to become the leader. And that PC must also eventually step down, and a different PC steps up. A character can receive a potentially game-breaking power... three games before permanent retirement and their chosen epic send-off. And players get a chance to explore a variety of different concepts - after retiring your brutal warrior, you can come back as a gentle healer or savvy politician.

I personally think this rule also combats a sense of entitlement some players seem to feel over their PCs. If their character has survived long enough to become powerful, they should be entitled to keep playing their character - regardless if this is a good or bad thing for the game as a whole. However, the retirement mechanic obviates such a feeling. It creates a sense of 'we're all in this together'.

And so, I encourage game masters and storytellers to strongly consider implementing this mechanic in your game. It might cause a bit of pain at first, especially for established games, but I believe the payoff in the end will be quite worth it!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Incorporating LARP Into Your Next Film Project

This post is addressed to all those aspiring filmmakers or documentarians who have recently heard about LARP and think it would make a fine subject for their next project.


Now, you've just discovered that there's a hobby which involves dressing up in unusual costumes and telling stories to each other. And you think this would make a fascinating subject for your next project.

I have to say, I agree! LARP is amazingly fascinating! It's a story within a story within a story, and I can completely understand why you'd want to do a film or documentary or reality show based around us. And perhaps this is just an artifact of living in Los Angeles... but for the game I Staff for, we're getting requests from the media at the rate of about one a month. People who want to film us or interview us. And, after one very bad experience, we're quite camera-shy.

So what follows is a list of what to do, and what not to do, if you want to film a LARP or incorporate LARP into your film project. 

The first thing you must realize is that LARP is not only about the game. We're also about the community. Not only that, but we are a very geeky community - meaning, we love those who share our passion, but tend to get clannish around those we think are just tourists. Please keep in mind that many adult geeks suffered ostracism or bullying when we were younger, often for loving what we love. So if your project intends to make fun of LARPers, or to treat us like a zoo exhibit (an exotic species for 'normal' people to gawk at)... back to the drawing board with you!

I really can't emphasize community enough. I've seen more than one potential filmmaker or academician attempt to understand LARP and fail, because they could not understand this one point. Community. Players will stay with a game they're not fond of, because they love their community. And players will abandon a game they love if the community is horrid. 

So if you want to convince us of your sincerity, become a member of our community. Attend a game, attend more than one game. Don't film, don't even try to film, just participate. Get into costume, create a character and swing some foam or throw some chops. Don't know what that last sentence means? Learn! And don't leave the game when it's over - if there's an after-game gathering, attend! Get to know LARPers in and out of character. You'll get some great insight into why we love this hobby, you'll understand our community, and you'll find that some LARPers will be more willing to help you once you've demonstrated a respect for our often-maligned hobby.

Secondly, realize that we're here for the game. We love performing, but that doesn't mean we want to perform for your camera. The performances we give for each other, at every game, without being filmed, are more than enough for most of us. Having a camera crew show up is intrusive, and it breaks our sense of immersion. We don't really care about lighting or framing a shot or re-doing a scene to make it more photogenic. Trying to get that out of us will just cause irritation all around. Consider setting up a special film shoot, not at an actual game, but involving LARPers in costume and in character.

Thirdly, realize that LARP doesn't translate well to film. Most of what we LARPers see is in our mind. We can look at a camping pavilion, card table and cooler and see a tavern. Most of your viewers will only see the card table and cooler. To really show your audience what LARPer 'sees' when we LARP, you'd need a Peter Jackson sized budget to match your special effects to our imaginations. Your audience won't get it, and your project will fall flat (free hint: if you want to convey the complexity and depth of a given LARP's story, consider animation or rotoscoping).

And for the LA filmers: please understand that more than a few LARPers are also professional actors. Some of them might be part of SAG-AFTRA, and as a result must be protective of their image. Be conscious of that. But if you want your web series to be SAG... please send me an e-mail, I know where to direct you. Or if you have any other questions at all - I'm always happy to help promote positive images of LARP!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

WyrdCon 2012 Recap

WyrdCon is a local convention here in Southern California, dedicated to live-action gaming. It's closely related to InterCon on the East Coast, and just wrapped up it's third year. I've attended all three years, and enjoyed myself each time. Here's a recap of my experience at this year's convention.

I've left buying convention badges behind me - I love running games and meeting new people (and saving money!), so I almost always try to take advantage of the fact that most gaming conventions offer free badges in exchange for running events. At last year's WyrdCon, a friend and I ran a very well-received Babylon 5 LARP, and we're still fielding requests to turn it into a campaign! This year, I designed a smaller game, though I did not actually end up running it (more on that later).


I arrived on Thursday night, just before the registration booth shut down and in time to attend the initial cocktail party. After a hectic, difficult day, I felt quite grateful for the chance to relax with friends and a gin & tonic. By the time the party was winding down, I decided to attend a ghost-hunting LARP/ARG that one of the designers had pitched to me in the elevator. The event was quite short, only about an hour long, and put on by the Los Angeles Ghost Patrol. After assembling a team of sufficient size, we were given a variety of ghost hunting equipment (a video camera, a few electricity meters and some dowsing rods) and led on a line course throughout the hotel, ostensibly looking for ghosts. I've always had a mild interest in ghost hunting, and the event was well-put on. The only quibble I have is that at the end of it, we were given small cards intended to kick off an ARG. I decoded the website fairly easily, and was able to log on in my room later that night. Unfortunately, something went wonky when I tried to send my text message to join - I never got any response, which was a little disappointing.


I am terrible when it comes to waking up early, so I didn't crawl out of bed until fairly late Friday morning. I decided to dress in costume, because why not? My next scheduled event was my Cobalt Nightmares game, so I got into my Irene gear: leather pants, a copper-colored shirt, black vest, ammo/pouch belt and handmade leather eyepatch, complete with boffer wrench and NERF derringer. I looked rather like this. I picked up a bottle of delicious Chocolate Peppermint Cordial from Oak, Ash & Thorn (and also traded a bottle of my homemade cider for a bottle of Lingonberry Cordial).

The Cobalt Nightmares game itself was quite fun - we somehow ended up ported from the Wastes to Qestera, the City of Games, currently holding a competition for the next Prince of the City. The event was mostly roleplay for me, though I did catch a dud shell during the bombing raid, and gained an ability called Luck of the Prince by drinking a mysterious potion (the Marshall's instructions were, "When someone is using an effect against you that you don't want, use this and then come find me"). Haven't used it yet, interested to know what will happen when I do. Also met my character's nemesis again, a rainbow lizard she has a grudge against (long story).

After that game was Big Damn Heroes, a Firefly-inspired LARP. I missed last years' game, but was extremely happy to make this one. My character, Shan Ivy, is a Shepherd from Higgins' Moon. She wears a little bracelet that says 'WWJD', and her Credo is "What Would Jayne Do?" All the PCs ended up unfairly imprisoned, so we got to roleplay out some interesting interrogation scenes (and some jailhouse preaching on the part of my PC) before staging a jailbreak. One of the innovations in this game was the setting up of an 'air vent' - two rows of chairs, about ten yards long, over which had been draped heavy pieces of canvas to create a tunnel. The trick was to crawl quietly through the tunnel, which led us over the Alliance guards' breakroom, and if we made too much noise, they'd hear us and flush the vents out with plasma. Fortunately, we all made it out alive!  Once I ended my PC shift, I switched to an NPC so the second group could fight their way though.


By the time Big Damn Heroes ended, I was exhausted. Back up to the room, and passing out in an incredibly soft bed with incredibly soft pillows. I unfortunately slept through the 9 am keynote address by Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, but I did manage to make his next panel. And a few panels after that. I learned quite a lot about transmedia, and have even been inspired to expand the site using a few transmedia principles. All the panels were exceptionally interesting, and the only reason this paragraph is so brief is because I plan on giving transmedia whole blog posts later on.

After all my panels, I had just enough time to grab dinner and change into my costume for Hunter's Moon, an urban fantasy, vampire & werewolf LARP which reminds me quite a bit of the Underworld franchise (though the vampires and werewolves in this game have come to a tenuous treaty in the face of attempts by a paramilitary organization to exterminate both races). I've played World of Darkness games for years and years, and have a strong nostalgia for the Masquerade LARPs which were my first introduction to the hobby. I keep hoping an indie Masquerade or Sabbat game will pop up in my area, but so far the only local games are part of global orgs I'm not a huge fan of (for various reasons - I can certainly understand how they appeal to others, I just prefer indie games). The character I made had influences from the Sabbat and Clan Malkavian - a proud, psychic predator. The game itself was interesting - I mostly ignored the plot and enjoyed the chance to roleplay a vampire again, including a very interesting philosophical discussion between me, a werewolf and a werebear as to the proper role of supernatural races in the world (my view: we are superior and therefore deserve to rule humans; their view: you're bugfuck insane for thinking that).


After the game concluded was the post-game drinkathon, but I had to leave early, as I was running a game at 10 am. However, as I predicted - I didn't get many players showing up for my game. To drag a nerd out of bed on the fourth day of a convention early in the morning, I'd need to be running a game they already knew and loved. Not to mention I was up against some pretty stiff competition - there was a free brunch just across the hall from my room. Instead, we used the room allotted for my game to play 1000 Blank White Cards, which is rather like Calvinball: The Card Game. Soon enough, though, it was time to wend my way back home.

Overall, I had a fantastic time! I got to play in some of my favorite games, talk about some of my favorite games, spend some time with the friends I love and delve into the philosophy of gaming. Even though I was fairly tired by the end of the entire convention, I can't wait to do it again next year! 

Things I think would make the convention better:

  • A panel held sometime on Friday where the various game designers get a chance to stand up and talk about their game and why attendees should play it. I realize many convention goers have already made up their minds which game they want to attend, but many more enjoy having a flexible schedule. I would have appreciated a chance to get introduced to more larps and local (or non-local) designers. As a designer, I would love the chance to introduce my game to more people.

  •  Holding it on a three-day weekend. There's another local gaming convention in the area on the same weekend, but it's more geared towards strategy wargames than larp. I think geekery has gotten big enough and well developed enough that we can have two geek conventions, each covering a different aspect of geek fandom, happening on the same weekend within 100 miles of each other.

  • More vendors! The vendors' room was so small! I realized shortly before my Cobalt Nightmares game that I had forgotten part of my PCs' costume - a ring of particular importance. I figured that buying a costume jewelry ring shouldn't be that hard at a larp con, but the only vendor selling rings only had simple hematite bands.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Back From Hiatus!

After an extended hiatus (partly due to hosting issues and partly due to Real Life), How to LARP is back!

A quick update of what's been going on since my last post (all of these are events which really deserve their own post; and they'll definitely get them - this is just the highlights):

  • In my favorite game, Dying Kingdoms, I retired my old PC, Thera. Dying Kingdoms has a unique policy involving character caps - after a character has earned a certain amount of experience points, it's time to retire them from active play (most characters get between 40 and 50 games before hitting retirement). Thera hit that cap, and so I let her ride off into the sunset. 

  • After retiring Thera, I spent one game as an NPC staff. I think it's generally a good idea to give back to one's favorite game by spending some time as an NPC before picking up a new PC. Part of my NPCing was writing and running a few mods for the game. Apparently, I executed my duties so well that I was offered the chance to join permanent Campaign Staff, which I accepted! I'm now part of a small team writing plot for a 50ish person game! 

  • As part of my Staff duties, I'm planning a tabletop day in conjunction with the Dying Kingdoms LARP. The intersection between the live games and the tabletops is an interesting one, and definitely something to write about further. 

  • I've been attending monthly meetups at a local bar with a few colleagues who are also interested in exploring the theory of LARP. We've discussed things like applying acting theory to LARP, what the Nordics are doing, the concept of bleed and whether or not LARP counts as art. 

  • I just got back from spending the weekend at WyrdCon, a convention in Southern California dedicated to live-action gaming - including not only LARP, but ARGs and transmedia as well. I had a great time, and will definitely be writing up my experiences.

Not to mention, continued banter with a friend as to whether or not we want to turn a one-shot Babylon 5 game we ran at last year's WyrdCon into a persistent campaign. I also eventually want to cover the issue of interpersonal conflict at LARPs, apart from bleed, and the best ways for both player and staff to handle such things

Watch this space for those thoughts and more! 

Monday, January 9, 2012

I Heart My Community!

So I'm back from the holidays! I hope everyone had a great and LARPalicious holiday season! I received a few gifts which are specifically intended for use with my next PC, and so I am super excited about that! Now I need to teach myself how to play the wooden flute...

But this post is not about that. This post is going to be me rhapsodizing about the community of LARP, and how awesome it is.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, one of my regular LARPs is a post-apocalyptic fantasy game called Cobalt Nightmares, and I play an engineer named Irene. Ever since I started playing Irene, I knew that I wanted to have a boffer wrench for her. As well, the first game I played her, I came into possession of an ancient pistol. A friend was able to pick me up a NERF physrep for about five bucks and gave it to me at the next game. Of course, it was all done up in neon NERF colors, so I knew a paint job was in its future.

Now, I am not much of a foamsmith. I know enough about it in theory, but have yet to actually put knife to foam. I'm a pretty good costumer and can run my machine through it's paces - and I have in fact traded a costume for some boffer throwing daggers. So I picked up some craft foam when Joann's was having it on sale, and had a vague idea about cutting out a wrenchy shape and then duct-taping it. I posted this on Twitter & Facebook, and not less than ten minutes later, a friend is offering to help me.

She gives me a shopping list of glue sticks, Plasti-dip, spray paint and contact cement, all of which I easily found at Home Depot. Then shows up the next day with all of her crafting supplies and basically proceeds to make a wrench in front of me while I watch, make tea and occasionally hold the blow dryer or add another coat of Plasti-dip. She also helped me antique my NERF pistol with an ink wash.

Not only were the end results better than anything I could have done on my own, I learned quite a lot just by watching my friend.

And that's what I like so much about the LARP community - the amazing generosity of spirit shown by so many of its members. So many people want to help in my primary game that Staff has had to ask people not to donate anything which hasn't been specifically solicited. If players have the time and resources, they're almost always happy to use those for the betterment of the game itself. I've donated to games, and I always wish I could give more.

So to all LARPers: go you!