Friday, June 24, 2005

The Bench Report (Ongoing Larps)

I've heard it said that to learn from your own mistakes is intelligence, but to be able to learn from the mistakes of another is Genius. That's really what this column is all about. I participated in a larp that I thought was pretty good. Sure it had it's problems, but it was fun and involving. I got into a bit of a scrap with the head storyteller because I had begun to notice that the larp was taking an unpleasant turn. I'll get into specifics below without naming names. As a result of this disagreement, I was forced to depart. The larp soldiered on for a few more months but it died a horrible flaming death. (and no, this did not bring a smile to my face, contrary to what you may have heard.) and a number of people went their separate ways, not speaking to one another...And not returning borrowed books.

Since I've got some distance on this situation now, I feel I can speak about it. Some friends of mine are about to revamp an existing larp.(No pun intended) and they asked me for some input about it. This got my wheels turning, and naturally in order to stop the squeeking and burning smell, I had to write some of this stuff down. Most of the tips provided here are for an ongoing larp, as opposed to the original bench report which had to do with con larps.

NPC means NON-player character!
The storyteller corps of any good larp is the backbone upon which the rest of the flesh hangs. Like police, they need to be ethically above reproach. As such it is my considered opinion that the Storyteller Corps must never be allowed to play a regular character as part of the larp landscape. The ST Corps should be enjoined to create about 5 different characters and be ready to slip into any of them at any time. Sure it's OK to have a favorite, but when the ST's become overly attached to any one character, It is a recipe for temptation. I'm sure there are Gm's out there that are ethically spotless enough to run the game and play, but the fact is, that the tiniest amount of fudging is too freaking EASY. It's a very slippery slope. You might tell yourself, you bent the rules to preserve the story's integrity...But you didn't. And people have a way of knowing that you fudged to save your characters ass. The perception...The mere hint...Among players that the ST are favoring their own characters over the players is sure deadliness to a larp and will sow seeds of disharmony in any event.

The proper attitude to try to achieve is that of an improv troupe that functions like a well oiled machine. You are there to help other people have fun. If you make this happen, then you too will have fun. You are not there to simply amuse yourself by watching the players twitch on the gallows you created.

Along that same line, is the problem when players feel like the other players are being favored over them. Again, it's the perception of this, not the necessary reality, that can cause trouble. It's my thinking that it is a good idea for the storyteller corps to plan one plot bomb for every single player per session. It is also good to let players know that this is the policy. It lets them know that no-one is ever able to completely squirm out from under the Belt Sander Of Destiny, and it lets them know that the bulk of the unpleasantness they face is being sponsored by other players. (which is where their ire should be directed.)

Plot bombs can be large or small. A retainer gets himself arrested, an IRS audit, the Methuselah you mouthed off to at the last conclave is coming to town...ST's are encouraged to keep a good list of player flaws and give them good reason to spend points to buy them off. Plot bombs can be as varied as a creepy letter intimating that the sender knows the receivers secrets or it can be an assassination attempt. (Which should FAIL, if it is plot...More on this in a moment.) Care must be taken to make sure that players don't feel like the lives of the other players are much cushier than theirs, as regards GM-related trouble.

There will be nights when your work life, or your personal life, is creating undue stress. We've all been there. We know what that's about. There will also be nights when your players are going to aggravate you with their behavior. If however, you feel that the next person who works your nerves is going to get killed. You need to go home. You are not helping the game, you are endangering it. If you walked in the door with the thought "I think I'm gonna kill somebody tonight." then you need to just turn around and hit the bricks.

Make no mistake, Characters die. Larps are set up differently from tabletop games, insofar as many of the antagonists players face are fellow players. They enjoy all the same benefits and the systems are not set up to favor one side over another, nor are they built to keep anyone alive. The Joe Bob Briggs rule is in full effect and it reads as follows:

"Anybody can die at any time."

But, when the ST's are feeling a little irritated or are actively conspiring to wax a particular player, then it's because of free floating aggression or some personality conflict. This shit is a game killer. Ethically, you MUST adopt the attitude that even people you actively dislike should be able to come and have fun at your game. (If they are derailing your organization or the bulk of your players dislike them too, that is a different story. Ask them to leave. Killing their character for laughs is still petty and classless besides.)

While players might feel it's fun to play dogpile on the Ventrue the first time, people are going to wonder when it's going to be their turn in the barrel. And nobody likes to feel that the ST is out to get them.

The Law and the Protocols
There is some behavior at a larp that is flatly unacceptable. But then, anytime you have more than two or more people congregate in one place, you're going to get that. As leader of your Larp community, (and you ARE the leader whether you want to accept it or not.) You are occasionally going to be called on to dispense justice. Rather than adjudicate things on a case by case basis and possibly be biased...Or worse, be seen to be biased, it's a good idea to have a code of conduct in place. This code of conduct, should be available freely to all the players and only the newbie on his first night has the excuse of ignorance of the law. It should be available on the game site at all times and there is no reason you can't post it to a website so that any player can download it. The document will see a bit of revision as things come up, but a good starting set of rules should be as follows:

Post the text of the basic rules of larping first, No drinking or drugs, no stunts, no non-consensual touching, no weapons, etc,
-For minor offences: (I.E. screwing newbies, obnoxious out of character behavior, "Fudging") Denial of experience or awarding of your XP to the injured party.
-For medium offences:(I.E. protracted verbal arguments with other players or staff, Blatant Cheating, playing while drunk or otherwise altered) Sheet will be pulled, pending a hearing. At the discretion the ST corps, the character may be permanently removed. The player does get to tell his side of things, but it should be understood that behavior must be altered. Or he will be asked not to return.
-For serious offences: (I.E. Repetition of the medium offences, Sexual harassment or Violence) Player who has committed these actions will be asked to leave. In very serious cases, the police will be summoned and charges will be pressed.

A code of etiquette might be a good thing to make available to players as well. People with differing play styles might not realize that what they consider fun is actually irritating the shit out of their fellows, mainly because they don't realize it's considered poor form. I always think it's a good idea that whenever you kill somebody, you might want to actually sit down with them at some point and buy them a drink and tell them they did alright. Talk a bit of the strategy of the last fight. Heck maybe even talk about their new character and how the two of you can work together with his next character, and screw somebody else. Friendly rivalry is the attitude to be striven for among players. When things get too competitive that's when you've got problems..

etiquette codes also cover what stickers on badges might mean. Stickers point out who is an ST or Narrator, They let people know who is a newbie, and I've seen Larps where there is a sticker called the "Fondle Me Sticker" which allows touching of a familiar sort. (even if a person has three of these on their badge, it's still a good idea to introduce yourself and get to know them, before trying to do anything kinky.) I'm of the opinion that the system ought to work in reverse. If a person has personal space issues or touching issues, that should be on the badge instead (large, orange, easily seeable sticker of some sort.) and it should be understood that light friendly touching is fine. But this issue is yours to decide. Pepper and salt to taste.

This weeks great big whatsit!
There is the tendency to want to create great big epic plots that affect every player on the board. I'm not saying that you shouldn't do this but it should never be done to the point where the players expect it all the time. Methuselah vampires, potent master mages and great Cthulhu wandering into town is overkill. Not only that but it gets harder and harder to top yourself and/or create a sense of real fear in the player populace. It is always better to have 10 plots going on than to have only one. People gravitate to the sorts of plots that will interest them and people who aren't involved in anything are simply not trying. Talented players are more than capable of generating their own plot if given half a chance and actively become irritated if they feel like the great GM sponsored plot is wrecking what they've been doing. All of this boils down to the basic dictum: Don't be heavyhanded. It's not like tabletop where you have to manage every speck of the plot. As a matter of fact, When your ST Corps is having to work to keep with what the players are doing to each other...It is the state to be wished for. It means less work for you.

Plot can come out of the smallest things. A old book becomes available on the black market (or Dark Market, as the case may be.) Someone runs a shipment of guns into town. Someone spots a known revenant going about their business in a Camarilla town. Mysterious ads get placed in the personals or classified section of the paper. Don't be afraid to start small. Let the players work themselves into a tizzy.

The other benefit of this type of plotting is that it involves creating smaller scale antagonists for your players to test themselves against. Great big monstrous problems that come down the pike every other week tend to create the impression among the players that any ST created problem is unkillable. No one likes to feel that their dick won't shoot. As such, it's a better idea to have a half dozen antagonists that range from easily slamdunkable to goddamn hard. ST's that ignore this and create horrifying antagonists that require the lives of 20 players to vanquish, are probably not paying attention to that fact that the bulk of the players are ducking them.

The Stylesheet
As I've mentioned before, I think it's a good idea to create a document for incoming players that gives them an idea of the flavor and tone of the game you are playing. If you're okay with Malkavians in feety pajamas, then you should say so. If you're planning to have a Baali at the center of the politics of a city, the players should get hints from the language of the stylesheet. If you're playing low down undead crimelords or a chronicle which features spiritual exploration, it's important to let the players know that that is the sort of game you're making. This falls under the rubric of game leadership. You can't expect the players to follow you, unless you tell them where you're going and give them an idea of how you're planning to get there. So many time gamers abdicate the leadership responsibilities because they feel uncomfortable giving orders or making decisions. Unfortunately, you can't do that and still be a GM. Most of the time you can still be nice guy, but on occasion you have to be a prick and say no. If you don't, people lose respect for you.

Under this same heading falls the idea that you are a creator, but you are also a manager. Certainly, managing a larp is a good deal less glamorous than simply scripting it, but doing it well requires a certain skill and style. It can occasionally be a thankless job but when it's done badly it gets noticed. I've heard it said that "People don't notice good engineering, but they don't trip over it either. Some basic tips for larp management are:

-Whenever you are forced to call somebody on the carpet or jump somebody's shit over something. DO IT IN PRIVATE. Privacy protects the feelings of the person who is being yelled at. Never ever jump on somebody in public. At best, you will make a mortal enemy of them for embarrassing them in front of the group. At worst, they could turn the group against you.
-Learn how to delegate. If you do not, you WILL burn out. Beside, if you're running a Larp which features more than one type of supernatural critter in it. You will need at least one ST to handle each type of critter.No one can hold all those systems in memory. Strong men have tried and failed, broken on the rocks of Larpdom.
-Even if you have a person who is an organizational genius, do not saddle them with *all* the freaking paperwork. Make the rest of the ST staff take up some of the slack. Few people like to feel like a glorified secretary. This also has the happy benefit of enabling the larp to continue if the organizational genius burns out, or stalks off with his nose out of joint.
-It doesn't matter how creative someone is, Membership in the ST Corps should be predicated on how reliable they are. Each person that you make into a storyteller should be someone that you could trust with a baby with complicated medical and emotional needs. Take note of those who stay after to help clean up the venue. Those are the people who are interested in keeping the Larp running like a top.
-This ought to go without saying but, communicate with your fellow ST's. Meet physically or have a private chatroom and/or email list. Make sure you are on the same page about certain things. If an event is planned that evening make sure each ST knows about it. If there is a timetable of events make sure the corps is up on it. Synchronize watches or whatever floats your boat.
-In that same vein, communicate with your players. If there are rules changes, print them out so that everyone has them and can ask questions. The more changes you make to the basic system, the more work you make for yourself and for everyone else. So K.I.S.S.
-Among the sorts of people that you'll need on staff are: Head Administrator,(Who minds the massive paperwork that goes into any larp and probably handles much of the website duties.) The new player guy, (who builds pregens,indoctrinates newbies into the inner mysteries of Larpery, vetts characters against a fairly harsh and conservative standard so as to weed out players who want to play a Mokole in a vampire larp. And keeps an eye out to try and nudge newbies into the flow of the plot.) The public relations guy (who is the liason between the Larp and it's venue and all other contact with wandering civilians and/or media. Should be schooled in how to speak Normal.) and the Sergeant at arms (Who is responsible for physical on site security. It is helpful if this person has medical training in case of a medical emergency. It is also helpful if they are the sort of person who is ruthlessly impartial about who needs an asskicking and is very conservative about passing them out.)

It is my feeling that, for the most part, one should avoid Larps with too many kinds of supernatural types wandering around. This may be just a stylistic choice on my part but many times this feels excessively twinkesque to me. Not to mention each of the larp genres has it's own stylistic feel and tone to them and many times they run counter to one another. Don't believe me? Drop a freehold of changelings into a vampire larp and watch the chaos unfold. If you've got 5 types of creatures rolling around, the only thing that keeps them from killing one another CONSTANTLY, would be some silly ass treaty, that you'd never believe for a second in a tabletop game. Mage Larp is one of the few types that I feel is flexible enough to have characters from multiple types of games, but that's because Mages are humans (from which most of the character types spring) and they're also more used to dealing with weird shit. Even so, mages don't want to be caught in between Vampires and shapechangers trying to kill one another. Hey, if you can juggle these chainsaws and your players dig it that way then fine. But it still is going to require more work than usual.

Humans: the Other White Meat
Many times, Humans receive extremely short shrift in the World of Darkness. In Larps, the tendency becomes somewhat magnified. Damn nearly everybody trotting around is some brand of supernatural critter with a set of neato powers. What few humans you see are ghouls, victims, hedge mages, or new players who will probably be embraced by some clan or other before the night is through. For some reason, players get irked when they actually have to be circumspect about what they are or curb their fat crackling power of the godz in the face of imminent exposure.

Aw. Too Bad.

They call it Vampire: the MASQUERADE, for a reason. Humans in play change the dynamic of a game dramatically. Players are forced to be more circumspect. Players tend towards less open bloodshed (less work for the ST's) and in fact, it forces them to deal with some of the issues that are built into the game but tend to get shuffled to the back of the deck in favor of violence and vampire politics.

Losing humanity becomes more of an issue when you have to deal with humans on a semi regular basis. Vampires get very lonely too because of the life they've been segregated from. Vampires have great big secrets about them and not everyone takes well to finding out that a person they trusted has been feeding on their aunt or something like that. Humans also alter all the other games in relation to humanity.

Now granted, nobody wants to go to a vampire larp and play a mortal. Who thinks it's fun to play a guy worried about his 401K? Most experienced players will be irritated by the idea that they should play a human coming into a new larp, many will angle to be embraced right out of the box.

Still the basic idea is sound. The ST corps needs to shoulder some of the burden of this, but the New player guy should make a bunch of humans/and or ghouls that can be given to new players right off the bat. It's important to see how John Q. Just-off-the-Street, will handle playing a real person before you trust him to play a Tremere or a Malkavian.

Naturally, The sorts of humans that bump into the supernatural world on a regular basis are at least interesting humans. Police detectives, private detectives, crime bosses, arms dealers, Arcanum scholars, Inquisitors, hired assassins,etc... Many of them have reasons why supernaturals shouldn't whack them as the solution to the problem they represent. (The Prince says; "I don't care if the chief of police was annoying you, ripping his throat out in front of 50 witnesses wasn't smart you dimwit!") Even if the chief of police simply disappears one night, there will be awkward questions asked and a statewide manhunt...At least. Smart princes hold certain types of humans off limits. (like Arcanum) Devious ST's have to find ways to get those Arcanum members into the face of the vampire players. Heck, a news crew at the wrong place and wrong time can make a supernatural's life a living hell. Especially, if the lead reporter has been around the block and is in the know about the dark things that go on in this town.

Sure the new player might get annoyed if handed him a plain vanilla human on his first night there. But give him something with a goodly chunk of meat on it's bones and he might just decide to keep it. If not, you can always help him create a neonate vampire or whatever...But with a lot less traits on it than the prebuilt human. Don't toss that human away either, they can always be used by the storyteller Corps or maybe even farmed out to another player.

Humans can jack up the machinations of the most manipulative of cainites just by being able to be awake during the day. And Influence can be the great equalizer between mortal and cainite. ST's would do well to remember this.

Ghouls are also a way to go, as are hedge mages, and Kinfolk, and Kinain, and whatever else. But again, you lose some of the real flavor of supernaturals without Mortals.

Whew...I have rambled on haven't I? I may have yet more to come but for now...

Sono Finito


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