Three Ways to Organize a One-Shot Larp

 

Someday, I want to write and run a three-day, one-shot larp. You know, the sort of thing with 30-60 pre-written characters, a workshop, a debrief, and a venue that looks just like the game world is supposed to look (360º illusion). A larp that happens in real time, and either offers breathtaking adventure, or makes the participants cry so hard that we can collect their tears in vats to be distilled for later cocktails. (The GM Martini: one part gin, three parts distilled players’ tears, stir to combine with dry ice, drink out of a goblet made from a unicorn’s tusk.)

If only I had a specific idea for a larp. While I wait around for inspiration to strike, I decided to do some legwork figuring out how an individual or group goes about organizing such a thing.

Such large-scale larps require more than one person, or two, or even three at the helm–and as the number of organizers goes up, the way they interact with one another becomes increasingly important.

As I polled organizers in the US and Nordica via social media, it became apparent that the folks I know have developed three core ways of larp organization. (Are there more ways to do it? I’m sure there are.)

 

Hierarchical Model

 

Many US campaign larps use this model. Essentially, there’s a single main organizer steering the ship, who is at the top of a pyramid of different committees. It’s a model where one person functions as the decider, and it’s the job of the committees–plot committee, character committee, etc. to do much of the creative work on their own, and the job of the lead organizer to shape those processes, and make sure everything is consistent.

I see no reason why you couldn’t use this model to create a one-shot larp as well.

Advantages: The buck very clearly stops with the lead organizer–there is one person shepherding the process and that provides some consistency. Personal responsibility is clearly delineated, and there is a clear mechanism for breaking ties. If Billy wants it one way and Sharon wants it the other way, the lead organizer decides.

Disadvantages: Can create a power structure that is overly complicated. Is susceptible to lead organizers who try to be dictators. May mean that staff members don’t feel creatively invested in the final product leading to volunteer attrition. Can also be hard to manage upward, reigning in the truly unreasonable ideas of the higher ups–it’s possible the lead organizer’s ideas won’t be challenged and examined as they should be. Also means that there is only one person of whom the highest level of logistical and creative burden is asked–it’s possible for the lead organizer to get overwhelmed.

 

Large Committee Model

 

Louise has a great idea so she invites about five or six people to join her in creating a larp. These five or six people agree that they are all equal in stature when it comes to the project, and they create the setting and characters collaboratively.

Closer to the running of the event, individuals take on particular responsibilities in terms of logistics, writing, publicity, etc. The team recruits other volunteers as needed close to the larp — for example, a team of people to run the kitchen, a group to build the fort on the hill, etc.

Advantages: Everyone has been in on the larp from the beginning, so there is creative investment on the part of the organizing team. Everyone gets some creative satisfaction from the work. The creative process is full of collaboration, which means ideas are improved by group challenging.

Disadvantages: If your organizing team has six people on it and does almost everything together, scheduling becomes complicated–it’s harder to find a time for six people to coordinate to meet. Also, when everyone is responsible, in some ways, no one person is responsible–maybe the team is so inclusive that the artistic vision gets a bit muddled (yes! We can have spaceships AND dragons!). Occasionally stuff falls through the cracks, or the un-fun stuff endemic to planning any event falls on one person’s shoulders, fostering resentment.

 

Pigs & Chickens Model

 

I’m familiar with the concepts of pigs and chickens from the Norwegian larpers I know. The concept comes from an old joke about a pig and a chicken starting a bed and breakfast together. The pig asks the chicken, “what shall we serve for breakfast?” and the chicken says, “eggs and bacon.” The pig isn’t as cool with that, because it means he has to sacrifice, while the chicken only has to give what is convenient.

The pigs and chickens model combines the structure of the hierarchical model with the team spirit of the committee model.

In larp organizing, a “pig” is a person who will do whatever it takes and pick up whatever falls through the cracks in order to get it done. The “chicken” is someone who is given a discrete job to complete, but is not expected to offer more beyond that.

On this model, you usually have two to three pigs doing most of the heavy lifting and two to ten chickens who have their own jobs. For example, the three pigs come up with a direction for the larp, and then one of them takes on the job of meeting with the two chickens who will do most of the character writing. The chickens still get to be creatively invested, but the pigs steer the ship collaboratively and make sure that there is food at dinner time.

As the larp approaches, the pigs divide different responsibilities among themselves, and coordinate different sets of chickens.

Advantages: Lean organizational structure makes it easier to change directions and meet up regularly. Having more than one person collaborating on the pig committee means that ideas are challenged and reigned in, but that artistic vision is still coherent and narrow. Also means that chickens can be creatively involved while not having the larp take over their lives for ten months. One or more pigs meets periodically with different sets of chickens. If the three pigs meet with the two logistic chickens, that’s a few meetings of five people, rather than a jillion meetings with five or ten.

Disadvantages: Um…if the pigs can’t agree, that’s a problem? I suppose there is also the risk that some of the chickens might not feel as creatively engaged as they would on say, the large committee model. Update per the comments: Sometimes the chickens think they are pigs and deserve more say in a project than their participation warrants. Essentially, this is a problem with expectation-setting about involvement, and it can lead to hard feelings.

Other Considerations

Aside from the organizational structure, when planning a larp there are a few other things to keep in mind.

Whether to Separate Logistics and Artistics

It may seem convenient to separate the team responsible for logistics from the people doing, say, character creation. But this can lead to problems down the road when the people writing the plot decide that the game won’t work without two tons of gravel, without knowing that this is impossible given the site and budget of the game.

Also, when folks working logistics are included in the vision meetings, the set and scenography and other logistics may end up supporting the vision of the game that much more. For example, in The White War, a Danish larp about an imaginary version of the Iraq war that focused on the interactions between soldiers and locals, the organizing team decided that the soldiers would hand out all the food, transforming mealtimes into a cornerstone of game play between the two groups, according to organizer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj. That might not have happened if the logistics team hadn’t been a part of the creative process.

Similarly, logistics are incredibly important to making a game run. If the bathrooms don’t work, the food is nonexistent, and everyone is cold during the whole larp, the game will not be a success (unless cold, hungry irate players is what you’re going for). Attending to these details isn’t sexy, but it’s way necessary to literally everything else that happens during the game. Love your logistics people and give them the opportunity to be creative.

On the other hand…it can be more efficient, time-wise, to separate the groups. But you will need to have at least one person to be the bridge between the two.

How to Pick Your Team

Whatever you do, you want to start out by getting your team on the same page. As Norwegian designer Magnar Grønvik Müller put it, “My experience is that with any volunteer project, if the organizers don’t agree on the vision, goals and audience, you’re off for a bumpy ride. Start defining those, and look at them when disputes arise.”

It’s important to have some balance on your team–pick people with a diversity of strengths and working styles. And don’t forget that organizing a game is supposed to be fun. Here’s how Norwegian designer Eirik Fatland put it:

 It’s a creative collaboration. Who would you write a novel with? Who would you trust to design the covers? In whoose company would you prefer to be when you die?  

There are also intra-person dynamics to consider. Balance perfectionists with “just get it done already!” folks. Introverts and extraverts. Make sure you have at least one collaborator who smiles a lot. Remember to feed people. Talk about ideas and vision until everyone is capable of generating new ideas that fit into the whole and are readily accepted by the group. 

It’s volunteer work. Accept fluff, and factor in off-topic chatting as a natural part of planning meetings. If people aren’t having a good time working on the larp, it’s not gonna work out. Check with your co-organizers before you recruit someone new.”

Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson suggests that your best friends are not necessarily the best people to team with.

“As a very practical note, when thinking about who should be in the team, I recommend a thoroughly unsentimental approach. People who believe in the vision, do their jobs, are efficient and get along well. Recruiting friends and other larp buddies for social reasons means more pointless work later in the process.”

Swedish designer Anna Westerling suggests being bold and asking the people you want to work with:

I hade waited for the longest for an organizing crew to fall in my lap and it just didn’t. So I started thinking, and listing (my university notes are full of these lists), who I wanted to work with and what I wanted them todo. Then I took them out for coffee and asked them, and most people said yes. That is how I got to know Anders Hultman. I wanted the greatest person I know of to do economy, and he was that. Then he turned out to do very much more in the project, but I didn’t know that at the time. My point is, don’t be shy. Ask the ones you want. Have coffee. I can also confess that when I begun I had another organization plan that didn’t really work out later, but then we just updated it. So you might not get it right in your plans, but make sure to have plans. “

Some Roles You’ll Want to Fill

Danish designer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj's five-point star model of larp design, written on a cocktail napkin. The points are game design, vision, fiction, PR, and logistics/production. Note that they are all connected to each other.

Danish designer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj’s five-point star model of larp design, written on a cocktail napkin. The points are game design, vision, fiction, PR, and logistics/production. Note that they are all connected to each other.

Whether you outsource some of these responsibilities to one person, or spread the responsibilities across several, here are some things that will need doing. I’m pretty sure that this list is nowhere close to complete, but it also depends on how you divvy up the stuff needed during a larp, and of course, on how grand scale your larp is.

A larp on a grand scale will need lots of people doing logistics, scenography, etc. A small game might only require one or two people handling these tasks. A lot depends, of course, on how you have designed your game.

Eirik Fatland puts it like this:

The bottom line, I guess, is: there is no pattern. Each time has been different, and each larp concept has presented different skill needs. Five roles always need to be covered, though: Treasurer, Designer/Writer, Producer, PR, and Communications/Correspondence. For small larps, they can all be one person. The big question is more about how much capacity (time) you need. If people are unemployed artists, you need fewer. If they are juggling work, family and larp, you need more.Once you write individual characters, you need lots of creative capactiy. If your vision is heavy on aesthetics, production and scenography blend. I was about to write that no more than three people should have a final say on concept, but then I remembered that at Moirai and the Blinded Eye we were 6 and that was OK, but it still is a good thumbnail rule.”

Producer/Logsitics

Oversees all practical aspects of the production, from budget and venue to insurance, food and props. Someone who can juggle a lot of balls in the air at the same time.

As Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson put it, “A good logistics person is magic, and can make the difference between a good game and a KP mistakes presentation [a public presentation of the mistakes you’ve made as a larp organizer].”

Budget/Legal

If it’s a big production, you’ll want someone to keep the books. In addition, you might want someone dedicated to getting grant money or fixing the insurance. Someone competent you can really rely on in a pinch.

Set and Scenography

Do you know people who like building stuff or who know how to sew the costumes you’ve promised participants? I hope so. Depending on how much set and scenography you’ve got going, you might need several people, or one foreman and a crew of builders, as it were, to get the larp set up. Does the game involve technology? You might need people to rig lights, run the fake Facebook, etc.

This person will need to interface with the producer about stuff like venue.

Kitchen God/Other Logistics

Whether you’re planning to feed your participants, or providing somewhere for them to cook their own food, if this is a several-day venture, you’ll need someone to manage the kitchen, make sure it’s clean, and that dinner, if any, is prepped on time.

Are the sleeping spaces OK? Do people need wood for the fireplaces in these cold tiny cabins? Are there extra blankets somewhere so no one freezes? Is there toilet paper in the bathrooms? Do you need latrines shipped in?

Game Design

This encompasses a lot, but depending on the game, you might need people to form the game world, write characters, design the mechanics of the game, whether that means skill lists or metatechniques, think about how the space is designed to promote game interaction, forge the workshops, etc.

You might need a designer who is separate from the people writing character sheets, for example.

Communications

One or more people should be responsible for getting the website up and running, writing copy for it, and communicating regularly with participants. This can also include being responsible for overseeing the people who will document the larp, if you have them.

The Human Touch

Does someone need to be sitting in the off-game room in case a player needs to talk? If it’s a complex game, it can be wise to make one person responsible for ensuring that everyone else eats at least one meal and sleeps at least two hours per night.

Some Configurations That Have Worked for Nordic Organizers

  • Halat Hisar (2014): 7 person core team with no leader. That team took charge of writing, funding, production, planning, and design. Near to the larp they recruited a kitchen team, interrogation team, documentation team, and logistics captain. 2 days.
  • Just a Little Lovin’  (2011): 5 pigs (including two writers) and ? chickens. 60 players over 5 days.
  • Kapo (2011)7 organizers + staff. 180 players over 48 hours.
  • Mad About the Boy (2010): 3 pigs and ? chickens. 30 players over 3 days.
  • Skymningsland. 3 main organizers + production team of 12 + 5 people doing character creation coaching for players. 189 players over 4 days.
  • The Mutiny (2004) 2*Directors getting their ass saved by Bjarke Pedersen
  • PanoptiCorp (2003): Producer + 6 uncertainly defined piggish organizers
  • Europa (2001) Director + Producer + Scenographer + 2 * General Crew + Prequel Producer + Treasurer. 4 days.
  • Den Lille Kyrthanilaiven (2000) 3 creative pigs and an autonomous production chicken crew of 4
  • Kybergenesis (1997): Director + Producer + 5 Writers + 5 IT + 2 Others
  • Moirais Vev (1997) and Blinded Eye (1997): 6 Equal Pigs with one as First Amongst Equals. 4 days.
  • (Got more configurations from more different larps? I’d love to know about them.)

Further Reading

Kåre Murmann Kjær, “Design for Work Minimization” and Anna Westerling, “Producing a Nice Evening,” both from Playground Worlds, Solmukohta 2008. (Free download!)

Angles I missed? Got different ideas for organizing a game like this? Know of other organizing combos that worked? More articles suitable for further reading? Leave them in the comments.

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New in Larp: October 7, 2013

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been able to post so much on the blog lately. This is because I’ve had one of the busiest summers and falls of my life. In addition to visiting several conventions this summer–such as Gen Con, where I did some guest of honor duties, I also spent six weeks at an artists’ colony, edited two books, and began work on three freeform games as well as working on my main project, the book PANDORA’S DNA, which is very nearly due. I will be back to blogging in due course, as soon as the manuscript is in.

In the meantime, here are a things that are rocking my larp world right now.

This year, I’m lucky enough that I’m getting to visit Nordica a second time. At the end of October I head to Grenselandet, a Norwegian chamber larp festival, and then to the inaugural Stockholm Scenario Festival, a new freeform convention in Sweden, though unfortunately this means I will miss one of my favorite US conventions, Metatopia. I’m bringing The Curse,
my game about hereditary breast cancer, which has also found a place in the recently-ended and thought provoking Boob Jam, a collection of digital and analogue games about breasts, from the non-straight-male-gaze perspective.

Catch you all after my book deadline, when I’ll write about my adventures in Norway and Sweden!

Fastaval 2013

You can always tell which Americans have been to Scandinavian roleplaying conventions, because they have the look in their eyes of having dropped acid or shot heroin. That’s a little how Scandinavia feels to me – like a vivid waking hallucination, perhaps because Nordic gaming conventions are an exercise in sleep deprivation. This year, I alleviated that a bit by arriving a day early, which gave me an extra 24 hours to adjust to the time zone, before committing to a serious regimen of partying and watching the sun come up. And then there are the games, thought-provoking entries into experiences you might not otherwise encounter. I’m obviously hooked on Nordican games, and last week, I had my new fix at the Danish convention Fastaval.

FASTAVAL

For those who aren’t familiar, Fastaval features juried selection of about 30 freeform games, which are then entered into an Oscars-style competition called the Ottos, where participants have a shot at winning a coveted golden penguin. Although the convention also features larps and board games – the latter of which earned its own awards this year – it’s mostly about the freeform scenarios. Freeform scenarios are short (2-4 hours) roleplaying games for between two and ten un-costumed players, featuring a strong GM who cuts together scenes, sort of like the director in a movie, and uses the tools selected by the scenario writer to push the characters.

This year I had a scenario in the running called The Curse, a short game about hereditary breast cancer and relationships, and I’m pleased to say it received an Otto nod for best writing. I have a few tweaks I’d like to make based on the feedback I received, but then I’ll post it up soon.

For more on Fastaval, check out my report from last year’s convention, or last year’s list of 5 Things US Conventions Could Steal From Fastaval.

 

THE SCENE

Fastaval takes place in a school rented out for the occasion, and all the participants pitch in with a work shift to help out the staff who spend the convention making things awesome for everybody. It also means that unlike conventions in the states, there are no non-gaming outsiders around. In addition to running a boatload of games, the convention is set up for socializing. Inside the venue there is a participant-run café that sells food and cocktails, and sometimes has performers, both burlesque and guitar-and-singer style. It’s a great place to hang out and have a chat, and it’s populated with an older crowd. The bar is just down the hall, stays open much later, and has a beer, shots, and death metal vibe. The Danes definitely believe in alcohol as a social lubricant, and the drinking age is younger here, though there is a separate booze-free lounge provided for the youth.

In addition, there’s a TV crew running around shooting little amusing sketches about the convention and its culture that get edited into an episode shown each night in the bar at 4am. If you think you can’t stay up that late, you’re wrong.

The Dirtbusters, a pervasive larp about fighting the forces of chaos (read: cleaning) runs alongside the convention and provides much-needed cleanup services. They have their own culture, and rumor has it, a beer-and-porn laden command center somewhere on the premises. They provide a vital service to the convention, and seem to be in the midst of an important cultural transition – in recent years, as women have become more vocal on this scene, there has been some tension around issues of sexism and Dirtbuster culture. While the situation hasn’t entirely resolved itself, most of the chatter I heard suggested that things have been improving at a fast clip.

At the same time, the convention consists of only about 25 percent women – far less than other conventions I’ve been to – and you can see those demographics (or sometimes more skewed ones) reflected in the organizing committee, who ends up writing scenarios, the Otto awards etc. As a woman, I sometimes found it intimidating to talk to the other writers and participants, for example – watching ten tall dudes who all know each other well standing in a circle having an important-sounding discussion in another language – made me hesitant to approach. At the same time, the women I’ve met at Fastaval have been highly highly awesome, so it seems like it’d be in everyone’s interest to increase their numbers.  One thing I learned from running the all-women larp Mad About the Boy is that often women don’t feel comfortable taking space, but rather need to be invited in. Having women in a space also often “proves” that it’s safe for other women. I wonder if Fastaval could benefit from a “get women gaming” initiative of some sort.

In the cafe with game designers.

In the cafe with game designers, sporting mad Fastaval steeze.

International participants felt particularly welcome this year, with a host of nods to our presence — the usual games in English, typically with a few locals mixed in for flavor; subtitles for the awesome Otto Channel TV series; and translators available during the award ceremonies. In addition, most people speak pretty kick-ass English, even when  tired or inebriated.

The crowd represents an interesting mixture of the usual gamers, present at every convention I’ve been to in any country – black t-shirts, long hair, relaxed attitude – and then folks sporting some pretty serious style. Of course, go anywhere and you’ll find women with sharply honed senses of style, but here there are many men working a specific look – certainly many more than I am used to. Yes, Fastaval, I am complimenting the outfits of many of your dudes. Here are some things that appear to be “in”: waxed moustaches, bowties, ties of any sort, blazers, interesting hair (long, short, dyed), suspenders, squarish glasses, monochromatic anything, newsboy caps, pocket squares, lots of facial piercings. And of course beards. Always beards.

 

THE OTTOS

Otto, Vincent Baker, and me.

Otto, Vincent Baker, and me.

This year, I learned a lot about the Otto awards, both through doing, since I wrote a scenario, and by way of research – I spent quite a bit of time talking to former judges about how they do their thing, since there’s some interest stateside in getting up our own competition, and we like to do our homework. Here are the most surprising things I learned:

  • There are no hard guidelines on which scenarios are able to be submitted to each year’s Fastaval. In general, they want new scenarios, and good ones. What does “new” mean, you might ask — like, written in the last year? Or not played at other conventions? what about edge cases? The answer is unclear, perhaps by design. Two folks who organize the convention use their discretion in picking scenarios.
  •  The committee of six judges agrees on all nominations and winners unanimously. As you can imagine, this means a lot of long meetings and therefore, presumably, arguing. People sometimes refer to this as the “judges’ larp.” I’ve heard that it sometimes turns into its own sleep deprivation competition, as judges passionate about certain scenarios out-argue and out-last their fellows into the  night.
  •  The judges spend most of their time reading scenarios, as opposed to playing them. This supposedly gives an edge to scenarios that are well-written.
  •   In addition to reading scenarios, the judges look at feedback forms written by players and GMs. The questionnaires, handed out after every run, feature questions like, “how did your group function?” “what was the best thing about the scenario?” “What could have been improved?” “What do you want to tell the writer?” and so on, along with a numeric score. Finally, each judge spends some time hanging out in the café and bar and so on, listening to people talk about their game experiences. Interestingly, the judges are also assigned a couple of authors to talk to informally during the convention. I found this very low-key and nice.
  •  The Otto categories include things like Best Characters, Best Story, Best Scenario, Best Mechanics, Best Presentation (writing), and so on. Rather, the committee interprets these each year. When a judge retires, someone with a similar perspective to that judge is invited to fill in.
  •   In addition, a separate committee awards an honorary Otto to a person who has contributed a lot to the scene. And of course, there’s an audience prize too.

As a writer, it’s pretty cool to have the scenario you labored over read with such care and attention to detail. It’s a little scary of course (is there anything worth doing that isn’t?), but typically writers write because they’d like to be carefully read. I’m looking forward to the feedback that the committee offers.

 

WRITERS’ CULTURE

My sparring partner, Troels, and I.

My sparring partner, Troels, and I.

Fastaval supports scenario writers. I understand that for folks local to Denmark, there are weekend retreats and scenario workshops designed to nurture both experienced and new writers. Although writers are spread out across Denmark, I believe there are activities in a few different cities to help folks connect, play test, and get feedback on their writing.

In addition, there’s the option of a sparring partner, which is also available to international participants. Sparring partners help improve your scenario by offering pointed feedback and challenging design ideals. Often, they seem to specialize in something particular. I wanted special help with play testing, since I was new to scenario writing, but my sparring partner ended up reading a truly sick number of drafts, discussing structure and format with me, and working as a general sounding board for new ideas. Super super helpful.

The culture at this convention – or perhaps it is a facet of Danes in general? – has a marked absence of bullshit. Feedback is direct and honest, and there wasn’t the veneer of fake praise and excessive politeness over everything that so often marks gatherings of writers. I found this in turns refreshing, exciting, and intimidating.

 

THE GAMES

Dulce Et Decorum had lovely packaging.

Dulce Et Decorum had lovely packaging.

I played two scenarios and ran two scenarios this year. My best experience was running Dulce Et Decorum, a tabletop game about the trenches of WWI, written by my sparring partner Troels Ken Pedersen. Since the game ran long, I had a fun time cutting viciously and controlling the spotlight of the scenario. And from the feedback sheets I collected at the end of the scenario, the players enjoyed themselves too, which is the whole point.

I wish I’d played more scenarios this year, or perhaps played them in a different order. The convention starts on Wednesday, with most play wrapped up by Sunday morning. Stateside, the best stuff usually runs on Fri/Sat night of conventions, so that’s what I signed up for, but here, it seems the opposite is true. Conventional wisdom among participants suggests that the best stuff happens on Wednesday night, and Thursday and Friday during the day, mainly because as the convention wears on and the parties stretch out into the night participants and GMs alike become more fatigued and hung over as the convention progresses.

 

PLAYERS

Recently, renowned Swedish person (and bad-ass GM/designer) Anna Westerling visited the US, and we all ran freeform games for Americans. She observed that Americans tend to follow directions really well and quickly — if the point of this scene is for A to flirt with B, then they get right in there and make it happen quickly. This can make cutting easier, and often means that emotions for players escalate rather quickly.

With her observation in mind, I found the Nordic players fascinating. Their style of play seems more subtle to me; rather than cutting to the chase many of them approach the point of the scene sideways rather than head on, and they layer tension slowly and often rather quietly. This approach has advantages, of course — it’s more realistic, and often the conflicts created felt quite intriguing. Not better or worse; just different.

This makes me wonder having both sorts of players in the same game would make things mismatched or perfectly matched. I’d imagine that the Nordic way of playing would add richness and detail, where the American style of play drives the plot forward and raises the stakes. I’ll be watching future games carefully to see how it works out in practice.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

The hotel's brass tiger.

Here’s Claus Raasted on a brass hotel tiger.

Some of my best Fastaval fun took place in the café, talking design and American culture with guest of honor and new freeform convert Vincent Baker, and chatting with other designers and folks I feel I’m starting to know now that I’ve been to a few international conventions.

I also happened to stay in a pretty pimping hotel room with an international crew. In addition to two small rooms for sleeping, we had a large common area decorated with animal skulls and preserved deer heads, a set of elaborate golden couches, and a long baroque dining room table. The room opened out onto a little terrace with a view up a wooded hill, perfect for watching the sun rise.

 

 

THE FASTAVAL CHALLENGE

Need some Fastaval, but live outside Nordica? Many of the scenarios are available in English at the Alexandria project. I know that my local scene would love to see many more sets of GM instructions translated into English, and so I offer this incentive: if you translate your scenario, my GM crew, Sex & Bullets, will make sure that it runs at least once at a con or private gaming event.

(Caveats: we can’t play some topics here, though, and we’ll be the final arbiters of what those are. When in doubt, ask! lizzie.stark@gmail.com We’d love both traditional sad-sack scenarios as well as ones that are a bit lighter and more fun. And we can only promise for scenarios with 1-15 participants and a minimum of set/costuming)

 

 

Dilemmas of the Lady Game Designer

In graduate school, a professor once told me my short stories might be a wee bit feminist to appeal to mainstream journals, and that I should seek out fringier, feminist presses. Of course, like many writers, I don’t want to write about “feminist issues,” I want to write about the essential human truths, truths that I perceive, of course, through the lens of my own identity. After my prof’s pep talk, I took on a gender-neutral pen name, started writing stories with male point-of-view protagonists, and promptly amassed a file of rejections beginning “Dear Mr. Stark…”

Because of course, books about men and men’s issues — even books that evidence an adolescent understanding of gender relations — get to be “great literature” because they’re about the universal human experience, while books that delve into the humanity of women are often relegated to the chick lit corner of the book store. This is not an argument for removing Moby Dick or The Road from the classics shelf, but it’d be cool if they could share it with Caramelo and Corregidora.

As I’ve embarked on a new hobby of roleplaying design, I’ve realized that the lady game designer faces a similar quandary. Do I want to write games that seem relevant to me in my life right now? Or do I want to write games that people will play? If I decide to write about stuff like my mastectomy, does that immediately get me sent to the chick lit game ghetto, or do I have a shot at being taken seriously on same grounds as other (largely male) game designers?

For me, writing about what I perceive as my essential humanity risks turning off a majority of the potential audience audience. I don’t think it’s a necessity for dudes designers to think about gender and game design in the same way.

Here, and in the rest of the piece, when I talk about writing games or roleplaying scenarios, I’m mostly thinking of larps or freeform games in the Nordic style — that is to say, games about regular people living their lives and aimed at evoking emotion rather than the rush of battle.

Audience

The nature of the gaming community further complicates the equation. Although there are plenty of women gamers out there, men predominate. If I write a game with a host of female characters, will men want to play it? Will men choose to run it? Or will it run a few times before disappearing down the memory hole forever? And if it disappears down the memory hole, is that because I’m a novice and wrote something crappy, or because I wrote about an experience of the world structured by femininity?

Cross-casting provides another sticking point, given the gamer demographics. In my experience, it’s easier for women to play men than the other way around. I dimly remember my college course in feminist theory, in which we talked about how we can all relate to the experience of men because that is constructed as the norm in our society. People who lie outside the norm for whatever reason get special knowledge of the dominant subculture, because there is pressure to conform. For example, many black women have special knowledge of hair — how to relax it, style it, extend it, etc. — because the norm of hair beauty in US culture is European and straight. Women are often asked to imagine themselves into the default position — that of men — while the reverse is seldom expected. Little Women is for girls because it’s primarily about girls and because of that we don’t expect boys to relate to it, but Lord of the Rings, with its all-male cast, is for everyone. This attitude contributes to gender inequity in all sorts of artistic canons — film, novels, visual art, short stories, video games, etc.

As a GM, I’ve noticed that it’s easy for men playing women to slide into stereotype, and that I’ve got to work hard to help players add complexity to their cross-gender roles. One of the super-powers of roleplay is that it can create empathy, so I think it’s good to try to step outside the roles we play every day — including gender, race, class, etc. roles. But meaningful immersion demands a certain degree of reality, I think. When play lapses too far into stereotype, this empathetic benefit is lost. And instead of walking in the shoes of someone dissimilar to you, you run the risk of reinforcing negative dogma.

 

Games Can Be About Gender Without “Being About Gender”

I’ve run the jeepform game Previous Occupants by Frederik Berg Østergaard and Tobias Wrigstad perhaps half a dozen times at various conventions. True to its mission, it’s a great way to introduce Americans to this style of roleplay. In the game, two people portray a young Christian couple about to get engaged and away for the weekend at a hotel where they will have sex for the first time. Two people portray an older married couple who stayed in the same hotel room 15 years ago, when the husband committed murder suicide. You play the scenes in parallel, cutting between the two, and eventually the ghosts of the past (the husband and wife) invade the present and try to work out their issues by possessing the young Christian couple.

On its surface, the game is about death and sex, past and present. But in all of the runs I watched, more than anything, it ends up being about masculinity and the demands that our culture places on men. The husband tries to contain his rage leading up to the murder, but often ends up struggling with feeling the financial burden of supporting a wife, even though this arrangement is not stipulated in the game materials. He feels put upon by his wife in some way, because she just doesn’t understand how difficult it is to be in charge. Her real or perceived infidelity — the suspicion of it, but not the actuality appears in the game materials — disrupts his constitution of himself, contributing to the crime. He is the culpable one, and she is collateral damage. Similarly, in the young couple’s story, the responsibility for initiating sex (which is not played, for the record) almost always falls onto the boyfriend, who struggles with his desires to be cool and have sex, weighed against his commitment to God. Although the girlfriend knows of his plan to propose, we infer that it’s up to him to take action and make the offer officially.

The women end up falling into traditional roles — slightly prudish girlfriend (or guiltily sex positive girlfriend), and abuse victim — and while they play a major part in the story, the growth of their characters often seems less complex, perhaps because the set up does not endow them with agency.

That these two men feel the parallel weight of responsibility  is part of what makes the game work; but it’s interesting to me that players almost never explore issues of femininity — of why the wife might stay in an abusive relationship, or why the girlfriend feels she must wait for the boyfriend to make his move. Without writing it out explicitly, the game suggests traditional relationship roles for the women. The husband and wife are older, and from the past, and therefore, we infer, more traditional, while the younger couple is Christian, and since it is mentioned at all, American players infer that that younger couple must be very conservative and evangelical indeed. The traditional relationships weaken the ability of the women to push the story into a more feminine place within the game by inadvertently scripting more submissive roles for them. Their plot lines and roles are contextual and bound up in each character’s past, but the game demands that the action take place right now in the present for each couple.

The scenario is quite a good  one — usually the players get a lot out of it — and I have no idea whether the writers wanted to make a game about masculinity or whether it’s an unintended emergent property of the game, or of the fact that I’m running it for an American audience. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that with so many dude game designers — there are plenty of lady designers, but they’re vastly outnumbered!– writing about stuff they find interesting and important, masculinity is going to emerge as a major theme whether designers intend it to or not.

 

The New Wave of Women Game Designers

In the last couple years, a number of women (and men) have written games that tackle femininity complexly. Maybe the trend stretches back further, and I’m simply ignorant of it, but to me, the current wave is tremendously exciting. Here are a few of the ones I’ve seen — are there more out there?

The Remodel (2013) by Emily Care Boss
A short scenario about four friends going through mid-life transitions while remodeling a house. It’s got timeless themes — how do we define ourselves when a core aspect of our situation/identity shifts?

Summer Lovin’ (2012) by Trine Lise Lindahl, Elin Nilsen, and Anna Westerling
This very short scenario is all about the post-convention gossip session. Three ladies got it on with three dudes, and now the men are on a train together and the ladies are in the car home. A scenario about women being awesome and unapologetic about it. In both runs I took part in, overhearing the women talking to one another was a real highlight for the men.

Robin’s Friends (2012) by Anna Westerling
A game about friendship among three people, and the ways that petty disagreements can distract people from the true meaning of their relationships. Interestingly, though Westerling had women in mind while writing the scenario, she made all characters gender-neutral to better fit the demographic makeup of her roleplaying scene. She also made the point to me that friendship isn’t a gendered topic, so why should the characters be locked in?

Mad About the Boy (2012) by Tor Kjetil Edland, Trine Lise Lindahl, and Margrete Raaum
A full-out Norwegian larp for 30 written and run twice there in 2010, played again with an all-women cast in Connecticut this year. A game about a world without men. Original text here. It runs twice in Sweden — one mixed gender run, one all women run — this summer.

…and this year my first game will be at the Danish convention Fastaval. It’s called The Curse, and it’s about relationships shaped by hereditary breast cancer. Will these women choose to remove healthy breasts and ovaries, or gamble with their high risk of cancer? And how will they and their partners feel about that?

 

Supporting Women Game Designers

I noticed a few things while recruiting women for last October’s re-run of Mad About the Boy. Plenty of women were interested in playing the game, but sign ups weren’t going great. I had a lot of conversations with various women who seemed like they might get something out of the game. Most of the conversations went like this:

Me: I’m helping organize this all-women game, and I thought you might be interested.

Her: It sounds really cool, but you know, I’ve only been roleplaying for like ten years? And a lot of it hasn’t been larp? And it sounds like really good roleplayers will be there and I don’t want to ruin the experience for everyone.

Me: We are very friendly to new people and have a bunch of people who have never larped before signed up. Inexperience is absolutely no object, and we’ve got this whole workshop thing happening to help get people in the mood to game. We would love to have you.

Her: That sounds cool. <signs up>

What I gathered from this process is that a lot of women secretly wanted to come to the game, but were afraid — even if they had lots of roleplaying experience — of embarrassing themselves and screwing up other women’s games. All it took was the simplest of gestures — an organizer saying, yes you are welcome and we will support you — in order to enlist players to the game. In other words, sometimes women don’t take space — they need to be expressly invited into it. I know I’m not immune. I never dreamed I could bring Nordic larp to the states until one of the Mad About the Boy creators off-handedly said, “you should run this larp.” She offered the space, so I took it.

My guess is that the same holds true for game design. While reporting and touring for the book, I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of game designers. Being the persistent reporter type, I asked for lots of design advice, and many people were kind enough to offer some. Not every woman is an irritating reporter, though — so I think it’s important to reach out to women who say they want to design and offer them support, to expressly invite them to occupy the role of designer. Sometimes a heart-felt invitation is all it takes.

 

My Philosophy

Here’s my philosophy on trying new stuff: it’s not rocket science. Larp and roleplaying are relatively new forms. We’re in the first generation, still, and many of the first wave of designers are still living. I may not always know exactly what I’m doing, but then, imagine the first person to try metatechniques, or Ars Amandi or whatever. They were starting from a different baseline, and now we’re in the position to build on the institutional knowledge. Larp is not rocket science. And if we fail, so what? All we’re risking is a few uncomfortable hours. So get out there, take space, and fail loudly.

GMs Spill Their Greatest Freeform Game Disasters

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering a freeform game.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure, so let’s say that it’s somewhere between a larp and a tabletop roleplaying game, with some scenes acted out, and with a variety of scenes enacted, rather than just one single long one.

Most of this series has offered positive advice on stuff you can do to be a better GM. But it’s also nice to understand the classic blunders so you can avoid them — as someone, somewhere, probably said, “failure is an opportunity to learn.” Today, in the last of the freeform posts, the panel ‘fesses up to their biggest GMing disasters.

Thou shalt remember that the GM controls the game. Anna Westerling:

It was my first game at the big Nordic convention Fastaval, and I was so nervous. Then the players suggested they could swap roles with each other during the game. That was not how I had planned it, but I said “yes, ok, it doesn’t matter”. But of course it did. And from there it went downhill. As I GM I need to be in control of my game. I need to make the decisions; I can’t leave that to the players.

Thou shalt explain the style of gameplay before the game begins. Sanne Harder:

Well. The very first time I ever ran a freeform scenario was a real disaster. Basically I attribute my fiasco to a culture clash, but truth be told, I think I would have handled it much better today, having accumulated more than 15 years of experience in the meantime :)

I was running a famous Fastaval freeform scenario, called Arken, at another Danish convention. This guy who had experimented with improv in his spare time had brought his Dungeons & Dragons group with him to show them alternative ways of roleplaying. Whilst I was jumping around and trying to direct them, blinding them with flashlights and making funny voices, they stoically kept asking me when to bring out the dice!

This underlines my initial point: The most important skill in roleplaying is to recognise the genre of the scenario, and understand what the scenario needs from you.

Thou shalt not ask leading questions about game mechanics. Lars Nøhr Andresen:

I assumed that the players were confident with playing freeform. Asking in a forum with five players if everybody is ready for this is not the way to do it. The two players that hadn’t played freeform before didn’t feel comfortable stepping forward thanks to my bossy demeanor. I asked the question in a leading way – everyone could feel that I wanted to get on with it. And I asked if they were ready for this. Of course they were ready. What I meant was if they had tried playing freeform before. If they were comfortable with the methods being used in freeform.

The consequence was that one of the players never got to be part of the game and basically he asked to be excused.

I didn’t handle the situation but I learned my lesson.

Thou shalt not be too mean to characters; thou shalt be sensitive to the emotions of the players. Matthjis Holter:

Many years ago I experimented with distributed narrative control. We were immature, had typical teenage social dysfunctions, and lacked the necessary skills and structures to keep things fun for everyone. One of the characters was robbed, raped, accused of theft, put in jail and had her child taken from her. It was crap for the player, and we didn’t understand it while we were doing it. Luckily that player is still fond of games, but it was an experience none of us remember fondly.

Thou shalt respect the genre intentions of the writers. Frederik J. Jensen:

I once let a horror game turn into a comedy. This is a classic. It was a fun session – but it was not the game intended. Especially horror games can easily slide into irrecoverable slapstick from a few mistakes early in the session. Comedy is a healthy reaction to an unpleasant situation. However, it can also prevents us from taking our games to some interesting places.

In a game I ran late in a convention this year, I called for breaks when the tone began to be too light. When people came back, they were much more focused and could play serious scenes again.

Thou shalt GM the game with confidence, and if thou dost not feel confident, thou shalt fake it until thy makes it. Oliver Nøglebæk:

I’ve never really had any disasters with freeform, the worst is just a game falling flat for one or more of the players. The worst has definitely been due to lack of confidence on my part. If you don’t believe that the game is going to work, it probably won’t. It’s a lot harder for players to put in effort if the gamemaster is confused about the game or the experience of it. On the other hand, a gamemaster who is cheerleading the players can take the game up to a new level, even with tired or suspicious players.

Thou shalt not GM whilst hung-over and sleep-deprived. Peter Fallesen:

In so many words: Second day hangover, underslept, complete train-wreck, all my fault. And it was my own game. There is only one way to handle such a catastrophe: apologize to the players, and learn from your mistake. Players and the game deserve at GM that is on the top of his and her game.

Thou shalt do thy best to deal with problem players by intervening. And have we mentioned that hung-over thing? Troels Ken Pedersen:

You don’t ask half much, do you? I had a late-stage playtest end with a player leaving on account of sexual content (the game  My Girl’s Sparrow was explicitly about sex). That was a test, so, useful information to be had from that experience! Um, I had a slightly too young player breaking the scenes and context in a game about the consequences of torture for human relationships. I kept shutting him down with hard, tyrannical game master authority, he thought it was great while I was pretty frustrated, although I kept the game from actually falling apart and failing.

Really, my worst freeform gamemastering disasters have been brought about by myself, when I have tried running games tired and hungover. That’s just near-unsalvageably bad, and I endeavour to never put myself in that situation again. The closest I’ve come to handling that with a shred of dignity was identifying a couple of players with energy and initiative, and letting them run things with as little interference from me as possible. But oh, the cringeworthiness and I’ll never go there again!

Thou shalt discard the narrative frame if the players really don’t get it. Morten Greis Petersen:

Some years back, I ran this story-heavy game, where the players were expected to tell parts of the story and the events. However none of the players had any experience with this type of play, and they had expected something completely different, and they wanted to play a completely different scenario, so one player ended up saying not a single word during the whole game, and I had to drag the rest through the story narrating more or less everything. So basically I decided to be in charge of those elements, that the scenario intended for the players to play, thus leaving them more or less with the kind of play, that they wanted.

A few years back, I ran a scenario whose authors hadn’t had playtested it. They were inexperienced authors, whose idea was interesting, but poorly carried out; it forced us into a situation, where we had to stop. It then told the players, what had gone wrong, and what had been assumed, we would be do, and then I asked, if they wanted to continue playing – which they did – and then I led the situation back on track, so we could continue the story.

Thou shalt eat crow pie sometimes. But learn to live and GM another day. Anne Vinkel:

My worst experience had excellent players and a lovely scenario and nothing went right. There was a particular mechanic where the players were supposed to ramp up aggression when the GM touched them – and that just didn’t work. I was trying desperately to steer and heading straight over the cliffside and we all ended up in a total mess where there was no way to get the players to the stated end point of the scene, where one character was supposed to murder the other, because they just wouldn’t get the aggression to that level. It was awful.

So how did I handle it? Well, I tried my best, failed miserably, said thank you for playing and knew that the players were thinking that, well, she really didn’t handle that very well. And I tried to learn something from it, but mainly I just failed and lived with it. You don’t learn GM’ing without being totally rubbish a few times.

Thus spake the book of freeform disasters. And now, we conclude with a brief, instructive tale illustrating a litany of errors, bravely brought to by Klaus Meier:

On a general level I am not very good at dealing with bad players as a GM (or to be more PC: players with different expectations of the game and how to play it than what is the consensus in the rest of the group). Some GMs can get them more in line with the playing style of the game, but I am very quick give up on them and just try to minimize their screen time in the game.

So with that in mind it’s war story time.

I ran a game called The Fire of the Burning Wind which is a kind of Indiana Jones/1001 Nights game, where the characters are action archeologists that find a magic lamp that grants wishes. Before they can get their wishes the genie of the lamp tells three tales of how it has been used before and how the wishes always turn on people. The players create these tales themselves and the whole action archeologist part is more or less only there to get them to find the lamp and tell the stories. The 1001 Nights stories are that meat of the game and I made sure to tell the players that before we started playing.

One of the players did not get it. At all. She might have been the proverbial worst. Player. Ever.

Before they found the lamp there was a scene between her and another character. She was his stepmother and there was a lot of latent conflict between them. The stepson brought the conflict into play be escalating a discussion by hissing through clenched teeth: “Don’t tell me what to do. You are NOT my mother and you never will be”. Her answer? “Oh my god! You are a stupid head! Totally stupid in the head!” Conflict dead. The atmosphere as well.

This was where I started messing up as a GM, because I did not do anything. I should have tried to get her on the right track and playing the same style and game as the rest of the group and as the game were designed for. Instead I just rolled my eyes and tried to ignore her. Big mistake as a GM. When we took a break to go out and smoke I started bitching to the other players about her as soon as she left (she did not smoke). Horrible, HORRIBLE mistake as a GM. Yes, she was terrible, but instead of trying to make her less terrible I just pointed her flaws out to the rest of the players and did not do anything else. Any motivation the other players had was now gone as well. As a GM you should create an atmosphere of excitement for the game. I created an atmosphere of “let’s just get this over with”.

Before the telling of the last 1001 Nights tale she made her crowning achievement in a long line of horrible play. I was setting the players up to create the last tale and she suddenly looked at me (she was still playing the stepmother) and said “I take the lamp and I hide it!”. With the lamp hidden they could not tell the last tale, which was the meat of the scenario as they had already been told. In that one act of hiding the lamp she showed that she either did not get what the game was about or that she simply did not care about it and about the experience of the other players. The other players looked in bewilderment. What the hell now? I panicked and said with the sternest voice I could muster “No you don’t! I am speaking to you as the GM now and you are not doing that!”. She did not hide the lamp. We finished the last tale. It was not a good experience for anyone. Big surprise.

I made a whole litany of GM errors in the handling that player. Was she that bad? Yes. Was I the only one who thought so? Not at all. She was ruining the game for the rest of the players. The problem is: I not only let her, I kind of helped her do it.

I should have kept trying to get her on the same page as the game and the rest of the players. I should have stopped the game so we could talk about the premise. I should have kept the excitement for the game. I should have handled the whole lamp hiding in a less desperate control freaky manner and let the players resolve it within the game. I did not. I made every mistake possible in dealing with a player gone rogue.

It was one of my worst role-playing experiences ever and a lot of it was my fault.

The only bright side is that the phrase “He/she hid the lamp” is now used by some GMs to describe when one player just did not get the premise of the game and kept not getting it no matter what. So at least my failure as a GM will live on as a catchphrase…

More from the freeform series:

How to Cast a Freeform Game
How to Cut a Freeform Game
How to Debrief a Freeform Game

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Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writerTroels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Morten Greis Petersen is an experienced roleplayer, who blogs about roleplaying on his personal site, Stemmen fra ådalen, at the blog collective, planB, and sometimes at his third blog,Roles, Dice, and Fun. Presently he is involved with several scenario-projects for Viking-Con, participates in projects on game mastering and scenario-writing, and is developing an alternate history-setting in which roleplaying developed late 18th century.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.

Anna Westerling is game designer and producer on the Nordic Scene. Anna has written several freeform games and is a member of the writter collective “Vi åker Jeep.” Also a larp-creator, she designed the cross-over larp/freeform/theater hybrid A Nice Evening with the Familybased on plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. She also produced the Nordic Larp book and Knutpunkts 2006 and 2010. You can find some of her games here.

How to Cast a Freeform Game

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering freeform games.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure. Freeform games incorporate elements from larp and traditional tabletop roleplaying. They feature a small group of players — usually less than ten — and may involve acting out scenes away from the tabletop as well as describing player action as in traditional games. The story doesn’t unfold in a single continuous scene, rather, the GM (and sometimes the players) may cut scenes like a director, moving the players forward or backward in time to advance or deepen the story. The Nordic Larp Wiki has also taken a stab at a definition.

For now, let’s pretend that we know what freeform is and get to the question I asked my (mostly Nordican) panel: What’s the best way to assign roles in a freeform game?

Of course, there’s no one right way to cast, but some through-threads popped up among the responses. Introduce yourself and the game and get to know the players; watch their first social interactions and the warmups carefully to distinguish introverts from extroverts, and consider whether you want to cast with or against player type.

First, we’ll tackle the issue of whether it is better to let the players cast themselves, or for the GM to do the casting. Here are some folks in favor of letting players cast themselves:

Matthijs Holter:

I’m not sure I’ve ever had to pick roles for people. In nearly all games I run, people create their own characters or collaborate on creation. I don’t see the point in picking roles for others unless you have a very specific point to make, or know them better than they know themselves. Otherwise it seems like an unnecessary thing to do.

Emily Care Boss:

Generally I prefer to let players self-cast. That’s likely due to my tabletop background. If at all possible, I prefer players to be part of character creation. This is more tricky to effect in freeform, though it’s been beautifully in A Flower for Mara and The Man with the Long Black Coat. Many freeform games give the players a simple pre-drafted character which is then fleshed out in play. A great joy of this style of play is, in fact, seeing the incredible variety with which people interpret what is essentially, a single role. As a game designer or GM those surprises are sweet.

That said, there are roles I look to cast with specific players in mind. I tend to look at the rigor of the requirements of the piece and look to match it with a strong player. Having someone who is experienced in this style of play in a key role can make all the difference. In a game style that is predicated on player interaction, the role a character plays depends on the player’s ability to carry through on it. For example, having a less assertive player in a role intended to put pressure on others could mean that the experience would be limp and easy, where the intent of the story was to put people through hell. Or having an uncertain player play the character who must stick to her guns on an issue in order for the game to move forward. Though again, these are interpretations of the role as seen by the GM.

Mara, the central character in A Flower for Mara, is woman who has died before the game and play surrounds her family’s attempts to move on. Mara is a ghost who interacts with each of them, living on in their memories. When cast as this character, I saw the intent of the role to hold on to each character as best she could, to torture both by criticism and care, but to try the family. I was so mean. A stylistic choice. In another game, Mara was so gentle, and so loving, the family had a terrible time letting her go. The same task is accomplished through different means. More of that endless variety of how the tales turn.

If you’d like to take an approach inspired by an experimental larp community in the US (New England Interactive Literature) you can allow people to sign up in advance, respond to a survey and then cast them based on their preferences and responses!

Anne Vinkel lets players cast themselves only sometimes. Here’s how she decides:

As a tentative rule, let the players choose if the really important part is what they like to play. If the important part is what they are able to play, you should probably do the casting as you know the scenario and the roles. If there is at least one character who must be cast with a player who is able to do something specific – take charge, put on a good show, be convincing as this particular character – you should probably cast the roles.

If you let the players choose characters it is important to describe the characters less in terms of who they are and more in terms of what the player of each character gets to do during play, and what makes each character fun to play. ”You get to plot and manipulate”, ”This character should be played by somebody who wants to pursue the plot aggressively”, ”This character is fun if you like your characters to suffer for their sins”, ”This character is fun if you want to immerse in the character” – all more informative than ”This character is a six foot tall baker who is divorced from his wife and dislikes fruit-eaters.”

Cast people as the characters they can play, not as the characters they seem most like. A confident male player will probably play the Femme Fatale role better than a shy female player, and an energetic female player will be better cast as the charismatic male charlatan than as the wilting female wallflower. The same goes for player characteristics other than gender.

Oliver Nøglebæk matches role complexity with player competence:

For convention games I usually start out with a quick introduction of the characters and ask the players if there’s of the roles they’d rather not play or really want to play. With that in mind I usually try to match the complexity and/or how crucial it is for the character to be played well with how competent each player seems to be. It’s always a nice thing to get a positive surprise out of a seemingly weak player stepping up, but absolutely disastrous if a central character isn’t played well.

In some games the roles that are important for the gameplay might not be the the main narrative protagonists, but rather the people around them. So be careful when planning the game.

Anna Westerling always casts the players to give them plausible deniability:

I generally cast the game due to two reasons: First, it gives the players absolution. They didn’t decide themselves to play the super-evil guy, or have that type of relationship to another character played by another player. I did all that. Secondly, as a player, I think it is hard to know what to play based on the limited information I know about the game. The group always gets quiet and slightly nervous when to choosing characters as well; it’s easier to eliminate that by choosing characters for the players. However, I do not mind when players have opinions; if I can fix it, I will, but in the end the decision is mine.

Klaus Meier never lets the players decide, and strives for a balance between player comfort and avoiding cliche:

I never let the players decide. Usually there is an asymmetric distribution of information and I know more about the game than the players and more about what characters suits what kind of playing style. I usually spend a lot of time talking with the players before I cast. Both about their preferences in characters and games and some more casual chit chat. I do this both to establish a feeling of safety – especially if the players are inexperienced or have not played with each other before – and to gauge the players personalities. Based on all the information I get I do the casting.

There are two caveats to this:

1: At Fastaval you sometimes end up with an all male group and a game with one or more female characters (the opposite happens as well, but I do not think I have been in that situation). If that is the case I specifically ask if anybody is comfortable playing a female characters. This is not because I think that female characters are harder to play or that you can only play chracters of your biological sex, but because some players do think that and therefore is not comfortable playing a female character. There is no need to make anybody needlessly uncomfortable.

2: If I play with players I have played with before I have two strategies. If the game contains a very difficult or important character I usually let the player I know play them (if I think they are able to do it well). This is about my comfort level and knowing that the an important part of the game is in the hand of someone I know and trust. Sometimes I like to challenge players I know, especially if they are usually cast in a specific type of role. I then cast them as something completely different to keep them on their toes and make sure that they don’t play the character as a routine they have done a lot before.

Casting is ultimately about finding the balance between making the players comfortable enough to trust each other and me and keeping things fresh enough to avoid clichés and repetitions of other games.

Lars Nøhr Andresen shares his Jedi mind tricks:

Never ever ask the players anything that they could disagree to. A typical mistake is to ask: “Should I just hand out the characters or do you want to choose for yourselves?” MEEEEB! We’ve just met each other and nobody wants to be seem bossy and put themselves in a position where others can disagree with you.

If you want to be a bit more sophisticated get the players to tell about a recent really good role playing experience. Or a type of role that they really enjoyed playing and why the role was satisfactory. Personally I think it’s to direct just to ask them: “What kind of character do you prefer to play?” Ask them easy questions at first and the slowly get them to reflect over the more complex issues. I would use about 15-20 minutes on the initial talk.

When the players have told about themselves then you can start telling about the game. Perhaps tell about the different characters if there are characters as such. Observe the players. With the knowledge you acquired from the initial talk and your observations from telling about the game I would say that you could do a good casting.

So if a GM does choose to cast players, what’s the best way to go about it?

Tobias Demediuk Bindslet considers the tone of the game:

An important part of game-mastering is setting the mood in the room, leading the way for which social atmosphere should frame the play experience – which starts a long time before casting or even actual play. If I want a tense, brooding atmosphere I’ll cast differently than if I want a safe and personal space or a light-hearted and playful place for improv. In general I consider two main options for the actual casting though: type casting people according to my feel for what they would play the most believably, or anti-type casting people in other to challenge them. Often I will use a mix of these two types while trying to guesstimate group dynamics based on warm-up interactions.

Peter Fallesen attends to social dynamics:

Never cast the loudest player in the loudest role, s/he will take up to much space. Also, it is seldom the main protagonist (if such a one exist in the game) that moves the story forward. Therefore, it is often best to cast the weakest player in that role, because the other players will keep him or her involved, while they also move the story forward. I often do my casting while talking to the players before we even start the warm-up exercises.

It is my firm belief that the roleplaying situation is not different from other “normal” social situations, so how people present themselves to others before the game is probably the best indicator you get for how they will act during the game. This especially holds for high status roles – status is not something you can take during a game, the other players have to give it to you, and you give status more easily to some than to others. You can of course be proven wrong during warm up exercises, which is another reason to always do some warm up with players pre-game.

Frederik J. Jensen identifies character skills and matches them to players:

When preparing the game, I identify the key characters that require special skills to play. Typically, leader roles requires active players with lots of drive. There can also be characters with complex issues or who can end up being alone against a group. These require strong players who can handle the challenge. Finally, there are often relations between characters that are key to explore during the game. These may work best when played by players on equal level.

Later when I pitch the cast of characters to the players, I make sure to mention the challenges for playing these key roles and try to influence where they end up based on my impression of the players from the initial socializing. However, I am often positively surprised by a player performing much better than I expected. If casting is very critical for a game, doing warm up exercises before casting can be a necessary tool to spot the right players for the key characters.

Morten Greis Petersen gets to know the players:

Not all scenarios require casting; some are structured in such a way that I all I have to do is present the characters, and let the players choose, but when casting is demanded, I strive get to know the players first.This is done in two ways. Firstly by talking with the players, asking them about their experiences, their favored play styles and types of characters, about their expectations and what they would like to play. Secondly through warm-up exercises (various kinds of impro-theater style games), which build up trust, mentally prepare the players for some quick thinking etc., and give me an idea of who they are and how they play, and the chemistry between the players.

When talking to the players, I begin by presenting myself. What have I played, my favorite styles and such, then we take turns listening to the players presenting themselves. Afterwards I talk about, what we are going to play, expected play styles, and we talk about what the players expect from the scenario. Finally before dealing the characters out, I ask if there is anything, they would prefer to play or not to play – for instance do you mind playing opposite gender, a character in charge, a quiet character etc.?

Warming up using various kinds of impro-theater exercises builds trust among all of us, and it prepares the players for quick thinking and expressing their roles. Also it reveals some of their skills and personalities, which I use to gauge what character, they should be playing.

Sanne Harder casts against player type…but not always:

Somebody once told me that every person has a limited amount of ‘role types’ that they can play convincingly. I think there is some truth to it. One of them is usually a default role – the one role where the players feel most at home, and which they have tried out in many different scenarios. However, some players (myself included) like to challenge themselves by playing roles that are out of their comfort zone.

At a convention you are most likely directing a bunch of players who have never played together before. It’s a difficult task, because they have no idea of each other’s limits or abilities. So I play it safe: I make the decision. In a situation where you are feeling a bit uneasy, having decisions made for you actually feels more comfortable.

I usually do some warm-up exercises, or I might just have a chat with the players about what they have played before, what they do in real life, etc. This gives me a fairly good idea about who will be able to do what, and I do the casting based on what they would be best at doing.

However, at home with “your own” roleplayers, it’s a different situation. Here you have the option to let players experiment. Sometimes I let players cast themselves, or at other times I might go with a completely counter intuitive casting, where the introverted girl plays the scheming femme fatale, and the clever geek boy plays the sports jock.

Troels Ken Pedersen scrutinizes the warm-up and talks cross-casting:

How to cast for freeform depends on the nature of the game. If it’s very jeepy, going for bleedy close-to-home characters by deliberately using the players as material for the characters, casting can matter less …they’ll be playing themselves anyway. Unless the game has specific functions in mind for particular players, in which case see below.

If the game has specific characters or functions, and it isn’t a short game, I like to do warmup exercises because they give me a body of observations on which to base casting. One of my favorites is a brief association exercise (you start by saying a word, the player to your left says the first word that springs to mind, you let it go around the table three or four times, sneaky gamemasters will pull the exercise back towards the theme and mood of the game on their turns), and it’s really useful for spotting player initiative vs. perfectionism.

If you specifically need a player to drive the game forward with strong initiative, be sure to pick one who delivered without hesitation in the association exercise. This is seriously the most important casting tip I can share. Players who hesitated to come up with something “good” can be good for roles requiring exploration of the character’s feelings, but you can’t count on them to be the source of shenanigans. At least not today, that is.

Use warmup exercises and pre-game chats to size up who’s where on the introverted to extroverted scale. Hitting somewhat extroverted players with somewhat introverted roles can be fun in moderation, too introverted players shouldn’t be given roles where they’ll fail if they don’t put on a loud show.

Casting “off” can be good. If you have a player who looks like a perfect fit for the role of scheming “bitch” or suave lover, don’t go for it. If possible (as in, it doesn’t go against what the association exercise gave you) give such stereotypical roles to players who seem capable of pulling it off but who aren’t the most obvious fits. If the game called for a sceming “bitch” type AND a suave lover, and I had a good match for each, I’d very seriously consider reversing, that is casting the “bitch” fit as the suave lover and the lover as the “bitch”. That challenges the players and doesn’t throw them into too-familiar ruts.

Which brings me to gender. There are schools of thought regarding casting and gender. Some like to be pretty strict about casting women for female roles as far as possible and to a lesser degree, men for male roles. I say fuck that noise, even for a game dealing with sex and romance. Actually, especially for a game dealing with sex and romance, like my own My Girl’s Sparrow. I make it a point to cast on the basis of other psychological/social traits, as detailed above. Gender isn’t irrelevant as such, but I find it a shame to let it get in the way of more important qualities (as far as roleplaying and a number of other things are concerned), and anyway it’s fun to mess with a bit. Messing with the players a bit, gently, through casting and other means, makes for good gaming in my experience.

Read more from the series on how to GM freeform games.

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Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.

Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.

Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writerTroels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Morten Greis Petersen is an experienced roleplayer, who blogs about roleplaying on his personal site, Stemmen fra ådalen, at the blog collective, planB, and sometimes at his third blog,Roles, Dice, and Fun. Presently he is involved with several scenario-projects for Viking-Con, participates in projects on game mastering and scenario-writing, and is developing an alternate history-setting in which roleplaying developed late 18th century.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.

Anna Westerling is game designer and producer on the Nordic Scene. Anna has written several freeform games and is a member of the writter collective “Vi åker Jeep.” Also a larp-creator, she designed the cross-over larp/freeform/theater hybrid A Nice Evening with the Familybased on plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. She also produced the Nordic Larp book and Knutpunkts 2006 and 2010. You can find some of her games here.

How to Cut a Freeform Game

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering freeform games.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure. Freeform games incorporate elements from larp and traditional tabletop roleplaying. They feature a small group of players — usually less than ten — and may involve acting out scenes away from the tabletop as well as describing player action as in traditional games. The story doesn’t unfold in a single continuous scene, rather, the GM (and sometimes the players) may cut scenes like a director, moving the players forward or backward in time to advance or deepen the story. The Nordic Larp Wiki has also taken a stab at a definition.

For now, let’s pretend that we know what freeform is and get to the good stuff.

I asked a number of (mostly) Nordican freeform GMs to explain how they do what they do. Today’s question is: What’s the best way to cut a freeform game and why? And  what sort of advice would you give to a new GM? 

Settle in, friends: my panel had a lot to say about this thorny topic. 

 

GENERAL ADVICE

End scenes when they’re over, says Matthijs Holter:

A lot of people like to cut scenes when they’re “done.” You develop a feel for that very quickly, and it’s pretty easy to find the natural ending for a scene if you look for it. I look for one specific thing: The tension that makes you want to end a scene. I like to draw that out, to stay with the moment of grief or loneliness or disbelief for a bit longer – and then even longer.

If you haven’t tried to cut scenes before, go for it! Cut hard, cut often. Try to cut very early, before you even know what happens, and come back to the scene later. Just like with any new technique, be bold and crazy and have fun with it. Just make sure you have everyone on board with the idea.

 

Consider the scene’s purpose. Frederik J. Jensen:

The key point is to listen.  Have lots of eye contact with the players and listen to what they say. A scene has a purpose. Once that has been achieved, staying in the scene will not drive the story forward. Find a point where a character has made a strong statement and cut the scene right there.

Sometimes players need time to warm up before they can get to the meat. A good scene can be full of pauses and have a strong emotional build up. If you cut too early, you kill that. More often, the scene states its point rather quickly and the players end up repeating their arguments and reinforcing their positions over and over. The extra time adds nothing.

 

Let scenes run so long as they are relevant. Peter Fallesen:

My rule of thumb is that as long as a scene holds relevance for the narrative — if it either drives the story arc forward or allows the players to develop upon their characters it can be allowed to keep running. That does not mean that it will be in the games best interest to keep a seen running, for example if it would mean that a character’s personal climax would be reached too soon.

Three things worth having in mind: 1) silence does not necessarily mean that nothing is happening – some of my most intense experiences as both player and GM have been during silence – this can be hard to pick up on as a GM if you are not very aware of your players. 2) If the scene does not bring the story forward in anyway, cut it. 3) Cutting after a great one-liner makes the scene more memorable.

When in doubt, cut short! I never allow a game to run more than 4½ hours including warm-up and loose talk before start. People – and myself – cannot deliver good performances if play-time run too long.

 

If players talk about the same stuff more than twice, cut it. Troels Ken Pedersen:

As a hard and fast rule for newbies (you can deviate when you’re no longer a newbie), always cut if the conversation covers the same ground MORE than twice. Or if you stay bored for more than ten seconds or so.

Also, cutting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When to describe and how much, when to ask and how much, when to throw in NPCs and how much of your own acting to do, are all relevant to both cutting and game mastering in general, and depend very much on the game, players and situation in question.

 

Fill your toolbox with different styles of cutting. Tobias Bindslet:

Different styles of cutting are tools you can use create different experiences. Sometimes tight scenes focused on conflict are best – for keeping play focused, players hungry or the pacing fast. Other times meandering scenes can let players grow into their characters, or leave room for more nuanced interactions. Note how this relates to genre as well. Realism, psychological drama and emotional immersion require a slower pace than action, comedy or melodrama. Finally – variety is always good.

 

HOW TO USE CUTS TO CREATE DIFFERENT MOODS

Interpret the game, cut during fights to frustrate players, and play it twice for clarity. Sanne Harder:

Freeform is an umbrella definition: It covers a whole host of different scenarios, each of them meant to be played out differently. As a game director (I’m not keen on the word ‘game master’, as it implies an asymmetrical relationship between director and players, whereas in actual fact it’s a collaboration), my most important skill is actually literary competence. I have to be able to decode how this scenario needs me to direct it.

There are many different ways of cutting a freeform. Which one I would use depends on the story I’m helping bring to life. For action scenarios, cutting in the middle of a climax generally works well. In a chamber play about relationships letting the awkwardness accumulate might be a good idea – however, I’ve also cut people off in the middle of a big fight. It works like a charm, because the players are left just as frustrated as the characters would be!

I would like to mention another alternative to cutting scenes: You can ask players to repeat the scene they have just played. Often the result is a much more direct, crisp rendering the second time around. You might think that it would ruin the players’ immersion, but on the contrary.

 

Cut hard for drama and slow for poeticism. Troels Ken Pedersen:

If you’re going for rising drama, cut fast and hard. Let the players get to the point of the scene, let them lay it out, but cut before they get into negotiating and resolving. That racks up tension and frustration, useful as (emotional) fuel. You can spice it up with other means as required, like asking, right out or bird-in-ear-whisper, provocative questions at players who aren’t going for the drama.

If you’re going for slow paced (whether miserable or poetic), let the scene play out until it feels done or gets boring. When that happens can be rather subjective, though, I’ve cut scenes and later it turned out the players thought they were just getting into it.

Of course you might find yourself going for different mood and pacing at different points in the same session.

 

Cut long for awkwardness; cut short to create tension or to give players time to think.  Morten Greis Petersen:

Most often I cut on a high note. This tends to increase the dramatic tension, and curiously it can shape how the players play, as they sometimes begin to focus on presenting sharp lines, which makes cutting easier. Sometimes, however, I cut before a reply, so just as one player wants to reply to a comment from another, I cut, usually a jumpcut to some other situation. And then there are times, when I cut for just the exact opposite reason, when a player needs time to come up with a comeback, I cut to some other situation, letting the player have time to think about his or her reply.

In the opposite end of the scale, there are the times when I let things drag out – and I do it on purpose to create or enhance awkward situations. In a sense I refuse to cut the scene forcing the awkward situation to last. Sometimes it creates moments of silence as the characters remain in the situation, and as the situation won’t end, it forces one of them to begin saying something again, or it simply creates a room of silence, and silence can be potent.

Cutting can also be done on behalf of the story if there are multiple storylines running at the same time. So you cut just before a player’s character is about to reveal something, so you can show what is about to be revealed instead.

Basically I cut to create tension (by either cutting sharply to increase tension and emphasize oneliners or drawing out cuts to emphasize for instance awkward silences), to assist the players by giving them time to think or sometimes before they get to reply in order to leave a situation unresolved.

 

Cut hard for horror and humor, and longer for character drama. Emily Care Boss offers some jeepform case studies:

In a character-driven game like Doubt or my game Under my Skin (heavily influenced by Doubt), which both deal with relationships and possible infidelity, it’s important to allow enough room for the players to develop the dynamic between the characters, and for the other players to begin to understand how the characters in the scene relate. Since everyone will build on these scenes in later events, even little things that happen can be critical and create material for play that will enrich the game for everyone. Also, since what’s important about these scenes is simply to learn about the characters’ lives, allowing them to interact naturally is fine, and may play more easily for the players than if there is a need for drama or suspense.

Games that call for a more heightened emotional states benefit from sharper editing. Both horror and humor come to mind, found in the games Previous Occupants and The Upgrade.

In Previous Occupants, a ghost story about guilt and murder, stopping at a pregnant moment is key. Stopping when tension is high escalates the fear and anger expressed by the players. This game has an interesting mechanism that encourages tight cutting. The ending of a scene is opened up to the group. Anyone can signal when a scene comes to a close by ringing a bell, so as soon as anyone thinks it should be done, you move on. The scenes alternate between two parallel timelines, with the tension and stakes ramping up and culminating in a climax–literally in one storyline, figuratively with a murder in the other.

The Upgrade is a humorous, tongue-in-cheek look at reality television with couples essentially on Temptation Island, swapped for two weeks. The question to be answered at the end, will they stay with their original mate? The game uses the tropes of this visual genre to frame scenes of all types: confessional scenes, flash-forwards and flash-backs, even meta-level scenes where the players–in the role of the producers of the show now–brainstorm ways to increase the tension on the various characters to help  the show’s “ratings”. A stacatto, at times rapid-fire scene cutting style is ideal. Improv instincts and techniques of cutting a scene on a funny beat, or when some one has capped a scene with the “button”, a funny comment, cut down or re-incorporation of an earlier element all come in handy here. The game is meant to throw the characters into situations of stress and duress, so if it’s not working that way, better to end the scene and move on to something else that does a better job. Those quiet moments would likely have been left on the cutting room floor in making the television show.

But, there’s no right answer here. Developing your own aesthetic sense of what communicates well is the most important thing. You are always experimenting, and it’s good to try something, to take a chance. In general, the deeper, more personal the experience you want to have, give more room and time to the players to experience the roles. For strong effect, briefer scenes may be harder hitting. But, as always, variety is important. A momentary scene may change the way the players see a character forever. Or a languorous scene in a humorous game could set up characters for a harder fall later on.

 

PACING IS IMPORTANT

Cut fast all the time. Klaus Meier:

I always cut very hard. I comes from my own preference as a player as there is nothing I hate more than trying to keep a scene going after it has played itself out. Why play a so-so scene for five minutes, when you can play a kick ass scene for 30 seconds and move on to the next?

As a GM I try to cut the scene when the tension is high. I usually try cutting the scene at a poignant quote from one of the players. By doing cutting before everything is resolved and leaving the scene with a great line from one of the players we have both the freedom to pick it up again later – as it is still ambiguous and can go in a different direction as we pick it up again – and a point of reference for the next scene and where the characters are with the exit line. Even if the scene is never picked up again the exit line creates scenes that are a lot more memorable than when they are just cut because they are starting to repeat themselves.

When using this type of cutting it is supremely important to let the players know before the game starts. If they know that the scenes will be cut hard they are more likely to infuse them with drama from the start instead of beating around the bush. This is once again a personal preference as I both as a player and a GM hate playing when there is nothing at stake and the scene is just about portraying the character. Give me drama or cut the scene!

I think I represent quite an extreme in how hard I cut, as I usually run games almost twice as fast as other gms at Fastaval. Normally I point this out before the players are distributed so that players know what to expect if they choose to play in my session of the game.

 

Consider cutting long in the beginning and shorter at the end. Oliver Nøglebæk:

Pacing is an area of gamemastering that you can always improve at. I tend to cut late at the beginning of a game and progress towards shorter and shorter scenes. At first the players usually need more time to find their characters and feel of the game, so no rushing! As the game moves on, you need less time and fewer words to communicate each scene and then it’s better to cut short and sweet to keep the energy flowing. If the scenes don’t include every player, it’s even more important to cut short so everyone is part of the game. If you cut right before a major outcome in a scene, you leave the players with a cliffhanger, which gives them time to think out their next move and at the same time heightens the tension. Those moments can be pure gold, if cut right.

 

Sometimes, all you need is one word. Anna Westerling:

Sometimes you see that magic could happen if you just let the players continue a bit longer, but make sure your game doesn’t turn out as a wait for that magic moments that didn’t happen. You can also cut really quickly, just after a word, because often that word says it all. For example the GM asks a character: “Did you like the date?” The character answers: “ehm.” and you cut. The “ehm” really says all we need to know.

Of course this depends on what type of game you are gamemastering – I was GMing a game about the intensity of silence, being miserable and going towards an inevitably bad ending, and in that type of game, as a GM, I  took a distanced position and cut very little and carefully. If you are cross-cuting between two scenes that affect each other, then try to cut when one scene has delivered something the other scene can put into play. For example if one scene says “and that dog was hysterical” and then you cut and the other scene gets to tell the story of the dog.

Cutting is also something you learn through practice; you will make mistakes, but that’s how you learn. But to me the risk is more often that the game is slow and boring rather than quick and to the point – therefore cut more than not.

 

And a final word from Anne Vinkel:

Cutting is hard. There seems to be general agreement that the time to cut a scene is before you think you should, even when you really want the scene to continue a bit longer because everything is going so well. If you sit down and wait for everything to be said, the scene will run out of steam. (I do have a mean theory, though, that part of the reason for this piece of advice is that a GM who cuts early gets to exercise more authority and the GMs who like to dispense advice tend to be the ones who like having authority.)

A dirty trick: If you (like me) tend to cut way too late, get your players to help do the work. Tell them up front that, hey, you’re no good at cutting so they are welcome to signal when they want you to cut – or to cut it themselves. (This doesn’t work with all scenarios, of course.)

 

___

Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.

Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.

Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.

Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying

Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.

Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244 because nobody else did.

For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.

As a game writer, Troels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.

Morten Greis Petersen is an experienced roleplayer, who blogs about roleplaying on his personal site, Stemmen fra ådalen, at the blog collective, planB, and sometimes at his third blog, Roles, Dice, and Fun. Presently he is involved with several scenario-projects for Viking-Con, participates in projects on game mastering and scenario-writing, and is developing an alternate history-setting in which roleplaying developed late 18th century.

Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.

Anna Westerling is game designer and producer on the Nordic Scene. Anna has written several freeform games and is a member of the writter collective “Vi åker Jeep.” Also a larp-creator, she designed the cross-over larp/freeform/theater hybrid A Nice Evening with the Family based on plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. She also produced the Nordic Larp book and Knutpunkts 2006 and 2010. You can find some of her games here.


Fastavaling

Dancing with the Clans creators receive their Otto award. Credit: Bo Jørgensen

The first stop on my crazy Nordic tour was Fastaval, a convention devoted to board-gaming, larps, and freeform games. What are freeform games, you ask? No one knows for sure. They are sort of like tabletop games, except you sometimes get up and act out scenes rather than simply narrating them. And on the whole, they seem to have more serious themes than traditional tabletop. Freeform is sort of a “I know it when I see it” thing.

Juried Selection

The freeform games played at Fastaval are all-new, which is incredibly cool — a bit like going to an indie film festival. Game designers write scenarios and submit them to a couple people who select the scenarios that will run and provide feedback to writers. Contrary to how things usually work at the Stateside conventions I’ve been to, Fastaval has a tradition of allowing (nay, encouraging in semi-mandatory fashion) non-designers to run scenarios. So if I write a really cool game, the materials have to be clear enough that Emily can run it successfully. This is a pretty clever way to ensure that games are re-runnable, compact, and exportable. After participants play a game, they are asked to complete a feedback questionnaire, that goes to the selection committee.

At the end of the con, and after an intense run of meetings, the committee selects winners in categories from innovative game mechanics to best game materials, and presents them with a golden penguin (an “Otto”) on the last night of the convention.

Communal Responsibility

I’m still not sure quite how Fastaval gets organized — there is a bewildering number of volunteers, committees, and responsibilities. This Fastaval took place in Hobro, a lovely little town out in the Danish countryside, at a school. Folks were responsible for registration, food production, cleaning, and even for the three small venues — a kiosk serving snacks, a bar serving beer and shots, and a swanky cafe offering cocktails and tapas that had live acoustic guitar on at least one night.

In addition, everyone who attended the convention is required to do service for a couple hours, handing out food, washing dishes, serving as the fire marshall, GMing, etc. This created a sense of community among the participants — you simply don’t dirty things in the same way once you’ve been on clean-up duty — and also provided a way for disparate participants to meet each other. It meant that we all co-owned the convention together and felt the shared responsibility to help out.

The Crowd

Call me superficial, but the beards really impressed me. In the main cafeteria hall, not long after I arrived, I spotted two dudes in black shirts with the most amazing, full, slightly pointed puffball beards; they were the platonic ideal of beards, the kind of thing put in children’s books to teach kids the very word for beard, so perfect that I couldn’t believe they were real. I turned to one of my roommates and said, “Is it just me, or are there two guys over there wearing false beards?” To which she responded, “they’re not fake.” Thus began my beard-tourism.

Demographic-wise, everyone was white, because, you know, Denmark. However, a real contingent of young people were in attendance, which was tremendously heartening to see, and a good strategy to keep any roleplaying community robust — luring in new blood is key. The rest of the participants were the usual mixture of hardened geeks, hipsters, and normal folks. Nationality-wise, most of the participants were Danish, but there was a substantial subset of foreigners — six Americans, plus some Swedes, Norwegians, and Finnish folks — who found each other for lively discussion each evening.

I heard a lot of discussion on how to promote interaction between young and old crowds — a discussion that US gamers should pick up too! — with many folks throwing compliments to Dancing with the Clans, a larp that took place every evening with amazing results.

Dancing With the Clans

This game was a mashup of Soul Train and White Wolf. Different vampire clans competed to earn specific disco dance moves, songs, and supremacy over certain areas of the building. Each evening, players and spectators gathered for an intra-generational danceoff in the lounge. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. I’d love to see something similar — vampires with a twist of irony plus public booty-shaking — in the states.

High-Low

The bar area — a low-ceilinged concrete-floored room spread with wooden tables and benches — seemed set up for a frat-style experience. It served beer and catered to a younger crowd. Metal music and pop hits played, with spontaneous dance parties breaking out most evenings. In addition, the Fastaval organizers created a couple very short TV episodes about the convention in Danish, which played at irregular intervals throughout the week.

The cafe  had a more sophisticated vibe. The space was more cramped, and decorated like a 1920s speakeasy, with servers in crisp black outfits and aprons. Old books and typewriters were scattered over the tables, and at one end of the room, a stage lit with red lights stood, host to acoustic guitar shows, book presentations (including my own reading, one afternoon), and even a hilarious dude-burlesque show. The crowd in the bar felt older, the music — jazz and acoustic versions of Motown hits — played at a lower volume, and conversation was the rule of the day. It was a great place to meet people and debrief after a game.

The Games

It’s really hard to sleep when one is having so much fun, and so I only made it to three games:

Summer Lovin’ by Anna Westerling, Elin Nilsen, and Trine Lise Lindahl

A game about hooking up at a music convention. The scenario cuts between the men and women discussing what happened last night, and then playing out the romantic scenes once both sides have been heard.

It was the most explicit scenario I’ve played, but it generated really interesting conversation in the bar later about boundaries, how we talk about sex, and why there aren’t more scenarios written about awesome ladies.

Drought by Tim Slum troupe Nielsen and Oliver Nøglebæk

A game about a collection of misfits living in the Australian outback during the Victorian period during a drought.

Although the mechanics for this game could use some work, I loved the way that it focused on setting as a way of heightening tension between the characters — the place really served as another character in the scenario.

Let the World Burn by Peter Fallesen

A scenario about going on an existential journey to find a lost loved one. I’d never played anything like this, and the setup reminded me of some more experimental novels I’ve read, in particular Heartbreak Hotel by Gabrielle Burton, one of my favorites. The group journeyed down a bridge to the past, for example, which was both literal — we walked across a bridge — as well as metaphorical — we played scenes from the past as we progressed down it. In addition to regular characters, several members of our group played the abstractions of love and destruction.

And at the end, I got that good art-experience feeling, where I’m confused about which specific emotions I’m enduring, but have the sense that I’ve experienced something powerful and thought-provoking.

The Internationals and Bad-Ass Roleplay

I had a delightful time meeting and renewing my connection with some movers and shakers on the US roleplay scene here, from Aaron Vanek to Emily Care Boss, Epidiah Ravachol and Sarah Bowman. For the most part, the convention was international-friendly, although some stuff — certain game materials, the TV episodes, the award ceremony — wasn’t translated into English. And while most Danes speak English very well (certainly a hell of a lot better than I speak Danish), at times it was hard to interact with folk without having to whip out that jerk phrase “English please.”

The games I attended collected a whole bunch of people, then designated one run to be “international,” i.e. in English. Later, in the bar, some of the Danes told me that they prefer to be in on the international run of games for a couple reasons:

  • people who travel internationally to come to roleplay conventions tend to be committed to playing hard and thus make good co-players
  • Nordic people who are confident enough in their roleplay skills to pull it off in their second language tend to be good players
  • Nordic people who think they are awesome roleplayers have some of their high-falootin’ over-actin’ tendencies removed by the difficulty of playing in another language, leading to more realistic, less showboaty acting in games.

Or maybe that’s just Danish flattery.

Verdict

Tons of fun, innovative, well-organized, and with many interesting scenarios and people. Highly recommended.

PS. Wish I had photos to share with you, but well, I’m a mediocre photographer who fails to whip out her camera.

PPS. Know of other Fastaval-related round-ups? I’d love to read them, so post ‘em in the comments.

Stay tuned tomorrow, when I list off a couple things that American convention organizers should steal…erm…I mean “reappropriate” from conventions like Fastaval!

How To Develop Your Character In Game

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, where a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond weigh in on topics pertinent to the larp newbie.

Since we’ve already looked at how to create a fun larp character, today, we look at the question: How can a player develop his or her character during a larp?

Get in touch with your character’s flaws, says Geoffrey Schaller:

In a campaign, the best approach to developing your character is to start the game with them being incomplete.  If you’ve already determined everything about them, there’s no where left for them to go, no room to grow or change.  Start your character young and flawed, and resist the urge to resolve those flaws too quickly, or you will find the character is no longer fun to play.

For a one-shot, it’s harder, as what you are handed to work with, and the constraints in which you do it, are much more limited.  Look at the session as a whole, and determine the theme or point of the game, and let that be your guide.

In-game failure is a virtue, Michael Pucci thinks:

Character development relies heavily on being aware of the world around you, and allowing it to affect your character emotionally and mentally. Allow your character to grow friendships and enemies, to win, and most importantly, to fail.  Some of the best stories come from a character failing and dealing with picking themselves back up off the ground.  Don’t be afraid to show a full range of emotions while playing so that your character can develop his or her own emotions that exist outside of yours.  It is easy to act like nothing bothers the ‘ultra heroic character’ however it takes true role playing skill to actually show weakness, character flaws, and negative personality quirks.

Jeramy Merritt says your character should want something:

Goals.  Find something you want to do as your character, and work toward it.  Whether you succeed or fail matters little, so long as you have something that keeps you going, it will inform much of how you play your character.

Consider the overall dramatic arc of your character, and take metagame steps to achieve it, Anna Westerling advises:

I usually strive after some kind of dramatic curve for my character. A beginning, some conflict and then a solution about how the character will move on. To achieve this, meet with the other players before the larp and plan what you are going to do and what conflicts will happen. Of course this sometimes doesn’t happen, because you get pulled into the larp, but you can also go off-game with a few fellow players to check up on each other. How are we doing, are we achieving our story, and can we help each other? This so no one is left behind, and ends up feeling that they didn’t get a good larp. Towards the end of the larp I also usually try to find an ending  for my character, to figure out how s/he will move on after the larp is over.

Practice good improv (say “Yes and…”) says Mike Young:

Use the improv theater techniques of listening and building.  That is, pay attention to what is going on in the world around you and then allow your character to grow by reacting to it.

Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, suggests Kate Beaman-Martinez:

Obviously what I play is greatly affected by setting. I generally poke around the rule book to see whats there and find a combo that fits. Over the years I’ve figured out where I land (generally a good person who likes to help others) and I try to push the envelope on my comfort zones.

Make sure you’ve done your prep, say Aaron Vanek and Sarah Bowman. Sarah Bowman:

Two things are crucial for me when preparing a character for a larp, either one-shots or Campaign-style: backstory and costuming. Once the character enters the game world, however, anything goes. The character changes and evolves as a result of interactions within the game, sometimes dramatically. Interactions with other players and with the game universe forces that sort of change, providing the stimulus for actions that may or may not have been built into the original character concept.

Aaron Vanek:

I do my best to make a three-dimensional character that has strengths and weaknesses, flaws and virtues. I try to always give my stereotypical good guy characters an unpleasant quality, and my stereotypical villains something admirable. The characters I want play, fun or not, should have three parts to them:

  • a background history that explains where they came from, i.e., the events that occurred in their life (birth, family, friends, education, occupations, and traumatic or beneficial incidents)
  • a personality that shaped and was shaped by that background and events. It’s one thing to say “My parents were killed by barbarians before my eyes” and another to say “I spent the rest of my life honing my combat skills to exact revenge” and another to say “I dedicated my life to the dark arts to bring back my parents and all the others the barbarians have slain to take their revenge on them” or “I used any means necessary to rise to the top of army command and now will lead my forces against the barbarians” or, “I retreated from the world and stole what i needed to survive. I trust no one and make no friends or allegiances for fear anyone I really care about will be taken away from me leaving me with that devastating pain I felt years ago.”
  • finally, this character needs to have concrete goals that motivates them and gives a thru-line to hook the larping to.

My road trip analogy is:

  • a character’s background is the make and model of the car
  • the goals or motivation is where the car is going, the destination
  • the personality is how you drive to that destination–fast, slow, nonstop, visiting detours, comfortably, stylishly, or belching poison behind you, hazardous to anyone behind you?

During the larp itself, developing my character isn’t my goal, acting and reacting as the character to what is presented is my goal. If that leads to character growth, great. If not–but I feel that I stayed true to the character–that’s fine.

 J. Tuomas Harviainen and Rick McCoy remind us that many character developments happen naturally. J. Tuomas Harviainen:

The character is, without actual play, just empty words, and idea on paper. It starts naturally developing as soon as it’s brought into play (in a pre-game workshop, or the actual game), through interaction with other characters and the game world. So when I play, I add bits and pieces of what I encounter into the “facts” of that character. The only rule I follow, really, is that nothing I add should contradict what was originally given to me by the organizers as facts about that character.

Rick McCoy:

Most characters will have a chance to evolve and develop during a campaign game. It’s natural. As the story progresses, your character’s experiences accrue. Even if you are just a writer that comes out every game, and don’t interact much with anyone, you would be noticing everything around you, and the evolution of the story from event to event will be the backdrop for how your character reacts to the game environment.

Read more first-timers’ guides here at LizzieStark.com.

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Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

Rick McCoy began larping in 1989, and works as an electrician by day and a larp advocate by night. Over the course of his career, he has organized many games, conventions, and larp organizations. He currently serves as the president of LARP Alliance, which he co-founded, and has been involved in many media promotions of the hobby, including work in an advisory capacity for the filmmakers of Role Models and the forthcoming Knights of Badassdom. He lives in Southern California.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America“ in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the bookNordic Larp.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.


How To Create A Fun Larp Character

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics. Today’s question: How do you create a character that is fun to play in a larp?

Know thyself and thy game say Mike Young and Michael Pucci. Mike Young:

What I try to do is figure out what I want out of the larp.  Do I want adventure? romance? sitting around roleplaying?  And then I try to create a character that focuses on that area.  I work with the GMs and the other players to make sure that the character works well with the larp.

Michael Pucci:

A lot of what makes a character fun for a player concerns what it is that the individual player is looking to get out of their gaming experience. Some people enjoy characters focused on action and adventure; some people enjoy social manipulation and politics. Making a character that will allow a player the opportunity to have dynamic social ties, become involved in the aspects of gaming you enjoy, while still offering the opportunity to grow with the character almost takes a degree of self analysis to understand what it is that you want to take from a gaming experience.

The second step is to ensure that this basic want that you have for your gaming experience fits in the game you are going to. If you want a high adventure experience then a politics heavy socially driven larp may not be your best choice. Similarly, if you are looking for a complex social and political dynamic then a game that focuses more on ‘monster of the month’ than social dynamics probably is not the game for you.

Lastly, while networking with other players is a great way to have fun at a game, many gamers fall into a common trap. Oftentimes newer players will completely base their characters history and drive for coming to a game on the background and interactions of another already established player. While an established character can do great things for introducing you to a game, if the character you design is dependent on someone else, then you can quickly find yourself without purpose, drive, or reason to exist if the established character is missing or preoccupied.

 

Larp is a social venture, so for the love of Cthulhu, don’t roll up an introverted character, say three of my experts. Geoffrey Schaller:

Ultimately, you are at the game to have fun as yourself, as the player.  Larping is also a social activity – if you want to have fun being alone, you shouldn’t be playing a larp!  Make a character that interacts with other people, either friends you already have, or new ones you’d like to make.  Part of the joy of the game is meeting, and working with, new people – both IG and OOG [tr. in-game and out-of-game] – and exploring those relationships.

Kate Beaman-Martinez:

Make someone you can sustain. Seriously. Not everything is playable. For a first-time larper, don’t make the mistake of rolling someone who is quiet and or shy unless you plan on breaking that barrier in some way. Pick something that will get your character moving so you aren’t stuck at the inn wondering why no one is talking to you. Take a personality quirk and blow it out of proportion. You have to take responsibility for your own enjoyment. If the concept makes you giggle, you may have hit character gold. Run it by some of your friends and see if it’s something that could be fun to play with.

Rick McCoy:

Don’t create an introvert. Not unless you want to have zero interaction at game. Unless other players are somehow forced in some way to interact with you, your character’s aloofness in game will work against people being able to interact with you.

If you have the opportunity, plan ahead and create a character that is attached to either the theme or the in-game environment of the larp. Think and plan the character’s dynamics within the environment. Making the character interesting with unique history or personality traits that you hand craft make that character enjoyable to play. This won’t work with all larps, but would work for many including those with an ongoing campaign setting.

Come in with a group! Create a group dynamic that allows you to trust and support the group you come in with. Not to dominate, but to support each other. A sense of knowing someone has your back allows you to feel more natural and at ease in a game environment, and the group dynamics you create prior to (the group is a seasoned group of mercenaries that have several years campaigning together, etc.) and during the event help with the enjoyment you will get roleplaying.

 

Create a round character — someone with social relationships and psychological complexity — and stand out from the crowd by creating conflict, say Sarah Lynne Bowman and Anna Westerling. Westerling:

Think of three things. First what would you like to play, what does your instinct tell you would be fun? If you have a clear vision of or a feeling for a character that you want to fulfill it usually works out great.

Second, in what social context/story will your character function? If everybody else plays shy, it might be a good thing to play an outspoken character. Make a contrast and create action. Another example is if everybody is pro-revolution, it will be more fun for all if you are anti-revolutionary and create a conflict to act upon.

Thirdly, make sure your character has meaningful relationships, family, people they care about etc. Because it isn’t fun to be alone, and when the larps evolves you can react to what happens to your loved ones.

Bowman:

For me, the most important component for my larp characters is psychological depth. I need some form of backstory in which I establish my character’s motivations and previous relationships in order to get into the headspace of that individual. I also must establish his or her position in the socio-cultural strata of the world. When/where was the character born and raised? Does the character hold a high or low place in society? What are the character’s formative experiences? What does the character wish to accomplish? Sometimes, these goals may remain vague, such as, “my character wants to have a stimulating conversation.” Other times, the goals may be more explicit, such as, “my character wants to avoid her former lover at all costs to save face.” Generally, though, my character motivations and goals evolve through interaction within the game world. If an intriguing puzzle is presented, for example, I may feel compelled to attempt to solve it; alternately, my character may remain completely disinterested if psychologically motivated in another direction. Establishing a basic psychological framework, in way or another, is key for me to feel immersed.

 

Even though it’s a larp, be yourself says Jeramy Merritt:

Don’t start building a character by giving yourself traits that you don’t have in real life.  Larp is acting, and while you can fake it for a while, and perhaps some extraordinary people are good at faking it and remaining genuine, for most of us, something that doesn’t feel like ourselves will end up being fun to play for about two hours before we want to retire the character.  Creating a good character is all about building on aspects of yourself, exaggeration rather than fabrication.

Or, don’t be yourself, says Aaron Vanek:

What is fun to me is always challenging myself to play someone new or different than what I’ve played before. I love to fluctuate between Goebbels and Ghandi, or Caligula and Jesus the Christ. I also enjoy playing historical figures, or modeling my character after them, because I enjoy the research.

It’s sometimes easier and more liberating (fun, I guess) for me to get into the head of someone else and ask “What would they do here?” as opposed to playing myself–even an idealized version of myself–and doing what I would do.

 

And finally, J. Tuomas Harviainen tells us, combine the big three vectors of character — motivations, traits, and social bonds:

Given that I nowadays write mostly mini-larps that can be run by anyone, I strive to create an optimal balance between memorability and information. Effectively, I try and write characters that are as short as possible (so that the player can remember it all) yet contains as much playable material as possible. By combining strong character motivations, some easy-yet-fun-to-play personality traits, and good connections between the characters, I believe I can facilitate interesting character play. Note the emphasis on “interesting” – I do not believe that all larps should be fun, but I believe that all should be interesting to play.

Read more first-timers’ guides here at LizzieStark.com.

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Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

Rick McCoy began larping in 1989, and works as an electrician by day and a larp advocate by night. Over the course of his career, he has organized many games, conventions, and larp organizations. He currently serves as the president of LARP Alliance, which he co-founded, and has been involved in many media promotions of the hobby, including work in an advisory capacity for the filmmakers of Role Models and the forthcoming Knights of Badassdom. He lives in Southern California.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America“ in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.