Posts Tagged ‘larp’

The Tyranny of Screaming Orgasms

I have just come home from Forum 2012. Forum is a Danish convention with a focus on talks and workshops, not least inspired by Knudepunkt. I was there for the first time in a while, having been enticed by Jonas Ellemand, who wanted me to help organize the execution of Project Særimner, a short form scenario competition. I’m not going to talk about Særimner here, except to encourage you to check out the great little gems it spawned.

But being there, I also attended a number of talks. One of them dealt with debriefings, particularly after big larps, given by Frederik Berg Østergård. In the discussion afterwards, we talked about framing the play experience – how certain scenarios debrief in a way that underlines how tough and deep the game was, while others underline how great a game it was, thus priming the way people remember and discuss the game.

This discussion lead me to a startling realization:

We’re being tyrannized by Screaming Orgasms.

Screaming Orgasms

Let me explain what I mean by Screaming Orgasms. My basic premise is this: Who’s more likely to talk about their sex life – people who have good, enjoyable sex, or the people who have wild, earth-shattering Screaming Orgasms? My claim would be that in the kinds of circles where people share the details of their sex life, people are likely to brag. In other words, they are going to tell war stories of either hilariously bad sex (particularly when others are to blame, or if there were funny mishaps involved) or of Screaming Orgasms. The person who just had good, enjoyable, average sex is much less inclined to talk loudly about it.

This means that the discourse surrounding sex is dominated by the Screaming Orgasms. So the people who “just” have regular good sex think they’re supposed to be having those Screaming Orgasms they’re hearing so much about, and start wondering what is wrong with them. In this way, a Tyranny of Screaming Orgasms seems to reign.

Bleeding Immersion

In the “mature” section of the Danish role-playing scene, there is a significant focus on powerful play experiences. Seven years ago, when I attended the LARPs System Danmarc and Society 41, we were talking about “immersion”: becoming your role and feeling what they feel. Today, games like Totem, Delirium, Just a little lovin’, Fat Man Down, etc. aim to cause “bleed”: the bleeding over your emotions and experiences to your character, and vice versa.

And people have amazing, powerful, life changing experiences. Experiences they talk about, loudly and excitedly. And all the other people, those who didn’t immerse, those who didn’t have the powerful experiences, listen to the Bleeders talking about their Screaming Orgasms, and they think to themselves: “Why didn’t I feel like that? What is wrong with me?”

The Tyranny

And thus, all the people having a good time at the larp, without reaching the powerful heights of orgasmic bleed and immersion, start to feel inadequate, deficient. I have experienced this myself on a number of occasions. At Society 41, I was bored. There was almost nothing to do in the scenario, except sit around and feel. I remember one girl who sat around in a windowsill for most of the game, staring into space; after the game, she pronounced that she’d had one of the greatest experiences of her life. Faced with this, how could I not feel inadequate?

This is potentially a problem for the hobby as a whole. For me, certainly, it has meant that I have been loath to join many of the scenarios that I really would have liked to go to, because I have been afraid not to feel adequately, and not to be able to honour the demands of the scenario.

Now, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: the Screaming Orgasms are not doing anything out of ill will. In fact, the problem is not that they are talking about their experiences. Instead, the issue is that the averages are not speaking up, keeping their experiences to themselves.

But when it all comes down to it, I do believe that it is to the detriment of our hobby if the Screaming Orgasms are allowed to dominate the way we talk about scenarios. It sets them apart as a small elite who share the same kind of experience, and it makes the rest of us feel inadequate, making our good, enjoyable, and to us very memorable experiences seem like failures. And who wants to keep doing something if they keep failing at it?

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Allnighter: Return of the Chainsaw larp

This weekend, Ole and I had organised a so called “allnighter” for our kids (so called, because it lasts all night – funnily enough). We met up at the school at 1 o’clock pm, and leaft again at closer to 7.30 am (well, actually, we left the building at just after 6 o’clock, but we sat outside for an hour after that, playing Werewolf).

There were 11 of us, so we were split into two groups for most of the time – one set of groups untill dinner, a new set after. In the first, I helped run the larp from the Lumberjack academy, in the second, I ran Imperiet.

It had been my plan from the start to have the people in the Lumberjack Academy do a rerun of their larp at the Allnighter, with me as moral support and NPC. Unfortunately, one of them had to cancel shortly before the weekend, and I had to step in as assistant GM. In the end, I think the other GM felt it was a success, but I am afraid I interfered a bit too much, and that she may have felt like a good bit of the success was my doing. But while I did do a good bit, I tried hard to let her make the decisions, and it was still their (well, mostly her) game that succeeded.

For this game, we ahad two male and one female player. Two of these players were some of the kids, the last was my co-teacher Ole. This did mean that they were mismatched in personality power – on the other hand, I know Ole worked hard to help the two others along. Unfortunately, the traitor was the character that lent itself most easily to being converted into a woman, but the female player was the Weakest Link, not being wery comfortable playing “bad” characters.

The other GM did the casting, and did it exactly opposite to what I would have done. She cast the young guy as the old, stubborn character and Ole as the young, fiery guy. As always, the casting completely coloured the game. In many ways, I think her casting was better than mine – while it would have been more believable to cast Ole (who is ten years their senior) as the older guy, playing to strong emotions can be hard, and I am not sure the other player would have been as able to play the character. BEsides, the older character was already the more powerful, and casting Ole in that role could have meant that he would be completely dominating the game.

In the end, it turned out very well, albeit very differently from last time, probably providing the GM’s with more challenges than last time (I was a Player then, so I can’t be sure). For instance, at one point, we started putting a lot of pressure on them (“The PM wants an answer NOW”) – to which they replied by sending one of them to meet the PM, which effectively, at least in our (well, my) mind ment out of the game. We countered by putting a juicy clue into his hands, both feeding the tension in the room, and giving us an excuse to put even more pressure on them (“You said you were sending someone over, yet you didn’t -WHAT’S GOING ON?”). Their solution was also completely different. Where we were ripped apart by strife, they ended up covering the whole thing up, with Ole lying to an old journalist friend cementing their common moral fall. A much sweeter tragedy than ours, in which two of the three were consumed by their own righteousness.

In the end, all of the players were very happy and impressed. As Ole said to the girl who was GM, this was her first larp – and even compared to larps generally, this one was pretty good.

[Lumberjack Academy] The lessons

This weekend, I completed my Lumberjack Academy – aka, workshop in simple larpwrighting. This is the account of the lessons I held Saturday – soon, I’ll have a report on the Sunday, in which I threw the participants in the deep end by inviting guest to come and play their game.

I had only very few participants – three – one of whom wasn’t coming on Saturday, but only on Sunday. So when one participant didn’t show up till an hour fifteen minutes after we were scheduled to start, I was not feeling particularly happy about it. When the same person suddenly had to leave an hour fifteen minutes early, and didn’t show up at all Sunday, I was thinking rather nasty things that I shan’t repeat in public.

But apart from that. I was happy with the outcome. We started out with a bit of warmup – telling a story, each of us saying one word at a time. Then I asked them what tabletop roleplaying was, then what Larp was. We got far about, and they even came up with a point or two I hadn’t expected (I’ll look at the list again, and if it still looks interesting, I’ll put it up).

Designing groups (but what is a group?)

Then, I asked them to make a list of groups. The idea was that making a larp based around a group of some kind is a good idea, as the characers will have a natural relation to each other. A pretty basic idea, but many people seem to make the characters first, the group second. That is ok in a tabletop rpg, where the characters can be moved into action by the GM, but less ideal in a larp where you want the action to arise amongst the players, maybe as a result of a little GM prodding. And having a list of groups would make the actual process of making the larp easier, as you could just pick from your list of groups.

Unfortunately, they misunderstood what I meant by groups. I meant things like “a high-school clique” or “a small plumbing firm.” What they wrote was types of characters, like “high-school students,” “plumbers,” “good/bad people,” and so on (many, many professions).

I think my mistake was in my choice of example. I knew one of them played in a fantasy larp campaign – so I try saying something along the lines of: “There were different races in that larp, right? (larpwright?) And they have each their own group, right?” “Ooohh!” she said, and wrote “Orcs” and “elves.” Note to self: give them a very specific example of what a group is next time, so they know exactly what you mean. In fact, next time, I think I should reverse the order of the groupmaking exercises.

Because next, we made groups – together, all three of us. I started out showing them how each of the the “groups”  they had made could be turned into a group of the kind I wanted – turning “plumber” into plumbing firm, for instance (I stayed well away from fungophile Italian a-plumbers).

Then, we chose a kind of group we wanted to make, and then we filled it with members.

First up was Santa’s Elves (Julemandens Nisser). Here, we had memorable personages such as “Santa,” “Santa’s wife,” “the Oldest Elf,” “the Cheeky Young Elf,” and, not to forget, “the IT Elf.”

Next was Christiansborg. This group included divers members of parlament (and no alarums), the Prime Minister and his wife, and assorted journalists.

Finally, we made the High School Clique. A vicious and nasty group of girls if ever there was one. This group included the “popular snob,” “the snob’s boyfriend, the quarterback,” “the nerd,” “the make-up doll” and “the copycat.” Apart from these, we included a number of important supporting characters: the good parents, the controlling parents, the teacher they hate, the hot teacher, and one or two more I’ve forgotten.

We used this group for the next exercise as well: writing character descriptions. First, we brainstormed elements of a description. They came up with (I may have helped – I’m not exactly sure how much) Background, Personality, Relations, Hopes for the future (I definitely provoked this), Appearance and Skills. I added Behaviour.

Then, they each chose one character and wrote them out, using the above as guidelines. Here, I discovered that their idea of what “appearance” ment was radically different from mine. They thought it meant body, hair etc. I thought it meant clothes and style (at least when doing a larp character that should be playeable by many different players. We had a rather long discussion about this, with one of them being adamant that what I was referring to was something completely different. (Danish readers: what does “udseende” cover?).

Another point we had to discuss was “Hopes for the Future.” They both included long term goals. But I wanted them to include short term desires as well. They quickly caught on to this idea, and had a good idea of their character’s immidiate goals.

One final point of discussion was the difference between personality and behaviour. They thought the two was more or less the same. I thought a character should include references to both how the character thinks (personality) and tips as two how to play that character. But I guess this is a matter of oppinion: should you explicitly brief your players on how to act their characters, or should they be able to infer this from the description of the character?

Adventures from Primetime

Next up was conflict. I started this out with an exercise. I asked them to think back to a tv-series they’d seen recently. One had Moonlight, NCIS and Sex and the City, the other had Detective Monk and Desperate Housewives. I then told them to choose one episode of one of the shows, and write out, as briefly as possible, what that episode was about. The idea was to end up with descriptions of two conflicts to serve as examples of how to make conflicts for a group, the tv shows providing short and simple stories typically with only one major conflict per episode. I asked them not to choose NCIS or Detective Monk, as I knew detective shows have a tendency to have the conflict be the detectives’ struggle to find the bad guy, the real conflict (between the killer and the victim) having reached an important climax when the victim dies.

In the end, we ended up with a couple of nice conflicts: one was from an episode of Moonlight, in which the character (a vampire striving to become human again) must choose between giving up his loved one, or his hopes of humanity. The other was the finale of Sex and the City, in which Carrie must choose between two men and the cities they’re at home in.

Etch-a-larp

After introducing the concept of conflict in stories, we went on to making plots for a number of groups. Not all of them were entirely serious, but I found them surprisingly rich on potential for good stories.

The first was a pirate ship, dividing the loot. The Captain wanted the main share, because it was his ship, the First Mate wanted the main share, because he brought the map to the ship, and the navigator wanted it because he cracked the puzzle and led them to the treasure. Mixed into it was the decksboy, who was the captain’s son, the chef, who was being bribed by the captain, and the lookout, who needed to get home to get medicine for the parrot who was his only friend in life.

Next, we had a band of Dwarfs, chasing a group of Hobgoblins who had broken into their mine and stolen their gold and abducted one dwarf wife. In this group we had the husband who wanted his wife back, the husband’s brother who’d had an affair with the wife, the son who was probably the brother’s, the woman’s cousin, who knew of the indicression, the Guardian of the Gold who let in the Hobgoblins and, finally, the elf whom the Guardian was protecting from being discovered as the elf who brought chaos to his forest.

We then briefly went over the over the groups from the groupmaking session, discussing what conflicts could hit each of them. Then we had to end, and I gave them their homework: to look in their wardrobes and find seven characters they could make with costumes from their own clothes – an assignment they handled brilliantly.

Next up: the game they actually made on Sunday.

[Lumberjack Academy] On the eve of the workshop

So, I’m sitting here, at a quarter to twelve, the night before I’m doing my first workshop in Larpwrighting, and I’m not exactly feeling ready for it. Not that I’m unprepared – I have a bunch of excercises and good points for the budding lumberjacks I’ll be meeting tomorrow, and I have a good idea of the flow of the two weekends. I just don’t know if I’m setting the level right – I might be setting it too low, and they’ll be bored, or I might be setting it too high, and they won’t understand a thing. Ah, well – I’m good at improvising, and if I need a think, I have bundles of little excercises to throw at them while I go off to a corner to have a serious chat with my brain.

At the very least, I feel I have a set of points to go over that will enable them to make simple larps very easily. There may be other ways, there may be better ways, and this way of doing things certainly has a few weaknesses if you want to use it for groups of players over 10-20 people.

Posed as questions, the points are (only in very rough order):

  • Who are the players? This question is one of the two most important questions – obiously, as this is what determines the “roles” of the “role-play.” The first answer to this should most often be a group – “a clique of high school bullies” or “a squad of police(wo)men,” and then elaborated later into the individual members – the point being that a larp works better for the individual player if he feels like he has a strong belonging to a certain group, but if you determine individual members first and try to make them into a coherent whole afterwards, you run the risk of making a group that doesn’t have any real connection to each other. Of course, this way, you risk having someone there because “they have to be in the group” – something you have to watch out for. Note, that external people that are important to the group should be considered as well. Maybe the nerdy boy the clique’s picking on, or the police seargent’s wife. And how are we going to see that? In other words, what kind of props or costume will identify the players as belonging to the group, and comunicate who the individual members of the group are?
  • Where are we? In many cases, the excact location of the characters can be changed while retaining many of the dynamics of the play. But it must still be though of with care, as it gives colour and has great effect on the point below. Of course, sometimes, the location dictate the characters, instead of the other way around, as with the game “Boxen” (“the Box”), from this years Fastaval, the premise of which was (as far as I heard) sticking four people in a blocked elevator, and seeing what happened. And how are we going to see that? As with characters, one must give careful consideration to how to communicate what kind of a place the characters are in. A sofa and a coffee table makes a living room, while you need some sort of workdesk for an office.
  • What will make the players move? This may seem an odd point, but it is important nonetheless. One of my philosophy professors once told us that “every difference must make a diffference” – and if the characters are just sitting or standing around a table and talking, why is it different from a tabletop game? I made this mistake with my game, Karma Airlines from Hyggecon 2007, and it was clearly inhibiting the players that they were stuck just looking at each other over the table. Also, you can’t, as with one game I was in recently, just plant leads and expect the players to find them – they will only find it if they have a reason to go there. We did all right with the Bute Will, in which we had three different rooms and was serving dinner in one, tea in another, plus the characters would want to speak privately with one another. Also, there were plenty of props, inviting exploration. In other words, you must make sure there’s a reason to utilize the room as a room, and not just as a place to contain your discussion.
  • What is the conflict? Here, we get to the “play” part of “role-play.” Each player should have something that makes it important to him to go up against one or more of the other players. Sometimes, you can have one conflict that everyone has an interest in, but often it will make sense to have individual ones as well, to improve the odds that everyone has something to do. And why do the players care? Another pitfall is making conflicts that the players just ignore. Each conflict must feel pressing and important – preferably with both NPCs and other players pressing the conflict if the player himself doesn’t get around to it. And what will the pacing be like? If there is one thing that can kill an otherwise good story, it is slowing it down. The players should feel the need to press on with the conflict, rather than waiting around for the perfect way to strike. Of course, the prescence of the other players’ characters  can create some pacing – but only if they are making a grab for the Golden McGuffin. In the Bute Will, we had the solicitor announce that the police was on their way, thus demanding immediate action. In Karma Airlines, I hade a (in my oppinion) a stroke of genious: the players were placed outside the normal timestream and told they had “one minute” to come up with a solution – thus giving them a time frame they weren’t sure of, yet with a feeling of urgency – plus, it allowed me to yell out “30 seconds have passed” when I felt they needed a little prodding.
  • How are the game masters going to interact with play, including starting and (especially) ending it? This question is more of a practical meta-question than the kind of scripting question the others are. It is still important to consider, however. At least in Denmark, the concensus is, that when play is started, the GM shouldn’t interfere. That means that the GM’s primary way of both observing and interacting with the story is through npc’s (even if many Danes seem to be experimenting with webcams). These must be thought up in advance. The GM should also know in advance how to start the game, and preferably have an idea about how to end the game.

These are the words for now. I must to bed, having spent far too long writing this. But, ah well, it’ll be good. I’ll give a status update, maybe tomorrow, but definitely when the whole thing is over.

Lumberjack Academy: Bringing out the trusty, old chainsaw

I am preparing to run a workshop in writing roleplaying games, larp in particular. The workshop is based on the principles of the “Chainsaw Manifesto,” an idea that originated with Ole Sørensen, was named by me, and is fostered by both of us under the aegis of our association, Eidolon. I named the workshop “Skovhuggerskole,” or “Lumberjack Academy” (the English title is far better than the Danish), because the aim is to train the participants in the use of the Chainsaw.

“What on earth is the Chainsaw Manifesto?” I hear you cry. Well, I’m glad you asked!

The basis for the Chainsaw is, that the expectations that we have to larps (and to tabletop games, for that matter) in the Danish community have grown into the sky. Now, some of the established gamemakers spend countless hours of their life living up to these expectations and pushing the bar ever further. They create games with better settings, better characters, more players, more well thought-out mechanics. Others give up, give in, turn to administration, or to living a life outside of rpg. This would not be a problem – if new forces were ready to take their places.

Problem is, they’re not. There is a drought of new game writers and organisers. And no wonder – the big expectations that the consumers (because a group of rpg-consumers has certainly appeared) and the other game creators have, shade the fresh, young saplings that should be the big boys of tomorrows scene.

And what do you do with old, rotten trees shading the young plants you want to see grow into big and healthy trees? That’s right, you bring out the trusty old chainsaw and cut them down to size.

And so, the Chainsaw is about allowing young, inexperienced gamemakers to make small, simple games that may not revolutionize the genre, but are fun and easy to both make and play.

For this reason, we set a number of conditions for a Chainsaw larp (some of them would be applicable to tabletop games – but we are focusing on Convention larps, since this is the home field for Eidolon). All of these can of course be broken, if the game requires it.

The requirements are:

  • A game must be playable in one (1) standard classroom of a Danish municipal school. Societies in Denmark can borrow schools for free, which is why the term is worded like this. Besides, classrooms are fairly generic rooms, usually a wide rectangle without carpets, and loads of chairs and tables that can be used or pushed against the wall.
  • All the props of a game must fit in a bag that can be brought on the bus on the way to the location. This requirement has a number of reasons. First of all, the typical Chainsaw-game will be run at a convention by a gamemaster without a car – and therefore will be taking the bus to the convention. Secondly, this is a good way of preventing prop fetischism. One of the trends we wanted to combat was the tendency to spend lots and lots of time on preparing and setting up props, thus taking time away from preparing the actual play. We realize that props can enhance a game – but props also complicate matters for the gamemaster, which we explicitly wanted to avoid. Besides, rather a good game with bad props than the other way around. The third reason for this is, that we want this game to be cheap to run and cheap to participate in – the expectation go up with the price.
  • Any part of the players’ costume that you cannot expect them to find in their own wardrobe must be part of your props. Again: simplicity and cost. Many gamemakers become entranced with fancy costumes – but we’re roleplayers, our trade is fantasy. Sure, putting the soldier in a full military uniform is way cooler – but just put him in green trousers and a neutral t-shirt, maybe with a cap or some boots and, hey presto, Bob’s your uncle! We need to be reminded that we are actually sitting on hoards of hidden treasure, just waiting to be used. Take a look in your wardrobe – think how many costumes you could make with what you have there!
  • There should be a minimal amount of text involved. If there are written characters, they should be no more than a paragraph or two. Verbal characters are fine. One of the big stumbling blocks to making games is writing it down. I know this myself: you know your game is good – but once you see it on paper, it seems insignificant, frail, like it will never run. Besides, writing takes time, and can remove the momentum from the process. Besides, lacking writing skills should not prevent you from using you talent for gamemaking.
  • There shall be no critique of the game. This one, Ole and I disagree a bit on. Ole is (or at least used to be) very categorical: No critique, no evaluation! I tend to think that there should always be constructive critiscism. We do agree on the basic idea, however: that one of the important things about the Chainsaw is that it should be legal to make bad games, full of beginners mistakes, and that there is nothing more hindering for you desire to continue improving your creative skills than being told that the thing you toiled to make is rubbish. And, let’s face it, some people, often people who do not themselves create, seem to think it is their God given duty to point out every flaw and every imperfection. This requirement means they can’t. That’s the idea, at least.

These are, as far as I remember, the basic requirement of the Chainsaw Manifesto. There may be a limit on the number of players, as well, but I can’t remember what it was. Besides, it most likely comes naturally with the restrictions on space and props.

So, what do you think? Are we dead wrong? Have we missed the point? Or would you like to take the Chainsaw out for a spin…?