LARP & THE DISBELIEF DEFICIENCY

A first level witch was my first character in the Forever’s Destiny LARP, and the first character of any LARP I had made. Until then I had just attended the first few events, was playing monsters, trying to understand the ropes, and getting a feel for the atmosphere of gamers in the middle of the English countryside. There I was, not quite the “starry-eyed youth” discovering a new environment, but still excited by all that was going on around me. One evening, I was with everyone at the High Table, the communal dinner event in the main site cabin, listening to the high-level players. I overheard someone mention that yeah, they’d just come back from a trip to Hell.

I was surprised to hear someone mention that trip so casually. Hell is a big deal in mythologies that have it; whenever we hear the name, we know to imagine horrors and suffering beyond our wildest imaginations (assuming Judeo-Christian beliefs, which are common in role-playing games). But there they were, a player just blurting out the reality of their character. A tiny bit of the suspension of disbelief was burned away.

That event was not the only time I witnessed this kind of situation. Years later, in World of Darkness LARPs, the same thing happened multiple times. For example, I noticed a recurring theme of Werewolf characters, at higher ranks, talking about going to the extremely dangerous realms Erebus, Flux, Malfeas, etc as if they were taking a trip to the local grocery store.

Demon reading a book.

I dubbed these kinds of situation the “Hell and Back Syndrome”: phenomena of traditional gaming where players – often new – have their suspension of disbelief shattered due to others treating the fantastic as mundane. For a while, I considered it disrespectful on the part of players to do that. “Why would you ruin the game for newcomers?” I asked myself. “Why don’t the game staff enforce the rarity of rare events, use more descriptive language, tone down the times they funnel players into higher-level areas?”

As some of you reading this will understand, once you play for long enough, it stops being that simple.

Being an active participant in gaming culture leads to these accomplishments:

  • Learning the general forms and concepts that most games rely on
  • Acquiring familiarity and competence with the systems one uses
  • Becoming more intimate with the world one’s character is a part of
  • Navigating the social spaces formed around the above

In these accomplishments, I believe that we find another failing of LARP. All of the above are skills to be mastered, and much like outside of games, mastery often brings boredom. Unlike some non-gaming skills, though, there are definite ceilings. Once you know a system like the back of your hand, there isn’t anything more to learn. Game settings can be relatively static once established, and it’s possible to see an end to the things you can know. For those people who want to try something new, they may find themselves stymied by the shared world of LARP, where the settings has to be enforced for the sake of balance and consistency among all players. Before you know it – BAM! You’re burnt out, the fantastic becomes mundane, and we hit the Hell and Back Syndrome.

Talking GentlemenTabletop RPGs don’t sidestep all these problems, but benefit from organizing games around a single group of people. Navigating smaller social spaces affords a greater flexibility in how game sessions develop: fewer people are needed for consensus. There’s irony in a big draw of LARP – the social aspect, – being one of its bigger problems to tackle.

Particularly in LARP, we have a shared responsibility to make gaming enjoyable. If you run into these situations, a few strategies might help.

If other people are spoiling the setting, talk to them, preferably outside of live game time. Communication is the cornerstone of just about any social experience. There’s no need to be hostile, and it might lead to better role-play in general. You may also want to talk to the people running the game. They may be able to employ strategies to help other players, and may need to see if they’re contributing.

When it’s you doing it, it might be burnout. Treat it that way: take a break, switch games, discuss your issues with staff, or all the above. Yes, even if you’re staff yourself – you’re not doing yourself or other people favors running a game in a bad mental state. I’m pretty sure I’ve been a part of the problem by now (and if I haven’t, it’ll happen some time in the future). Years in LARP have bred familiarity, and occasional burnout.

It’s by no means the end of the world for LARP to have issues with the spoiling of players’ sense of disbelief, but it’s one of the reasons I look towards other, less math-driven, more story-focused, game systems these days. Maybe I’m seeing the consequence of system-driven gaming in the USA compared to, say, Nordic LARP. More flexibility, and fewer systems, could make LARP more enjoyable over sustainable periods, for a lot of people. Why not bring the flexibility of free-form acting to more events, and seek out tabletop gaming for more math-heavy fun?

LARP & THE SOCIAL DEFICIENCY

Despite the social, shared experience that is Live Action Role Playing, the social aspect sometimes falls short.

Awkward

 

I started gaming as a late teenager, first in AIM chat rooms in a friend’s D&D campaign, then moving on to weekly tabletop games at a local store. Boy, was I awkward! That guy who raises his voice a bit too high when laughing, or seems to not quite get the flow of conversation? Yeah, pretty sure that was me. It took me some time to improve, but I credit gaming for a large part of that success. It gave me an environment to watch how other people interacted on a typical basis, and emulate them. I got to act out characters, help in group decisions, and come together to craft wonderful stories.

 

LARP taught me social interaction a bit differently, given its much broader scope: the first event I played in had dozens of people playing monsters or their own character. The game I play in now averages over 40 attendees a month, and the largest LARP event I’ve been to had almost 400 players in one night! Through LARP, I learned more about personal display and expression on a larger scale, as player and storyteller. I learned to act and reign in emotions better. I’m not the only one, either. My game has other players who, over years of playing, also improved their ability to relate to and get along with others. If that’s beneficial, I’m really happy for them.

 

Even if you don’t care about the social skill-building aspect, just having friends you regularly see, and spending time together, generally makes us feel good. The stories we make are fun! Character improvement is fun! Practicing your acting skills is a kind of fun! I can’t think of another experience quite like Live Action Role Playing, which is why I’m disappointed when the social aspect fails its players.

 

Let’s imagine these scenarios from a LARP game:

  • You’re taking a bit of a breather after finishing a scene. Coming back to the main room, you notice that someone’s been sitting on the couch since the game started.
  • The game has ended, and the players are giving a nod to who they thought displayed great role play. Good role players get extra experience. You hear a lot of familiar names.
  • An event happens, and it seems that like usual, a certain group is going off to deal with it rather than you.

 

Are any of those scenarios familiar? I’ve seen them many times myself. Some players appear to be waiting around forever, or are just bored, but we might be unsure how to approach them or we’re busy. Nods for experience, going to the same players, could just means those players learned how to get attention, have good friends, or are superb actors. It’s the same with the last case: players who know how to form their parties and participate will get a lot of the hooks. Games may have an equalizing factor – our abilities in real life don’t need to have anything to do with our characters’ – but they are not egalitarian. Social systems, too, are played and gamed.

 

Split the party

Get Everyone Involved

Why does this matter? Because some people constantly feel left behind.

 

I still see myself as the awkward kid who never quite grew out of it. I still struggle with joining events, getting myself noticed, or keeping my energy up in large groups. I know I’m not the only one out there who finds the social aspects difficult, even if the game can be a lot of fun. Sure, everyone shares responsibility to improve themselves and fit in, but there’s only so much one person can sometimes do; our internal resources are limited.

 

It’s not as if there’s a single cause for this situation. There are plenty of active players and storytellers who try to extend plot and scenes to those who don’t participate as much, but keeping track of everything and everyone is a tough job. At the same time, there are also plenty of less active players who don’t want to make as much of an effort to be active in the game. Maybe they’re less invested for personal or historical reason. Cliques will also happen anywhere we have people – you can try to stop them from forming, but that won’t happen.

 

That said, I wonder if something could actually be done on a larger scale. I’ve seen increasing numbers of LARP organizations, and individual games alike, make strong statements of various inclusivity in their policies. It looks like a trend of increasing acceptance and diversity. If we understand that LARP is an intrinsically social activity, and we want to be inclusive, what do we do with people who have more trouble on the social part? We could put our foot down and say that some people just aren’t a good fit, but that’s exclusive. Maybe those of us who aren’t as easily social come because we harbor a hope of improvement, as at odds with the systems as we are. Maybe it’s our only outlet, or only way of keeping up with our friends. We’re not here for real life!

 

Could there be a more systematic approach to fair inclusion and participation? Do we want our games to just be games, or acknowledge and further develop the aspects of personal development? I’m not sure. I can imagine the push-back from people who fear the game becoming less about gaming and more about support. Even so, I think it wouldn’t be impossible to have an organization promoting conscientious behavior to its players, a “best practices” kind of deal.

 

For those of us who are a bit less comfortable but still having fun, I hope we can at least have the conversation.

 

Ariel is a player and former head of a World of Darkness LARP, as well as an officer of its parent organization, The Garou Nation. He enjoys trying different game systems ever since he encountered his first rulebooks at the age of 13. In the rest of his time, he works on many projects ranging from computer tech and language learning all the way to Queer media, when he’s not trying to find the best bowl of ramen outside of Japan.