A Review of Mind’s Eye Theater – Immersion Secrets

There comes a time in any hobby where, if you spend enough time involved, you reach a point where you have to either accept that you have reached the pinnacle of what you want/are able to achieve, or to continuously strive forward for an elusive perfection (I’m looking at you, Toreador). This struggle for elusive perfection can be maddening, and any help along the way is generally welcome.

 

MES: Immersion Secrets will undoubtedly help those who are beginning their journey towards perfection – its audience is clearly new-ish or uncertain storytellers, or advanced players who are leaning towards storytelling – but if you are a good way down the path towards your ideal, there’s a good chance you’re not going to find anything mind-blowing here. If you’ll indulge me –

You are making a dish you love for dinner. You’ve made it a hundred times, and you know just how to tweak it to your preferences. You’re idly scrolling through Facebook, and one of those recipe hack videos catches your eye. You watch, and you see something that makes you think, “huh, I never would have thought to try that”, and you try it. Either it works (great!) or it doesn’t (oh well, you tried something new).

 

There’s no earthshaking denouement or keys to the magical kingdom of The Perfect LARP here, but there’s a good deal of very solid material. If you don’t find a new pearl of wisdom, perhaps you will be reminded of some forgotten truths, or inspired to think about a situation in a new way.

 

Of the fourteen essays included here, I think my philosophical favorite is actually the first one, “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride”, by Jason Andrew. It contains what I find to be the truest and most valuable philosophical takeaway of the entire collection, and something that could easily be a meditation on the game theory of Mind’s Eye Theater as a whole, regardless of setting. Without spoiling it, let us say that it encourages storytellers and advanced players alike to reconsider their mental definition of the game itself, and in a very positive way.

I respectfully disagree with some of the points that are raised within this book, but as is pointed out in Andrew’s essay, “The subtle choices are nearly infinite, and they can be made to tailor the experience desired.” My choices are not your choices, and vice versa.

 

The essay that I think has the greatest utility, and in this case, I am using “utility” in the sense that it would be something that would be either seamlessly incorporated or frequently reached for, is the second essay, “Strategies for Improving Communication Between Players and Game Staff”, by Jessica Karels.

 

This one rings most true, because I’ve experienced the situations described therein from both sides of the fence. This is the essay that I would recommend ALL storytellers, of all levels, to read and re-read at least once a year. It has a brilliant subsection within the Creating a Safer Space section that will undoubtedly cause an appropriate amount of consternation and spark much-needed discussion.

The essay included that I found both helpful and distastefully clinical (a strange juxtaposition) is “Ritualizing the LARP Experience” by Dr. Sarah Lynne Bowman. It reads less like an essay and more like a scholarly paper – which is understandable given Dr. Bowman’s extensive research into the art and science of roleplaying games and game theory. This extensive research is made obvious by the bewildering addition of nearly a full page of Dr. Bowman’s bibliography at the end of her essay; a questionable design choice in a 56-page PDF.

 

While Dr. Bowman’s article contains some excellent information, particularly addressing the liminality process, its tone is vastly different from the more conversational style of the other essays. Some might find its scholarly formality frosty or difficult to assimilate, which could easily detract from the value of the information contained therein. In addition, it is far more geared, in my opinion, towards games and storytellers that are seeking a more Nordic-type LARP experience – a trend that I approve wholeheartedly, but is decidedly not for everyone.

 

My absolute favorite essay – and one that I think could be sadly overlooked if a reader is looking for easily actionable items to apply quickly – is “Silently Encouraging Immersion” by Michael Pucci, someone who I would like to buy several drinks for after reading this essay. (Don’t mind the split infinitive there – that should show you how excited I am about this essay.) The line that grabbed me by my perfectionist heartstrings is this: “If a participant needs to use a higher degree of suspension of disbelief in order to be invested in the setting and scenario, then there is a reduced sense of immersion level in the experience.”

My favorite Bradstreet Art – Check out his website

I served as a Logistics AST for a local Vampire troupe for a year or so, and I can’t tell you how often I ripped out my hair trying to find a site that would truly encourage immersion by the atmosphere it created (a process that was incredibly hard to achieve in public library meeting rooms). PLEASE, for the love of spice, READ THIS ESSAY.  It is worth the $10 purchase price on its own. There’s no earth-shaking revelations, but different eyes see clearly, and Pucci’s suggestions are solid ones.  

 

Simple does not always mean easy, nor does it always mean cheap. We ALL wish we could rent out a house in a swank neighborhood, require our players to dress to the nines, and have immediate and total immersion from the moment people get on site. That’s not going to happen, and it makes me sad, but this essay will give frustrated storytellers and their staff a glimmer of hope that, just once, the magic will work. Yes, you can get together and play Vampire or Werewolf or Changeling in a library meeting room, but simple site synergy, as Pucci terms it, adds a level of authenticity that most players won’t even realize is there, but they will respond to it in a positive way, deeping their immersion and improving the experience for all.

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In conclusion, allow me to reiterate: this is not a book aimed at average players. This is a book aimed at Storytellers and their staff, or advanced players looking to take on the mantle of Storyteller on their own (or those wanting to assist their ST in more concrete ways). Is it a worthy addition to your MET library? Possibly, especially if you are inclined to want insight into what goes into making Mind’s Eye Theater games what they are – but it would be out of place among the collection of someone who generally appreciates the flavor or splat books. At the very least, frustrated and singed-around-the-edges Storytellers and their staff will be reassured that they are not alone in their struggles, and they may find a little something extra within the pages to give their games a special pop.

 

Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as an ordinary office employee who holds vehement opinions about Oxford commas and extraneous hyphens. She is a regular columnist and editor for the High Level Games blog. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.

Camp!? Guest Blog by THE Jason Hughes

I play in, and am a Storyteller for, the Underground Theater Vampire: the Masquerade LARP. For two years, I served as the Organizational Storyteller for the Camarilla, Anarch, Independent Alliance venue. During that time I ran a game that was heavy, dark, and brooding. Players were forced to make difficult choices at every turn and were in constant danger. Winning was surviving. The story was dark, but was it good? I had players burning out constantly.

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I stepped down from the position and spent some time thinking about how to run games that embraced the themes of Vampire and the World of Darkness, but didn’t drive players to burn out or Out of Character conflict. After a time, I realized that the great villains (which is essentially what we are all playing in Vampire) were a bit campy and weird. They all had character traits that drove them to make poor, but interesting and entertaining choices. The best of them had a touch of ridiculous about them. Victory was never enough, it had to be gained in a certain way or through certain actions. Ultimately, great villains were campy.

 

Camp can be zany or subtle. A primary complaint about injecting camp into serious games is that too many Storytellers are already doing it badly. Vampires are battling anthropomorphic snowmen with little story beyond, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” I am not a fan of genre-breaking silliness. Stories must have depth and connection to the world that we choose to mutually inhabit. Always ask yourself, “Will the story my Players tell sound ridiculous?”

Sinister, isn’t he?

Subtle camp is the difference between executing the prisoners and creating a death trap. When I defeat someone, if I want the best outcome for my character, that defeat should be resounding and complete. However, we shouldn’t want the best outcome for our characters, we should want the best outcome for ourselves as players. Instead of a resounding defeat or complete victory, we want story – a death trap that the rival can possibly escape creates that. A Roll Squad is no fun, a Death Trap could be.

 

Camp is a difficult word. Words have meaning and power, especially in roleplaying games, especially in LARP. I choose camp because it describes the absurd, slightly tongue-in-cheek way that good LARP interaction begins with. We encourage players to be be larger than life and play fearlessly. That requires them to act in ways that are theatrical, not realistic. Subtlety does not need to be lost.

 

“Theatrically” is not a bad word for the style of play that I advocate. However, I want to draw a line between Hamlet, in which a character does some patently ridiculous things in pursuit of revenge, and Titus Andronicus, a play so violent that it makes modern slashers look tame. Both are very theatrical. The characters make big choices and extreme actions, however Hamlet has a subtlety to it that makes it more interesting. Hamlet is also a touch campy (the right kind of campy). He suffers and monologues and wallows. Hamlet acts, but indirectly and in ways that would be less than advantageous for his “player.” That’s what I seek.

 

Sir Laurence, as Hamlet, Tragedy Embodied

The unrelenting gloom and horror of the World of Darkness (and other such games) needs a tinge of the ridiculous to be great. Batman’s greatest villain should be Salvatore Maroni, the Boss of Gotham. He is deadly, smart, and has managed to keep operating, more or less, in a city protected by Batman. There are plenty of fans of Boss Maroni, but he is not the Joker. The Joker is terrifying, homicidal, and campy. In Vampire, do you want to be “Black Suit Person #27” or do you want to be “The Rabid Mongoose of the South?”

 

The purpose of camp in serious games is to increase the potential story and to not leave behind fun in the unrelenting darkness. A small amount of mustache twirling creates a rivalry instead of a enemy. A small amount of the absurd gives players that moment of relief that stands in stark contrast to the serious drama around them. Both create more, and better, story and that is the ultimate goal.

THE Jason Hughes thinks about Larp constantly. He probably has a problem. His wife is very understanding.

Know When To Say When – Is It Burnout or Bleed?

 

The misery of a year that is 2016 is drawing to a close, and as we all search the horizons of infinity for a glimmer of hope that 2017 will not takes its cues from its predecessor, it is a good time to take stock of our individual states of mind regarding our shared hobby.

2016-into-2017

 

This is an exercise in self-assessment and metacognition, a study in ourselves and our reactions. I recommend undertaking this effort in a comfortable and sober state of mind, possibly discussing it with your closest gaming associates or the people who can offer you an outside perspective.

For the purposes of this article, we will be using bleed in the pejorative sense; that is, the state of getting too wrapped up in/involved with in-character (IC) issues or problems, to the point where it is negatively affecting out-of-character (OOC) quality of life. Nordic-style or play-to-bleed is another cooking vessel of aquatic life forms entirely.

bleed

It’s a Thursday night. Your local once a month LARP is Saturday. What are you feeling?

A) Woohoo, game this weekend! I’m SO ready!
B) Game is this weekend. Did I get my downtimes sent in? Better check with the ST. Where are my costumes/makeup/props?/All my stuff is packed and ready.
C)Hell, game is this weekend. What is going on, again? Did I even do my downtimes this month?
D) Dammit, game is this weekend. Do I have any good reason to go? I want to go see my friends, but I don’t know if I want to actually go.
E)Game is this weekend? I’m gonna nope right the hell out of that noise.

prisma-grigori

I’m ready!

If you answered A, please pass GO and collect your $200….unless you are ready to maliciously wreck the game for someone else. We’ll get to that in a moment.

If you answered B, you’re in the same boat as 90% of all the LARPers I have ever met. 5% of the remainder are super-organized and the other 5% will be panicking as they are 30 minutes late leaving for the game site.

If you answered C, you might be getting a little worn down. This might be because life is kicking your ass (and we all feel like we are wearing that Kick Me sign from time to time) or it might be because it is time to do a little self-diagnostic on your enjoyment/investment in the game.

If you answered D, you are definitely getting a little singed around the edges. Is something lacking in the game, the setting, the environment, or your gaming group, or are you/your character just in a neutral phase?

If you answered E, you may actually be burnt out or experiencing an undue amount of bleed.

A – Game is this weekend, yay!

Are you happy to be going, to be portraying your character and spending time doing something you love? If so, fantastic.

Are you happy to be going because you know you are going to be ruining someone else’s plots/plans…and you’re looking forward to enjoying their suffering?

The second answer is not categorically a negative one, believe it or not, as long as it is your character who is going to be enjoying wrecking another character. Part of the inclusivity of the hobby is being able to differentiate between player and character – but you knew that already, or you wouldn’t be here.

This is where you check your investment – does your entire life revolve around the game? Are you okay with that state of affairs if that is the case? Do you need to take a step back and reassess your investment and involvement? Are you living for the game, or is it a fun activity you enjoy with great enthusiasm? Have fun, but keep things in perspective.

B – Game is this weekend. Did I get my downtimes sent in? Better check with the ST. Where are my costumes/makeup/props?/All my stuff is packed and ready.

jp

I’m ready!

As I said earlier, this is the area where 90% of the gamers of my acquaintance fall. The spectrum is basically spread out between “oh gods where is my everything” and “everything is here, in its proper place, repaired/polished/updated, and I’ve communicated with my DM/ST in triplicate.” If you are one of the people towards the neater/more organized end of the spectrum, please write a blog post and share your witchcraft with the rest of us.

You’re looking forward to the game, but you are keeping your other priorities in mind and in balance. This is a good place to be. Do you want to be more involved with the game? Do you see an opportunity for improvement, and want to help? This might be the time to reach out to your ST or DM and ask if they need any help, or let them know you are willing to volunteer.

C – Hell, game is this weekend. What is going on, again? Did I even do my downtimes this month?

This is the beginning of the singed edge. You may be going through a phase where life is interfering with your ability to game as much as you would like – and it happens to all of us. Maybe your work or class schedule changed, maybe you got involved in a new hobby that requires more time, or family/friends issues demanded priority over your gaming hobby. All of these are perfectly normal, perfectly respectable reasons to have slightly detached from the game, and a healthy, supportive gaming crew will work with you to make sure you can come back when circumstances change.

On the other hand, you might be in a low phase with your gaming experience, such as recovering from a loss of a character, or the completion of a huge storyline. This is either a recovery phase or a spot to take stock of your away-from-game commitments and responsibilities, to see if you need to reprioritize your involvement.

Have you reached a point where you are obsessing or brooding over your character’s frustrations and taking them on as your own? This is a potentially toxic level of bleed, but it can be handled if you recognize it early enough to take a step back and reevaluate your level of involvement with the character. It’s way, way too easy to fall into the trap of 24/7 role-play, especially in these days when it’s more work to get truly away from instant communication than most folks realize – and no one wants to snub their friends because they need a break from being in character all the time. Some people end up blurring the lines between player and character, and that can be incredibly awkward, frustrating, embarrassing, and frankly psychologically damaging – the bad kind of bleed.

Alternatively, this may be the spot you are in if you are in the process of returning to an ongoing game or campaign after taking a break, voluntary or otherwise. If that is the case, I recommend speaking to your DM or ST one-on-one and getting a general feel for the game state, to see how you can best reintegrate with the group. You can also look at this spot as a chance to debut a new character and start fresh.

D – Dammit, game is this weekend. Do I have any good reason to go? I want to go see my friends, but I don’t know if I want to actually go play.

work

I lied, I’m not ready.

If this is your feeling one random Thursday, you might just be having a bad week/month and don’t have the social energy to get into character and deal with plots and connivery and such. That’s cool – as a truly devoted introvert, I feel you. Stay home, cuddle your pets/sweetheart/favorite fuzzy blanket, watch TV or murder pixels or read a book. Do whatever makes you feel better.

If this happens two months in a row, it’s time to reassess your involvement in the game. Have you been doing too much role-playing? Especially in an Org game, or any other avenue that can lead to 24/7 play, it can begin to feel like an endless pressure to be in character all the time, and that’s exceptionally draining. Have you had an in-character crisis that has ended badly and you need to take some time to deal with the emotional fallout? That’s okay too. Are you frustrated because your character can’t seem to accomplish anything and you are beginning to feel like you are just going through the motions? This is a time for a calm and rational discussion with your DM or ST, which brings me to my next point.

This is going to be an unpopular statement, but hear me out – this can also be a sign that you are not a good fit for the game. There are times where personalities just do not mesh, or personal issues (and we’ve all got them, anyone who says otherwise is lying) prevent us from fully joining in with the game or group of people. Maybe, especially in a horror setting like Vampire or anything Lovecraftian, there are events in your own life that make the setting uncomfortable for you, despite your ardent desire to play. Maybe you are part of a group where the expectation of involvement/commitment/investment is WAY higher than you can afford, financially or temporally or emotionally.

social-contract

Make Friends, not Vassals

If you have made friends in your gaming hobby (and I sincerely hope you have!) see about hanging out with them away from a gaming setting, to just BS and be friends without character sheets or dice involved. Grab a beer or a coffee or see a movie or try a new restaurant. Be friends, not only friends-who-game-together. Maybe they have some insights that can rekindle your enjoyment in the game. Maybe you’ll discover that they also have a passion for watercolor paintings of bonsai or collecting esoteric cheeses – whatever your non-gaming passions are.

E – Game is this weekend? I’m gonna nope right the hell out of that noise.

You’re as burned as Anakin Skywalker after the duel on Mustafar.

This is where communication – and for the sake of clarity, I am going to reiterate that all of this is meant to be taken and performed out of character – is truly crucial. If literally everyone in your game is having a fantastic time, constantly and consistently, and you always feel like your own experience is lacking, TALK TO YOUR FELLOW PLAYERS AND YOUR DM/ST. Ask them, away from game and in a neutral setting, if there is something that needs to change about your playstyle, or if there is a fundamental misunderstanding about a key part of the game that you have missed, or if you joined the game with X expectations and are seeing Y results.

Part of being a responsible, emotionally mature, and informed player is realizing that sometimes the problems are not external, but internal. Sometimes, players just do not fit, and it’s unfair to the rest of the group to consistently be asking them to bend to your will and preferences. Want to do a fade-to-black (FTB) when a scene is getting too intense? I am 100% right there with you and will speak up for you if I see you getting uncomfortable. Invoke FTB every single time heightened emotions get involved? I will be less sympathetic.

What it comes down to is this – if you have left multiple game sessions with headaches and grumbles, truly having not enjoyed yourself, and you have reached out to try to make things better and not seen any improvement, maybe you need to reconsider if you are a good fit for the game. It is a sign of maturity and good self-awareness to realize when, despite best intentions, something is just not going to work. Like the old commercial said, “Know When To Say When.”

I will leave you all with this final thought –

We’re all part of this hobby, one giant dysfunctional family, and there’s always going to be situations that make us uncomfortable, people we don’t like, and constraints that we have to work around – be they psychological, financial, temporal, or otherwise – but we’re all here to play a game, and those challenges can actually strengthen us as people.

The biggest difference between our giant dysfunctional family and the other type is that you can always choose to walk away from this family if you realize it’s no longer the right one for you. We will miss you, but there’s always a seat at the table if you decide to come back.

2016 has been a bitch of a year. Let’s make 2017 our bitch.

In loving memory of Carrie Fisher, everyone’s favorite Princess,

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marion Curtis/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock (6196713x) Carrie Fisher with Dog Gary 54th New York Film Festival Screening of HBO's Documentary 'Bright Lights', USA - 10 Oct 2016

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marion Curtis/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock (6196713x)
Carrie Fisher with Dog Gary
54th New York Film Festival Screening of HBO’s Documentary ‘Bright Lights’, USA – 10 Oct 2016

May the Force be with you!

Georgia is a fervent convert to being a gamer, having come to the gaming world later than most. She is a diehard World of Warcraft player, an enthusiastic Vampire: the Masquerade LARPer, and a neophyte player of Exalted, 3rd Edition. The game that solidified her love of tabletop games was a legendary Star Wars: Saga Edition game that consumed most of her life for three years and provided an introduction to her husband. When she is not throwing dice or murdering pixels, she is often found working on her urban fantasy novel, cooking anything that does not resist being thrown into the pot, and attempting to make a living as a freelance editor. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and feline overlords. She can be contacted through Facebook via her page, In Exquisite Detail.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.