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Friday, February 24, 2012

Six Ways LARPing (at Dundracon) Made Me a Better Writer--Part 1

I love list posts.  I might not read a manifesto on Speculative Fiction (~cough~), because seriously who has that kind of free time, but I would totally read an article called “Six Reasons Speculative Fiction is Better than you Think.” List posts tap directly into the power once reserved only for potato chips, Samoa Girl Scout Cookies, and sex with outrageously hot people to get humans to say: “Well, maybe just ONE more...”

Suddenly it’s five days later and your boss is on the phone and you're sitting in a pile of your own feces with a post it note on your forehead from your spouse telling you not to even think about joint custody.

I’m normally not one to go with the flow, but when it comes to absolutely underhanded cheap tactics to try to scrape a few page views, I suddenly become an unrepentant sellout. If I didn’t think claiming I had naked pictures of Bee Arthur might send the wrong message about the sort of writing I do here, I would totally title a post with that to generate traffic from the blogosphere's various indie bands.

Anyway, about four years ago I finally let myself get dragged to my first gaming convention despite the worry that it might take a week to wash off that weird smell that happens deep in Open Gaming. What I discovered was that I really enjoyed the Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games there. I had previously run an independent Vampire: The Masquerade LARP game for a couple of years. (By “independent” I just mean we weren’t tied to One World by Night or The Cam not that I didn’t call the players up at all hours and ask them for validation to assuage my insecurities as a person.) I sort of thought I wouldn't enjoy one-shot games. Part of a role playing game's appeal for me is watching a character grow and improve. But one-shots turned out to be a lot of fun.

Yes LARPs are unbelievably geeky, but for those people who don’t take themselves so damned seriously, or just don’t care about the hate of hatin’ haters, they are a lot of fun. Why yes, of COURSE you can see “those weirdoes” on TV being so weird they’re scary, and since you know that modern day TV/Film media is renowned for treating every sub-culture group with dignity and respect not suggesting that the most outlandish outliers they can find are representative of the whole, you know that the portrayals you see in these media are absolutely accurate and not some unfair caricature. But even so, they're still a hoot.

The thing is, LARPing is a great activity for writers.  To take a character and try to role play it—with different motivations, skills, and abilities than you have—you have to be willing to do at least SOME level of acting, so in many ways it’s kind of like impromptu theater. That means LARPing has elements of drama in it which can be very useful to certain types of fiction. Fiction and drama don’t always rely on the same techniques to achieve tension, but they both require it 100% of the time.

1- LARPs rely on character drama

Outnumbered usually ten to one, the storyteller in a LARP are not going to be able do the kind of hand holding that you get in your typical Role Playing Game (which gamers call a “tabletop game” because of where it happens) where there is a deeply interactive story and every single thing the players have their character do generates an immediate reaction from the world. (Player: “I stare into the void.” Storyteller: “Dude, nothing fucking HAPPENS! Either take the “leap of faith” or go back to the posting board at the tavern and do the caravan-guard quest.”) In the Mutant Saga game there are two ST’s to thirty-five players, so there is often a queue to talk to an ST when a player needs to know a rule or does something to the world or another player without their knowledge.

The way a LARP deals with this is to have most of the interactions with other players. If all you’re doing is telling Freeze (the gal who freezes people by touching them and has an ovarian hard on for this invulnerable dude named Panzer) that you are there to help, no storyteller needs to be there for that. You two just have the conversation. If you go on to say that you wish she had run through more fields of daisies chasing rainbows as a young child because in this time line she’s kind of a total fucking hardass overly driven about things, this is all just between you and her. You’re not doing anything that will change the world or another player or requires rules adjudication, so you two can just have your conversation. If Panzer (who has a hard on for Freeze that is SO big it requires its own in-game prop) wants to have a sexually tension-filled conversation, that doesn’t affect anyone but the two of them. They might tell everyone about it after the game is over, but they don't need a storyteller to be there to watch.

This means most interactions involve different motivations and different techniques. Everyone has something they want, and they may be candid and forthright about it, or they may lie, trick, seduce, intimidate, persuade, or bargain to get it. This is great practice for a writer. Not everyone tries one tack and then goes for their plasma rifle. Actually almost no one does that, and it gets a little old in stories where it does. Keeping in mind how character drama unfolds is great for a writer. And watching people go after what they want in a myriad of ways, can strengthen a writer's realism.

Even most arguments or power struggles (which might attract attention or lead to violence) are character generated. In the Mutant Saga LARP—on its sixth sequel at this point—there is never an external threat in the game. No evil cyborg ninja-pirate-hybrid dragon ever kicks in the door and says “Fuck you. I’m a dragon!” and all the characters race either to fight it or to the back wall. Don’t misunderstand me. These games almost always end in a huge fight that involves thirty-five people trying to kill each other, but it’s basically because one of the character’s starts shooting and things go downhill from there.

By the same token Storytellers usually set up events that have happened before the game, but no a whole lot happens during. In fact the vast majority of a LARP is people just talking--working things out, getting a feel for who might have similar goals or be easy to use. You might get an “event” every hour, and in a spectacularly intense LARP something might happen every half an hour. Usually, though, most things that happen are what the characters do to each other, and some games basically have no external plot at all. Even these events rarely involve a great deal of character/world interaction. They happen, and then the characters discuss them between themselves. In the Flash Gordon LARP a ship crashed with the final delegate who delivered a last message and died within five minutes. There was some kerfuffle trying to save the delegate, but mostly, once he was dead, everything went back to characters interacting with characters about WHAT had happened and what they wanted to do about it—and each character had their own machinations about how to use it to their advantage. The best games tend to involve the ST’s sitting in a corner and giggling manically about what the players have gone and done to each other.

This is great for writers who pay attention. You can’t always have another wave of zombies showing up or an attack cruiser coming out of cloak in a story. Nonstop stimulation from the world can get heavy handed and tread towards Deus Ex Machina. Characters have to interact with each other with the only fallout being their egos and emotions. A story must involve at least the potential for the character to change. And in the BEST stories that change comes from other characters, not from the plot.

A writer is a storyteller, but LARPing can give you a really good feel for how to balance your plot against your characters. Sure you toss a few grenades at them and see how they deal, but mostly you let them react and react to each other, and you sit back and giggle manically at how much pain they cause each other. This is basically the difference between plot driven narrative and character driven narrative (which unless you live in a very dark cave that doesn’t have Wifi, you should recognize as one of the principle delineations between good fiction and mediocre fiction), and if you’re LARPing, you get a hands on look at this dynamic. Almost every LARP veteran has been in a game where they think “Things are happening too fast. I need time to process. I haven’t even talked to Duke Thrashurface about the trade agreements yet, and now THIS.” Unless that too-fast-to-react effect is an intended element of atmosphere and adds something to the story or setting, what is going on here is too much plot and not enough characterization.

2- LARPs can’t rely on gimmicks

You know what the budget is for a LARP? If you’ve got a troupe of insane storytellers who are professionals by day running the show, you might have a couple hundred dollars’ worth of props floating around and the fancy name tags that go on a string around your neck instead of just a sticker, but usually your average troupe is bitching about having to buy a new cartridge of ink to print out the character sheets. In the dueling sword-master LARP, where I played the ninja king, everyone had their own plastic sword. The ST troupe said they mostly just gathered up their own toys from around the house, but did have to stop and drop a few dollars at Toys-R-Us on the way there.

 This game—with plastic the swords—was the equivalent of a special effects spectacular for a LARP. It was the Avatar in 3D with Smellovision of LARPs. Unless the troupe were handing out costumes and had commissioned Christopher Walken to do a cameo, it couldn’t have gotten any better.

Why is this good for writers? A “special effect” is a visual thing. It costs a writer nothing but a few lines of concrete description to do their version of a special effect. A writer could have a special effect so spectacular that it would take the ACTUAL Smellovision 3D Avatar budget to match one paragraph. Why the hell would the shoestring budgets of LARPs make a better writer?

Because LARP’s are forced to rely on other things to be GOOD.

You go to see a movie about aliens invading Los Angeles, you pick the theater with the biggest screen and surround THX sound and you bring a fifth of Vodka to turn off the critical thinking portion of your brain because the star of that show is going to be the special effects, and you know it. And the drunker you are, the less likely you are to say “This doesn’t make any sense. Why would she steal the helicopter given her childhood background and need for acceptance from father-like authority figures?” But as the budget for movies goes down, the things you go to see aren’t the amazing explosions or the incredible CGI bug people. The things that make a good story have to get better or people start leaving the theater to go to the bathroom, buy some popcorn, or play a quick game of Final Fantasy II on their iPhone.

Writers paying attention will quickly realize that without all the sound and fury of a big budget movie, a LARP is immediately forced to rely on deep characterization, interesting plots, conceits that are not gimmicks and will still entertain after five or six hours, and twists that are actually interesting—instead of just well rendered. We forgive stupidity when the special effects budget is bigger than Pakistan’s GDP. But we are much more discriminating about the things that make for a better writer when that budget is less than I make in a month off this blog.

I won’t say which LARPs were good and which were bad because I have friends that poured their souls into making those games and I honestly think they were all good this con. I have been in bad LARPs before, but not this year. Each had different strengths though and that's where I can pick up good hints as a writer. The metaconscious tropes of the genre cross dueling game and its weave with Arthurian legend were wonderful and incredibly funny. The world building of the Mutant Saga was extraordinary. The stylistic theme of the heist game was superb. And Flash Gordon had great characters with built in conflicts. Most of these were done with nothing more than words on a page.

3- Characters create plot

It is very common for a troupe to run a particular game more than once. With about 50-75 LARPers at most conventions and games that have between 15 and 35 slots, very often people don’t get to play the game they wanted to, so a troupe might run it at the next convention to give others a chance to get in on the delicious goodness.

I actually got to play the Flash Gordon LARP twice. Once was LAST May at Kublacon, and then again this year at Dundracon. The second time I got a call in my hotel room from Uberdude. I thought my con was over since I didn’t really see anything else I wanted to do, so I was out cold in my room (having managed to read an entire paragraph of 1Q84 before I drifted off) when my phone rang.

 “Will you play in the Flash Gordon Larp? They’re okay that you’ve played in it before. For the band. For the band? For the BAND? FOR THE BAND?"

So an hour later, I’m dressed in full drag playing the love interest of Uberdude (my own roommate) without both of us just dying of laughter because the only character left was not my gender.

These games were run identically by the storyteller. There were a few small changes that made “team evil”’s lives a little easier, but mostly the same plot points happened and the same people spies or turncoats or secretly totally good.

As a matter of fact, I kind of had to keep a few things I knew about the truth to myself and pretend I didn’t know them. In the first game I played Klytus, the head of Ming’s intelligence who was masquerading as someone else, so I knew which character was secretly Klytus was when I played the second time. I had to keep that sort of thing to myself. I also spent most of the game working with someone I knew was a cultist of Ming, but since my character didn't know, I had to play nice.

These two games could not have ended more differently. In the first game, when I was Klytus, my plots were going well until I got the ever loving piss beat out of me by the “Coalition of Lion and Hawk Men For The Non-Proliferation of Klytus’s Face.” The good guys won. Aurora and Prince Biran discovered the poison, hooked up, and Auraora became empress. I’m pretty sure the movie ended with someone freeze framed in the middle of jumping with a fist raised.

In the second game things ended horribly. Aurora died. The Frigidian heir to the throne died. The ring that could have made it rain again was destroyed by an implosion missile that wiped out a number of delegates including Prince Vultan. This basically meant everyone was going to war since the water crisis was at fevered pitch. Essentially, the bad guys won by default since they all have back up bodies and clones and the only potable water now comes from a process controlled by the two assholiest races in the entire galaxy.

The plot was exactly the same. Every plot point was exactly the same.  Every starting character was the same.  What happened? The CHARACTERS happened.

The characters changed the plot. They reacted to the same stimulus in different ways. When I played Klytus, I was sneaking around—afraid to take a chance or be discovered—and as a result I made it to the final reel before getting my face pwned. I ALMOST cloned Ming using the blood of all his various progeny, but I also failed to supplant Aurora, and spectacularly lost at getting my puppet on the throne. In the second game the person playing Klytus was a little less patient and shot Aurora dead about half way through out of sheer frustration—which got him tortured and killed by the other players. He also didn’t win, but in a much different way. I was overly cautious so I missed some opportunities. He was overzealous so he tipped his hand too early.

See how the characters changed the plot? Characters create plot. A writer’s job comes from making sure the plot isn’t railroading the characters towards a predetermined outcome, but that the characters have the ability to change it. They ARE the plot in many ways. Writers who want specific things to happen at specific times can learn a lot from watching a LARP about how it just doesn't work like that. If you HAVE to have a happy ending, perhaps rather than change the plot to suit the characters, you might consider changing a character in a way that makes such an action or reaction more consistent. And it sure won't hurt if you're willing to have a happy ending that isn't quite like the one you pictured.

Not everyone gets the benefit of seeing the same LARP twice without being the person who is running them. That was an interesting treat for me. However, it is possible for a writer to look around in a LARP and notice how much effect the players are having on what’s going on. Almost everything should be a result of the characters' choices. In the Mutant Saga LARP there wasn’t any external plot. They just stuck thirty-five characters like bugs in a jar, shook them a little and waited to see how many different ways we could come up with to hurt each other. The entire night’s events were entirely character generated by character.

The characters are driving in most LARPs. That means that once game is on, the storyteller HAS to let go of any expectation of the outcome. They must let go. (In fact, the worst LARPs are the ones where the players feel that they’re not affecting the outcome.) The same is true of good fiction. You have to let go of that plot, dear writer. LET IT GO! If you’re just moving your characters from point A to point B to point C and it doesn’t matter if it’s a tortured artist with daddy issues or a fuzzy puppet that believes violence is the way to deal with moral dilemmas, you’re not writing compelling characters—or a good story. If your characters have never done anything you didn’t expect, you might want to give them a longer leash. Your characters should always drive the plot, and never (EVER) the other way around. Watching a LARP can be a great experience in watching how characters cause things to unfold, and in becoming zen that they might screw everything up, but it will still be a better story if you let go.

Click here for part 2

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