Everybody Wants to Rule the LARP

April 30, 2017, by Courtney Trudel
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Why run Fate? That's a question I get asked a lot. Whenever I have a conversation about our group with a gamer I've just met, they inevitably suggest that we should try out their personal favourite game system. It's a good-natured instinct, but the truth is that not all game systems are created equal for all purposes.

Our gamemasters have a lot of experience between them, with a number of systems under our belts. We don't run Fate because it's the first system we grew up on; rather, we chose it after running a number of other systems, because it has some unique qualities that allow us to address common social problems that crop up in gaming.

The Social Contract

There's an unspoken contract at the gaming table. You can't avoid it or get rid of it. It happens as soon as someone says "I'd like to run a game" and someone else says "Sure, I'll play in your game!"

This contract establishes that the player is voluntarily making room in their schedule for the game, sorting out transporation to get there, writing up a character, and sitting down at the table to play. In return, the gamemaster is making room in their schedule, and expending time and effort to prepare a game that the players will enjoy.

If you were to sum up this social contract in its purest, simplest form, it would be as follows: "As long as everyone is still having fun, we keep gaming."

Any party can break this contract at any time, for any reason. But if they do, the other party is fully within their rights to pick up their stuff and go home. And often, that's exactly what happens when a game finally falls apart.

The best way to avoid losing your game to this idea is to make your social contract explicit, rather than just assuming that everyone knows the stakes. In a good game, GMs sit their players down ahead of time and ask about their comfort zones, about how likely character death should be, and about how much input the players should have into their own character's behaviour and storylines.

In return, GMs should establish how much work they're willing to put into the game, how focused they need their players to be, and what storylines and story elements they don't want to touch with a ten foot pole ("please, John, don't murder random peasants this time, it drives me up a wall").

When everyone agrees on these limits ahead of time and commits real energy to staying within those limits, games tend to last a lot longer... or at least, they don't end in fiery explosions and angry arguments.

Breaking the Social Contract

There are some pretty common things that get in the way of fulfilling the social contract of gaming. Most gamers know them, even if they haven't yet realized it.

  1. I Have to Play My Character. "Look, my character is an assassin, and the bad guy put a bounty on your head. It just makes no sense for him to pass up the chance to kill you. Sorry not sorry."
  2. The Rules are the Rules. "I just statted out my character better than you did. It's not my fault I keep solving all the problems and you keep sitting there uselessly."
  3. You Pissed Me Off. "You pushed my character. She pushed you back. Not my fault you couldn't handle it."

If you don't see a problem with the stuff above, there are two possibilities. One: you're playing in a game where everyone understands that these are things that can happen (the social contract includes them). If so: great! Your game will probably function just fine.

The second possibility is less cheerful: you've been pushing away your gamemaster and/or players. Either they're suffering in silence, or they're ready to pick up and leave as soon as they find something better to do with their Friday nights. It's a harsh reality, but it's still true: you have no real ownership over the people at your gaming table, other than what they grant you voluntarily.

If you method act your way into killing another person's character, you may have just wrecked a real person's game on behalf of an imaginary person. If you keep hogging the spotlight, even through no fault of your own, your other party members may eventually give up and leave you to kill all the monsters yourself. If you react to every small in-character provocation with overwhelming force, you've dissuaded people from enjoying conflict-based storylines with you at all.

Why Metagaming is Great

If you've got a player or a gamemaster who doesn't care whether everyone else in the game is having fun, there's not much you can do to save the situation. But assuming that the people at the table do all care that everyone has fun and sticks around, the best antidote to all of these problems is the one that gamers most often give the side-eye: metagaming.

If you're not certain that a player is having fun, the best way to know is to step out of character and ask. If they're not having fun, it then becomes a discussion where you try to figure out why. Once you have some underlying reasons, the conversation becomes a bargain: how can we help you have fun without hurting anyone else's fun? If both parties engage in good faith, you can usually come to some kind of agreement.

Metagaming allows you to solve some of the situations above.

  1. I Have to Play My Character. "My character really wants to kill yours... but maybe he gets knocked out in the fighting, and he doesn't get the chance?"
  2. The Rules are the Rules. "I see that your character is an expert programmer. Let me see if we can give him something to program that will help the plot along."
  3. You Pissed Me Off. "You pushed my character. That's interesting. She's probably going to lose her cool at you. Did you mean to piss her off, or was that an accident? Where do we want to go with this? Are we gonna be mortal enemies from here on out, or would you rather go with frenemies? How can we make that happen in-character?"

A lot of times, you can negotiate where you're headed with a scene ahead of time, so that you can immerse yourself afterward as necessary. In our games, immersion is always less important than players feeling comfortable with where things are going. This doesn't necessarily mean that we will Monty Haul a game for a player who just wants to be the coolest guy in the room... but we will give due consideration to their requests, and consider how we can help them have fun alongside everyone else.

Everybody Wants to Rule the LARP

So here's an interesting use-case for your social contract gaming needs. Everyone wants to "win" the LARP in their own way. That player's "win" might take the form of ending up in charge of the local area, killing the big bad they've been chasing for forever, or just getting a chance to chew the scenery. How do you accommodate all these win conditions without making the game feel cheesy?

Firstly, as a gamemaster, it helps to make sure that your characters all have driving motives toward a distinct win condition. Ideally, this condition should be something the character can naturally achieve while following the plot along with everyone else. You don't want to end up with forty-nine players fighting off the big bad and one player chasing down a jabberwocky on the other side of the world; that's just going to stretch your GM power thin and make the one player feel less important than the forty-nine on the other side of the room. Instead, make sure that your one player wants a particular lieutenant dead, so that they inevitably find and kill that lieutenant in pursuit of the main plot. ("Hello, my name is Inigio Montoya...")

As a player, it helps to notice when someone else's personal plot has come to the forefront so that you can intentionally sideline yourself from the spotlight. If you're facing down some guy you don't know very well, but he also happens to be the guy that killed Inigo Montoya's father, it's just good manners to let Inigo have his showdown and get himself the killing blow; he's got more emotional stake in the scene, after all. Even if your character would obviously take charge of the scene, you can always find ways to remove yourself, especially in Fate. Tell the gamemaster that you want your character to get surprised and go unconscious just long enough for Inigo to have a duel with his mortal enemy. You can always wake up blearily in the middle of the fight if your buddy ends up in trouble.

The real takeaway here is that not everyone needs to kill something big or end up in charge in order to feel like they've won the LARP. If everyone in the game talks things out when necessary and discusses where it is they want the story to go, you're much more likely to end up in a place where Inigo avenges his father, Fezzik gets the horse, and Wesley gets the girl.

The Fate System

I won't go too far into the Fate system here, as it's something that could easily span multiple articles. I do want to take a short time to mention, though, what it is that sets Fate apart from most other gaming systems: the acknowledgement of player input in a story.

Fate encourages players to own their story and their character. It gives them mechanical ways to influence the story, and it uses a currency — fate points — to make sure that everyone has a built-in way to take turns being awesome and getting knocked down. This currency even allows players to literally buy power over a scene they really care about, by giving fate points to the other player in return for getting their character to do something they want.

This explicit currency system lets players feel more in control of their gaming experience, and it encourages them to bargain when they're feeling uncomfortable with the direction a scene is going. This openness has been crucial, in our experience, to keeping the social contract on-track and making sure that everyone feels their time is being spent valuably.

You don't have to use the Fate system to implement some of these tips in your games, though it certainly helps. Just always remember the actual golden rule of the gaming table: anyone can leave the game at any time... so give them a reason to stay.

Tags:   Gamemasters    Metagaming   

Courtney has been running large-scale live action roleplaying games for more than fifteen years. She is currently president of the non-profit gaming group known as Urban Myths. Many of her posts are written for the instruction of gamemasters, but much of the advice can also be applied to writing in general.