This is the fourth in a series of posts about the safety and calibration systems used in the New Orleans run of the larp End of the Line. The first was about the OK Check-in and the second about the Tap-Out. The third was about the Lookdown, and you should absolutely read it before moving on to this post. In fact, this next bit is quite esoteric so don’t worry if it becomes too theoretical. If you’re here to think on a very geeky level about safety tools in systems, though, it’s worth plowing through.
At End of the Line, which has a very sandboxy design with no traditional “central plot” (although plenty of character goals), the safety and calibration design had two focuses which were equally important – taking care of yourself and taking care of each other. We used the “classic” Lookdown to support the first goal and the “Lookdown as Tap-Out” to support the second.
Let’s assume you decide to do what we did and use Lookdown both for opting out unilaterally and for allowing the choice of de-escalation (basically Tap-Out). And you would use them together with some mechanics that allow players to control playstyle intensity and/or where the story is actually going to a very high degree. (The tools we chose for that will be in my next two posts).
This choice would make it theoretically possible for a player to enter a room where a scene is already going on and where play intensity has been negotiated before they arrived, to make some kind of play contact, and then directly Lookdown – in effect demanding that all those players lower playstyle intensity to allow the newcomer to join in. I am mentioning this because it reflects a common worry among opponents of calibration systems, namely that one single super sensitive or overzealous player could keep them from playing in which ever style they want. I am calling it a theoretical possibility because to my knowledge this exact thing has never happened with the Lookdown Tap-Out.
If it were to happen, however, it would likely be because it reflected a player need relative to the system. This is a nice way to say that if this happens maybe your calibration design is not optimized for the kind of larp you’re making.
For instance, if it is important for the development of the larp’s plots that no characters are shut out of any interactions by their players’ comfort levels, you should probably just lock your simulation mechanics on a level that is playable for all your players.
If you absolutely have to have interaction mechanics so intense they need to be optional, they should then by necessity be truly optional – that is to say, when I the player enter a room where sex is simulated in a way I’m not comfortable engaging with, either there should be no loss for the larp if I turn around and leave, or alternatively I should be allowed to enforce my comfort level on the other players. Whether the other players feel I’m a buzzkill or not should be completely irrelevant.
In the real world, however, if some players feel lower intensity play is annoying, other players will feel this, and it will affect how likely they are to use the calibration tools.
This means that the “Lookdown Tap-Out” is not an elegant tool for “forcing” a lowered intensity on a group of players one wants to join. Since many players will be embarrassed to “interrupt” ongoing play to ask for playstyle adjustments, they will either just not join the scene, or they will throw their self care to the wind because of imagined (or actual) peer pressure. Even so, if this is your design and the Lookdown+Tapout is the only available tool for this purpose, some players will use it to lower the play intensity of others. (As they should, if that is your design). I suspect this will make everyone unhappy, which is the same as breaking the mechanics. This is because your calibration mechanics cannot be separated from your players’ expectations and the norms of your play community.
If enabling intense interactions is truly important to your larp – if your larp is perhaps specifically geared towards exploration of physical situations – it is better to just use Lookdown as an opt-out tool without any other function. This will give players less control over each others’ experience. You can still combine it with the Tap-Out (as a separate gesture), so that people whose bodies are in actual contact can opt out fluidly even though no one can force them to from across the room.
Or, you know, you can offer a much more limited or nuanced set of calibration tools, make player recruitment very selective (for instance allowing all players the possibility to anonymously veto the presence of any other player), and workshop the hell out of them to enable a very intense pre-negotiated consent level as a baseline for the larp. That larp will not be for everyone. This is OK. No larp is for everyone. End of the Line was designed to allow a group of strangers with no experience in the style to play on very intense themes – but even then it was impossible to make suitable for all players.
It is also possible to make a larp where any player can de-escalate play intensity to their level. But then you have to establish a play culture that is all about respecting the most comfortable common denominator, and build into your mechanics some rule whereby every new player in a situation triggers a new playstyle negotiation automatically. This sounds like a drag, but the mechanics can still be quite discreet, and you can use other design tools like the layout of the play area to minimize the risk of players continuously and accidentally dropping in on the intense magic ritual, or whatever is going on.
I’m spelling all of this out, again, to remind you that the exact same consent mechanics can operate quite differently in different game and story designs. Please remember: if most or all scenes of your larp need to be playable for all your players at most or all times, and you ALSO want a really intense playstyle, good calibration systems are not enough. You will need to design player selection and other pre-game procedures very carefully, so the players enter the larp with a high level of trust between them. You will also need to work just as carefully at managing their expectations, and designing the player culture around your game in an intentional manner. If your top priority is including all players, you will need to be selective about what themes to include and what simulation mechanics to employ instead.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! The pictures in the post are from the New Orleans run of End of the Line. If you are interested in playing this larp, or in hanging out with other people who are into creating cool stuff in the World of Darkness, your fan fest is coming – sign up to the mailing list on www.worldofdarkness.berlin
This is the third in a series of posts about the safety and calibration systems used in the New Orleans run of the larp End of the Line. The first was about the OK Check-in and the second about the Tap-Out. The discussion of the Lookdown continues in my next post.
The Lookdown is a bow-out mechanic – that is, a calibration mechanic that allows individual players to fluidly opt out of scenes that other participants are actively engaging in. At End of the Line we used it in two ways:
as a visual cue that the player (rather than the character) was opting out of a situation. Let’s say I as a player walk into a room where sex acts are being simulated. It’s obviously not for real, but it looks real enough, and while everyone else is larping like mad, I perhaps realize that whatever my character feels at the sight (shock, dismay, excitement, inspiration) is not what I feel interested in playing on right now. Then I can use the Lookdown while leaving the room to signal, basically, that the other characters should not follow my character.
as a parallel to the Tap-Out. In End of the Line the Lookdown was how you tapped out if you could not reach the person you were playing with, or if you were interacting with a number of players simultaneously and tapping out seemed impractical. It followed the exact same two step procedure as the Tap-Out, outlined below under “Basic Procedure”.
It is absolutely possible to use the Lookdown exclusively for meaning number one (which is what, for instance, New World Magischola did – with an interesting tweak, see further below).
The point of the first usage is to allow for a distinction between:
your character being upset and leaving, in which case interesting play is generated only if someone sees this and reacts to it (ideally coming to talk to your character about it, or to beat them up, or whatever fits) and
you the player choosing not to engage, in which case of course you do not wish to be interacted with about that.
To enable play on character upset, then, a hand sign to indicate the player is extracting herself from a situation makes perfect sense. This is the “classic” Lookdown, and if you use it in your larp, you will most often give the gesture this meaning only.
However, it is also possible to use the gesture in the way outlined under point 2 above – “parallel to Tap-Out”. The existence of the second usage, then of course also allows the potential third option of using Lookdown as the only gesture for “tap-out” (that is, using Lookdown without allowing the shoulder-tapping gesture). This makes sense in some settings, but not in End of the Line, where many intense situations, like neck-biting, would mean the participants can’t see each other. We needed some kind of tap-out mechanic to allow for continuous calibration within scenes, and decided to go with the ordinary Tap-Out for that.
We also had Lookdown in play in its first meaning, “I do not want to see/play on this”. Therefore, when we realized we also needed a “no-touch” Tap Out, we decided to activate that as an additional meaning for the Lookdown gesture, instead of introducing some additional hand sign. When designing any kind of rules system, especially rules or mechanics to be used in an agitated state, minimizing cognitive load is an important design parameter. Which is big words for “have as few mechanics as possible and make them really easy to remember and use”.
To perform the lookdown, you raise your hand clearly in front of your eyes like the See No Evil monkey. It makes sense to not actually shield your eyes, so you can see what’s happening in the room, which in practice means you’d keep your hand at brow level and kind of peek out under it (looking down, get it?) or have your hand slightly further away from your face and peek over it. I can’t believe I just used five lines to explain something that you figure out for yourself in a second.
If you then turn around and leave, you have used the Lookdown in its first meaning – to opt out of a scene, signalling to the people playing in the scene that they should not follow you, but also not stop – “keep playing, you guys, I’m cool over here”.
In the larps I’m involved with, usually this means both the player and the character leaves the situation. For this to work seamlessly, it has to be feasible for any character to walk away from any scene. You can read a little bit more about this in the previous post, which was about about tapping out.
If someone gestures “Lookdown” and remains in the room, it is essentially a Tap-Out, and everyone stops what they’re doing. Most importantly, if you are holding someone, you release them, to allow them to leave the scene and the room if they want to.
If they need to go, they are allowed to go, no questions asked.
If they stay, it means they’d like to continue the scene, but with just a little less of whatever was going on. Less screaming, less sexuality, less restriction of movement… Everyone dials it down a bit, and play continues, no OOC language required. (Unless it is required, in which case you speak, but see below)
Please remember – no matter whether the player stays or goes, DON’T ASK WHY, DON’T SAY WHY. Not talking about why has a double function. It avoids the creation of a hierarchy of differently valid reasons for self-care. It also creates social protection for people who tap out for very private reasons that they may not want to share.
If your mechanics allow for playstyle negotiations, like those of End of the Line did, the player who has looked down (or effectively, tapped out) may offer suggestions on playstyleas long as they don’t say why they have that preference. For instance, “can we continue but without you blocking me in physically? The screaming is fine, you can scream more if you’d like”. It is equally possible to use the Lookdown without allowing this option. As always, it depends on your overall safety design.
Credits, Background & Variants
The “See No Evil” or “Lookdown” is a calibration technique invented this spring in a bar in Oslo, Norway, during a conversation between myself and a bunch of people, in particular Trine Lise Lindahl who suggested the gesture. A few weeks later in Austin, Texas, I mentioned the technique in my talk at Living Games, from whence it immediately got picked up for some games, including most importantly New World Magischola, where it was also named the Lookdown. NWM’s beatifully integrated safety and calibration systems were by Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman and Harrison Greene, and have been documented here.
An interesting variant emerged at NWM, where the Lookdown gesture was used, for instance, if a character was late for class, but the player did not want play on their tardiness. (The gesture then doubled as both an “I as a player actually don’t want to see this” and an “I as a player actually don’t want to be seen”). This can make a bunch of sense for all kinds of reasons; maybe the player is late for some medical or other self-care reason and has no energy to get their characters’ head chewed off for something that has nothing to do with the fiction. That said, NWM is a collaborative style larp with a sandbox style and “play for what’s interesting” aesthetic. Just like at End of the Line, getting your character in trouble was explicitly given as advice for a fun experience.
I willingly admit that this “please don’t see me” usage rubs me personally the wrong way, because from the perspective of my larp tradition, why would you ever want to opt out of an opportunity for an interesting scene? Similarly I know many American larpers who worry that more competitive games will break if players have an opportunity of opting out of in-game consequences. (In my original post on this topic, you can read about how a fix to an almost identical mechanic is deployed to counter this worry at Texan Planetfall).
Obviously, when I stop to think for one second, I can think of quite a lot of reasons why being able to slip back into a scene unquestioned is as important as being allowed to slip out as needed. And of course, as I’ve said many times before, what reasons you as a play collective allow for pausing play or opting out of scenes is up to you – but you will usually need a way for players to step out without breaking the larp entirely, for medical and babysitter emergencies if nothing else. Right up there with those practical hard limits in importance is the understanding that players are more important than larps. If a player, for whatever reason, is so agitated they feel they must stop playing, they are per definition not in a state where they are able to play. Which means you need some tool for handling this (as well as a reasonable focus on preventing it).
As always though, these tools are deployed in systems. This means that if New World Magischola was played with exclusively Nordic players, they would have an implicit cultural norm establishing that when I the player am late for in-game class, I will invent some reason for my character to be late also, and then we’d embrace whatever interesting plot that threw our way.
Of course this only works if I trust the players of the classmates and teachers also are playing for what is interesting. If they’re on some kind of power trip about humiliating people and blocking them from plot & play for kicks, then I would not be willing to take that risk. (I’m sure the NWM playstyle isn’t actually like that, but I suspect many players with bad experiences from competitive larps did not fully trust that good and fun play would always emerge from getting your character in trouble).
As always, then, safety and calibration designs have to be understood in the wider context of game mechanics, fictional culture norms, play culture norms, and community design. In the next part of this series, I consider the deployment of the Lookdown in different kinds of systems.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! The pictures in the post are from the New Orleans run of End of the Line. If you are interested in playing this larp, or in hanging out with other people who are into creating cool stuff in the World of Darkness, your fan fest is coming – sign up to the mailing list on www.worldofdarkness.berlin
This is the second in a series of posts about the safety and calibration systems used in the New Orleans run of the larp End of the Line. Today’s mechanic is so obvious that I would assume it’s been “invented” independently in a bunch of larp communities, although I’m relatively certain I hadn’t come across it before I introduced it in my calibration design for Inside Hamlet. I’d be happy to hear about other larps and traditions where you’ve used it, or other variants of it, whether for this exact purpose or something different! (I’m not entirely sure where I picked the concept up myself, but I would assume it was from pro wrestling).
The tap-out is a mechanic for players to communicate to each other about their limits.
To perform a tap-out, you tap your co-player’s arm or another convenient part of their body twice, and repeat this action as many times and as hard as you need to get their attention. (Typically, once and quite softly is enough).
Everyone stops what they’re doing. If you are holding someone, you release them; if you are screaming, you take a break from screaming; if you are blocking someone’s path, you make sure they are free to go, and so on. Please note that not all situations have an “active” or a “passive” party, and even when they do, the active party is as free to tap out as the passive party.
In this tiny break, the person who tapped out can choose to either stay or go.
If they need to go, they are allowed to go, no questions asked. In the larps I’m involved with, usually this means both the player and the character leaves the situation. (See farther below for some examples of how this works). Depending on your larp, you might want to add some player care here, but be cautious. Since the problem is created by the specific situation, it is much better to have a staffed space, like an off game room, where the player can retreat, instead of forcing them to interact more with those specific players at that specific moment.
If they stay, it means they’d like to continue the scene, but with just a little less of whatever was going on. Less screaming, less sexuality, less restriction of movement… Everyone dials it down a bit, and play continues, no OOC language required. (Unless it is required, in which case you speak, but see below).
When someone taps out, you do not ask them why, and they should not tell you why. This is to protect both of you and all the other players. Maybe they tapped out because you have terrible breath – do you really want to have a conversation about that right then? Maybe they tapped out because the dialogue suddenly reminded them about a horribly dysfunctional or traumatic situation in their past. Maybe they tapped out because it’s the middle of the night and they already went to bed once and now they’re not wearing a bra and feel weird about it – it’s none of your business. And it’s not about you.
Not talking about why has a double function. It avoids the creation of a hierarchy of differently valid reasons for self-care. It also creates protection for people who tap out for very private reasons. To put it bluntly: if you’re only allowed to tap out because of rape trauma, no one will tap out, because they may not want to share that experience. So you need to be able to tap out at any time when something in the situation is making role-playing too difficult, or even impossible.
HOWEVER – the player who taps out may offer suggestions on playstyleas long as they don’t say why they have that preference. For instance, “can we continue but without you blocking me in physically? The screaming is fine, you can scream more if you’d like”.
Additional Rules & Requirements
That’s the basic procedure. There are some additional rules and requirements needed for this to work.
It is almost always necessary to combine the tap-out with other mechanics. A baseline tool that all larps should have in my opinion is a word that signals “I need to say something out of character”. This word in my play culture is “off game” (please remember that new larpers need to be taught this). In my play culture we usually have a pretty absolute embargo on talking about your character off game in the play area during run-time, but we still need the word, to be able to for instance communicate real-world emergencies. It also operates as a good backup for tapout in the dark, or if a player panics and can’t remember what to do.
If you can’t reach your co-player, or if it’s a multi-player situation, you can tap yourself twice on the chest instead. This still requires a line of sight though and may not work at all larps, for instance if it’s dark or many people interact in confused situations. In a game like that, you need at the very least a safe word (which can be “off game”). At our New Orleans run of End of the Line, we used the Lookdown technique as a parallel to tap-out for when you’re not in reach. It also adds some other features, which I will cover in my next blog post.
For tap-out to work, all players must have at least one hand free at all times. This should be in your rules. It is also not good safety design to actually tie people up – you can pretend tie them up.
Remember not all players have the same number of hands or the same mobility, so tap-out may not be an appropriate mechanic for all larps. If only a small number of players are unable to use it, however, you can offer the a verbal cue as a parallel method – for instance “Off game – TAP OUT”. Remember to workshop (=practice) this with all the players. You don’t need to be all ableist about it, if the game area becomes dark or confused, it’s a useful backup for everyone to have mastered.
You can’t tap out of something that has already happened. If tapping out is at the core of your safety design, it must be combined with some level of “no surprises” culture. Not jumping people, not grabbing them from behind… What it works really well with is slow escalation and telegraphing your intent clearly. This is sometimes called bullet-time consent. Basically, you play certain types of actions – like violent or sensual – in slow motion, allowing the other player to make active choices about how to position themselves, how to react, and whether to tap out.
If your players are comfortable with this type of play, they may not even need a verbal negotiation system on top of it. (As long as you have a word like “off game” to be able to sort out confusion if it occurs). In Inside Hamlet, bullet-time consent was pretty much it. At End of the Line in New Orleans, where most players were new both to naturalistic-looking simulations of violence and intimacy, and to consent mechanics in general, we combined tap-out with a VERY detailed verbal consent negotiation mechanic. It worked beautifully!
Player Experiences and Character Outcomes
Please note this technique is about the player’s limits – it does not determine what happens inside the fiction. In the Nordic tradition, where we often put a premium on minimising out of character action in the play area during run time, and our larps do not always have plots in the traditional sense, the elegant solution is to align the rules of the fiction with the OOC mechanics.
For Inside Hamlet, for instance, we decided that in this court larp, where alienation and boredom were important themes, there is an in-fiction culture where it is always OK to tire of a situation and leave. Even if Claudius himself is speaking to you, you can just walk off. If you tap out and walk off, you co-players will make some sense of it and move on. Maybe your character is so defeated by the situation they can’t even handle it, and just drift off. Maybe your character is so fashionable they get bored mid-sentence talking to ordinary mortals and just leave. That’s just the way people behave at Elsinore. In a fantasy larp, maybe you can always go to the holy grove. In a scifi larp, maybe there is something wrong with teleporters. Maybe all the characters are on a lot of pretend drugs and find it difficult to concentrate from one second to the next, allowing their prey to run off.
There are obviously many larps where a plot train that has started can never stop. With tap-out as with many other calibration mechanics you’ll need to combine it with some rules for what to do if one player wants out and the scene still needs a conclusion. The simplest fix for this is a procedure whereby the well-being of both players is first attended to, and then the outcome of the scene is verbally agreed upon.
In a collaborative style larp, players would typically just negotiate that themselves; in many other larps it would make sense to summon a GM or storyteller at that moment. If the stakes are high (for instance, if the plot of many other players would be affected by how this robbery or seduction or negotiation concludes) a very simple story outcome resolution mechanic could be introduced into the larp. If you already have an abstract conflict resolution mechanic, there is no reason for the tap-out to overrule that. Who ever has the most points or rolls the die right wins the conflict; we’re just not going to play it out. Most of the time, this will work just fine.
I’m not going to state any hard and fast rules here. It’s not because I don’t have suggestions, I do, but you need to consider the specifics of your larp and your players. I can think of a thousand hypothetical scenarios for different types of larps and the answer for what a good system is would be different in each, and this is already getting quite long! (I’m happy to discuss specific situations with you, however! Ping me in the comments).
Fundamentally though? Well.
If your larp is physically intense, engages with potentially triggering topics, or involves realistically simulated aggression with players who are utter strangers, I might tap out because the other player just makes me feel unsafe (whether that’s in anyway connected to a real threat or not). In that situation I might want nothing to do with them, and be unwilling to stick around to resolve a conflict. But you know what? Players are more important than larps. If I’m too freaked out to engage, my well-being is objectively more important than my co-player’s story outcome. If I, having tapped out, go to the organisers for help at that time, a satisfactory solution can usually be found. And if I don’t trust the organisers enough to turn to them in a moment of crisis, then they might not deserve to finish that larp coherently anyway.
Most importantly: if you judge that your players are unwilling to try to negotiate fairly, or if you foresee a great number of situations where players are too afraid of each other to have a conversation out of character, there is no calibration system in the world that will make your larp safe. In that situation, your attention should be first directed towards designing the player culture – a topic I will return to many times on this blog!
Safety or Playstyle Calibration?
The tap-out is a safety mechanic, in the indirect sense of empowering participants to exercise self care and monitor their enjoyment and limits before they become too tired or overwhelmed to be attentive to their surroundings and co-players. It is also a safety mechanic in a rare, trivial but useful sense: at the Helsinki run of End of the Line, for instance, the dancefloor was very crowded and one player reported using tap-out when other players were dancing so intently they didn’t notice they were treading on her feet.
Fundamentally the tap-out is a calibration mechanic: it’s a tool for active player-to-player communication about playstyle intensity in a specific situation. It can fruitfully be combined with playstyle negotiation techniques of different kinds, but even there its purpose is to sort of say, “OK, that thing we agreed upon [whether explicitly or implicitly], having now experienced it so far, I now know this is where I do not wish to explore that further.” Or “Huh, I see that those words meant something different to you than to me, here’s my limit“. Or “Hey, I got really into this scene, and I think you did too, and I just realised I’m not going to be cool with it tomorrow if we continue so we better stop.” All of these are good reasons to calibrate play and really difficult to verbalise in an agitated state. That is why the tap-out is convenient and, dare I say it, elegant.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! The pictures in the post are from the New Orleans run of End of the Line. If you are interested in playing this larp, or in hanging out with other people who are into creating cool stuff in the World of Darkness, your fan fest is coming – sign up to the mailing list on www.worldofdarkness.berlin.
This post is really about the OK check-in safety mechanic. But I like to talk, so there’s three paragraphs of preamble before I even get there.
Two or three of the currently most influential techniques or concepts in player safety and playstyle calibration in our play communities were invented or significantly iterated in literally the last half year. I love this because even after decades it still excites me to see the community innovate together.
One of them is the word “calibration” itself, which I desperately needed to use in theory discussions at Solmukohta this March, and went around describing to people, until my friend Kristoffer Thurøe finally said “you mean… calibration” and I was like “YESS!” and that, friends, is how larp theory happens. (Calibration means the many explicit and implicit ways that players have to negotiate playstyle, play intensity and sometimes things like genre).
The OK Check-in is a tool allowing for players to communicate with each other out of character about their well-being without pausing the flow of play around them.
One person makes the “OK” hand sign at another one. This indicates the question “are you ok?”
The other player responds in one of three ways.
Thumbs up – means they’re OK and play can continue.
A level hand – means the player doesn’t quite know how they feel, or that it’s neither very good or very bad. This should be treated as a thumbs down by the person doing the asking.
Thumbs down – means the player is actually not OK, and should be extracted from the situation.
You should codify what the appropriate response to the latter two signals are. If your players are not very used to these kinds of mechanics, you should offer them a script. At End of the Line in New Orleans, we offered “can I walk you to the off-game room” as an appropriate script. (The off-game room was staffed by an organiser with listening skills and cookies).
The middle option is there to hack the default reaction many people have of not wanting to be a bother. Like, not asking for help until your head is literally on fire. When in doubt, it’s “easier” to say “meh” than “I AM SUFFERING”, especially if you’re not suffering, just uncomfortable. But that’s the point – you don’t have to stay in a situation that makes you uncomfortable!
An important extra rule to establish is to never pressure a player who is feeling bad to talk about why that is. You can communicate to your co-player that you’re willing to listen if they have something on their mind. Otherwise perhaps just help them to an organiser, or ask if they’d like you to keep them company for a while.
What It’s For
There are different ways of feeling “not good” in a larp. You might be feeling bad physically or emotionally for reasons perhaps not even related to the larp.
Your character might be in a situation the player does not care to engage in (but is still in because of politeness, or because it happened gradually and the player never stopped to consider how they were feeling when the situation changed around the character). You might find yourself in a physical situation that makes you feel unsafe or interacting with players you, upon consideration, do not trust. In all of these cases, it is useful if someone passing by or outside the situation checks in with you. If someone inside the situation checks in with you, it’s even better, because it demonstrates they care whether you’re ok.
Sometimes you’re in a one-on-one role-playing situation that gets intense, perhaps violent or intimate. One thing led to another, and now your characters are screaming at each other, or necking, or perhaps your character was just stabbed by an assassin with a latex knife, ending the life of a campaign stalwart. If you’re not sure your co-player is entirely into it, or whether they’d be less into it if they stopped to consider, or if the content is not typical or obvious to the larp, or the whole thing was a bit of a surprise, or something meaningful and important (like a campaign character death) just happened, it’s a good idea to check in.
If your larp allows play on potentially traumatic topics, or it has no particular stance and an intense topic that comes up emergently, check in with your co-players. Especially if someone is looking a little queasy or studiously making Normal Face. In fact, if at any point in the larp you find yourself wondering about whether that character is really unhappy, or whether that’s a player being unhappy, or if something just feels off somehow – check in. If you don’t, your worry will distract you from your play experience. If it’s nothing, you’ll be relieved. And if that person needs the nudge of the check-in to take care of themselves, or your help to get out of a tricky situation, you’ll be happy you did.
At last Sunday’s run of the Nordic style collaborative Vampire larp End of the Line at the Grand Masquerade, we added two additional signs to the basic procedure. The first was suggested by Sarah Lynne Bowman and the second grew out of a conversation with White Wolf’s Martin Ericsson, who wondered whether there was an escalation mechanic in the game. We judged it wasn’t necessary, but realised the enthusiastic approval could work as a kind of light escalation, or be useful for quick communication. So we threw that option in.
Unprompted thumbs down – players could use the thumb down sign to spontaneously signal to other players they were uncomfortable. (There were also other tools for calibration in play, which I will blog about later). The thumbs down signal could also be used to signal to the two photographers (who were both IC and OOC) that the player did not wish to be photographed at that time.
Double thumbs up or big smile thumbs up – when checked in with, especially in a one-on-one situation, signalling ENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT would work as a positive signal to actively continue with whatever you’re doing.
Safety and Calibration SYSTEMS
The OK check-in is a safety mechanic, because it’ll help you identify and help co-players who are unhappy, ill or in some other way incapable of removing themselves from some situation that’s doing them no good and might at rare occasions actually be harmful.
It can also be used as a sort of rough calibration mechanic, to check in with the other player about how they feel about specific ongoing kinds of play. It’s not a high definition tool, obviously; it will give you no detailed info until you pause or step out of play and talk to each other. In a larp with other calibration tools, it will mostly be used for safety, but it also has the important side effect of enforcing a culture of care. Of demonstrating that the participants live by the principle that players are more important than larps. In a larp with extensive negotiation and players continuously stepping out of character to talk about their feelings, it might be redundant. Or it might not be a match aesthetically for what you’re doing, in which case you might want to use something different that produces the same results.
Over the next week or two, I’ll publish more of the safety and calibration tools we used at End of the Line. You’re free to use them all (but please credit the designers or at least point at their history). Don’t use the whole EotL system blindly though. I don’t know your larp. Figuring out which tools are part of your system is the job of the designer – you. For inspiration about what a different really ambitious and coherent system can look like, there’s an article about New World Magischola over at Nordiclarp.org that you should seriously take a look at. In it, Maury Brown also documents some of the early history of this technique:
*Flashing the “OK” symbol as a gesture to indicate concern for another player appears to have developed as emergent play in some US larp circles in 2009 or 2010. Rob McDiarmid reported using it at a game around that time and Aaron Vanek and Kirsten Hageleit later used the “OK” symbol to check in with each other during larps in Southern California.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! The pictures in the post are from the New Orleans run of End of the Line.
This is the fourth part of a series on Opt-In, Opt-Out Design. These posts are intended to establish a bunch of concepts and basics before going into nitty gritty (case studies and so on). The first part was an introductory video. The second instalment was a text about why the opt-in, opt-out design philosophy is a good practical baseline, especially if your players have limited larp experience. The third discussed things your players will need to know at signup.
This fourth piece is about a very specific sub-issue, namely people who opt into your larp, engage with your materials, sign up, prepare and get all the way to the location – and then get very angry at something, scream at you, and leave.
Leaving the larp is of course also an entirely normal way of opting out, and I personally think we should always design for that to be possible, for all kinds of reasons. This blog post is not about that. It is not about a player, upon consideration, deciding to leave the larp because they realise that they cannot, for some personal reason, continue playing.
This blog post is about rage quitting. Or really mostly about rage. About on-site participant rage and its causes. Sometimes you manage to resolve the rage issue so that people stay and play anyway. They might even have a great larp. Sometimes you don’t, and then they quit on you.
I have been at the receiving end of participant rage. I have also been the person feeling the rage. I haven’t rage quit, but I think if I’d have had a driver’s license and access to a car, I probably would have at least once.
I think most of the language below is also applicable to the freaked-out or deeply disappointed player who has enough self control not to explode in your face (or who trusts you so little that they don’t even want to talk to you). They’re basically just saving their rage for later, but that has the benefit that you may be able to pre-empt it.
Rage Quitting In Larp
The term rage quitting is adopted from video gaming, where it often means aborting a play session either because you’re losing, as a reaction for trolling from other players, or because you’re enraged with the bugginess or difficulty of the system.
In collaborative-style larps, though, “winning” and “losing” are not meaningful concepts, and “trolling” is a marginal phenomenon (at least in the play cultures I’ve been directly exposed to). When players rage-quit larps, then, the reasons veer towards the last two kinds of thing: their experience being “buggy” – for instance because of logistical breakdowns – or the larp itself being unplayable for them in some way.
From the organiser/designer perspective, an angry, super-sad, freaked-out or massively offended player is both a terrible burden on resources (such as time, attention, and energy) and super annoying (because one either feels their complaint is unfair, or that their complaining is distracting from solving a real problem).
From the player perspective, of course, the problems are always real, and the emotions are definitely real, and they are often accelerated by a feeling of betrayal, which means you can’t actually ask the enraged player to shut up or wait, because that would make them feel even more abandoned.
If you are an experienced organiser, you probably have one person on location to deal with this kind of thing. You might be able to validate the player’s experience and their feelings, acknowledge your responsibility and apologise as appropriate, and find a workable solution that allows them to play. But would it not be nicer if you didn’t have to deal with it at all?
Please note: this blog post is not about larp criticism in general, or players having questions and uncertainties on site, or seeking attention, or about people having political objections to your larp before it’s even announced, or about design criticism delivered after the larp in ways that undermine the experience of players who were actually happy with it. Those are important issues and absolutely worth discussing.
This post is exclusively about the problem that the super enraged participant represents to the larpmaker on site, when the larpmaker is typically too tired or busy to deal with it in a good way, which then affects the other players negatively, and may have a long afterlife on the internet after the fact.
In an earlier post, I wrote:
The majority of your problems with sad, freaked-out or offended players can be resolved by being really good at communicating what it is you’re offering. When people are already signed up (or even worse: are already on location) it is far too late to reveal information that could change their mind about whether they want to play. They might then feel you have broken an implicit contract, and for instance demand changes in your work, or just drop out really inconveniently at the last moment.[A.k.a. rage quit]
There are also people who just misunderstand or miss something that has actually been communicated. A good friend of mine signed up to a larp with a fair amount of sexual content without actually reading the game description, because she had liked the designer’s previous work. She was slightly outraged and quite disappointed, as she did not feel like playing on sexual themes – but I think even she agreed in the end that this was basically her own fault. However…
…Her unhappiness and inability to engage with play are of course still the organisers’ problem, and it would have made sense to communicate the content much clearer and, (like some larpmakers making intense games already do) to also require her as part of the signup to specify that she had understood the game’s content. This is good practice, but since players get disappointed, confused or angry about a whole range of different things, and you can’t have them sign off on everything, this is not foolproof either.
Also, if you organise a recurring thing, your more experienced participants will increasingly assume they already know everything, and stop reading or listening to important information.
Disappointment is Relative to Expectation
Here’s the thing though: most of the players screaming or crying or demanding things of you are probably reasonably socially competent, reasonably “sane”, and reasonably well-informed. They feel you’ve let them down (and clearly you have, since that can only be measured relative to expectation).
I cannot emphasise this enough: disappointment is relative to expectation. The seed to your players’ disappointment is planted before they even arrive on location, through the expectations you create in them, implicitly or explicitly.
As a larpmaker, therefore, you may seem to have two apparently conflicting goals: attracting participants to your event, and giving them realistic expectations.
I call the goals “apparently conflicting”, because that is actually phrased wrong. If you’ve ever had a player yell at you, or ruin the experience for everyone else by refusing to engage with the intended design, you’ll know that the goal shouldn’t be “attracting participants”, but “attracting the right participants” – those who are willing and able to play your larp together.
To play the larp you will actually be running.
If you value inclusiveness highly, or need to maximise the number of tickets sold for financial reasons, you will be tempted to try to make your larp suitable for everybody. This is not a trivial task, and if you make that promise, you better live up to it too.
Hype vs Expectation Management
You may be tempted to create hype around your game for marketing purposes. One dictionary definition of hype is “deception for the sake of marketing”. If you obfuscate details about the experience (explicit deception), or for instance create a very professional-looking web-site even though your logistics team consists of four chimpanzees managed by a child (implicit deception) you should not be surprised or offended by players raging at you – or quitting on you.
The players who opt into your larp are choosing the experience you have communicated. Not the compromise you’ll end up with after having run out of time and other production resources (as you inevitably will). Not even the larp that is in your mind. They expect the larp that is in their mind, because you put it there.
If you do not communicate to your participants what the larp’s basic outline and organisational principles are, they will inevitably fill in the gaps with their assumptions or guesses, but still hold you accountable for not living up to their imagined larp.
As I started writing about rage quitting, I realised I didn’t actually have a specified list of the kinds of things participants generally need to know at signup. So I wrote one; it is Basics pt 3 and you can find it here. It is a good place to start.
Unfortunately, you are not the only communicator of your larp. The image of your production is shaped by all the conversations about it everywhere in the physical and digital worlds. Hype, fantasies, and misunderstandings might attach themselves to your larp regardless of how clear and realistic your own descriptions are. This can happen for instance because your game concept or location are just super awesome, because some tastemakers in your community have signed up, or because of some throwaway comment you made months before the game wasn’t even announced yet.
If you are working with hype, or hype attaches itself to your larp, having a person on your team handling social media responses and enquiries is smart. Keeping track of what images of larp the potential and signed up player base have developed between them is a time-consuming task. As will become clear below, however, this is an investment that will likely pay itself back down the line.
Ownership or Entitlement?
When we’re at the receiving end of participant rage, we often view it as a kind of “consumerist” reflex. We feel participants are treating the larp as a product and us larpmakers like evil corporations, and that feels bad, since we’re actually well-meaning artists, whether or not we charge for or make money on the events we create.
It would be constructive here to be able to think two thoughts at the same time. One is that whether we like it or not, the larp is a product. We have made some promises, and often received money, which in many places even makes the promises we have made legally binding.
The second thought is that at the very least the player has invested attention and time, and they have done it with the intention of participating in – in other words: contributing to – our larp. Inviting people to participate in a larp is a big ask. You are inviting grownups to play; you are inviting them to engage their emotions and their bodies and to create something together with you. By the time they show up on location you may also have lured, inspired, or instructed them to prepare, study and create something in preparation, and/or to invest money in not only the ticket, but also their travel, equipment and freeing time.
In exchange, you give your participants some influence over the outcome, and responsibilities. You give them some ownership. And the attitude that may feel a lot like entitlement when their rage spit is hitting you in the eye is quite often a feeling of betrayal.
They may feel the tradeoff is unbalanced – that they are asked too much and given too little. They may feel their investment, their ownership, gives them the right to be heard, or even a right to make decisions about how you allocate your resources, or to control how other players engage with the larp.
They don’t have a right to decide stuff about your larp unless you’ve specifically told them they do. But they have some rights, like the right to demand you live up to your promises and, yes, the right to be heard.
Rage is not constructive. But at the point when a participant is feeling rage, some important personal limits have clearly been crossed. Rage is a defence mechanism. Rage quitting combines the two most fundamental defences we have! Fight. Flight.
Typical Reasons for Rage
Typical reasons for rage quitting can be organised in four broad categories:
Cultural Assumptions & Misunderstandings. Your players think what you told them means something else. There are differing expectations about what constitutes acceptable humor, touching, content.
Perceived or actual threats to physical or emotional safety. Something horrible happens that you could have prevented. Maybe you forget to tell players about the ravine in the dark forest. Maybe you design a fictional culture that will fatshame your players.
Non-delivery of core infrastructure. You promise a camp, or food, and do not provide them.
Non-delivery of core game content. You accidentally cast two players as the exact same character. Or you make many plots dependant on a magic object you then forget to introduce in the game. You promise aesthetics you can’t deliver.
Feeling safe, seen and recognised – valued – are fundamental human needs. You’ll usually find a lack of one or more of these at the base of participant rage. Try to figure out as fast as you can which are involved, so you don’t accidentally escalate the situation by depriving your participant even further of that specific thing. If they don’t feel safe, make an extra effort to be non-threatening. If they feel ignored, give them extra attention. And of course: listen, validate, evaluate, act – and apologise if needed, as part of validation.
In a co-creative environment, I think being recognised and valued are extra important for feeling safe to play. Don’t diminish the value of your participant’s contribution to your project. Even when their reaction is actively depriving the project of an even more valuable resource – your attention.
Letting Them Stay, Letting Them Go
I started out writing this piece like I always do, with my sympathies with the organiser. But then I gathered a bunch of stories about actual rage quitting and to be honest, quite often the organiser is at fault. This sucks because everything becomes about communication and prevention.
When it is too late for those things (and you will find that out only when it is) the best strategy is to face the music. Listen, admit fault if you are at fault, ask what a good outcome would be for the angry person, ask for help, ask for time – this will also give them time to calm down. Give them some choices, any choices.
Say, “I’m really sorry. I messed up, and you are right. At this time the other players need my attention. If you feel like you need to leave, I understand, and I’d be happy to give you your money back. If you’d be willing to wait around for a while, I’ll be back in an hour and then we can talk some more. Maybe you can think about what you’d need to be able to continue playing.”
“There is tea in the office. Help yourself to the biscuits. If you don’t feel like playing anymore, I understand, but maybe you’d be interested in taking on another role – perhaps helping us run the larp? Think about it. I will talk to you in a little while. If you feel you need to leave before I get back, please leave a note so I know you’re not lost in the forest.”
If their grievance cannot be resolved, and there is literally no one at hand to listen to them, let them go.
“I’m really sorry we let you down. I hear you. I understand that you want to leave. I really wish I had time to talk to you, but as you understand, we’ll need to run twice as fast to keep the larp going. I’d be happy to talk to you on Monday – would you prefer facebook chat or a phone call? Do you need help with your travel? The bus schedule is on the desk. Or feel free to use the phone to call your ride. Of course we’d rather see you stay and play.”
Or, the hardest one.
“I hear that you’re upset. I realise now that we could have been much clearer. When you’re screaming at me I find it very difficult to process what you’re saying. I’m sorry you had a terrible experience, but since you feel this strongly about it and the problem cannot be resolved, I think you are right: you should probably leave. I’d be happy to talk to you some more when we’re both less upset.”
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! If you’d like to learn more about Dragonbane, I co-authored a book-length autopsy of the fascinating project. There is a link to the free pdf download on this page. After Dragonbane I also wrote an essay about the ephemerality of larp experiences, which turned out to become quite influential. It was reprinted in the collection The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, available for free download here. The essay starts on page 231.
This third piece is about some of the kinds of things your players will need to know when they are preparing for your game; ideally before signup. Some of this may seem glaringly obvious to you now, but as you shall see in the next instalment on rage quitting, these things are not clear to everyone. I would also like to point out that like most of this blog it is written primarily from a larpwright’s perspective. I’m not asking you to communicate with your players to mollycoddle them: it’s to protect your larp and to save you tons of unnecessary work later.
Just like every computer game teaches its players how to play it, every larp should teach its players how it is meant to be larped, and this includes how to prepare for it and what to expect of the experience in a general sort of way. These are some things you should make sure your participants have understood.
Target Audience, Required Ability and Casting Principles
What kinds of themes will the larp engage with and in what kinds of ways? What kinds of unusual experiences might the participants expect, and what kinds of actions might they need to perform in the larp. For instance, if there is violence in the larp, how it will be modeled. (I will write more about how to communicate this at a later date).
Who is your larp intended for? Do you limit participation based on gender, age, background, language, player experience, height, looks or something else? Are there factors in your larp that exclude some people from participating – for instance, does your larp involve all characters climbing a mountain, or horse-back riding, or a scenography consisting of 800 kg of wheat flour? Must everyone have good hearing? Will there be nudity? Must they be able to read and process a hundred pages of text?
It is good to know that if you are excluding potential players, which of course you will almost always need to do for some reason, people will ask you why. When you provide an answer, they might question this answer in the hopes that you change your mind, or because they feel it is unfair. Not all people will question your choices in a constructive manner (and sometimes they will have solid points, and you might wish to make minor changes in the interest of the greater good; at other times you will be unable or unwilling to make changes, but should still acknowledge valid points as valid).
If your players don’t create their own characters, some level of information about casting is necessary. For instance, what kinds of characters are available; how much one will be able to influence casting; what to do if one is unhappy with the casting; when one can expect to know what one will be playing in the larp and with whom; whether the player’s gender is expected to match their characters’; and whether characters are written as presenting as one of only two genders.
If it is physically impossible for your players to leave the larp in the middle of the larp, they should know this at signup. If there is no cell signal or it is otherwise impossible for their families to stay in touch with them in case of emergency, or for them to discreetly send text messages to their babysitter or whatever, this is also vital information.
And talking about communications, players will assume that even if they have no way to call an ambulance, you will have one (like a satellite phone). If the location involves actual dangers and no help in case of emergency, that should be the first information you share with your players, and you should probably make your players sign something to indicate that they have truly understood the risk. Also, I would urge you to never open that larp for signups, because it seems like a really stupid idea.
Division of Labour
Example: Finnish fantasy larps in the 90s tended to run for a weekend, and the culture was that on Friday night everyone helped set up tents and do other practical tasks. I invited friends who were Vampire larpers to play, and they were livid that I had not told them that they were expected to do physical labour, outdoors, in the middle of the winter.
Your participants don’t automatically know your organisational model or understand your finances. Whatever they pay or otherwise invest will feel expensive for some people and trivial for others, and the expectations for what should in all fairness be included will vary. (This is also pertinent to the point below, Responsibility for Provisions).
Using volunteers is common in many larp cultures and makes a lot of sense in co-creative contexts. The concept of volunteering, however, kind of requires the work to be voluntary, a.k.a, to allow for opting out without fear of social punishment. Your participants may need a rest after their trip before the larp, or have planned to use the time to discuss character relations with other players.
Doing stuff, including physical labour, together out of character is actually an excellent way to create a collective sense of purpose and out-of-character relations between your players. I’m not in any way opposed to requiring it of your participants. But they should know on sign-up that it is expected of them. Otherwise the group will destructively divide into those who enjoy the work or do it as martyrs, and those who opt out either because they are physically unable, or for the very reasonable reason that they did not sign up for this.
Being clear about who does what, and how, is even more vital if you are asking your participants to do in-game labour. Will that work be actual (rather than symbolic)? As in, will real carrying/singing/teaching/serving/digging/studying be happening? What are the in-game and off-game consequences if this work is not performed? To what degree does it limit other kinds of gameplay? (If you want to read more about In-game Labour, there’s an article starting on page 125 in this book).
Division of Game Master Power/ Responsibility for Content
It is of vital importance that your players understand who actually creates the building blocks of your larp: rules and interaction mechanics, world, cultures, plots (as relevant), mods (as relevant), history, institutions, lore, characters, goals, roles, relationships, aesthetics, costumes, run-time direction/game mastering, etc.
You’d be hard pressed to find two larp cultures that divide these responsibilities in an identical fashion between larpmakers and players (and many larp cultures also have in-between functions, such as NPCs, that perform some of them). Unless you are designing exclusively for players with backgrounds identical to yours, you will need to be quite clear about who takes care of what.
This does not have to be conveyed as a meta-level description; you can also demonstrate it through doing it. If there is a world description on your web site at launch, or a sentence saying that the larp is set in an abstracted insane asylum in a contemporary world that does not need to be specified further, your players will know that part is taken care of.
The players also need to know whether their character description as written, and its attached relationships, are a vital part of the game’s design – the interface through which they engage with this machine built out of rules and narrative – or just a fun suggestion to consider a starting point for exploration. If the character has roles or performs functions that are vital for the larp, I would suggest a level of transparency that lets the player know which parts really matter. Just so they know what to prioritise in play – and what they’re expected to not opt out of.
And most importantly, the players need to know how to role-play. What can they invent? Will they bump against the edges of the fiction or the simulation system, and if that happens, what do they do – sort it out amongst themselves, or find an organiser or a referee? (I know this is bizarre to many Americans, for instance, but in my 22 years of larping, I have only once played a larp where non-playing directors or referees were an active presence in the game area during play. Not counting smaller freeform games, some of which would be considered larps in many countries).
Can the players create content and plot? Can they request it? Can they refuse it, if it is suggested by NPC:s, and will they know who the NPC:s are?
Much of this stuff may not seem on the surface if it to be connected to safety or play-style calibration issues, but in fact they often interact with safety on a systemic level. For instance, if a character must be present in specific intense situations for the plot to remain coherent, the player of that character cannot easily choose to opt out of such scenes in the interest of self-care. You can make those design choices, but that choice might then require robust pregame work and aftercare, good calibration mechanics, and a specific casting process.
Division of Responsibility for Provisions, Including Survival and Safety Stuff
Example: My Danish husband ran an international larp in a rented mansion in Denmark. During the larp, a number of players cut their fingers and feet on paper, glass, splinters, etc. The accidents were trivial. The first two who came to him for band-aids got the dusty, wonky ones floating around in his personal toilet bag. Then he ran out, and the third player was utterly outraged that he did not have band-aids at hand – or indeed a first-aid kit at all.
When my husband came home and told me this story, angling for sympathy, I was almost as angry and astonished as his participant: In Sweden and Finland it is pretty much unthinkable to run a larp without bringing at the very least band-aids, painkillers, and tampons. In Denmark, apparently, if you’re a grownup and go away for a few days, you’re in charge of bringing anything you might need. My husband had not thought to share this information with the players, just like he would never specifically remind them to pack their own underwear.
Clearly, the participant’s rage was not about paper-cuts, but about other injuries that could happen, and the care that could then not be provided, unless a first-aid kit was found at the venue.
In other words, the absence of band-aids was to her a symptom of an absence of safety thinking in general, and undermined her trust in the organisers, which could then hamper her ability to play intense scenes with her co-players. In her mind, and mine, the logic sounds something like this: “How can I trust that these calibration mechanics in this intense game have even been tested when the designer has not even brought band-aids?” In the stereotypical Danish organiser mind, the same sentence would go: “How can I trust my players to engage responsibly with my carefully designed interaction system when they are not grown-up enough to bring their own bandaids?”
Both standpoints are valid and logical. It’s just a cultural difference – which in this case happens to be geographical too, but even in the most safety-oriented cultures (like the US) there are enormous subcultures (like people who go to Burning Man) who have entirely different assumptions about how safety and provisions can be organised – at Burning Man, which is in the Nevada desert, everything you do is at your own risk, and you have to bring literally everything you need (including water), except toilets, and take every minuscule scrap of trash you produce with you when you leave.
In many larp cultures, the organisers provide the food, as stated in the game information. In many of the same larp cultures, it is also culturally understood that this food is not sufficient and often of poor quality, and that players should also bring their own. Sometimes dietary needs will be taken into account by organisers; at other times not.
In most countries, organisers of outdoor larps provide sanitation. They don’t always provide toilet paper though, especially not if the toilets are present at the venue (like they would be on rented camp sites, for instance). I followed a very interesting conversation about this on Facebook between an organiser who felt it’s unreasonable to ask organisers to provide hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, and another one who felt that each player carrying their own TP roll was inefficient, a logistical idiocy.
What’s the right answer? You tell me.
I mean, literally, you have to tell me what the right answer is for your larp I’m signing up for.
If you are organising for beginners, people from another larp culture, or just absentminded humans, “What Will I Need To Bring” is a list you have to provide. And please be precise. What does it mean that you will provide “some props” or that player groups are expected to “decorate their area”? With what? To what standard? Are your expectations for what the players can carry with them adjusted for their mode of transport? If this is a larp that requires paying for an extra bag of checked luggage, or arriving in a private car, the players will need to know at signup.
In the next instalment of Basics of Opt-in, Opt-out Design, I will write about rage quitting in larps.
Pictures: At the Danish convention Fastaval, as at many Nordic conventions, the basic sleeping arrangements provided are a rectangle of floor to place your sleeping gear on. At this con, you can also pay extra for a mattress (and there are options further away at hostels, hotels and family accommodation organised at a nearby boarding school). Most importantly, every participant at the convention is supposed to do one shift of “service”, whether game mastering, working the info desk, staffing the kitchen, being a fire guard, or serving breakfast. This is culturally accepted as a way of keeping costs down, building community and creating a sense of ownership for the convention. Cleaning (including cleaning bathrooms) is excluded from the service shifts, and given instead to the Dirtbusters, a pervasive subculture/larp about a kind of paramilitary organisation fighting the forces of chaos through mopping, drinking beer, and listening to Manowar.
“Opt-in, opt-out design” = designing participation that empowers individual participants to continuously make informed choices about engaging in an experience as well as in specific aspects of that experience.
Opt-in, opt-out design operates on the assumption that to feel curiosity and take initiatives, your player first needs to feel safe. (This is different from being safe, which is important for other reasons, and should be the foundation upon which the feeling of safety is built).
Participants need to feel seen and secure, they need to know they’re in the right place, and have a reasonably good idea of what kinds of experiences and activities they are about to engage in. This makes them not have to worry, which allows them to be present in the moment and explore the actual instance of the experience in a playful, mindful and proactive manner.
Whether your goal is for your participants to game the hell out of a statistics-heavy battle simulation, or to portray personifications of colours and emotions in a poetic non-linear dream larp, they must know what they have signed up for, what they are expected to do next, and how to interact with the experience to find out where to go after that.
The majority of your problems with sad, freaked-out or offended players can be resolved by being really good at communicating what it is you’re offering. When people are already signed up (or even worse: are already on location) it is far too late to reveal information that could change their mind about whether they want to play. They might then feel you have broken an implicit contract, and for instance demand changes in your work, or just drop out really inconveniently at the last moment.
Sometimes these reactions are completely justified! At other times, that player is just at the wrong larp. And that’s usually not the player’s fault either – it’s you who’ve failed at telling them who your event is for.
Why Opting In At Sign-Up Is Not Enough
Explaining what larp is, how larp feels, and what larp can do, is really, really difficult. If we could all do that – if any of us could explain it in a satisfying manner – the hobby would not be ridiculed or dismissed, and our loved ones would not roll their eyes at us when we tell them about our latest games. This means that specifically for a larp or participatory event that is of an entirely new kind or has first-timers present, pre-game communication has very limited utility as a basis for informed choices.
It might not even be possible for first-timers to make informed choices! As we all know, early larp experiences have a tendency to be very powerful regardless of the nature, quality or content of the larp. These experiences are often positive, which is why we keep coming back, but the important thing here is that this basic oomph has to do with larp as a medium, not the specifics of your game.
This oomph, again, is the very thing we’re so bad at communicating. Larpers take it for granted, so if you give them a content warning they will judge it in the context of the power of this medium they already know. A beginner might read the exact same warning and think, for instance, that they read about the topic in question all the time without it being a problem. And then be quite surprised at how different it feels to experiencing something physically in the first person.
Also: emotional reactions to larp are really unpredictable. Sometimes you go into a very intense larp with a brinkplay agenda, to challenge yourself and push your own limits – and you’re fine. Some other time you volunteer to cook at a Harry Potter-themed comedy larp, and have only the thinnest of characters with minimal interaction with the plots of the game, but end up having a meltdown because something about the dynamics among the staff characters reminds you of a really destructive work environment from 20 years ago that you thought you’d forgotten.
Also: participants aren’t great at judging their own limits. They’re typically acceptably good at it, and they are astronomically better at it than you are! But they can’t know exactly, because the variables are just too many. For instance: is this specific content just present in the game in general, or at the core of my character’s story? Will I have slept well the previous night when other physical stressors are introduced? Will my co-players in intense scenes be my friends I’ve signed up with, or strangers twice my size? Etc. And a million times etc.
Also: many larps have a very long time between buying a ticket and arriving at the venue. Any participant judgements made several months before an event will have been made in a completely different context. I played a larp last weekend where homophobic violence – treated very seriously – was an integral part of the story. We had all signed up for the game with our eyes open, but we could not possibly know months and months ago that we would be engaging with these themes less than a week after the horrific act of terror at the Pulse club in Orlando. (I may have reason to return to this specific example and its resolution in a later post).
Also: people don’t have the same amount of spoons on different days, let alone different months. They might be much more or much less comfortable, secure, healthy and happy than they were at sign-up. If they need to not play, they obviously shouldn’t, and if they do play, it makes sense to have a built-in way to fine-tune levels of exertion and intensity closer to and during the event. If you do not have a toolkit for this, they may not be able to play, which may leave you with an empty spot, or a participant less well suited to and prepared for the game overall.
Also: participants, even experienced larpers, don’t always believe you when you tell them what the larp will entail. You tell them the scenography is 800 kilos of wheat flour and might kill asthmatics and people with certain allergies; you tell them your sci-fi larp catering includes edible Japanese clay; you tell them you are a great believer in the aesthetics of boredom and will make the characters wait for hours and hours in minimalist environments; you tell them all characters will strip to their underwear; you tell them sex will be simulated by dry humping; you tell them Norwegian mountaintops are really cold even in summer. And they don’t believe you. (In case you didn’t either, these are all real examples). Now this, finally, is something that is not your fault! But it’s still your responsibility, or can become your responsibility to resolve.
For all of these reasons, opting into an event is not enough. You also need to be able to opt out, or opt in progressively, as the event is running. The cool thing about designing for this is that you don’t have to have a binary “either you’re in or you’re out” model. Which would be an asshat move anyway. Especially if you live in a country where people have limited vacation time and will travel long distances to join the experience you’ve promised them.
In fact, if the choice is between participating in something that is not right for you, or not participating at all, most people who have already committed will choose to participate anyway in this thing that is not intended or perhaps not appropriate for them. They might have a good time in the end, but let’s be real: they’ll probably hate it, drag down everyone around them, make your event seem terrible and make you come across as both an inconsiderate asshole and a lousy participation designer.
Since we don’t want that, your event or game needs opt-in, opt-out mechanics that participants can fluidly deploy just before and during run-timeto calibrate their interactions with each other and the fiction. These tools add very little load to your design, since many of their functions are necessary anyway. For instance, if your players are already able to pause the gameplay to negotiate conflict stats or inform each other of real-world dangers, it is relatively trivial to slip in some mechanics that empower them to take better care of themselves and their co-players during the experience.
To Be Continued…
How this is done is the topic of this whole blog, but in the next few posts I’ll continue this walk-through of opt-in, opt-out basics. What are some of the structural effects on your larp (both inside and outside of the fiction) if you want to empower your players to leave or stay, and intensify or de-escalate, at any time? What are some tested, practical methods for doing this?
Related issues that I promise to elaborate on in later posts:
What kinds of things, exactly, will people need to know before signing up to participate so that both you and they feel their decision is informed?
Is opt-in design even possible in games with very low transparency? (Hint: yes!)
Are there practical tools to use in pre-game communication to enable and enhance opt-in structures? (Hint: yes!)
What if I want my players to opt into really intense stuff, for instance simulated torture – can it be done without a hundred pages of text detailing every possible act that could take place? Can it be done without massive spoilers? (Hint: yes and yes!)
All pictures in this blog post are from the larp Inside Hamlet and taken by Petter Karlsson. The two-day game used a mostly successful opt-in, opt-out design structure that allowed play on depravity and violence, as well as sexual content, in a mechanics-light environment where real alcohol was served. Visit the game’s web site for a gallery of dramatic images by John Paul Bichard.
My keynote from the Living Games Conference 2016 has been released, and having first re-watched it in that cringing way one always does I’m actually now quite happy to share it!
It covers an insane amount of ground in 20 minutes, all of which this blog will go into in depth later. (I’m also referencing talks that John Stavropoulos and Maury Brown gave just before mine; they’re really good and you should check them out).
The Core Claim of my Talk:
Unless you are very, very skilled at larp and interaction design…
and unless you know your players, their expectations, and their comfort levels really, really well…
…the baseline for your safety and participation thinking should be opt-in, opt-out design.
This talk is the starting point for a series of blog posts covering the basics of opt-in, opt-out design. Why do it? What is it for? How does it work?
If you’d like an introduction, this 20-minute video is not bad. If you hate watching videos online, and loooooove long posts with a lot of words in them, I promise everything in that video will be covered on the blog over the next few weeks!
I’m going to start off the toolkit series of posts with a really a-typical one, because today I’m writing about a tool that’s so new it doesn’t even have a name. And as is usually the case, talking about this online I was immediately told of an older, successfully play-tested example of almost exactly the same thing! So now we have a category of things. Yea!
Bow-out mechanic: a method used to opt out from a scene without pausing the game, while signalling to the other players that this is the case. Ideally combined with a fiction design where the absence of the character can pass unremarked or always has a natural explanation. (Especially in the latter case, a bow-out mechanic is technically a metatechnique).
Opt In/Opt Out Elements
In Opt In/Opt Out systems, it is common to use methods of active invitation (such as escalation mechanics, warnings about actions, literal gates, quests or other signals that a different experience is about to begin, should you choose to engage with it). Even more common are methods for actively opting out, usually enabling the player to leave situations that have already started – giving the player or the character (or both) ways to pause and/or physically leave a scene they are not comfortable continuing for any reason. A simple example of this is the “cut” rule, where an agreed-upon safe word such as “cut” is used to pause the run-time to check in with players and allow them to leave.
In addition, there are calibration tools, designed for players to check in with each other during play and to align play styles. The simplest of these involve pausing play very briefly for an out-of-character negotiation; others include physical gestures to calibrate play intensity.
This is very important: just a method for pausing play is in itself useless. The participants must also have a culture of being able and willing to use it. When you’re stress checking your system, you should start by thinking about
physical ability – a hand gesture is useless if your hands are tied; also remember not all participants necessarily have the same amount of hands.
recollection – will players remember the exit rules in a stressful situation? They need practice!
social cost/benefit – is it possible to use these tools without loss of face as a player? How do you ensure this?
coherence of fiction – is it possible for the character to leave a situation without the fiction or the entire game breaking down?
I’ll write about the social aspects many times in the future, but for now let’s just observe that the last two are intimately connected. If I realise, or wrongly believe, that excusing myself would stop or negatively affect the play experience of all my friends, I am much less likely to slip out of a situation that is no good for me as a player.
Also, one of the ways we have hacked the social aspect of opting out is that most cut rules stipulate that the other players are never allowed to question, or ask for, the reason for the cut. I might cut because I’m realising I have urgent diarrhoea, or because the story is veering close to personally traumatic territory I’d rather not tell you about, or because I don’t trust a player who just joined the group. Or even because I’m terribly, terribly, terribly bored. None of these reasons are anybody else’s business. And not asking questions is a great social hack. (You’re allowed, even encouraged to, check in – but ask “are you ok, what can I do?”, not “are you ok, why did you cut?” – your co-player will volunteer whatever she wants).
When Your Character Can’t Opt Out
Sometimes, in some games, it would be useful to have a little more information about this moment. This is especially pertinent to games where the opt-out system is designed for minimal intrusiveness. For instance, you can build into the fiction that every character always has the right and a valid reason to leave any situation, even if a king is speaking to them. But then, how do I as the player of the king know whether that character is going to pray in the grove or feeling that my aggressive play style was a bit too much? How do I as a player signal that my character isn’t necessarily disinterested or overwhelmed or disgusted, and that nothing much should be read into my leaving?
I mean, there are games where many themes or content types are give or take. Let’s say we’re playing a post-apocalyptic story, and torture has not been outright banned as a theme, and it emerges naturally during play. Maybe I don’t think that’s cool, and that leaves me with two choices as a player: either pausing play and suggesting to my group that we play the scene another way, and/or opting out of the scene either as a player, or as as both player and character. (The calibration rules might also allow for negotiating a different simulation level, for instance agreeing that the content is still there, but that we won’t act it out, and instead talk about what happens in the scene and what it means to the characters involved).
If you play Brudpris, which is about honour culture in a fictional Nordic 19th century village setting, patriarchal structures, practices and oppression are woven into every element of the game’s design. That’s the point of that larp. And you’re there specifically to experience it, but maybe there are still specific situations where you want to excuse yourself as a player. Now, if you play female, this is actually very difficult to do in a subtle way, because you are so bound by the male characters’ authority.
We were talking about how to design opportunities to leave into in-game cultures. I had suggested a while earlier that a physical gesture, like hanging your head very demonstratively and walking away, could be useful as a meta-level “I have seen enough at this time” signal, combined with an in-game “I am weary and must go contemplate whatever” signal. You would stay within the aesthetics of the fiction, and maybe even in character, but signal to other players that the thing you were walking away from was not playable for you at this time.
My friend Trine Lise Lindahl, a kick-ass game designer whose work you should check out (who has also produced a run of Brudpris), said that wouldn’t work at all at Brudpris, because all women hang their head in that culture all the time. She suggested a gesture where you put your hand in front of your eyes. While walking away. Not covering your eyes, just in the air in from of your eyes like a shield, but so you can still see your feet. It’s a gesture that looks pretty natural, especially in a stylised environment, but that no one would actually do day-to-day.
Tested Variants & Physical Nitty-Gritty
Matthew Webb tells me on Facebook his Planetfall larp has this exact mechanic with another gesture. They use, he says, “putting your head down with your hand against the back of the head – mainly because this is a simple gesture that will almost never been done normally.” The source is “an old CIA manual which suggested touching the back of your head seem innocuous but is useful as a signal because it’s extremely rare that anyone does this normally.”
I love this because it’s a much smarter variant of the gesture I originally suggested, which is probably a clue that hanging your head relates to a level of body language that is, some say, universal. (This might be West-centric, but if I recall anything of my cognitive semiotics studies, a bunch of these symbols relating to posture are fundamentally human. I might be wrong, let me know).
Hanging the head connects with submission, exhaustion or being overwhelmed. Adding a hand on the back of head suggests a burden or a controlling authority, which is apropos, and also makes it very intentional, which of course is a million time better than my idiotic suggestion of trying to hang your head “in an intentional-looking way”. So this is a great bow-out gesture!
The hand-in-front-of the eyes might be preferable in settings were a lot of head-hanging is happening anyway. Also, the association between head-hanging and defeat may create an unwanted vibe that opting out would somehow equal “losing”. Then the “I’ve Seen Enough” gesture described in the previous section might feel more empowering.
Although I have to say, just trying it around my office in imagined larp situations, I tend to hang my head behind the hand anyway. If nothing else to be able to see my feet. Lowering the hand half a centimeter so I could actually make eye contact with someone over it made it feel more active. (Also, it is possible to use the Planetfall variant in more submissive styles or in a more authoritarian fashion. You should try and see which you like better and test on people to see how they read!)
Anyway, if this tool works in Planetfall, there is no reason to assume it won’t work in other places, given the above caveats about its place in the wider game and interaction mechanics.
EDIT: NORDIC BIAS ALERT!!!!!!!!!!
It turns out I had completely overlooked an important aspect of bow-out mechanics because I play mostly collaborative, “Play-to-Lose” type games. Thankfully, Matthew Webb spotted my blindness! Here is some additional wise advise from him:
In the context of a campaign game, especially from the American “simulationist” tradition which we come from, players might be tempted to abuse bowing out to avoid consequences for their character for violating in-game rules or undermining in-game forces. For example, a thief’s player might try to avoid being confronted and punished for their theft. There is nothing wrong with this competitive tradition, but it means we have to add an important caveat to our bow-out rule to keep a sense of fair play that many Americans feel is important. If another player feels that a player is using the bow-out rule to avoid consequences for their actions, we explicitly state that this is to be brought before the game staff and that other players should not confront each other directly about it. If necessary, a narrated but not acted out resolution of the scene will be put in place for continuity purposes.
A bow-out mechanic, then, is an opt-out tool and a calibration tool. It’s opt-out because you leave – but it’s different from for instance cutting tools, since it is primarily a gauge of your comfort level and has the purpose of signalling that specifically rather than directing the play of the collective.
It’s also different from “brake” /“yellow light” rules (which are typically deployed before a situation has escalated out of your comfort zone). I suppose you could use a raised hand in front of the eyes combined with staying in a situation to signal “brake”, rather like the “tap-out” gesture is deployed in some larps to create a small pause in play where participants can then either stay or leave.
So, let’s say you’re at Brudpris and your character’s sister is being beaten or berated by her father (I don’t know if this specific scene makes sense in context of that larp). They’re larping up a storm of violent judgement and bitter, barely-held-back tears, and you have no reason to believe either of them is unhappy with the scene. You, however, are feeling terrible. Your character might have all kinds of reasons to stay, but you really need to opt out. In a situation like that, you’d raise the hand in front of your eyes, make sure if at all possible that the other players see you do this (so there won’t be consequences for your character afterwards), and leave.
Now, in Brudpris specifically I’m sure you could just have used whatever opt-out mechanic was in play, even though that might have involved interrupting someone else’s play. A good rule of thumb, of course, is to always interrupt if you’re at all in doubt about the participants’ safety, but it seems it is even harder to interrupt on someone else’s behalf than our own, and probably the hardest is to interrupt someone else just on your own behalf!
And indeed, in most larps, you won’t ever need a bow-out mechanic, because the existing rules sets will cover the relevant needs. If your game design involves people pausing play all the time to do stuff like negotiate stats, it’s less of a big deal socially to blurt out “red light for me guys”, and have a small chat or just walk off. But if your game primarily uses game mechanics that are not intrusive, and the overall play culture prizes fluidity of play and minimal pausing very highly, a bow-out mechanic can come in very handy!
If it is implemented as part of the wider system of the larp your co-players should understand that using it is not a criticism of their play or content choices – that it really is about you, not them. At the same time being on the receiving end of a bow-out mechanic provides useful information. If a lot of players are repeatedly opting out from play with my group, it’s a clue my group might be out of sync with the play style of the wider collective, and might want to limit extreme content to private environments, and escalate very slowly when interacting with players from other groups in the fiction.
What Should We Call It & Do You Know More?
Matt Webb used the word bow-out for their gesture, and I love it and adopted it immediately as a category name in my mind. I like it because it’s a little theatrical – you take a bow at the end of your scene and leave, symbolically giving thanks for the play and accepting the invisible applause for your participation, but the performance can still continue. At the same time, of course bowing out is also just a phrase for having had enough of a specific thing.
The gesture with the hands in front of the eyes has no name at this time. What should we call it? I’ve referred to it above as the “I Have Seen Enough”, but maybe something less dramatic and less suggestive of “and now I shall swoon” would be more practical!
Also, I’m sure there are a zillion more bow-out mechanics out there that I either don’t know about, or have not thought about as such. I suppose the tap-out is a kind of bow out from a one-on-one interaction. Do you know of more? Do you think this is a useful category to think in at all?
Signups for this years’ Brudpris runs has closed, but keep an eye on nordiclarp.org for new productions. The top image, by Simon Svensson, portrays the women on Mo apologising for their behaviour the previous night. You should also check out Planetfall, which is hard scifi with actual tech. Upcoming events in Texas!