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.
This post is 100% freestyle musings about a special case around the calibration mechanic called the Lookdown. You really have to read my post explaining that and its two or three most common meanings to understand what follows, so go there first. I’ll wait!
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.