So I was thinking about gaming and thought that mature rated games don’t clear as Safe Spaces. I mean, you’re in character the entire event, you’ll experience scary, terrible things, and there is a real chance things will happen in game that you aren’t OK with out of game. And these days we talk a lot about trigger warnings and Safe Spaces and micro aggressions – and I think that’s great!  But how much of a place does that have in modern gaming? Is it a worth while conversation?

First off: yes, this is definitely a conversation to be had but I think it is one with different answers for each game, maybe even each event. Every game and event has a different goal and culture and engaging each on its own terms. A family-friendly high fantasy game may not allow character vs character combat and ban certain themes like torture or slavery. But a cyber punk game aimed at 18+ players might go as far as using forced mind hacks as a metaphor for sexual assault. There’s a markedly wide variety. So how do we apply the ideals of a modern and accommodating culture to the future of gaming?

I think the first step is to acknowledge we can’t be Safe Spaces and still run most games. Many LARPs runs off of conflict, either characters vs non-player characters or even character vs character. Essentially, most games cannot be entirely Safe Spaces in the traditional sense. But there are things we can do, besides. The first is making clear the range of common things a player should expect. Is there character vs character conflict allowed? What topics are off limits? What subjects fade to black and occur “off screen”, initiated in character but handled mechanically out of character rather than acted out (such as, say, beginning torture but having the scene narrated / mediated).

In Dystopia Rising  (a game I not only play but help as volunteer staff), we make clear it is a mature rated game. There is swearing, death, torture, fear, spiders, pyro, character vs character conflict, in character bigotry (based on the in game Strains of humanity, not skin tone, and in game Faiths), theft, and screaming in the dark. This is a game that can absolutely trigger a player.

But sexual abuse is off limits as a topic. Not in backgrounds, not off screen, not even as a topic for jokes in or out of character – ever. Racism and any real world bigotry is left at the door without debate. Violating these edicts is subject to a network wide ban. And if anything else becomes too much, a player may leave any scene out of character with absolutely no consequences.

And we clarify that every single event.

I think this is a good model for every game. Not the specifics of what we have in and out of bounds, but rather how it is handled. A game should not only set boundaries but make them explicit along with the consequences for stepping out of bounds and enforce those justly and professionally.  Players both prospective and veteran alike should hear these regularly. Knowing what to expect and what the staff won’t tolerate gives players a better idea of what events will work well for them.

What I think we should aim for is, rather, Safer Spaces. Not safe, because even the most kid friendly event will likely introduce some conflict and escalation is a real possibility at all times, but Safer. Sure, at an event you might be chased, woken, ambushed, or running terrified (all of the above are actually part of Dystopia Rising’s appeal, honestly), but it’s all your character.  You are safe from the world outside.

By clearly in both verbal announcements and written in our rules and websites defining what a player should expect as intended by the staff and the out of game rights and privileges we give (like being able to leave a scene out plot that is to upsetting with no consequences and medical out of game sleeping arrangements) I think we as hosts encourage not only better and safer community and spaces but also help players who might otherwise not attend or attend and side line themselves.

I’m of the opinion that these steps let us create a Safer Space in LARP. We can still play hard and confront scary things while being sensitive to the emotional needs of the players that are, at the core, the most essential part of the experience.

As for the absurd notion that making these concessions makes gaming some how less masculine or fun or whatever – you are wrong. Nothing here stops someone from having a full – contact, no – role play, any subject goes event. It just ask you to make sure your players know what to expect in that before they show up. If anything, it ensures that only players you want to show will show and keeps away negative reviews due to mixed expectations.

Uninstalled. Permanently.

September 4, 2014

Let me say that Ghost Recon: Phantoms is one of the best concepts in FPS that I’ve hit on in a while. I love the slide into cover; I adore the weapons and the class balance; the maps are endlessly frustrating in usually good ways (if often a bit linear).

But I’m uninstalling and forgetting this game forever. The fact I can’t purge it entirely from my Steam account will be a sad gravestone on top of a failed experiment.

And the game, I am sad to say, was murdered.

Because allowing people to buy and use weapons FAR above their rank entirely imbalances the game. And it’s just not good enough for me to buy and buy and buy. I’d have gladly paid thirty for this game with no complaint, if the buy-in on weapons were restricted to rank or a slight rank advantage. I’d be fine with the mystery boxes being exceptions. Camo and aesthetics are of course always welcome free-to-play purchasables.

But you’ve ruined the balance. You could have just kept games matched by weapon power. You could have limited how much above your rank you could equip. You could have just had small power bonuses.

But free-to-play, pay-to-win is not an acceptable strategy, and it hurts a game long run. Because eventually people who want to play without all the mini-transactions, without buying gun after gun, will leave. And then the number of players dips badly. New people dry up, and the game, instead of having the long run that, say, Starcraft had or Everquest or WoW, you’ve got a flash in the pan that could have been something absolutely fantastic – that honestly is fantastic, but gets cut down before it can shine.

Because, UbiSoft, you wanted a fast buck. You played the short game, not the long one. The most common complaint in your forums is based on this imbalance. I scroll and I see suggestion after suggestion about how to fix this, but the high paying players, or “whales”, get treated to a game that utilizes the unsaying or low-paying players as cannon fodder. No wonder the turn over for the game is so high. They claim a huge player base, but it seems that is based entirely on the number of people who’ve downloaded, played, and left the game out of frustration.

I really really enjoyed this game. It was solid. The mechanics deserve, frankly, better.

I won’t be recommending this game. I recommend people who aren’t willing to fork over too much money for too little avoid this game entirely. Game devs: Play this. Play this game. It’s a fantastic set of mechanics. The balance, when right, is amazing. The weapon concepts and classes are brilliant. This game had all I could have wanted,  but burned it.

UbiSoft, you never got a cent from me through this game, and now you never will. If this is how you plan to do Free To Play, I’ll be avoiding this dev team in the future. I wish you better ideas and ethos in the future.

Loyalty

March 6, 2014

Working on another post about the bleed between player and character for later, here’s a very quick flashback for my Dystopia Rising character. The pacing is shite, but it’s a quick exercise more than anything.

—————————

“Late night?”

Wolfram looked up to see Pavlo coming down the stairs. “Early morning, every morning.” The two smiled. This had become their daily ritual, going out on the dawn scrap hunt, looking for what they could find before day time scavenging looted it all. Wolfram would scavenge the remains of the time before the fall, Pavlo helped watch his back.

They walked down the building’s ramp, most their block still asleep, save the last night watch guards. The guards waved as the two set out, at ease both with the Yorker they’d known for years and the new member of the block. Pavlo had come in, having helped rescue a group of their scavengers and traders from a pack of bursters they run afoul of. Since then, he’d been taken in as family. He’d saved Wolfram’s life that day, and probably a few others. He’d been pulling his weight hard, and they’d come to treat him as any they’d known for years or life. It was a matter of loyalty.

The scavenger froze at the end of the block, checking left and right. Pavlo watched the rear.

“Pavlo, heard that?”

Pavlo turned and leaned down by Wolfram, listening hard. “Yeah. Voices. Not too far. A lot of ’em. Another gang?”

Wolfram shook his head. “Naw, in our turf? When theys some neutral ground a few blocks away? They’d have to be idiots, we too good with the hoods around us. Must be outsiders. Not raiders, sound smart. And laughing. Trade caravan, prolly.”
The two looked at each other. They could go get more people, but the unknown group could get closer. Going alone was stupid, but better not to possibly lead them right home. They nodded to one another, donned their best pleasantly-unassuming expressions, and walked towards the voices.

After a block, they met the other group. Wolfram scanned the small crowd. Professionals, the lot of them. Common colors, style, good mix of weapons. But they didn’t flinch seeing the two headed towards them. The scavenger called out first.

“Yo! What’s good?”

“S’all good. We comin’ through, lookin’ to trade and find someone.”

Pavlo tensed and Wolfram followed suit, keeping as calm a face as he could. “What you lookin’ to trade? Ain’t got much on me just now.”

Three guns leveled on them and Wolfram and Pavlo drew their weapons.

“You. The Yorker. Relax. We don’t need you. Lucian… you’re coming with us.”

Wolfram glaced to his right. “Pavlo” was sweating. He never sweat. In the worst of York’s summer, he didn’t sweat. “Pavlo, the fuck he mean?”

The speaker for the well-armed group smiled. “His name isn’t Pavlo, it’s Lucian. He’s a slave, he’s worth quite a bit, and he’s a fast runner. And he’s coming back with us. You don’t really figure unless you stop us. Or buy him off.”

Wolfram’s mind cranked into gear. He had to stall for time. “How mu-”

“More than you got.” The leader smiled a razorblade grin. No negotiating, then. They’d have to fight, run back to the block, make a stand on the ramp.

“Wait!” Lucian dropped his weapon, something he’d not done the entire time Wolfram had known him. “This can go differently.” Wolfram grabbed his shoulder.

“Pavlo, no. We can get back.”

The other man that Wolfram had come to call friend shook his head. “You can’t understand. Sorry, man.” He walked towards the other group, slowly, carefully. “They’ve got a poorly defended building. Enough cash, scrap, and food to cover my cost, and enough people who’d make decent slaves to triple your cut of this deal.”

Wolfram’s mind reeled. Pavlo had been like family, and now, this. Anger boiled over and he charged into Pavlo’s back, sending them sprawling into the mercenaries, weapons clattering all over, guns being cocked, general chaos. Wolfram grabbed onto a merc and pulled himself upright, and felt a weight in his hand. Without thinking, he pulled the pin, dropped the grenade, and ran.

The three who survived the blast he finished off, the bleeders he put down. Then he got to Pavlo.

“Lucian, huh?”

Lucian nodded, holding what he could of his guts in his stomach. “Y-yeah. Sorry, man. I-I couldn’t go back. You don-don’t know what it’s like.”

Wolfram sat down next to him, looking him over. “If I don’t shoot you fulla this,” he held up an adrenaline shot, “you gunna die.”

Lucian looked at it, then at Wolfram. The scavenger was threatening him? No, he was…

Wolfram pressed the needle into Lucian’s leg, emptying the brew into the veins of a person he’d called friend these past months. Lucian’s eyes lit, his heart raced as his veins opened up and blood pumped hard and fresh. The infection began working to mend what had been torn apart. The yorker helped this person to his feet, uncertain what even to call him. “You standin’?”

“Yeah, yeah I’m good. Guess I should leave, huh?”

“Yeah, you goin’.” The crunch of bone and flesh and blood against steel ricocheted off the old building walls, and Pavlo fell to the ground, his skull caved in. Wolfram slammed his bat into the body three more times, ensuring that he’d not be getting up – at least, not as himself.

The yorker wiped blood from his face and hands, smears staining his clothing and skin.

At the complex, the guards ran to him, his sister was called, people crowded. Where was Pavlo? What happened? What was that explosion?

Mercenaries, he told them. Mercs that came for slaves. They were all dead now, but Pavlo was killed. But he died on his feet, and that was all that mattered. It was all just about loyalty.

Just Morning

January 8, 2014

A writing prompt from a friend inspired this story about a normal, boring, and drama-free day in the life of my Dystopia Rising character.

Wolfram stared out the window of the Tap. False dawn was breaking over the horizon. A cold fucking dawn. And no coffee. He’d woke to find himself colder than usual. Probably needed to really pull out the old blanket soon. Can’t sleep shivering, and if you can, you probably don’t wake up.

The scavenger coughed and shook his head. He had always hated this type of weather. Cold was fine, but this was just bitter, and it was always the worse just before the sun broke. Shrugging, he stood up, ignoring the few shuffling feet in the Tap who were actually up at this hour. The cup of hot water in his hands wan’t much, but the chicken bone he’d boiled in it at least added some flavor and could keep him a bit warmer.

Stepping out the door, he felt the cold air immediately bite at his face and ears. The set down the cup, and pulled the hood over his head, the bandana across his face, and resettled his ever-present pack.

“Late night?” he asked himself, picking up the cup again. “Early morning,” he replied as casually, descending the stairs. “Just like every day.”

The trails weren’t exactly littered with scroungables. He walked slowly, down the path and letting his eyes cast about slowly. No rush. Every few seconds he stopped, he feet frozen, and he listened, glanced about and stared hard, looking for movement or signs of something out of place. Maybe the Raiders would just stay home today. Not likely, but you can dream.

His eye caught on a spot where the rain had washed oddly. He bent down and set his cup on the dew-coated grass before hacking at the earth. Nice, he thought, looking around to make sure he was still alone. It wasn’t quality, but it was quantity. And that was it’s own quality. The scraps of metal went into his bag, and he picked up his cup, sipping and walking again. It’d do for the day, but tomorrow might not cover itself, so no rest. As he neared a corner, he heard movement far behind him and quietly darted into the brush and twisted himself low, behind a small stand of trees.

Three people, armed. Weapons aren’t out, and they don’t look aggressive, but they also aren’t familiar. Stay low.

He watched the three pass; they looked like they were probably from Hayven, but he didn’t know them, and alone, before anyone’s awake, was not the time to find out. Once the three were out of earshot, he glanced around, straining to see any sign of trouble. Nothing. The Yorker stood, joints complaining of cold and too many years hard-worked with little kindness or respite. He let the discomfort show, but stretched anyway, and moved from cover, sipping his cup and once again hunting for anything he could turn to scrap, credit, or some good rep.

A plant caught his eye and he bent to examine it. Yeah, edible. Not very good, and close to useless, but edible. He cut it free and slipped it into a leather pouch for use or sale later. Actually, he’d probably just give it to Easy. Unless it went bad before he got the chance. Then it’d be Uncle Chuck’s. Herbs didn’t matter much for the scavenging tinker. Not directly, at least.

Two hours later, Wolfram was tired, sore, and his legs were cramping. He wandered back into the Tap to warm up, get more broth, and sort what he’d do for the day. He had enough to make a new set of armor. He’d bang that out when the Kennel put out the work bench and make sure he made enough noise to annoy Yossarian. Wolfram like Yossarian well enough, respected him, certainly, but it was just the principle of the thing.

“Ah, pardon me… You can make stuff, right?”

Wolfram turned to see someone who looked new. Not dressed heavily enough, a bit lost in the face, and shy. The casually reached over and took the young woman’s weapon from her hand, examining it and silencing her protest with a raised hand. “This is shit. Came here on a caravan?”

The girl looked shocked. “Um… yeah. Got in last night. How’d you know?”

“Decent guess. I can replace this with something better. What do you need?”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Actually, I need armor.”

“What do you do?” Wolfram almost felt bad. She was too easily shaken, and he was still pissed from the cold.

“I’m a doctor. I need a better knife, but I really need armor for my sister. I can pay. But she nearly was killed last night and- what are you doing?”

The Yorker continued to ignore the girl as he set down his bag, took off his jacket and hoodie, and slipped his belts and straps out of the way. He took the armor he was wearing off and handed it to the woman. “Ten cred or scrap, you can mix ‘em if you need to.”

The woman stammered. “I can’t take your armor!” Wolfram shook his head and held up a hand to stop her talking, brow knitted. This girl was giving him a head ache.

“I make the shit, so yes, you can. I don’t charge doctors or medics. Normally I’d charge since it’s not for you, but you’re new and I’m too tired to haggle shit. Credit or scrap, c’mon.” He shrugged the straps back in place, tossed on his outer layers, and slung his bag back on. The girl fumbled and dug into her bag, pulling out the credit he wanted. His eyes lit up.

“Where’d you get that?”

“Get what?” The girl looked terrified she’d done something to anger the Yorker.

“That nice chunk of scrap.”

She held the bag almost protectively. “My sister found it on the way into town.”

Wolfram set his bag down. “Give it over.”

“Excuse you?!”

“Shiiiit. I don’t have the energy for this crap. Look, lady, I got a better weapon for you in my bag; you give me that bit of scrap and that piece of rusted metal you call a knife, it covers the cost of the weapon I’m going to sell you. And this one’s a lot better. I need the scrap to build things, you need a real weapon. Ain’t fuckin’ hard.”

The woman looked at him and at her bag and knife. “Oh… um, alright. I mean… Is that…”

The Yorker held up a hand to stop her again. “Unless you get really good friends who’ll arm you for free, it’s the best price you gonna get. It’s at cost. I don’t normally work for fuckin’ free. Also, I’m tired, cold, and sore. So do the deal or fuck off.”

The woman silently handed over the weapon and the scrap. Not the best stuff, but he had enough of that for the moment. Oddly, it was the slightly more common quality scrap he needed a lot of now. He dug into his bag and handed her a Skewer. “There. Good shit. Don’t lose it, I don’t do refunds.”

The doctor turned to leave, looking somewhat scared and upset. Shit. “Hold on, take this.” He placed a snake oil in her hand. “In case you don’t have time to work.”

The woman looked at it. “Wait, how much?”

The yorker shrugged as callously as he could. “Don’t worry about it, just take care of my ass if I go down, yeah?”

The woman looked it over. “Thank you.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek before walking off.

Wolfram shook his head and gathered his gear, headed for the kitchen. Still needed to get that broth. No one had better have seen that shit, that sort of bullshit rumor could fuck with his rep.

Character Development

June 2, 2013

My friend over at The Wrathful Blogger had a post about approaching character building, so I thought I’d touch on that. More, I started to write an essay in his comments section and decided instead to make my own post.

I think there are a lot of ways to approach character building, much like world building. I won’t speak for others, but for me I like the character I play to be a strong departure from myself. The character I create will naturally have some elements of myself, but I like to get far from playing “myself”.I try to write a person, and I don’t worry about what goes into portraying them very often. I’ve played many heritages, male and female and other, and had to do quite a bit of research for some, even going so far as to reading multiple books about a subject just to have the correct seeming familiarity that my persona would.

Once I’ve built a person, I shed who I am and step into their skin, so to speak. This is the most comfortable method for myself. And while most start from some interest of mine, others will begin as vague ideas that evolve out of a random idea and compound into a person. The character I will be bringing into the Camarilla Club’s new Changeling chronicle shares effectively only my race and interest in Korean pop music. Beyond that, we have little in common-I doubt we’d like each other much, in fact. A previous character was a type study of a much more aggressive form of my own issues as discussed in this previous blog entry.

And what I am doing in creating a character is trying to explore something specific, or experiment with a specific concept. I’m used PCs to explore homelessness, gender identity and religion, cultural displacement, and my current Changeling character is an examination of combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder. Characters are each stories, in my eyes, and a good story needs a point, a theme. But it needs more than that, it needs subplots and nuances.

Doing that requires work, and a lot of thought. For portrayal and preparation, I focus on three layers of character design which I’ll explain by building a character from scratch, as I write this post:

 

1: Big things.

 

These are the themes and what I’m trying to really explore. In our example, we’ll create apolitical who is wrapped up in his identity as a public official. Being in this office is this person’s, we’ll say male, entire world. He maintains an appearance of being “a man of the people” and the dissociation with this assumed identity is eating at him, and the mask is becoming harder and harder to maintain. He is an honest family man, though, and the strain of maintaining his office and his family, keeping the two in balance, is taking it’s toll on his will power.

Right there, we’ve defined his major traits, the things that will come across the most powerfully in his story. And we’ve chosen what this story will be about, it’s a story of a person who’s “Identity” is a mask, and a destructive one-something which Jung would argue we all have to be wary of and deal with to some extent

This is important, that a character have the “Big things” about them. You have to have something to make you worth interacting with-something that makes the character fulfilling to role-play with. If your “Big thing” is that you hate talking to people and you’re a lone wolf and don’t play well with others, that’s at once really tiresomely overplayed and boring, and also going to mean you get very little engagement with other players. you may handle a lot with NPCs, but is that really the goal? Are our LARPs not social events? Make your “Big things” something that you’d want to interact with if you were someone else.

Another note, “I have a huge secret no one must ever know and there’s no way anyone could ever discover it” is just as boring and trite. Secrets are fine. But if they are your “Big thing” there are really two results: someone finds the secret out, and secrets rarely stay that way once multiple people know and your “Big thing” stops existing. Or you never lose the secret, and your “Big thing never comes into play. More on this in a bit.

 

2: Motive things.

 

You need something going on when you aren’t engaging the “Big things”. This is your subplot, the important, character shaping and moving details that maybe aren’t the core of who you are, but are a bulk of your day. Our politician is actually brilliant at making groups work together.in his district, he’s seen as the political firefighter, calming disagreements between parties and mediating issues before they can break the party or inter-party dialogues. He also does some volunteer work with his wife, but his ever shifting schedule puts a lot of strain on their marriage as he has to cancel a lot of appointments to attend sudden problems. He’s also a devout Methodist and pushes a number of social justice platforms as ouch as he can without alienating his constituency-another point of contention in his marriage as his wife would like him to do more, and so would he.

Now you’ve rounded the character. He has depth and personality. The “Big things” might leave us with the impression of some soulless bureaucrat with a failing marriage, but now we have a person who has a good heart, a social-minded individual who’s relationship is suffering though he works very hard at it all because his identity has become too wrapped up in a mask he feels trapped into maintaining.

Perhaps more than your “Big things”, your “Motive things” are essential to creating a real person. There are characters who “Discover” a “Big thing” as time moves on, but our “Motive things” change slowly and less drastically. This is how a character lives, what they do most of their life. This is the face people get to see when they take more than a glance, and is important to keeping role-play going after the “Big things” have drawn other players in.

On secrets: this is the place for them! If you’re going to have a secret, it can be a “Big thing” so long as keeping it a secret is a “Motive thing”. If your character is secretly racist, having that discovered negates the secret, not the racism. Now you create a new “Motive thing” to confront the “Big thing” being public. Bam, character development. But if your character’s concept is keeping the secret, you’ve got nowhere to go. You’ll need a new “Big thing” when you’re discovered.

 

3: Flavor things.

 

Our politician is a big Yankees fan, he loves baseball in fact. He’s got season tickets but usually lends them to friends as he can’t make most games. His favorite color is, unsurprisingly, Yankee Blue. He’s a fan of the Rolling Stones and never really got into newer music except by contemporary artists. He’s left handed, but pretends to be right-handed for the most part, since that plays better. He was born in July. The sound of metal on metal makes him cringe.

These are little things, they don’t matter much, they won’t usually, if ever, really come into play. But they can be included in small ways that make the character feel more like a person and less like you in a vague costume. For myself these little details, the small things, help me “find” the character, rather than express them. “Flavor things” are just that, they add a bit of flavor, a touch of context for the character as a person.

Never expect these things to be noticed. They’re small, and are only noticeable to those looking for them and many not even then. That’s fine. These shouldn’t be plot items, this ought to be something that someone notices is different about you when you’re out of character. All of a sudden you don’t have that subtle limp or that nervous flick. You cross your legs differently. Small things fill a character’s reality out.

 

A note about scale before we move on. Props should be big to small in terms of importance as well to an extent. Really important props should never be small. That tiny ring is never going to be noticed amongst all the costuming. The Yankees cap or cauldrons with the Lorraine Cross on them will be noticed. If it’s character essential and to be noticed, make it big. If it’s a minor character prop, something for flavor, it can be small. Unimportant things can be big, though. The pouches you wear, if pouches are common in your game, won’t matter (if they aren’t common, that says something else). If your character likes a particular color and wears it often, that’s fine. But if your character is incredibly fanatic about something, and the prop to represent that is small I can guarantee it’ll usually be missed unless you point it out often, which comes across as fairly boorish.

So now we have our character concept rounded. From there, I tend to build my sheet based on what the character would have balanced against what I can afford in XP. It is important to now what your spendable XP allowance will be at creation, so you know how advanced you concept work ought to be. If you have a small amount of XP to work with, bringing in someone who’s supposed to be a master warrior is a poor choice since you’ll not have the stats to back up the backstory.

Further, you may have certain skills your character might have by your concept, but aren’t mechanically very valuable and others might take precedence. Balance carefully. Min-maxing (starving some areas just to have one ability over-powered) is often looked down upon simply because it breaks the immersive and realistic feel of the characters.

I’m not going to get into much of the mechanical build process simply because every game has remarkably different needs, but hopefully this possibly too long analysis will be something that you can use to help build fuller, more fulfilling characters to play.

Check this out.

Using LARP as an exploration of gender politics by removing male/female and making it about whether you are a “Morning” person or an “Evening” person. I’d have liked to see them explore a lot more, but this was fantastic. I’d love to engage this experiment. Also, a fantastic idea of making a LARP solely about love, not conflict.

That. Is. AMAZING.

From the YouTube Description:

Uploaded on 28 Feb 2011

Emma Wieslander works with development of organizational management and leadership in social economy and non-profit organizations. Much of these theories has evolved from her years as a chair person of Sverok, the Swedish organization for role-playing, LARP, computer-gaming etc. She was the conceptual designer of the multi art production Mellan himmel och Hav (Between heaven and sea) that combined roleplay with light art and modern art music at Swedens national theater. The game was highly political and deconstructed the idea of gender as we know it. She is currently working on a new political vision focusing on environment issues among other things.

From Nordic Larp Talks Stockholm 2010.

Dystopia Rising

May 23, 2013

I’ll post more on FFVII soon, I’ve been insanely busy! My poor, neglected blog… -_-;;

But this post will be about a game, specifically the New Jersey chapter of a game, called Dystopia Rising.

Now, I’ll be honest, I had low expectations for this game. Not because it didn’t look professionally done or well thought-out, but rather I had made quite a few assumptions solely based on the genre: Post-Apocalyptic Zombie LARP. I, and maybe upon reading that you as well, made the assumption this would be a role-play-light, heavy-combat game focused on fighting and very little on character interaction.

Phew, was I wrong!

Right away, I spent time NPCing. Dystopia Rising (DR) allows you to play the weekend for free, if you’re NPCing the whole time. Well, only NPCing. You do get to sleep and eat, of course! Not that I did the first two months. -_-;; I knew, just from NPCing, that this game was going to throw a lot of Roleplay at the players, not just combat. I honestly expected just to spend hours slogging through waves of zed, having a fairly dull time and getting little player interaction.

NOPE. I played more zed than roleplay NPCs, but I was surprised by the sheer quantity of roleplay mods sent out! Moreover, I was shocked to see how many mods weren’t puzzles or scavenging or killing, but straight up simple things like “move object A to site B under the cover of night, and don’t get killed.” It sounds boring, but just trying to move around at night half expecting to have zed drop out of the shadows and start wailing on you was brilliantly terrifying.

Oh, right, this game is big on horror. Silly it can be, but also downright terrifying. At one point, I walked into a building filled with antagonists, expecting to have to talk my way through, only to discover every last one of them slaughtered in the bar. I honestly felt my heart rate jump, my throat tightened, and I froze. Something wiped a group of people that forced the town from its central building.

Walking in on that, alone, and being completely convinced something would kill me? Horror done right. No jump scares, nothing actually coming at me, just a great deal of uncertainty.

So, is that what makes DR good? Well, that’s part of it.

Mostly, it’s the people, and how they exist within the system. DR is built around making people work together. The Zed are overwhelming in number, they could easily swamp the town if people didn’t work together. Plus, you have Raiders, who are like Firefly’s Reavers only… No, no. they’re Reavers. Kill them or RUN. And there are human threats. That can quite frankly be the most dangerous. Scratch that. They are absolutely the most dangerous.

But beyond that, you have to work together to get things done. Need a better weapon? You’ll have to trade to get the components together, then find someone who can build it, and probably pay them since they’re burning power stats and time on the crafting. Low on Mind Points (Your “mana” or power stat)? You need to find someone who can heal yours or find a meal with stats or a brew with the same. Of course, if you’re not careful, someone could easily drug you. “Check Compound” is a useful little trick.

And you need to be trained to learn new skills. Talk to the right people and that training will be awesome. You have to RP the time to learn the new skill, and it can be wonderful seeing how different people “teach” their skills, how they see what they do. I recently picked up “Tinker”, and now I need to be taught to read and build and repair. I actually look forward to the RP time to do these, not just to the skills themselves. That’s something special, I think.

And then there’s the players themselves. I know it sounds like I’m gushing, but I’m actually holding back. But it’s easy to gush about a game in which a player will sit and roleplay a conversation with an unimportant NPC to try and heal their mental illness, and go over the required time simply because the roleplay works. DR has been one of the best Roleplay experiences I’ve had, which was startling.

But beyond that, what about the system? Oh, it’s hardly perfect. I had packet archery, but in a world that allows Nerf™ blasters as physical representations of firearms, it makes sense. Having arrows outrange, badly, firearms just doesn’t work. It’s a good scaling compromise.

Moreover, I enjoy the flurry system they have in effect. You can only strike three times, in a ninety degree arch, and in different spots each time. This makes the strikes play more realistically, and gives less experience players a better chance in the boffer area. The combat is easier to track as well. As an NPC, keeping track of three people sending a hail of strikes at you is virtually impossible.

DR is also very good at preventing Power Creep. Power Creep is what happens, especially for long-running games, when Player Characters manage not to die for an extended period, and just accumulate so much on their sheet and inventory. In Dystopia, it is very easy to die. A lot. You’d think this is bad, but it makes combat more present, more engaging. It is so easy to lose the immediacy of fear for yourself when you’ve gotten to the point you cans stomp anything into the ground. But when no matter how good you are there is still plenty out there to make your life difficult, plenty of NPC skills that can put you into a very bad place, every confrontation becomes a “thing.”

The different Strains (Races) and Professions also diversify the game quite well. I’d like to see more, but there’s always more I’d like, and DR is still very good at giving you options that fit the universe. For the veteran Fantasy LARPer, it’ll be a bit of a shock, since many of the standards just aren’t here. The game’s world doesn’t work the same way, and it’s less shiny. Figuratively and literally the world is darker, grimier, and rougher. “Pretty” becomes a relative term in a world where fragile things just don’t tend to survive and your enemies don’t just want to kill you-some want to eat your or skin you. If you arrive expecting to play an elf, you are entirely out of lucky. If you want to play a dwarf, try being a Bay Walker (kidding, kidding!).

There are four DR games I know of thus far, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Feel free to check out their site at Dystopia Rising LARP and join the fun! I’ll be happy to loot your corpse later.

Final Fantasy VII Part 1

January 17, 2013

Or, “My Boyfriend Wouldn’t Let Me Rename Cloud to Tidus” (AKA “My Boyfriend Wouldn’t Shut Up Until I Played It)

So, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game. This month I turn twenty-nine, and in my nearly three decades, dozens of JRPGs, and familiarity with the PlayStation console I’ve never played a Final Fantasy Game. Not even the side games. The “closest” I’ve ever come is watching “The Spirits Within” and I’ve no reason to relive those traumas, thanks.

I picked up FFVII for the boy for Christmas, and he starts in on me to play it. Eh. I like JRPGs, and this is somewhat the archetype, so I might as well. And, I figure that I might as well keep tabs on the progress in my Blog.

Let’s be SUPER clear, I’ll be posting my take on the game, the entire game, so expect spoilers. SPOILERS ALL OVER. I will ruin the plot for you, if you haven’t played it. You’ve been warned.

And before we go further, let me say I was not allowed to rename Cloud “Tidus”, Barret “Ballsack”, or Aeris “Kebab”. The boy did let me rename Tifa “Derpina.” I am thus satisfied.

So the first thing I realize is that the current cast of misfit “heros” are, essentially, ecoterrorists as presented. The main character, Cloud, is a merc they hired. Keen. And we (AVALANCHE) are going to stop the evil organization (SHINRA) from draining the planet of it’s life force (Mako) by blowing up a reactor and killing untold numbers of presumably innocent workers who probably think they’re providing harmless power to their fellow citizens.

And the controls are kinda wonky. Yeah, alright.

We have a few bosses, some random encounters, stores to check out, and Aeris to meet. Oh, and Cloud gets to cross-dress and it was fabulous. Somewhere around here I joking say “Couldn’t AVALANCHE just take out the plate and destroy the reactor?” “Yeah, but it’d kill everyone.” “But save the planet. Win some, lose some.” Very tongue in cheek, very clever, until it happens. But it’s SHINRA setting up AVALANCHE to take the blame.

Biggs, Wedge, and the almost love interest Jessie all bite it in this scene. We’ll talk about them in a bit. The heros fight valiantly, but fail to stop the plate from falling. Everyone on the plate, everyone below it, dies. Watching it immediately brought 9-11 to mind, which was somewhat uncomfortable (though not triggering for me). It was a decent scene, they’d set it up well, and it kinda fell flat. Well, no, it didn’t, but it should have.

Lemme explain.

The characterization at this point has not impressed me. Cloud is your standard roguish young hero with a troubled and mysterious past. and it’s not a very interesting past, even with his pseudo mental illness I’m also going to touch on later. Biggs and Wedge? Those two never get interesting enough for their deaths to be emotionally impactful. Jessie, the cute, awkward girl that like Cloud should have been more of a gut punch, but we barely got to know her so her death was also pretty empty. Barret is a fascinating character, but his characterization is dull as dirt. “Derpina” is less interesting that watery, cold oatmeal.

But Aeris actually shines. Within a few conversations, we get her personality. her drive. Who she is comes across quickly, fully, and elegantly. Rarely do I see characters so quickly and perfectly laid out. Oh, and there are lots of other people who show up once or twice with all the personality of “third guy at the bar, scene 12, take 6”.

Barret I want to be interesting. You’ve got a guy who clearly grew up tough and bad ass, but responsible and caring, in the slums under the plate of Midgar, and he gets caught up in the conflict between the desire to be with his daughter or fight for her future. DAMN that’s good. But his dialogue? His screen time? Mediocre.

Cloud…. aaahhhhh, I’m sure it gets better. He fits the standard trope, but he’s part of the reason for that trope. Hardly the origin, but he helped make it a “thing”. His voices are interesting, though. Hearing voices has no single diagnosis. It’s one of those odd things that we aren’t really sure of. Right now, i don’t know enough about Cloud to say why he’s hearing voices, but I’m very interested in how they handle that.

But that’s all we’ve got for characters. This great tragedy occurs, half the characters we’ve met die or are kidnapped, and except for the weird echo of 9-11, which I wouldn’t have had had I played this back in ’97, there was simply no emotional resonance. Presumably thousands of people just died, and I just wanted to move the game along. In terms of story telling, FFVII is not scoring high just yet.

So now we have to climb back up to the floating city. There have been parts that feel very gimmicky (the timed “escapes”, for one), but there are also parts that work tremendously well-the Materia system is probably the magic system I will be saddest to let go of when i finish the game, and I’ll comment on that in another post when i’ve had more time to play with it. Thus far it’s a solid JRPG, nothing mind blowing, but very rich, lots of depth. I’m only three hours in, so don’t nail me to the wall yet, fan boys.

First Time at Knight Realms

November 30, 2012

I’ll be joining Knight Realms ( http://www.knightrealms.com/ ) tonight, doing the NPC thing all tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night. I’ve got a ride, and a desire to shoot things with padded arrows.

Yes.

Report of my weekend after I get back and have time-I won’t do a review until I’ve had the chance to play for a while. Cheers!

Playing a Disability

October 10, 2012

Recently a player posted in a forum asking if they could bring a character into a boffer LARP with “Insanity Points” already on their sheet. There were many responses, some warning against using mental issues as a roleplaying crutch to gain attention and others discussing mechanics. I read through the responses, and none seem to really address what it means to actually portray this sort of character, which is fairly significant a topic for me, as you might guess from the themes of this blog. I posted in reply to it, and found I had a lot to say. It reignited my desire to write for this blog, so I cleaned it out and started from scratch. I also revisited my post to that thread. I felt like it was worth publishing my experiences.

See, I’ve spent about three years playing a character in my local Camarilla Club “Vampire: the Requiem” venue. He’s got a severe derangement on his sheet. No, seriously, Catatonic Schizophrenic. Badly. I spend much of my game stuck in repetitive motions, lost in thought, and listening intently to things both real and not. Let me tell you, it’s unusual for someone to interact with him unless they have a specific use for him. When he first showed up, the other characters were split on whether to shuffle him out of the way or off his post-mortal coil. I gather I am alive by a -slim- margin.

After three years, I’m retiring him, though. Unfortunately his derangement takes him out of being proactive with few exceptions, which I expected going in. What I did not expect was that no one would take advantage of or interact with in virtually any way with such a character. He seemed ripe for abuse with no willpower and remarkable knowledge and physical skill. But that isn’t what happened. People avoided him. He was seen as dangerous because of his violent moments, which were triggered by consistent and avoidable moments–but no one spent any time to figure these out. And despite his occasional moments of helpful clarity, difficulty understanding interactions with him meant many assumed he wasn’t intelligent or simply not aware. Neither were true at all.

It is frustrating, naturally, to create a character with a carefully crafted backstory, behaviors, and appearance, and have people avoid him like the plague. It is also does wonders to highlight the difficulties and prejudices peep with mental disabilities face every waking moment, being avoided because they are perceived as dangerous or, maybe worse, useless. I’ve gained a great amount of thankfulness that I am not this bad, that my little… “eccentricities” are little more than that on most days. I can now all too clearly imagine having all I would contribute dismissed due to a misperception and prejudice.

Another consideration in playing a character, beyond how people will react, is that doing it well is exhausting. I do it for four hours during one night a month, and I’m mentally and emotionally wipe afterward. I have no idea how people intend to, or manage, to play that for an entire weekend-long boffer LARP. I think I would fall apart if I tried to pay my Requiem character for more than six hours, tops. I’d go so far as to say playing such a severe disorder would actually be mentally unhealthy for me. Anyone who wants to role-play a mental disorder of any sort should seriously consider how draining it can, and should, be.

Less obvious disabilities can be easier, but are still trouble as often as not, though they can add dimension to a character. Only someone well-apt for such role-play should really take these on. Even a “simple” phobia that seems innocuous will be debilitating at just the wrong moment, and it takes a special role-player to really make that fulfilling rather than boring or tiresome–or flat out insulting.

Let me reenforce the caveat that mental disorders should never be “fun” or “amusing”–psychological handicaps are serious and challenging disabilities, and roleplaying them correctly for extended periods means research and understanding. I role-play a very serious disorder related to my own issues. The times I saw another portray it badly was insulting and angering to the point I left the session to cool off, rather than cause a scene. In retrospect, I should have just simply caused that scene, as schizotypal disorders are not funny, they are not endearing, and they do not provide great insight. If anything, they are distracting, painful, confusing, and alienating to an extreme. Talk about a role-play minefield.

However, when done correctly, I have to say they aren’t crutches. I’ve seen players use mental disorder as a quirk to gain attention. It’s annoying. Even more so when it works, and they get the role-play they wanted, and your honest portrayal leaves you cold. But it can be done well, and when done so it’s brilliant. I’ve seen great role-play of this sort portrayed, and like to imagine I do a solid job myself. One of my favorite characters is from a Changeling: the Lost game. The character is loud, angry, violent, and aggressive. He irritates all the other characters. He’s a problem no matter what. I refer to him not as a character, but a force of nature. Sometimes the game suffers because of how extremely overbearing his persona is.

-But-. This isn’t just a player’s excuse to be a pain. There are deep-rooted reasons for his behavior. It can be affected. The player clearly puts a great deal of energy, effort, and thought into everything he does. And frustrating as playing with him is, it is frustrating in a way that feels very natural, honest, and true to life. I don’t feel a persona, a mask that’s being used for a purpose or that’s just for fun. Rather, I really believe that character is who I see for those four hours, and I am always, as a player at least, eager to interact with that. My character is less amused.

So it can be so fantastic, but game masters and players should be aware that this oughtn’t be a common thing and be very cautious adding any such disabilities (Derangements, Insanities, Negative Traits, whatever your system calls them) to a sheet. Consider how serious you can portray for the duration of your event and how deep you want to go. A phobia might be easier to handle than anger fugues, which in turn might be more playable than stress-induced catatonic behavior; but even that allows leeway. A simple fear of the dark can be just quirky–until all hell breaks loose and your group is forced to abandon the cabins for the moonlit forest. Then it gets “interesting”. Depending on the player and their compatriots, such a moment can result in fulfilling role-play, or be frustrating enough to other everyone that it pulls them out of the moment.

Naturally, ever game master has to make their own call on the topic. A less serious game might consider such things to be equally fair game for amusement (“Toon”, for example, might take it to, predictably, cartoonish extremes), but even that should be done so that the illness adds to gameplay and isn’t just a gag. I think it’s best if a player and game master really study the signs, symptoms, and details of these issues and really get to know how it will affect a character. Before bringing my Requiem character in, I had a discussion about it with my ST, talking about my goals, my understanding, and how he would behave (I literally walked into game with the minimum possible Willpower). This discussion is necessary, I feel, to prevent mental disability from becoming a crutch or a joke. And knowing what the illness you want to play looks like and does can often lend a lot of weight to your desire to get it on your sheet when your game master asks about it.

One thing I can’t emphasize enough is that a disability should -never- be a template item! Had my Requiem character not been allowed in with his issues, I had another background for him with a completely different persona planned. No illness exists in a vacuum of only its direct effects–it filters into your whole life. It can heavily alter your world view, and can be so deeply pervasive in one’s mindset to an extent you don’t realize until you apply it to everything. A simple phobia of rain, for instance, as something that seems benign, could have a lot of day to day effects. Imagine being deeply, truly afraid of rain–you might always carry wet weather gear, even on a sunny day. In a pre-Doppler Radar setting, this might be especially true. Clouds would seem incredibly ominous and an over-cast day would be nerve-wracking. A leaky roof could be stomach churning, and making certain it got fixed the next sunny day might me compulsive. Imagine a few rainy days and the effect on having a job. Something only sounding like thunder might cause a moment of panic. A sudden splash of water could cause traumatic flashbacks. Even a “just” phobia can be far reaching (It is important to distinguish the differences amongst an aversion, server aversion, slight phobia, and sever phobia).

-This- is true psychological disability, and it has an ugly face. If you’re up to it, I applaud the desire to attempt this role-play and think it can be an amazing experience to do, to see, and to interact with. But it has to be handled with care, ventured into cautiously, and examined deeply during character creation. You can learn so much from this, and discover things about your fellow people that might never have known otherwise. I think if you feel like you’re willing to really grab this, and get inside and out of it, you’ll experience some of the most intense role-play of your life.

One last note, if you’re feeling intimidated or simply not sure you can manage an actual disability (I know I covered mental illness here, but physical disability should be examined in just the same way), then allow me to suggest that quirks are -so- much easier to work with and can be a lot more fun (meaning, at all) while still immediately (or not, if you’re feeling sneaky) intriguing! A quirk can be as essential or defining in other players’ minds as these strong, persona-encompassing character traits, and each are great additions. The latter, I feel, essentially or you’ve just got stats and some gimmicks, and that isn’t role-play. But with a strong character, a quirk can be like that dash of salt in something otherwise solid, but bland.

As an example, in many parts of White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” a religiously devout character is fairly unique (not so much in Requiem, but often so in Masquerade, Mage, and Changeling). A person who always wears a mask, though a bit tired a cliché, can twitch someone’s natural curiosity. Never speaking above a whisper (also a bit done and a bit goth) creates a specific feel. Laughing while nervous (though an inappropriate laughter response is an actual condition!) It’s interesting when someone has specific physical behaviors as well, such as avoiding the use of their left hand or walking a specific way, a particular method of turning their head-those all subtly “make” a persona come to life. Often, with the real craft of character building, it’s the little things that make a character big.

So you can go outside of physical or mental disability to make a character really stand out, and you can side step a lot of effort that can be  draining in every way in doing so. I still think you should be working on your role-play if you want it as fulfilling as possible, but disability is a -lot- of work that you might just frankly not want to deal with. So add these little bits of flavor when they fit the character and fill out missing pieces, but don’t just add personality kibble. We all want our character to be unique, but I caution against “Special Snowflake” characters; if everyone is a snowflake, the game just gets snowed in. Don’t let that keep you from trying something different, but be different because your character is just that solid–make them different because it is who they are, not what they do.

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