Reflective Games: This Just In! playtest

critical making, playtest, reflective games

As you might have realized from my posts over these past few months, I’ve been working with and researching larps since October or so. Last week, I ran my first larp, a pre-made nanolarp called “Abattoir” — you can read my previous post about that here.

This Just In! materials

This Just In! mindmap from development

In the time since then, I set a deadline for myself to create my own nanolarp. From start to finish, including the discussion before the game and the debrief afterwars, this larp should take around forty-five minutes to play.

For a long while, while reading up on all these topics, I struggled to find a topic that I could explore in a short larp for the reflective games group to play. Last week, when I finally sat down to do some brainstorming and create a mindmap, the tumblers fell into place in the lock and in about an hour, I had the basics of the game decided and put into place. I just had to develop characters and a self-contained ruleset based on my research.

This morning, I playtested the larp with the Reflective Games group.

In a nutshell, this is a larp about subjectivity and how different networks “spin” the news – there are overarching, oversimplified narratives that show up time and time again in news stories.

You can read, or even play, the entire larp here on itch.io. Here’s a ringing endorsement from one of the players who playtested with me this morning:

“Thank God I didn’t go to journalism school.”

A little more on how the playtesting went:

The players appreciated the flow of information — it stimulated their conversation and added a good level of complication. Players were aware of the kinds of news narratives they were reproducing as they were producing them, which created a kind of unease. For some players, they avoided bringing up certain narratives deliberately (i.e. mental health), while other players said that they embraced their role and said whichever shitty thing came to mind.

When asked to tell me about something memorable that happened during play, players highlighted these occurrences:

* Trying to negotiate the meta and self-awareness around the topic of mainstream news outlets was satisfyingly awkward. One player said that this felt like it was probably pretty true to what happened in these kinds of spaces, with “edgy” content slowly grounded down until it had no edge.
* The news team agreed, at Station Management’s insistence, that they should not mention the “alt right” in the news cast, since it might alienate some of their viewers. During the news cast, “alt right” accidentally slipped out, and the reaction from Station Management (shock) and the Young Idealist (Pulitzer! Pulitzer!) was very satisfying.
* The alarm that signaled the end of the discussion was surprising and memorable when it came – one player felt that this was a nice moment.

Here’s some of the feedback that players provided to improve the game:
About the news cast at the end, players suggested that perhaps they might be able to work jointly on a kind of teleprompter script or to have players take notes. I’ve decided not to go that route, but have decided to encourage the newscaster (who needs to deliver the news report) to take notes. Additionally, the folk in the Reflective Game group suggested that I emphasize that they will indeed have to give a sixty second report at the end of the game.

There were some adjustments to be made in terms of the instructions for the players to let them know what they ought to be doing. From my own observations, I decided to make it explicit that players should introduce themselves, and have added in a warm-up exercise to get players into character and more comfortable with the play.

On the whole, I’m quite satisfied with how this larp played, although I’m aware that the people who played with me this time around were an ideal audience, and that the game might play differently with another group. That’s just how larps work, I guess.

For now, I’ve decided to release this as a prototype with the one “tragedy” that I ran today. In the future, I would like to develop other situations and create a deck that could be shuffled, or a table of results which could be chosen from with dice rolls.

Reflective Games: My First Time as a Larp GM

reflective games, research

This morning, for the reflective games group, I ran “Abattoir” (also known as Heiferdammerung) by Mike Young and Scott David Grey. You can find it here. This nano larp is meant to last around ten minutes. The original game has nine playable characters, but this morning, there were only five of us including myself. Here are some brief notes.

I’ve got a fair bit of experience as a tabletop gamemaster, but this was my first time running a larp.

I used the opportunity to try out a number of nordic larp techniques and approaches to framing a game that I haven’t used formally before. It feels like the sort of opt-in that I often frame my games with, however, so it felt comfortable enough. After I cast the four players, I started off by offering a little bit of information on the themes of the game — this wasn’t exactly a content warning. Content warnings are not usual for most larps, from what I have seen in my research, because it is difficult to know, especially in something freeform, what topics might arise. Instead, there are rules and systems that larpers put into place to deal with difficult content as it arises and afterwards, once the game is finished. Specifically, the systems that I’m thinking of are the “cut/break” system, which players can use to redirect or interrupt the game, and the “Debrief” period after the end of the game.

Last week, I gathered together a set of rules cobbled together from some of the sources I’ve been reading for the kinds of larps that I would like to run. I’ve gathered that information here.

So, after the content warning, I explained the concepts of “break” and “cut” and how to use them. In terms of physical boundaries, I suggested that this time around we have a no-touch larp, since it didn’t seem necessary for the sake of the story, and then I opened up a discussion about boundaries. Knowing that it can be hard to figure out what to say at that point, I tried to give the players enough time to think about what subjects or topics that might arise and what they were up for or not. What that wound up meaning this time around is that one player decided to observe rather than play given the subject matter. I think this underscores the importance of creating opportunities for players to opt out, and talking about the themes of a larp even if you can’t quite give completely accurate content warnings. I had to rethink my casting choices a little bit, and decided that I would be a GMPC, which is to say that I would play a character in the game as well as run it.

The space that we ran the game in was set up for a meeting, with eight interconnected tables arranged in a square, with an empty central space. The creators suggest running the game in an open field, but one wasn’t readily available in the immediate environs of downtown Montreal, and our time was limited.

This was a good first experience in terms of learning when to wait (which in this game, was responsible for quite a lot of the tension, I think), when to cut/go to the next part of the game, and when to improvise. To make the game run smoothly with so few players, I had to occasionally add in information or events. For example, all the players managed to dodge the winches and hooks that were meant to capture them. As a result, although they could not go backwards, there was not necessarily any incentive for them to go forward. I considered ending the game there, with them waiting, but instead introduced an event with a non-player character that one of the player characters had an attachment to, which worked to urge them further into the abattoir.

The players remarked on the tension between knowing approximately what happens in an abattoir and trying to think and behave like a cow. One player also noted in our debrief that it was largely possible for this to be played in such a short amount of time because most people are at least a little bit familiar with the subject.

I think this is an important note for the nanolarp that I will be designing this week, to be played next Wednesday, the 13th. I’m trying to delineate a topic with the idea that it might be good for the group to have some general, common knowledge about it in mind. More on this soon!

Reflective Games: Coming Home to a New Form

critical making, reflective games, research

Learning about Nordic Larp and the culture around it is a little like coming home. The discourse often focuses on taking care of people, making sure that consent and boundaries are negotiated, and making sure that larp can be a space to explore difficult subjects as safely as possible. On the other hand, there are so many styles and schools within Nordic Larp, and learning about those is both thrilling and intimidating.

What’s amazing about larp is that there is a huge amount of content (especially proceedings-style papers from the Knutepunkt conference) published each year and available for free. There’s a lot to absorb, and a lot that makes me feel uncertain about the best way to proceed. At the same time, the sheer volume and variety of manifestos and articles available signal the lack of unified consensus about larp design. That means that maybe I can carve out a space that I am comfortable designing in. I’ll try to explain my discomfort and excitement a little bit.

So. As a game designer, the subjects and scenarios that I design around are often ones where there is the potential for discomfort and even outright (emotional) harm to the player. To name a few topics, I’ve worked with design questions related to consent and physical touch, sensual relationship with plants, inequality and harassment for women in the workplace, different intersections of oppression, and emotional labour and radical softness.

My games often invite players to be vulnerable. Although they may choose their own level of comfort, players frequently choose to be quite vulnerable, as it turns out, particularly when it comes to my game about consent (In Tune) and the one related to emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter). Negotiating consent and learning about one’s comfort levels frequently means a certain amount of disclosure to one’s partner, by way of explanation for why a boundary exists, or even by disclosing the existence of a boundary. Similarly, since The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter prompts players to draw on their own experiences to come up with a (fictional or non-fictional, player’s choice) trouble, players often wind up coming up with problems that are partially based on the ones that they are already facing.

These experiences are carefully crafted, and I have considered how to facilitate this sort of play through rules, framing, and control of the experience. That is what makes some forms of larp intimidating — there’s a loss of control that goes beyond anything that I am used to as a game designer or as a tabletop game master. There are many techniques to help restore some of that control, though, which makes this loss of control both intimidating and exciting. I am used to crafting moments both as a designer and as a game master, and responding on-the-fly to my players, but I am always there in order to provide additional information, to tell them what they see, to play non-player characters and shape the experience.

There are so many forms of larp to learn about, and relatively few chances to experience them all for someone living in Canada. That means that I will have to feel out what will work best for me as a designer by reading widely — on the other hand, there is so much to read that it has been difficult to absorb everything as well as I would like. I’m working on it, but there’s still plenty to read.

For my larp, I think that I would like to invite the Reflective Games group to play, along with some other folk at TAG and perhaps my usual Monday Night RPG gaming group. That would mean having roughly ten or so people, so perhaps I will create a smaller-scale prototype to experiment with an even smaller group.

When it comes to subject matter for the larp, gender has, as one might imagine, been on my mind lately, as I approach a legal name change and have been using they/them pronouns for roughly a year and a half with most people. I keep thinking about the discomfort of being misgendered, the compromises I choose to make, and the discomfort that some people seem to feel at even the idea of nonbinary identity. This isn’t a very settled subject — there’s a lot of (not necessarily in good faith) debate around this, especially lately with respect to the Jordan Petersen video incident at Laurier. Maybe this is a good thing because of the questions that it raises – questions that I have no answer to. I am also not altogether sure yet what the “thesis” of such a game would be. I’m working on it.

I will continue to read, but this week, I think I’ll also focus on trying to create something.

[PS: I also had the chance to showcase The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at MEGA this weekend — I had some very interesting conversations around it, and on the whole the game was well-received. To children, I got to talk about making conductive buttons and makey-makeys. To parents, I got to talk about the value of emotional labour. To my academic peers and other designers, I got to talk about physical-digital hybrid games and the genesis of this game. On the whole, the feedback that I got was that generally people were surprised by how effective a tool this was. Oh, and of course, in case you missed it, the digital edition of The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is available here!]