Conflicts: The World as an Antagonist

Antagonists. The fulcrum of conflict in a story; the person, group, institution or concept that brings the player characters (PCs) from just existing to actually doing something. This thing can be well defined, personified, and even made to be sympathetic. It can also be ambiguous, obscure, meant to be interpreted by each player/character differently to suit the themes and direction of each PC’s individual story. There are many different ways to approach creating conflict in your stories, and to help flesh out defining those conflicts I’m going to talk about a few different antagonists (and why I think they work in LARP) in a series of blogs.

I’m going to start with the world as an antagonist!

This one is probably my personal favorite; it presents the conflict not as something to be defeated or destroyed, but as hardships that one simply must endure as part of living in the setting. Overcoming this antagonist is about looking within for strength and resolve to persevere, being clever or resourceful when meeting specific dangers that the World introduces, and each character being personally changed in an individualized way as a result of the adversity encountered.

These stories can at their best (and worst) feel like disaster movies where characters are helpless in the greater scheme of what is going on, but can affect meaningful changes on the small scale and learn to cope and connect with the others who they bond with during a crisis. Some examples of stories where the world/setting is the central source of conflict are The Road, Cast Away, World War Z, and (most) disaster movies.

This antagonist can also be a secondary force that the characters interact with; in the post-apocalyptic LARP Dystopia Rising, the harshness and unforgiving nature of the zombie-mutant-raider-infested wasteland is a backdrop by which other types of antagonists can be painted. Your aristocratic bureaucracy (a system as an antagonist) that is totally out of touch with day-to-day suffering stands in a stark and purposeful contrast to the setting. The desperate, brutal attacks by a cannibalistic gang of nomads are given context if you know that the world struggles on the regular to provide adequate nourishment to its population.

Overall, this is my favorite source of conflict when I write because it is player character focused; the characters do not compete with another personality or personalities from a major NPC (and/or compete with each other for face time with those NPCs) - instead they are encouraged or even forced to interact with each other. There is no negotiating with a wild inferno that threatens to burn your homes; characters must negotiate with and rely upon each other instead.

However, this type of conflict can come with a lot of hard feelings if not properly implemented. Players can feel frustrated when they realize that their enemy cannot be wholly destroyed or eliminated by conventional means, and helpless knowing that the threat is not one that will ever be truly “stopped” as it is an act of nature and may occur again and again (seasonally, or on some other timeline). Even successfully administering to a threat can feel anticlimactic because players might feel that their efforts ultimately did not have a large enough impact or did not change enough to be meaningful. Even more damaging, the encouragement to rely upon other characters may incite infighting or deadlocked decision making if players are not adequately coached through their options when responding to a threat.

For some players it may simply be a matter of taste: being a big damn hero and slaying Igor the Warlord is more satisfying than coming up with a food rationing plan for making it through a famine. For others, though, standing as part of a fire-bucket brigade with their neighbors makes them feel like they’re a part of their world and invested in its survival, moreso than fighting a goblin minion of a boss monster in battle that someone else claims sole victory for slaying.

Ultimately, most LARP campaigns benefit from a multitude of antagonists; not only to keep things fresh and interesting, but also to make sure that every player has a story where they will feel involved and important. The world as an antagonist may serve well as either the backdrop to a larger campaign (where it can periodically inform or contextualize), with a starring cameo every now and again. For one-shot LARPs and games however, where the plot may benefit from being either existential or laser-focused, the world can be an inspiring point of conflict for your players to rage against, and the tale of their survival (or demise) is one that will reverberate in the hearts of many. The tale of survival is deeply embedded in the human spirit, and how we succeed or fail in this eternal conflict can create quite the story.

To summarize:

Cons:

  1. Players can feel unempowered or helpless, which can create out of character (OOC) conflict when some individuals come to games to engage in power fantasies (not necessarily a bad thing) or otherwise rankle at the idea of being “railroaded”.

    1. possible fix: Give characters specific things within the context of the story that they CAN fix, perhaps they can build better shelters, learn how to safely stockpile medicine or other perishables, or help an affected NPC group who will later reward helpful PCs.

  2. Broad scope can be difficult to measure; the story can lose context and impact if it is too lightly implemented, but risks being heavy-handed and suffocating if too pervasive.

    1. possible fix: Make sure that the effects of the conflict are enough that every character can feel it or seek it out, but allow there to be spaces for characters (and their players) to breathe and relax, remember that even in media there are moments where the story has pauses for the audience - use that mindset here, as well.

  3. At the end of the day, nothing is ultimately accomplished other than player survival (if that); it can feel anticlimactic and unsatisfying to not be able to affect what players may interpret as a long term or meaningful change on the environment, sacrificing just for survival rather than for a tangible goal.

    1. possible fix: Coach players (perhaps through NPC commentary, or in pregame/postgame debriefs) through the importance of simply surviving and asking characters about their survival stories. Help players construct narratives where they are heroic, important, and necessary even if there is no personified evil that was defeated.

  4. If players are not adequately prepared, in-character (IC) infighting may hamstring decision making and the event suffers a social breakdown. While interesting social commentary, this does not exactly make for a fulfilling game for the participants.

    1. possible fix: Make it clear OOC what your expectations are to all (or as many as possible) players so that they know what they can affect and change and what is “out of bounds” - perhaps the characters cannot neutralize the radioactive chemical leak, but give them options (and be open to their suggestions) on how the characters can destroy/remove/address the issue.

Pros:

  1. Players can choose their level of engagement and emotional investment, calibrating how “jaded” their character’s view can be to create appropriate distance between themselves and the plotline.

  2. Can engage every “type” of player organically as each character must interact within the world and thus different subplots/mods/quests can ping everyone from social roleplayer to heavy combat for meaningful input and assistance in resolving a crisis.

  3. With proper staging and execution, does not create personal culpability on any group or person (the function of the world was not triggered by any specific failures of player characters), encourages a “community” response that can foster a more collaborative rather than combative energy between characters.

  4. Thematic; a way to enforce and highlight important aspects of the setting and general “vibe” of the game without exposition - players instead learn about the world and adapt to its challenges organically and with direct contextual experiences (rather than ideas pulled from source materials).

Thanks for reading,
Anastasia

So You Want to Run a Game: Building a New Campaign

Starting something new is always exciting and often overwhelming. There is so much to consider when approaching a project, be it for a LARP or a tabletop game (or even a creative project like a book or comic). Know that there will never be a creative process that is one-size fits all; the way your brain approaches and dismantles problems is going to be unique to you, and that’s not something that I want to change. Rather, I want to provide you with a roadmap to how my process (usually) goes, and perhaps that will inspire you to break through any roadblocks that have you stumped.

This is a really generalized overview meant to outline my process in a general sense. I may write more detailed guides for specific types of events (one-shot LARPs, vs. campaign tabletops, vs. campaign LARPs) but overall this is my “system”. Enjoy!

1. The Pregame

For me, I usually have to come around to an idea; it’ll start as a few loose inspirational ideas that usually are preceded by a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and without a lot of substance to back them up. I get a lot of inspiration from music (often instrumental, my go-to favorite is Emancipator), but also from cool news articles about interesting places and things, books or other media I consume (television, anime, video games), as well as art I enjoy or even conversations with friends about tropes or subjects we find interesting.

At this phase I start compartmentalizing things in my head; “I want to run a Vampire: the Masquerade LARP, okay, what are some things that I personally enjoy about vampire?” From here I can consider my spread of favorites: humanity, the beast, the occult, and the juxtaposition between the living and the dead. That will give me a core that I am passionate about, but I can also connect things to in order to create a cohesive storyline. You don't have to use a pre-established setting if that's not what interests you - developing a homebrew setting can follow the same steps as prepping a campaign within systems/using media you already love.

I want to take a moment to speak more about what I just said about being passionate about your story. It is so important that the story you are telling is something that is interesting to you. Sure, we should consider the interests of our players (and, more broadly, the wider LARP audience if we are putting together something larger than our group of pals), but ultimately the game relies on you to be successful. If you are not enjoying yourself, if you are not happy with the story, if you are not interested in the narrative you’re weaving… not only will it show in your writing and in your (lack of) enthusiasm with your players, it’ll turn what’s supposed to be a fun adventure into a soul-sucking obligation that provides no creative release. Uncool.

Always find something to love and be continuously inspired by inside of your own stories. Always.

2. The Core Element

For me, what drives and encourages me even in my lowest creative ruts is knowing what my story is about at it’s core - something that I usually have coalesced in my head towards the end of the pregame daydreaming. At the beginning you might find that your mental Pinterest is dotted with the scraps of a bunch of ideas and maybe a few that are more developed; it’s time to start refining down the mass to a streamlined(ish) plot. We need to define our Core Element(s) to ground us and provide guidance when we’re lost in the quagmire of awesome (but incongruent) ideas.

This is where I start writing down NPCs, the first few plotkits/mod outlines, and my themes. Here is the painful part; where the first step was all about grabbing any pretty gossamer thought and shoving it into your brainpan for inspiration time, now we need to start killing our darlings; sure, having a plotline about the intricacies of the vampire Prince’s lineage might be interesting… but it doesn’t service my Core Element that I want my players to focus on: humanity. Boop. Deleted. I continuously ask myself the same question as I put my pen to paper (or more likely, cursor to Google doc): “how does this idea/mod/plot/NPC reinforce my Core Element?”

That isn’t to say you can’t have one-off ideas that are entertaining, or that your Core Element(s) can’t change and evolve over time (especially if you are running a years-long campaign); however, having a vision that is unblurred helps your writing and narrative remain consistent and ultimately provide a more powerful story that isn’t just a collection of random bits, but a concentrated, directed narrative.

Core Elements also do not need to be very complex. I encourage the opposite. See if you can distill your campaign into just a few words, with maybe some supporting thematics. For this Vampire: the Masquerade game it might be “Humanity” (a fairly broad topic), supported by “mystery”, “living vs. dead”, “legacy”, “flux”. Broad elements also allow the story to be open to the PCs that will eventually play in your game. Every vampire character will ultimately have some interaction with these elements, even if their individual stories (and their specific outcomes) may be wildly different.

When you have a well-defined Core Element, you will always have a place that reminds you of why you wanted to run this game in the first place.

3. Packaging

So you’ve daydreamed your wondrous idea, then refined it down to the perfect story you’re ready to tell - what’s next? Before we rush off to Facebook to publish our first game date and location, let’s take a moment to work on something that might be unusual to consider at first: the packaging.

When we grab something off the shelf at the grocery store, we learn a lot from the package. The same should be true of the marketing for your game; if you want to attract players that are enthusiastic about your story… then you need to make sure you’re clear on what your story is about. This not only allows people to know how to build a character that will be a good fit for the thrust of the game, but it also allows people to opt out of your events if it doesn’t fit their needs - and this is ok. No one wants to be stuck seeing a movie they thought was going to be a thriller based on the trailer when it turns out to be a slow drama (lookin’ at you, The Beguiled). Even if the movie isn’t bad, it wasn’t what you were expecting… so you might be grumpier or more critical just because of that fact alone.

One way to communicate quickly and easily aspects of your games is an “ingredients list”, which is just like it sounds. A list of story/narrative elements that may be at your game: PvP, simulated violence (either narrated, parlor-style, or boffer combat), simulated drug and alcohol use, sexual themes, political themes - jump scares, fake gore, whatever it is that you want to highlight.

Additionally, if you want your game to have limited conflict between player characters, tell people.

If you want costuming to be an important part of your LARP, tell people.

While some part of the narrative’s mystery can (and should) be discovered during the gameplay, humans generally dislike having their expectations screwed with. If you are going to feature simulated violence through boffer combat, that is going to be vital for someone who doesn’t want to be thwacked with a foam weapon to know. At the end of the day, the only things people will know about your game is what you tell them.

In conclusion…

How you go about creating your event is all you. Take into account the length of your game, the systems that your game will use, and what inspires and motivates you when it comes to your story. Take your scrapbook of ideas to task in refining them into a directed, defined narrative. When you’ve got it solid in your head, make sure that you package it well and explain your needs to your audience.

As time goes on you might realize that an idea that was super cool 3 years ago at the start of your epic DnD campaign is no longer as shiny and you want to change it. Or maybe you realize that you didn’t do such a great job packaging your game after you get a lot of complaints from people who had different expectations. None of what you do is set in stone, be organic and let the longform stories you tell grow and shift and change along with you; maybe the “Planar Travel” central plot element gets traded out for “Vision Quest” for the next year - maybe you update your website and public documents with a better and more in-depth description of your game that reflects the feedback you received.

Keep your communication with your players clear and honest, but never be afraid to evolve and update your game as needed. Record changes as they happen (especially mechanical changes), be open to feedback, and always pursue that which inspires you.

Thanks for reading,
Anastasia

The Apothecary: a blog, because Why Not™

When we first sat down and hashed out some LARP ideas, a friend of mine and I came up with the idea of spinning the name off of “apothecary” (eventually becoming Apotheke 28, the production company behind Hidden Parlor ATX). When I sat down to try and fumble together a name for a blog, it only fit that I follow that theme. After all, an apothecary is a ye olde fashioned way of describing a medical professional who formulates and dispenses materia medica to physicians, surgeons and patients (citation: Wikipedia).

An apothecary also dispensed advice to the specialists of their time, imparting knowledge of procedures, ingredients, and new discoveries that would appeal to their clientele. Thus, I suppose I am inclined to describe myself as something of a “LARP apothecary” (though I’d hardly lay claim to any formal education in the matter), here to dispense advice, talk about cool LARP tools, and discuss new and interesting LARP stuff with other interested professionals or casual consumers.

Now to wipe away all this lingering pretension and get to the introductory schick:

My name is Anastasia; as you can probably tell I run a Vampire: the Masquerade game (whose website you are browsing, hello, welcome). I also dabble in facilitating one shot LARPs, the errant tabletop game, visiting other LARPs (and LARP conventions) and going “wow, heck, this is the good shit”, and writing and implementing plot at the Texas branch of the Dystopia Rising weekend camping-horror-boffer LARP. With a good buddy of mine, I’m also lending a hand in facilitating LARPCon 2018 (which is basically what it says it is, that's marketing folks).

I would tell you how long I’ve been doing all this nonsense, but ultimately that doesn’t matter - because anybody who wants to do this stuff, likes doing this stuff, and has a drive to always be learning and improving their craft can be a stellar LARPer (and LARP designer) in no time flat.

Thanks for reading my blog, supporting my games, and otherwise pushing and encouraging me to do better and be better every day. You’re all peaches.

Thanks for reading,
Anastasia