Roleplaying the ridiculous

design
Tags: #<Tag:0x00007f56ebc98f08>

#1

I’ve just played Exodus 22:18, a witch-hunt larp by Michael Tice. The game is pitched as a dark exploration of why witch-hunts happen, and the briefing is heavy on themes of betrayal and the need for a safe-word. In practice, it played as a comedy. The core problem? When most kiwi larpers think of witches, we think of this:

Or maybe this:

To modern, secular kiwis the medieval view of witches as literal servants of the devil who fly around naked and sour milk is inherently ridiculous. So a game which asks you to buy into this then accuse your neighbours of it on the flimsiest of “evidence” is fighting an uphill battle. You can go into it with the best of intentions, but its hard work to hold the mood. All it takes is one person to laugh, and it sets everybody off.

(There’s also an element of you have to laugh or you’ll cry, because there was real persecution, resulting in tens of thousands of executions. Accusing someone of witchcraft means they would be imprisoned and almost certainly tortured before possibly being murdered. Humour is a psychological defence against this horror)

So how do you stop this from happening? Provide more support for the players so they don’t have to work as hard to overcome their inner incredulity. Exodus 22:18 (Tice) was an intentionally “thin” game in the Nordic tradition: a deliberately undefined setting (“somewhere in Europe in the 1500s”), characters identified only by their profession with the merest skeleton of detail, with the players being expected to fill in the huge gaps. The only really solid part of the game was that all characters were required to believe (or at least profess) the medieval view of witches.

We can compare this with another game, with the same title, which ran at Hydra a few years ago. That game was (more normally for NZ) a “thick” game, explicitly based on the Trier Witch Trials and with fully developed setting and characters. Most importantly, the network of secrets, sins and grudges was real and established rather than being a shallow and formulaic sketch, and there was a range of views on the existence and nature of witches. Plus the Inquisitors were outright nasty, and the horror was in your face rather than being pushed neatly into the future: they put people to the question in-game, and the screaming was hard to ignore. There wasn’t any laughter in that game, because the design made it easy to get into and stay in the required headspace - so much so that our Inquisitors felt they had to shower afterwards to cleanse themselves of the role.

Maybe the Tice game worked better in its native California, or with the Nordic audience for which it was written. Maybe we’re all just shit roleplayers. Or maybe, design matters, and it can make the job of the players easier or harder. Contrasting two games with the same premise but different designs, I think its the latter.


#2

It’s not exactly on your topic, but talking about how everyone has an idea of funny witches in their heads, it often bugs me how much of a comical and caricaturised version of historical pirates everyone seems to buy into. I mean, the moment you mention pirates, it’s all shoulder-parrots, buried treasure and people saying “yarr”, with a whole lot of laughing thrown in, rather than desperate criminals violently stealing from others, and generally having pretty crummy lives (I’m ignoring the ‘sanctioned’ privateers here, they’re a slightly different story, though I suspect a lot of the general crew didn’t have a great time of it).

Not that I’m saying I don’t think there’s a place for the silly version in entertainment, nor that it is wholly removed from reality, it just seems to me that a lot of people forget that it’s fiction, and reality had a tendency to be a lot nastier. This was especially apparent at times like when Sir Peter Blake was murdered by pirates, or when the activities of pirates off the Horn of Africa became widely reported back seven or so years ago, and most people seemed to think of Long John Silver’s sillier cousin.


#3

Its all this guy’s fault. He played Long John Silver in the 1950’s Disney Treasure Island, as well as various other pirate roles in films of that era. and voiced them all in his Dorset accent. And so now people remember the silliness, not the murder.

Personally, I prefer Black Sails.


#4

nordiclarp.org are looking for critical articles. You might have the bones of one here?

Personally I think what you’re seeing it that the less detail a larp has, the more it rests on local larp culture. I think our play culture tends to be pretty light-hearted, so if you want something darker you have to provide details and direction.


#5

I think you’re right about local culture filling in the gaps, but its not just about kiwi larpers being light-hearted. The Tribunal didn’t turn into a comedy, and while it did a better job of setting tone (straight out, it tells you: your friend is going to be shot for stealing bread, but if you point out that they’re innocent, you’ll be joining them in front of the firing squad), I can’t help think that part of the reason is that there was never a “Comrade Blackadder”.

As for writing it up for Nordiclarp, no thanks. While it was written for the larpwriter challenge, I’m not sure the game would be considered “Nordic” by them, and the design solution I suggest is one they actively disparage. They’d be about as interested in hearing about it as I am in hearing about the hours of pre-game workshopping they’d use to do the same thing.


#6

Yes, local culture includes media exposure.

If you mean the solution is “brute force design”, I like the idea of an article potentially contradicting their stance against that because it opposes their beliefs. Self-congratulatory articles from a single perspective are dull, and I suspect they’re the kind of people who enjoy cats among the pigeons so would publish it. Wouldn’t need to name games. Anyhow, was just a wayward thought.

Personally I find thinly-written games hard to play. I can’t say whether I’d enjoy them more with workshopping before to flesh them out, never tried it.


#7

[quote=“Ryan_Paddy, post:6, topic:21493”]
Personally I find thinly-written games hard to play. I can’t say whether I’d enjoy them more with workshopping before to flesh them out, never tried it.[/quote]

They work best when you’re playing fairly normal people - as in “Serpent of Ash” - or when there’s a lot of other material to lean on. “Betrothals and Betrayals” is quite thinly written when you look at it, but the assumed knowledge of Regency culture does a lot of the work.

Workshops aren’t a big thing here. I’ve seen it done once, for “Brick and Water” (the workshop was used to flesh out the relationships, and it was a design decision forced by laptop failure rather than an explicit design choice), and while it worked fine, my gut response to them is the same as seen here: I prefer to actually play the game.


#8

I’ll be using a short workshop for the second run of Demon Gate. I’ll let you know how it goes.


#9

That’s the KapCon run? I’m in it, and I look forward to it!

(I mean, I was already looking forward to it, but I’m very interested in how workshopping can help Larp, so now I’m doubly looking forward to it.)


#10

Thanks, Jyr - I’ll see you there.


#11

Okay, the short version of Workshops And Me:

The Demon Gate was based on The Rashomon and I wanted to bring in the unreliable narration that the movie was famous for.

I’d written the character sheets very sparsely, to encourage improvisation, with built in contradictions from sheet to sheet, and told players it was okay to make up details/contradict people, etc. For the first run, there was a lot of character interactions and drama - it was a successful game - but several players were uncomfortable with making up details on the fly, especially if it might contradict someone else.

Thinking it over, I was asking them to do something counter-intuitive - good larpers don’t Block, yeah? We don’t tell another player they got something wrong if we can help it.

For the second run, in the briefing I gave a short talk about unreliable narration, then picked up a fan and said, “Someone asked me if this is mine but it’s not mentioned on my character sheet. I could answer ‘No,’ or I could say ‘Nope, my fan was red and flowery,’ or I could say //long story about how I got it//” Then I passed it around four or five players running through leading questions and listening to their answers. In the second run I saw people bickering about the other person’s Clearly Wrong Story, a prop that became a Very Definite Murder Weapon, and in general a lot of ease with making things up.

That workshop was a well-spent five minutes.

(Since this was a deliberately thin game I’ll do a bigger writeup in a bit and throw in my tuppence. Once I have my brain back. :wink: )