Negotiating for Drama: Consent Driven Narrative Roleplay

(Featured photo by Miguel Espino.) Nearly every event I play these days has some form of consent negotiations built into the system. Whether they are mandatory or a way for players to check in on the emotional safety of other players, the American LARP world at large is waking up to the fact that high tension roleplay should be just as consensual as intimate physical contact. I was first introduced to consent negotiations by Learn Larp’s Magischola and the work of Sarah Lynn Bowman. Many of the techniques discussed in this post come out of their writings and the freeform scholars/developers that have built this community. I’m first going to discuss several basic forms of safety mechanisms which promote consent culture, then I’ll talk about my preferred forms of deep consent negotiation with some examples as to why they work so well in both my design and play experience.

    • The OK Check-In: This is probably the most pervasively used consent check-in system across American LARP. It’s simple, fast, and generally doesn’t break up a scene. The person wishing to check on someone simply flashes an OK sign with their fingers. The other person then must respond with either a thumbs up, a wavey/uncertain hand, or a thumbs down. If any response is received other than a thumbs up, the scene stops and the player checks on the other player to get them to a place of emotional safety. While this system is fast and smooth, I’ve found it difficult to always initiate, especially if I’m in close contact with someone or if the light is particularly low. This would not have worked well with the 1942 example I describe at the end of this post.
    • Red, Yellow, Green Light: This is a system used to quickly negotiate escalations or de-escalations. Red Light is a full stop to a scene, yellow means to slow what is happening, green means the player wants more of it. There are many versions of this system used over various games with different words (Cut and Largo) or catch phrases put in place, to make it sound more smooth in the context of play. For Participation Design Agency’s Inside Hamlet, they used the Gertrude and her Sonword ‘Rotten’ to escalate a scene and ‘Pure’ to de-escalate. While this sounded more natural in the game context, it was still sometimes a struggle to think of a proper line (during an intense scene) in which to use these words.
    • The Look Down: Still one of my favourites and a system which has spread over a lot of LARP. If a player is immensely uncomfortable with or triggered by a scene, they simply put one hand over their eyes, look down, and exit the scene with no questions asked. This puts no pressure on the player to explain what triggered them and allows the rest of the scene to continue without hiccup or disruption. Most games that use this trust their players not to abuse it to get out of dying or in character consequences of unwise action, and I’ve never seen that trust abused. This is a basic safety mechanism I approve of for any game in any style.
    • In Character Warnings and Negotiations: Ryan Hart of Sinking Ship Creations has to be thanked for bringing this style into my world. Instead of us breaking scene for OOC negotiations during Project Ascension, he suggested we bring negotiations as much in character as possible. So, if a player is going to do something violent or aggressive, instead of just attacking a person, they angrily ask: “You know I should kill you after what you just did?! Give me one reason to stop my hand now or it’s fucking on!” It’s a warning that violence might happen, a door opening to de-escalation, or a request if someone wants to up the drama. This sort of in character pre-warning can happen in most overly emotional moments, it just takes a bit of verbal juggling on the player’s part and patience to give the other player time to respond either in or out of character.

All the above systems let people take bigger risks in games while still knowing that people can revoke consent to being there at any point in time. However, there are some situations that more extensive scene planning and negotiations are required. I was speaking with Sam Stone at length about the consent mechanics we wish to workshop with Pertho Production’s Dammerung LARP, and both these styles came up as the most supportive to Saga LARP gaming style. At almost the same time, a good friend of mine, Samara, asked how one pre-negotiates scenes and still keeps the surprise alive in LARP. Both of these styles contain good examples of scenes which surprised me, were highly dramatic, but also highly negotiated. While I agree that the simulationist aspects of more stats-driven games can be fun, if everyone around you is doing their own little consent negotiations of which you are unaware, the drama that will develop in even a heavily negotiated game will be surprising and organic, because no one is aware of anyone else’s negotiations and it creates little pockets of plot that are weaving together in unplanned, beautiful ways.

Long-Term, Planned Scene Negotiations

Many freeform LARPs allow, if not directly encourage, players to negotiate big plot scenes or drama ahead of time. Two players can come together and discuss what their characters wish vs what they as players wish and work in conjunction to plan the most interesting narrative for both of their goals. Some systems of this are far more step-by-step directed, while others simply allow the players to have that conversation on their own terms. When I last played Magischola, a negotiation system was introduced where in the approaching player had to offer an open ended scene suggestion and the answering player would always be the one to decide how it went. There couldn’t be responses like: “Whatever you want to do.” Limits were always needed to be set to the scene so people couldn’t accidentally push beyond boundaries. I think this sort of step-by-step, trained process is good for young LARPs with young LAPRers or (simply) new to LARP players, as it gives them a road map to follow to make certain all important steps are covered, and it puts no pressure on the person being requested to scene.

However, more experienced LARPers will often find that more freedom to negotiate as they please, especially when doing it fairly quick before or in-between scenes at a game, will serve them just as well. Samara’s question was specifically posed as I went off to Myrddin Emrys College, and I have two excellent examples of scenes from that game. At one point, my character was possessed. My girlfriend knew something was wrong in game, but didn’t fully get out of game what was happening. It was frustrating to her as not a lot of solutions to these issues had been presented and her character was very much an intelligent fixer. So, I briefly dropped game and asked her if she’d want to know what was happening. She responded in the affirmative, and I explained that my character had been possessed. She clearly wanted to fix it but we knew the game runners wanted/needed a certain amount of possessed students, so we planned a scene together, with several other of our in character friends, where a ritual was performed to unpossess my character. However, it would go poorly, and the demon would jump from myself into Michelle’s character, maintaining the possessed-student ratio.

While we fully knew, step-by-step, what was going to happen in this plot scene, many others around us did not. The other people watching reacted to this dramatic ritual in a wide variety of ways. People wanted to pick up and run with the knowledge to try and help their friends by creating their own scenes. We shared our plans with them, after the fact, so they could make them without breaking the plot. It was a wonderfully roleplay driving thing which came out of just a handful of minutes OOC negotiating. However, my favourite part of the scene was probably the utterly unexpected end of it. You never know how a scene is truly going to happen until it’s playing. My character was immensely punk and butch. Possessed, she’d put on a dress, a pearl necklace, and several flowers in her hair. Once Simone woke up unpossessed, upon finding all these girly trappings on her body, Simone started pulling them off and loudly professing: “BABY, I GOT YOU A FLOWER! BABY, I GOT YOU A NECKLACE!” It was hilarious. Simone just kept pulling flowers out of her hair and shoving them into Rachel’s hands. My favourite part of the scene was utterly unplanned.

I negotiated another scene where I knew Simone was going to be yelling very loudly at the Headmistress about the injustices at the school. I checked in with that player about a screaming session, violent language, and public confrontation. Everything was set and ready. Then, suddenly, lunch happened, Simone was given detention, and the carefully planned scene I had ended up occurring far earlier and to a player I had not negotiated with. While the scene was incredibly intense, I could not entirely lose myself to the situation while my character was violently screaming at someone I knew hadn’t consented to it. I always kept about 25% of my out of character brain active, checking Mieke over for signs of OOC discomfort, and going a bit slower so she could tap out at any moment. The scene was wonderful, but it was hindered in my brain for being unplanned. I also went up to her at my first chance possible after the scene and checked in on her out of character emotionally because I knew it had been verbally violent. Everything went well in the end, but it was a good example of how negotiations can actually let someone drive deeper and more emotional in roleplay. Had I known she was on board for the scene, I could have truly let go and drown in that moment as Simone.

This occurred at the first Magischola I ever played. David Fox Procenko and I negotiated, fairly extensively, a scene where our characters broke up. We even planned music for it (still can’t listen to Adele’s “Someone Like You” without thinking of this scene.) We knew we’d start in the dance room, start the break up in the dance floor, start screaming, then one of us would run out of the room followed by the other. We wanted to make it “A Scene” so others could join in or react as they pleased, but we knew step-by-step the narrative plan. Because we both had negotiated so extensively, we were able to really let go of ourselves and give into the scene. We also couldn’t plan for both of our Houses pulling wands on each other, and the school chancellor, at the height of the fight. Even with extensive pre-planning, scenes get bigger and take a life of their own when they hit the game. Players simply know what their personal limits are ahead of time when things are discussed.

On the Fly Consent Negotiations

This, personally, is my favorite style. It means nothing is too pre-planned, the game can still surprise you, but you can do small check ins without anyone else being aware that anything is happening if they are whispered and quick. It can take many forms, but I think the best way to explain would be for me to give my best example of any dramatic consent negotiation I’ve ever had in a game in my life. Through this example, you can see the step-by-step of fast check ins, how to escalate, and then asking for what is needed in debrief.

Last fall, I played in the Forening for Levende Historie FLH’s 1942 LARP. This game was half LARP, half period recreation of what happened in a sleepy protestant fishing village in Norway when the Nazi’s occupied their country. The game was set a few short weeks after it was made a death penalty to be carrying things like an illegal newspaper or listening to a radio under the occupied government. The quiet little town the characters lived in contained the power plant for Stavanger, so it was crawling with Nazi troops and German officers. While my character spent most of the game writing for and carrying around the illegal newspaper in town, she wasn’t caught during play…

… until the final day. Else Marie was stopped and asked for her papers on that drowsy Monday morning. The head of security for the German unit also took her purse and searched it, where upon he found the illegal newspaper hidden in her bible. At that moment, the player completely froze and paused. He did not turn his head up, but he turned his eyes up and made eye contact solely with me. The following conversation ensued in hushed whispers. I’ll never forget it.

“Off-game. I found your illegal newspaper. You know I have to arrest you if I found this. Are you okay with that roleplay?”

“Off-game. Yes, that is fine. I understand.”

“Off-game. Can I grab you by your neck?”

“Off-game. Yes, that is fine.”

It took a total of 20 seconds max. I immediately knew I was in safe hands and that I could really let go with the scene, as could he, because we had established a dialogue. He immediately went right back into character and started shouting in German loudly. He scruffed my character like a dog and began dragging her down the side of the mountain. Other Nazi soldiers quickly flocked to ‘escort’ the arrest. There was much shouting in a language I, nor my character, understood. About halfway down the mountain, he leaned over close as if he was going to say something severe to my character, and held my neck a bit more controllingly.

“Off-game. Are you alright?”

“Off-game. Totally fine.”

“Off-game. Can I grab your hair?”

“Off-game. Yes.”

And then he started dragging my character by the hair. I put my hand over his in classic stage combat style, we cooperatively pulled through the scene in constant physical touch with each other even if it looked awful and violent from the outside. I’d never felt safer in a more violent scene. The shouting continued. Eventually, they shoved Else Marie into a small interrogation room in the power plant. The interrogation was violent and loud. It paused, very briefly, for people to check in on occasion. When the German radio women were sent to check on me in character, they also very briefly checked in off game. None of this negotiation was pre-structured beyond the organizers telling us to be careful with each other, check in as needed, and be mature about immensely difficult and mature topics in a game. Eventually, I thought my character had gotten away with it, until the Commandant ordered him to drag Else Marie outside and shoot her unless she gave up a name. He agreed. He had no choice.

As he walked me outside, he leaned over and whispered:

“Off-game. You understand this is a gun loaded with a blank, it is not a cap weapon. If I shoot, I will shoot behind your head as we were instructed, but it will be very loud. You know if she doesn’t give up a name, I have to shoot. Are you alright with that?”

“Off-game. Yes, I understand. Do what you need, I’m ready for the noise if the scene goes that way.”

Boots

The boots from 1942 with the mud of the arrest still on them.

So, neither of us knew if he’d end up shooting my character or not. Else Marie was shoved onto her knees in the mud beneath the flagpole at the bottom of the mountain. He held a gun to her head and began demanding a name. Else Marie cried. I cried. The fear was real and the scene seemed to take forever. It was, apparently, long enough for my character’s brother-in-law to remove his hat and say a prayer. Other towns members were on the hill above, crying and screaming. I thought it was all over and I knew she wasn’t willing to give up a name. Until she remembered one that might be safe, a woman who had married a German officer the night before. Else Marie screamed out Oydis Asvik’s name two seconds before he was ready to pull that trigger. He was readjusting the gun to be behind my head instead of at it as my character gave up the information. The gun was lowered. He picked Else Marie up off her feet. It was over.

While this was one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever played in a LARP (not just for myself but most everyone who witnessed it, who had no clue about our consent negotiations or just how safe I was OOC), it was absolutely one of the safest I’ve ever played. I never doubted for a second I was in dangerous hands or that he wouldn’t have stopped the moment I asked off-game. It didn’t disturb a single other person’s play, my own included.

Oh, I suppose it wasn’t entirely over. Once game was called, I ran back to the power plant to retrieve my confiscated papers as an OOC souvenir. He was there. Tears in his eyes, admitting that was the hardest thing he’s ever done, he asked me for a hug. Several times after at the debrief and the post-party, he asked for a hug again.

I happily consented. Every time.

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7 thoughts on “Negotiating for Drama: Consent Driven Narrative Roleplay

  1. Michelle Stagnitta says:

    I’m immensely glad you included the part about the officer’s reaction. Folks who are used to check ins and the like are generally very good about looking in on the victims of such a scene, but the person playing the aggressor is often forgotten… and MEN are often forgotten.

    We keep screaming about moving past toxic masculinity, but we have to make sure we are doing the things that allow men to have emotions and to handle said emotions safely.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ericka Skirpan says:

      Absolutely, and there is a longer post somewhere in my head about top drop and ST/villain debriefing, since it’s far different than player debriefing. But I think that scene was far harder emotionally on him than it was me, and I’m glad he was willing to ask for what support he needed afterwards.

      Really, that scene will remain one of the pinnacles of safe, deep roleplay in my head for so many reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ståle Askerød Johansen says:

    As one of the organizers of 1942, I’m very happy to read this. I never heard about this scene until now, and it seems to have been played beautifully by both of you. ❤

    Like

    • Ericka Skirpan says:

      For a game that was so 360 immersive, where I never saw ANYONE breaking game or out of character for almost any reason, it gave us all the safety mechanics we needed to take care of each other and negotiate the things that NEEDED to be done safely. However, I cannot speak the praises enough of that player, because he directed that negotiation in the most clear, quiet, smooth way I’ve ever seen and it enabled the whole scene to happen because we both knew we were safe and consenting. It’s an example I use to teach young LARPers how to negotiate to this day, almost a year later.

      So, thank you for giving us that space and experience.

      Like

  3. Casimira says:

    Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to produce
    a superb article… but what can I say… I put things off
    a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

    Like

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