(Cover Photo by Jacque Blake.) This week will be short, sweet, and possibly my most controversial opinion yet, but it needs to be said. It’s been mulling around in my head for a while and was further defined by Matthew Webb’s article on Nerdball, which you should read if you haven’t already. A huge thanks to him for putting the conversation out there and for giving me permission to continue it. He’s gone over a lot of the things I want to say, so I’m going to skip to my conclusion:
If you are in LARP to play solo-Nerdball, LARP is not the right hobby for you. If a player’s pure and only enjoyment in a game comes out of the fact that they need the most points, stats, or mechanical advantages over other players, then LARP is not the gaming medium that person should be devoting their energy to playing. There are a dozen other types of games which are points driven and can clearly be won. From board games, to Warhammer 40K, Magic Tournaments, poker, or half a dozen crunch-driven MMOs out there, those games provide an experience to the points-winning minded player where they can have a clear win over other players. There are obvious accomplishment-based goal posts for winning and a direct reward for gaining the most stats in a given environment. When you examine your goals for playing a game, if your main goal is to get the most points and win, I do not think the genre of live action roleplaying for you. You will find far more reward in the type games listed above.
LARPing is an inherently narrative game playing medium that requires players willing to subvert the ‘win’ to ‘the story’ on, at LEAST, an occasional basis. If someone is not willing to do that, they are probably not healthy for your game. Be it boffer LARPs, more simulationist driven games, or fully narrative freeform LARPs, the collective player base of any LARP is there to tell a story at the end of the day. Some of these games are physical-win driven: Massive fights using various foam implements where the pleasure in victory comes from putting down the enemy. Some of these games even can be political-win driven: the Prince of the city and his clan often controls the direction of story and will be in the center spotlight in the coming months. However, even when there are clear ‘win’ conditions in your LARP, the game will suffer if those players aren’t willing to do anything but win. To make those ‘wins’ the most powerful and interesting, they need to have defeats on the battlefield, lost party members, the drama of losing a battle so you can win a war, or ethical debates about the way warfare is conducted. All the various failures add up to make the win the best story. If a Prince and a prevailing clan hold a city too long, the game grows stagnant, other players lose drive, and the empowered faction itself loses drive. Without failure, there is no reason to grow.
However, to a class of player who is only there to ‘win’, failure is seen as a personal affront. They often feel like they missed something in the rules, or the rules were written poorly as to not allow a clear win condition. Not only is this player feeling unfilled by what they are trying to find in gaming, but they will often complain to other staff members about these flaws in the system. They will make your staff feel inadequate because LARP rules are not written to give people clear victories. I spent so much of my time in old vampire days being stuck in what were called ‘Killboxes’, where people would toss as many mechanics as possible trying to kill each other for six hours, while not acting/emoting at all. I am convinced very few people in those rooms were having fun, many of us were dragged there against our will because some people wanted to win at mechanics. Now that I am older, I see that this was an inherent disagreement in the kind of game we were all playing. I believe those style players would be better served by war style RPGs and board games where wins are clear and narrative is secondary. (*Sorry for anyone who plays those games and puts really dramatic narrative into them, I don’t mean to paint things with a sloppy brush, it’s simply the best comparison I have at the moment.)
To be fulfilled by a LARP, players must want narrative elements in their gaming. They have to acknowledge that they are part of telling a greater collective story and be willing to step back, fail, or be overpowered by other people on occasion. There are many shades of players between the constant victim/play to lose/drama monger (I definitely fall closer to this category) and the anger/bullying/power-gamer who will cheat their points just to have more power on the field, and these shades are where healthy game play comes into being.
Your players don’t have to lose ALL the time. They do not have to subvert themselves entirely to the greater story. They DO, however, have to recognize that this is a story at its core. It’s not a board game or a poker match. There is no ultimate win. All good stories have shades of winning and losing. No one picked up a book just to read the hero succeeding the whole way to the end.
If a player is unwilling to recognize this, it’s important to sit down and have a long conversation with them. See if you can find their goals and motivations for gaming. See if they might get excited about surrendering spotlight or power in a certain manner. Often, I have found power-gaming style players really come around to good story when they realize they do still have power, but that power is strictly over their own story, not everyone else’s as well. If you find what excites them in narratives, you can help sculpt them in that direction. If there is nothing to excite them other than the power of mechanics? Well… My opinion is that not every game is for every player, and most LARPs are not for them. There’s some real-talk for the week.
Footnote: Many of you will say that LARPing is a competitive game. It’s built for people to win against each other. And yes, I’ll admit that there are games absolutely built in this style. There can be great drama and excitement in winning against other players. My theory here is not that you shouldn’t win, but that the wins should not be constant or the ONLY reason for the game. In what other competitive sport do you have NPCs setting up drama and obstacles for some players and not others? Where there are side games and things that matter not at all to the basic battle? And for all those watching from the sidelines, if no one but a single team wins the entire time, does that not even get boring? There are competitive sports out there, and while LARP can be competitive, playing only for the win removes the basic element of what makes LARPing LARP — story.
(Edit Note: After discussions on the internet and realizing that the TITLE of this blog was immensely gate keeping without being clear, I added the world ‘ONLY’ as this meant to spur discussion about players who are simply there for the ‘Mechanical Win’ and nothing else. Playing to win in GENERAL can be healthy when done respectful of other people’s play styles as well.)