(Photo by Shelby M. Carosella. Models Michelle J. and Chris E. from Dead Legends LARP.) They say “The Devil is in the details,” but I’m a big fan of the fact that characters are what truly live in the details. For myself, it’s not the sweeping, huge costumes or dramatic scenes which get me in character. It’s the little things: finding my character’s favourite pen (Welcome to Salvation), the shield of a weathered pair of sunglasses (Inside Hamlet), the prayer beads she fingers when she’s nervous (Dead Legends), or her ridiculous polkadot notebook (Magischola.) It’s those tiny habits and favourites that any REAL person has in their regular, boring, non-larp lives which make these people far more realistic in my head. It’s easier to slip into a character’s body when I find that non-consequential THING which is connected in a deep emotional way to their heart or headspace. While this started with props, it’s spilled over into more abstract things like memories. And then I started doing it to help build connections with other people while, at the same time, assisting them in building their own character.
I do a mix of campaign games and bigger, freeform one-shots. While they are different styles, they still have the challenge of helping new characters connect with others in deeper ways. For a campaign, a new player walks into a world rich with character history and connections with which they don’t have any previous tie. For a freeform one-shot, we all walk in as new characters. While there are often pre-built ties or connections made in preparation for game, rarely does one know what chemistry is going to be like on the day. The deepest connections can fall flat on their faces and unexpected bonds grow out of unplanned areas. Still, all these characters are in a world familiar to them with a long list of historical experiences to inform them not just as people, but their relationships with each other; whereas the players have none of those things. I have found in building these ties that, just like making my character a real person, it’s the tiny details of historical connections that make people true friends (or more.)
By habit, I do a lot of throwing offers of roleplay into the world with as many people as possible and hoping they “Yes, and…” back at me instead of denying that offer. However, the more epic and life changing the offer is, the less likely that someone is going to accept — especially if that person is a new roleplayer or worried about ‘getting their character wrong.’ But I find I don’t need to make offers of epic shared life experiences to build a bond with someone. Tiny historical details that are of no-consequence to the greater game world often build deeper connections than world changing events. So, instead of saying to a familial connection with whom I’m building ties on the fly: “Hey, do you remember that time that Uncle Livingstone got drunk and threatened everyone with a gun?” I’ll say something like: “Hey, do you remember that party where we both discovered we hate Aquavit. Uncle Livingstone got so drunk and we took the bottle away from him so he didn’t finish it, but then WE had to and it was awful…”
The first example is a more dramatic experience. The characters have a shared trauma and should have bonded over it. But it’s also tossing out traumatic roleplay that the other player might not wish, and creating an incident so dramatic that the rest of the family should remember it. While it’s a fun offer to explore, it’s likely to be turned down and creates complications. The second offer is just as intimate, if not more so: it’s a shared secret between two family members. There is little reason for the other player to turn the offer down (unless their character does NOT do alcohol), and it immediately creates a bond of history between the paired players where there was little detailed history before. Even the most beautifully written factions in games with lots of shared history can only cover the major events. It’s impossible to write a lifetime of one character, much less 5-10. So, it is up to us as co-players in this faction to create a beautifully rich tapestry of history between our characters to make their relationships as real as the characters themselves. I’ve been doing this a while in my roleplay, but I’ve only been able to put the ‘trick’ into concrete words in the last month:
Deeply consequential connections can be made with others through creating inconsequential shared history between the characters.
If you are a more experienced roleplayer, I believe the onus falls on your shoulders to help more shy/newer players by making these inconsequential offers and seeing who bites. It’s also a beautiful way to develop a deep relationship on the fly when you’ve not had time to prepare for a game. At HLGCon’s Pandaemonium, I was switched into a faction at the very last minute and just thankful I had a dress that matched in my suitcase. I had about 2 hours to go over the character history and knew none of the other players. However, I spent much of that game developing history (and helping others to develop history) through tiny shared experiences. The things I remember from that game was the history every date with my character’s partner went horribly: Spoiled salmon that gave them both food poisoning, missed flights, and a broken ankle when they were to go dancing. I remember bullshitting over a stakeout with my character’s best friend, caffeine pills, and empty lipstick tubes. We never even decided if the stakeout was successful or not, it was the shared historical experience of the stupid things people do when stuck together for 36 hours which built that drama.
Even if you are an experienced player SURROUNDED by highly experienced players (as I was at HLGCon), you’d be surprised at how quickly deep your connections can go by using this little trick. Having these little details to go back to time and again in roleplay gives you and your connections a jumping off point for more history. It fills the blanks when there is dead space in game and you’re struggling for discussion. It makes your characters more vivid and real to the people around you because instead of talking about constant massive drama, you’ve got these little details that shouldn’t matter but make the characters living shared, human lives together.
Now, at Inside Hamlet, I tried this to even better advantage in a way I’ve not had the chance to use this technique before. I played Bona, the head of King Claudius’ secret service which was called “The Directorate.” We were all supposed to be master spies, but it’s hard to spy on everyone when I did not have the time or brainspace to memorize every character sheet in the game. So, when I was trying to imply that I had something on people in the game, I didn’t use their huge dramas or traumas of the past. I didn’t even use blackmail information. As Bona, I’d simply approach people and say simple things like: “You know that cafe` you like to go to… the one you spend most Wednesday afternoons at…” (No one said no to an offer like this. Even if it’s informing their backstory without permission, it was so meaningless that no one had issue.) “Well, be careful. The Reds meet there every Thursday night and I’ve heard the owner is a sympathizer…” With just a few sentences, I did the following things: implied I’d been watching this character and knew intimate daily details of their life, that there COULD be blackmail information on them even if there wasn’t,I was able to see their reaction to possible Reds, and helped up the paranoia level of the game’s genre. Each time I did this with someone, it was different details. Small things that matter not to plot, gameplay, or their other connections. But it built history with them and helped reinforce my own roleplay. It was a wonderfully effective technique that I’d never used in that fashion previous, and I invite others to try out in their own roleplay.
If you have done this before, how has it gone for you? Have you found that people aren’t open to such approaches, or have you found great success with it? I never plan my ‘devil is in the details’ connections beforehand but make them up when I see my chemistry with the player — have you ever planned such things in advance? Did it work with more preparation, or is this style of play more effective on the fly? I’m curious to hear other people’s responses while hoping I’ve provided some more great roleplay tools to you all for the future.