The Preparation Dance and 1878

(Featured image by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash.) The next few weeks are filled with exciting things for me where the larp-o-sphere is concerned. Dammerung launches this weekend and 1878: Welcome to Salvation is the weekend after. While these events are somewhat different in their styles, they share a lot of similarity in being consent-negotiation driven, bigger budget, narrative-story style, and character/faction focused events. While North America still is finding its feet in this style of larp, there are a lot of events that fall into these categories. Preparing ahead for a game like this, both in the weeks before the game and the hours on site with your fellow players, tends to be a different beast than traditional North American larping. So, I thought I’d write a blog about how I handle preparations for these events, using my work for 1878 as an example.

I’ve put the character sheet I was given at the bottom of this post so people who had never had the chance to larp in this style can see what is provided by the games to start building your experience. (But if you are playing in 1878 and don’t want spoiled, don’t read that part of the blog!) Not all the games will give you quite that much and some give you a LOT more, but this is a good example of what a player receives on average at these types of games.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m defining this type of game as one with many of the following aspects:

  • Extremely limited run format — often a single-shot event or, in cases like Armistice Arcane, only 1 game a year for strictly limited years
  • No points-based stats; characters are built on backgrounds and shared history with other players
  • Faction focused play: there are defined groups in the game to which each player belongs and helps drive their play
  • Sizeable player-base: These events generally have between 60-120 players
  • Consent driven play: Encounters are negotiated for the best narrative between the players instead of decided by points, stats, or live combat
  • Immersive Experiences: these events are designed for high immersion with big budget sets, costumes, and technical effects
  • Higher ticket prices: Because these games are designed as destination or vacation experiences, the ticket prices normally range anywhere from 100 dollars to 1,000 dollars depending on the game, food, housing, and optional add ons a player chooses (like costume rentals)
  • Player-driven action: While occasionally loose plot will be written by the organizers to help unite the player base and pull out shy players, most of the action depends on players pushing their own agency, storyline, and exploring their character connections

With those loose definitions in place, let’s discuss the preparations I find most important to make BEFORE getting on site for the game. I’d like to stress that while these are helpful to do, for games like these, they aren’t necessary. Most of these games are designed to give you the connections and tools you need to play just coming in the day of game. That’s the reason the workshops are so important to attend for any games of this style.

Before the Game

Know the Genre: Before deciding to do any of these games, I make certain to do a deep read of their website, marketing materials, and any pre-published design documents. These events are often expensive and I want to be certain that this is a game that I absolutely want to play. A good game will set clear player expectations so those buying this experience know what they’ve signed up to play, both genre and style of play. If the game has run before, I’ll go and read reviews of other player experiences. I do not expect (personally) to be shocked or surprised on these games. I’d rather spoil myself about the over all setting and know I’m into the experience than keep the game a mystery and sign up for something I didn’t really want to play. For 1878, I knew the genre quite deeply and that’s part of the reason they asked me to come on board as an influencer. Not only could I be there to help other players before game, but when we are on site I’ll be better able to help keep people in character, in genre, and in play-style as I do my best to lift other players around me.

Be Honest In Your Survey: Once a player has brought a ticket, most of these games send out a survey about what sort of experiences the player wants. This includes if someone wants romance roleplay, what gender the player prefers to play, age ranges, preferred character types, etc. This is the player’s first opportunity to start setting their own boundaries AND to help sculpt your own experience. Once I receive my survey, I make certain to set an hour or two one evening aside to thoroughly go through it, make certain I’m answering fully honest, and nothing is missed before I send it in. Early on, I had a habit of answering questions thinking of what the organizers might WANT to hear or what would make me a “good” player. This was a habit I’ve fortunately broken, because the survey is a time to really let the organizers know how to build YOU the best game possible. When I was answering my 1878 survey, I knew I’d want a character that could help touch a lot of people in town, drive other characters’ stories, and be deeply in genre for the Wild West. So, I pushed for the Madame of the whorehouse, or the Reporter. I also pushed hard for romance roleplay, as I know that is something which usually makes my experience enjoyable as a player. You won’t always get everything you want on your survey, as the game needs to spread the love to everyone, but you normally should get 1-2 things you’ve selected. I received the Reporter, but not the romance roleplay I wanted, which is totally fine.

Accept (or Modify) Your Given Character: Next, you’ll receive a pre-written character from the game organizers, often several weeks after the surveys are done (waiting is the HARDEST PART.) Dessie, my 1878 character, is attached below in her full glory. In your initial few reads of your character, you should make certain that there isn’t anything contained that is an ABSOLUTE NO for your roleplay. Organizers aren’t mind readers and occasionally you can something in your character which is a trigger or something you absolutely know won’t be fun for you in a game. If you get that, BE HONEST. Email your organizers, tell them what the issue is and ask for a fix. After all, this is your game! I’ve never met an organizer who says no to a player who has a genuine, difficult issue with a character. But, email them early on! The quicker you do, the easier it will be for them to adapt to the change you need. In 1878, I asked Shoshana for a few more dark themes in my character and flaws, because I know I won’t have fun in roleplay if I’m playing someone all sunshine, rainbows, and lawful-good-upstanding. The adaptations Shoshana made for me were small, easily done, but made a world of difference in my excitement for Dessie. The character became far more human for me, instead of words on paper.

Playlist: Self explanatory. Though, I am awful with music, so I usually go to social media and give my friends a loose outline of the genre and character themes, then ask for suggestions. Because there is no time for pre-play, or months of a campaign to build a character, I find a good playlist is vital to getting into the headspace of a new character who I’ve only got three days to play fully. Dessie’s main song for 1878 was a Facebook suggestion, actually, Blood and Bone – Kate Nyx – Sage & Silver Bullets.

Decide Goals: Once I’ve read over the character, I’ll pick out two or three things that are going to be enjoyable goals for me in the game. These goals are not always the character’s goals (often quite different) but things I wa

nt out of my play experience which playing this character can facilitate. 1878 is a bit different, as I’m going in as a semi-support staff capacity and I’m dedicating a lot of my play to documenting the experience. But, because I wanted to be able to document live on the ground in a genre where I cannot have a video camera, it meant the character of an obsessive reporter was an excellent meta-choice to constantly be taking notes in character. However, I also know that in my play I would like some shocking, tragic, or difficult ending. That means that I’m pushing Dessie’s personality to deliberately make dangerous choices in the field even if she’s a highly intelligent woman who might have more self preservation instincts than I’ll be playing. She is still my character and since I know my goal is to have a tragic ending, I need to steer her to make the choices that will facilitate that goal.

Decide Goals: Once I’ve read over the character, I’ll pick out two or three things that are going to be enjoyable goals for me in the game. These goals are not always the character’s goals (often quite different) but things I want out of my play experience which playing this character can facilitate. 1878 is a bit different, as I’m going in as a semi-support staff capacity and I’m dedicating a lot of my play to documenting the experience. But, because I wanted to be able to document live on the ground in a genre where I cannot have a video camera, it meant the character of an obsessive reporter was an excellent meta-choice to constantly be taking notes in character. However, I also know that in my play I would like some shocking, tragic, or difficult ending. That means that I’m pushing Dessie’s personality to deliberately make dangerous choices in the field even if she’s a highly intelligent woman who might have more self preservation instincts than I’ll be playing. She is still my character and since I know my goal is to have a tragic ending, I need to steer her to make the choices that will facilitate that goal.

Costumes and Props: Some players go all out in costuming for these games and my hat is off to them. Personally, I don’t have the money or closet space to get a full, elaborate three day wardrobe for every different character I play. Therefore, once I’ve gotten to know my character well, I get a few centering props for her that will specifically be HER’S and help me deeply get into character headspace. These props usually relate to the main themes of the character; for Dessie, it’s her special pen and leather notebook where she takes all of her notes. Once I have the pivotal props, then I build a costume from that basis. I’ll swap in pieces from other characters that I have from other games and do a lot of thrifting while listening to the character’s playlist. I was incredibly lucky to find two linen pioneer skirts at the local Unique Vintage for 7 bucks each. While they are starting off as skirts for 1878, they will no doubt go into my greater costume rotation after the game is over.

Things to remember when costuming these games: generally you need to travel far and carrying a ton of things is hard, so pieces that can swap for multiple costumes or layers that can be removed on subsequent days is a great idea! Also, in gaming, comfortable, long-wear footwear is ALWAYS IMPORTANT. Comfort and self-care over genre always should come first when it comes to your feet.

Make Ties: If you have time and the game has provided social media groups, it’s worth reaching out to other players to firm up some ties. Talk to your faction, get to know the people that you will be in a close knit space with, ask for anything you think will be missing in your play and fill in the holes on your character sheet before game! While this isn’t a vital part of the process and some of the deepest connections are made in workshops, if you have the time it is nice to go into game knowing you’re not alone. I was in a strange position for 1878, because Dessie is literally an outsider to town. I didn’t come in with a pre-built faction. However, I knew that it wouldn’t be fun for me to be isolated the entire game, so I’ve reached out to a few people to make deeper character ties before game on. I’m incredibly excited to play some of “The Good Guys” with a few of the other law dogs, but also to ride along side of the new, upstart gang in town. The Star Gang players have been amazingly warm as players when I reached out to them, and it makes going in as an outsider character feel a lot less intimidating when the players have been welcoming me with open arms.

At Game Site

Attend Your Workshops: I cannot stress enough the importance of workshops for these types of games. The workshops are where you deepen your connections to other people, where you get to practice the negotiation mechanics the game has provided you for building scenes, and where you get comfortable with a room full of strangers who you are going to share intense experiences with for the next few days. Often, workshops will also help a player get into their character’s body and headspace so they can hit the ground running when game is on not too long afterwards. Many old school North American campaign larpers roll their eyes at workshops because they feel they don’t need to be taught to ‘roleplay’, but these workshops are vital to setting up expectations for the game. A stats-based gamer wouldn’t enter a game without reading the rulebook and creating a character within that set of rules — Workshops are this style of game’s way of setting down an agreed upon rulebook and helping everyone create characters in the same universe. At 1878, I plan to use the workshop time not just to learn the rules, but to watch and listen to what other people want in their play so I know best how to facilitate things on the ground. This includes listening to the questions being asked or figuring out where people might be struggling getting into this play style.

Communicate with Courage and Honesty: I cannot scream this enough. Going into Dammerung, someone asked me how they bring a roleplay offer to another gamer as they were nervous about asking for the kind of roleplay they wanted. My answer was to simply do it. Do it with respect, openness, and no pressure, but also have the courage to ask for the things you want. The worst thing someone can do is say no to the offer and then you gracefully thank them for listening and move on. But if you don’t make offers, you won’t ever find the sort of roleplay you really want. When in your faction workshops, communicate your needs clearly and concisely. I generally have my wishes for play (and my limits) distilled down to 1-2 clear sentences that people can easily remember, that way I’m not taking up too much time in the group discussion. For 1878, I suspect it will go like: “My name is Ericka and I’m playing Dessie Bradshaw. I’m looking for some gritty wild west, noir-styled drama with a preference for romantic undertones. I want to explore the shades of gray that prove no person is strictly good or bad in this genre. I do not want to spend two hours listening to a single character’s story but prefer to pull as many people into a scene as possible.”

Be Open to Fate: Sometimes, in the workshop exercises, you just make a connection with someone. It could be a random practice scene, or a touch exercise, or any number of things. But when you feel that spark with another player, run with it. Find them after the workshop is done, see if you can build on what happened in those moments. Trust when fate gives you something exciting and unplanned!

***

The Frontier Reporter (Character for 1878: Welcome to Salvation)

Player: Ericka Skirpan

Character Name: Desdemona “Dessie” Bradshaw

Group: Independents (Out of Town)

Profession: Reporter

Experience: Greenhorn

Character Keywords: Driven, Ambitious, Curious, Pushy, Intelligent

Description:

Desdemona “Dessie’ Bradshaw grew up the daughter of a solid, wealthy family who never questioned what she would be. The family was certain she’d marry well, settle down, and continue the Bradshaw family line, bringing in some solid partner for to pass on the family business. They never had any idea instead that they’d have a daughter more interested in education and writing than having a family. Sure, a family would be nice someday. But there was far too much life and adventure out there, either across the ocean or far off in the wilds of the west.

Dessie attended university, funded instead by her grandmother, a maverick in her own time. The university didn’t allow her to graduate, however, forcing her out with ongoing harassment and obstacles. Dessie however had already learned all she needed. She took her talents to New York, where she angled in every way to be a part of the newspaper business.

There were plenty who were willing to see a young woman of some talent be a secretary but no one was interested in a woman reporter. It took writing under a pseudonym for some time before she revealed herself to be a woman, and the New York Sun for once didn’t throw her out. Instead, they gave her the chance to take an assignment that would get her out of the spotlight, hiding her gender. And so, Dessie jumped at the chance to go west.

For the most part, the West was not what she imagined. Dirty, disorganized, often lawless, and full of inequity she could have never imagined, Dessie was confronted with the truth about what the frontier offered. Things were not as simple as they were back in the East, and certainly more complicated than the stories presented. Dessie was offered choices to do things, see things, and try things she never thought possible. She began sending pieces back to the New York Sun that were more complex than the white-washed stories the Easterners were used to. The ideas were starting to make her editors nervous, and Dessie is sure if she’s not careful she’ll be cut. Still, there is a chance for Salvation – literally. She’s heard of a town on the edge of the frontier, a town trying to be progressive in a way no other town has been. Equality for women, equality for people of all colors, equality for all – and within the midst of a flux, almost in danger of being taken over by outside interests. Dessie is traveling to Salvation to see if it will survive and to

give people a view of a town ready to either lead the rest of its neighbors into perhaps a better way to live, or else fall into the regular backwards thinking she’s seen before.

On the way into Salvation, however, Dessie has learned there are more secrets to Salvation than she believed. In a stopover in Austin, someone slipped her a note about the Vulture Gang, a dangerous outlaw group preying on all those heading into Salvation. The note indicated there’s perhaps more to the Vulture Gang than meets the eye, and that Salvation has some secrets long buried that need uncovering. And isn’t that what she’s there to do?

Relationships:

  • (I’m leaving this one free because I’m not sure who you might want to do romantic plot with)
  • Sheriff Saul Pike of the town has been the Law Dog around for the longest time. You’re sure he might be the person with the best stories and the best person to tell you just what really is going on in Salvation. Yet you’re also pretty sure you could get in better with his younger deputies with a smile and a few winks. Getting a chance to ride along with them might be the most thrilling thing you could imagine, if you wanted to stay on the good side of the law that is…
  • Nothing is better than desperadoes, and the Star Gang are a bunch of young hot shots trying to make their mark. If they’re not careful they could get themselves killed, considering they’re going up against the Derringer Gang, and the Vulture Gang is out there just ready to come into town. But Oliver of the Star Gang is one of the best chances you’ve got to get the story of these young bucks coming up into their own. Getting close to him might give you a few good stories too, if you’re not too worried about maybe getting shot.

Goals:

  • Discover the truth about the Vulture Gang
  • Report on just what the people of Salvation want for their future
  • Find the mainline for the drugs in town, someone must have something
  • Get involved in the dangers of Salvation – there are plenty of outlaws
  • Flirt with the dangerous folks in town – there definitely plenty of THOSE around
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