(Featured photo by Elias Gubbels. ) “Playing to lift” is a phrase that is thrown around the larp-o-sphere a ton. Many games encourage it at their opening ceremonies and we all generally agree it’s a *good* thing. But not every larper understands why it’s a good thing (other than promoting community values) or exactly how to do it. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of players who are in the game for themselves. They’ve paid a lot of money and put a lot of hard work into costumes, character background, factions, their sheet, you-name-it and they want that hard work to be paid off with some time in the spotlight. It’s a rare larper that doesn’t relish their moment to be the center of attention (myself included). However, a game full of selfish players does not a good plot make. The spotlight is a thing to be shared so everyone gets their time to be cool and everyone gets their time to play support. That’s the ideal. But, let me give you a little secret…
Giving the spotlight to other players turns it back on you just as often.
When someone is a really good ‘play to lift’ player — knows how to make other folks feel cool, how to share the spotlight, direct the spotlight, and generally bring up other people’s game — then people want to game with them more often. When people want to game with you more, then more plot is brought in your direction, more emotional scenes happen, more character connections are made, and suddenly you are the life of the party. It’s a beautiful cycle that then enables you to make even MORE people cool and bring others INTO that spotlight you’ve managed to create around yourself. When done right, a popular player who knows how to play to lift others can help help weave entire games together and integrate new players in quicker than they could without someone using the system that way. (If you are interested in a slightly more psychological, less gamified article about the topic, my friend Eric Kent Smith brought this up this week about ‘Affective Presence’ from the Atlantic, and it’s worth a read.)
Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. That’s about level 90 of play to lift and many folks are still at level 10. You might be saying, “But Ericka, I don’t want to focus on others all game! This is my off time, my hobby, I want some ME time!” And I understand. But I promise you, if you take the time to step back, for even just a game or two, and strictly focus your play on supporting others (while doing what your character is good at doing), you’d be surprised the dividends it can pay. Put other characters before your character. Encourage others to go out on plots. Listen to their backstories and pain. Within a few games, the cycle will come back around. You’ll have closer connections and other people willing to do that for YOU when the time comes. People don’t like giving play to selfish players. Plot hoarders are often left out of plot because people know it will disappear into a black hole, making them just want to hoard plot MORE. Even if your instincts tell you to grab on tight, take a game to let go. To bring others in. You will be surprised at what happens.
So, maybe I’ve convinced you that “playing to lift” isn’t this hippie catch phrase all the freeform larpers keep trying to push onto you. Or maybe you were already convinced, you just weren’t entirely certain how to do it because people talk about the concept but don’t do a lot of explaining the technique other than ‘include others.’ The rest of the blog is going to be my personal go-to strategies when I’m focusing on playing to lift others. Maybe don’t try them all at once, but pick just one that sticks with you and try it the next time you larp. Just making the conscious decision to focus on incorporating some of these things into your play style can make you a lift and spotlight driven player.
Listen (Both Off-Game and In-Game): It’s hard to lift other players if you don’t know HOW they want to be lifted. Last weekend at Peculiar Crossroads’ Armistice Arcane, they gave us 5 minutes in the workshops to talk among our factions off-game about exactly what we all wanted out of playing this game. Everytime this happens in a workshop, I find it to be invaluable because it’s like a shortcut to knowing the best ways I can lift other players. I listen and remember things like “That person wants to be the most bad-ass,” “That person would like to be protected at all costs,” and “That person is looking to get into a fight with someone.” I then mentally note these things down (sometimes I physically write notes) and I keep my eyes open for opportunities to put those players in their ideal situations as often as possible. Example: If someone is supposed to be a popular actress, I’ll have my character be one of their biggest fans. Now, if you don’t have workshops, you can still do this before game. During registration, check in, while people are getting ready, make your chit chat productive. Idly asks people what sort of roleplay they want and what they are looking to get out of the game. Even doing this for 2-3 people will enhance the chances of ALL of you having a better character experience!
Once game is on, it’s a bit more tricky. It involves eavesdropping on people’s roleplay not for the sake of spying (though you could kill two birds with one stone, I suppose) but to see what scenes they are most drawn to playing. What plots are they chasing? I cheat the in-game listening system a bit by often playing support or counseling characters to whom people are encouraged to open up their hearts. I take every counseling scene I can to listen and learn more about the character across from me. Once I know more about their goals and their emotional state, then I can help steer them in the direction of scenes which will play into what they want. I often try this with characters I see sitting alone or shy. Approaching them for a brief personal scene, or asking who their friends are and then getting the gossip from their buddies, helps me surprise a shy player with directed roleplay they never saw coming!
Coaching and Gentle Steering: Now, the above is all good if the player is directed enough to know these deep things about their character or what they want in gaming. However, newer players (or ones that don’t come from deeply character driven games) sometimes don’t even have these choices in their heads yet! This is another technique which works both out of game and in game. If someone isn’t certain where to go, my favourite question to ask them is off-game “What is your favourite kind of story to tell or read?” Once I get a handle on what genres and storylines they like, then it’s easy to help them figure out how to steer their roleplay into that style of story. Keeping it familiar and something that will excite them is a safe starting place for someone who hasn’t explored roleplay all that deeply. In character, we go back to the counseling or personal-talk scenes. Asking people about their backgrounds (and gently coaxing them to make decisions if they haven’t) is a lovely way to steer people into building deeper characters and then finding character goals. Once they build those goals, especially if you helped talk them into it, then you know better where to help lift them in the future.
“I Just Can’t Do This Right Now!”: Sure, you MIGHT be good at that thing and it COULD be a super cool plot to go on, but I find the emotional struggle of putting my character in a position that she’s just too tired/emotionally compromised/injured or otherwise to do what she knows not only creates drama for myself, but also puts me in the perfect position to go find other characters who CAN do that task. Especially shy players who might not be as skilled in game but would like to go into plot. If I weaken myself and beg them to take my place, it’s a show of confidence and gives them a boost just by the asking. Depending on the plot, I try to talk two or three characters into going (just in case!) so the love can be spread around. Then there are chances for giving morale boost speeches, coaching, or bonding good-luck talks before they disappear on the dangerous thing and get to feel badass because a more experienced player steered them in that direction.
That Looks Cool, How Can I Help?: This might be my favourite technique, because it gets you into a cool thing but ALSO helps you lift others. I’ll give an example from last weekend. At Armistice Arcane I was playing a burnout monsters hunter. I looked into a room where a large pack of very calm, very peaceful looking Druids were doing some sort of cleansing ritual. It was entirely NOT Hannah (my character’s) bag. But I was bored and I wanted to give them some outside eyes so other people, not just their Order, could see the SUPER COOL THING they were doing. So, I made up an excuse to insert myself in as an observer. I got to watch a lot of awesome friends do this beautiful ritual and enhance their roleplay by being the intimidating fly on the walk.
But then I took it up a notch. When they asked if anyone else wanted to bond with an element, Hannah decided to do some ‘undercover research.’ The mean, scary Sentinel stepped forward to bond with water — because it gives you life and it drowns you. They finished their ritual beautifully and it was a transformative process, both in and out of character. Hannah got to feel magic and emotions for the first time in ages. She bonded with a group of characters she’d have probably ignored the rest of game otherwise. I got to support them in a bunch of other roleplay through the rest of the weekend, and it was all around this reinforcing circle of play to lift on all sides. So, in short, if you see someone doing something cool and want involved, do the following steps: 1. Find an excuse to join 2. Respect the work they are doing and let them carry out their scene 3. Treat them as experts who are running their own scene 4. Take any opportunity you can to enhance their scene and support the themes of their roleplay. 5. PROFIT!
Three Facts, One Goal: If nothing else, a great doorway to playing to lift is making a goal of learning three facts about another character then putting one into action. One of those facts can (and probably should) be their name. Do it through conversation, through challenge, through buying them a drink. It’s a shortcut to the longer listening strategy above, but if you are ever standing around bored in a game, go decide to learn three facts about another character and then make a goal of using one of them in play over the next few hours! It’s a fun meta-challenge which drives play really well.
If you have any other great play to lift strategies, please leave them in the comments so we can share the knowledge with the rest of the world! Lastly, a great article to read on this is Susanne Vejdemo’s “Play to Lift, Not Just to Lose.”
(If you liked this and want to support an exhausted, broke game designer doing what I love, I do have a Patreon I keep forgetting to remind people about. https://www.patreon.com/spacebetweenstories. Even a dollar or two helps keep the game fires lit and all gets directly poured back into the community.)