I know, I know. I said I was done. I closed up shop, turned off the lights, locked all the doors, but as I left my salt factory here at Larp Cynic, I had this sneaking suspicion that I had forgotten something. It wasn’t anything too important, such as my car keys, pants, or handle of vodka, but it nonetheless gnawed at me. The whole drive home. In the weeks since. What could it be?
Oh, right. It’s player agency. Not a big deal, only the most important thing about LARP.
Oops. Welcome back.
In physics there’s a struggle for a unifying theory, one which bridges the minor, tiny, itty bitty (re: extremely important) differences between Newtonian and Quantum physics. The fact that objects behave in very orderly and predictable ways, until you break them down to their tiniest level and observe them, and notice that sometimes they twitch and suddenly everything is most certainly NOT orderly anymore.
Something about LARP, for years now, has driven me more than a little crazy. I’ve created a very orderly universe of diagnoses for symptoms, how to spot toxic players, how to spot toxic game runners, how in-character is largely bullshit and we lie to ourselves about it. Small potatoes, not worth reading, please unfollow and send help.
Ahem. So anyway, something more elemental must have connected all of it.
Like a spoiled kernel of rice, or the fruit of Eden, or the initial viral cell to fuck up your entire family vacation, it’s agency.
1. What the fuck is agency?
In the barest terms, player agency is the ability to impact story through game design or gameplay. But LARP isn’t just some bullocks RPG dungeon crawl, LARP is a medium wherein you aren’t just roleplaying, you are the body roleplaying, surrounded by other people doing the same. A heightened calamity of self-determination and ego.
In LARP, agency is having the voice to tell the kind of story you want to tell.
If you ask people why they LARP, like all people everywhere, they will lie heinously to you (unintentionally of course), giving you such reasons as “I like to see my friends,” or “I like competitive play,” or “I like to play dress-up.” And as far as lies we tell ourselves go, these are good ones. But they’re very superficial. Beneath them is the core fact that unifies the “Dragon Hoarder” and the “suffer puppet,” both are trying to tell a story, and behave in such a way as to be able to tell that story most effectively.
If they’re both trying to do the same thing, how and why do they do it so differently?
2. Learned Madness
If you started LARPing in the MES (Mind’s Eye Society,) you read the source material, got through the bits about backstory and setting, and then started the ACTUAL work of playing in the MES: the dogged fight, IC and OOC, to have a voice capable of telling a story.
Some people learned to do this through hyper-optimal builds. For them, “killbox culture” was their means of hijacking and telling a story. I don’t think every killboxing fuckwit started life as a malevolent sperm cell, eager to crush and destroy others, most probably arrived at their emotionally malformed destination because they saw that to have a voice and tell a story, you had to be hyper optimal.
Similarly in Dystopia Rising, many people learned that the best way to tell their story across the network was to amass a powerful resource known as “blue paper,” or blueprints, and to control the means of producing items through economically strangling their peers, forcing them to bow and scrape for every transaction, large and small, lest they be stoned to death in a hailstorm of smaller, rectangular pieces of paper. This behavior, in turn, was inherited from NERO, or possibly from Satan himself, I’m not sure which, to be honest.
Nonetheless, these toxic LARP archetypes are the result of learned behaviors, and people learned them because the systems they played in had hyper-optimal ways to achieve a goal. But the goal, broken down to its atomic components, was always to attain and protect the agency necessary to tell a story.
3. Devils, Design and Expectations
Games are designed systems. They’re machines. Their designs are inherited or modeled, piecemeal, on older designs. Therefore the flaws of games tend to repeat. And the players who straddle the divides between games bring those flaws with them. Dragon Hoarding becomes an expected behavior and creating economic scarcity as a plot device becomes expected game design.
Sometimes a new game is launched knowing full-well that there will be powergamers, dragon hoarders, all the other demons of gameplay, and it shrugs and continues largely unchanged, assuming these players are the immutable result of human nature. Sometimes game designers fight hard to design systems to work against these archetypes, to reign in and curb the worst of people’s impulses. But inevitably they are battling symptoms and the disease will continue unabated. In fact by tilting at these windmills, they fuel those who deny their existence.
And subjected to generations of games, sometimes over the course of decades, players internalize and assume that game is like life, that there will be predatory investment bankers and loan sharks and violent murderers, except in gameplay form, as bullies and pedants and mean girls. They struggle, by buying in or by opting out, to do what they started LARPing to do, to tell a story, and in doing so perpetuate the very thing they struggle against, or adopt.
It may just be the whiskey talking, but I don’t think it has to be this way.
4. Empathy and Cynicism
I am not a nice person. I am an angry person, a cynical person, a bitter, bitter person. And I have some very deep, very old grudges, LARP scars that I should probably, but likely will not, see a psychologist about. But the more the notion of agency began to take hold of me, the more I found myself empathizing with people who had hurt me in LARP, and whom I had hurt. After all, weren’t we both desperate to tell a story, and to have a voice to tell it with?
Did that powergamer hijack entire venues and chronicles because they liked making people suffer, or was it a learned behavior, a deep insecurity that manifested itself in the cynical belief that the only way to tell a story in a game was to acquire F.A.P as soon as possible and then slap on a source of agg damage?
Did that cardmongering troglodyte strangehold the entire economy of a game because they enjoyed lording their wealth over people, or did they do so because the game design encouraged scarcity economic roleplay, and without leverage, they would be silent like so many others?
Did that fabutante monopolize social media and launch rumor campaigns against competitors, perceived or real, because they enjoyed looking and dressing better than everyone else, or because they felt that without OOC fashion and sex appeal, that they would be ignored?
How many game runners have written and run staggeringly self-aggrandizing plots, bullied dissenting players, or harmfully promoted one type of toxic gameplay over another because it’s just the way things were done? Because they learned, wrongly, that their story wouldn’t be worth listening to unless in all ways, good and bad, it resembled the stories they’d been told?
Excluding truly damaged, truly dangerous people, those real and rare predators among us, how much terrible behavior and pain has been caused by fear of being silenced, or worse, never having a voice at all?
5. The New Deal
What if I could sit those devils of my past down, at the Waffle House “afters” of our nightmares, and ask them, in person, why they acted the way they did? What if my suspicion was right, and they could confide in me, over their plate of greasy depression given form, that their monopolizing, antisocial, sometimes cruel behavior was borne of a desperate fear of being kept silent?
We’d still have to eat that awful, awful food. But more importantly, we’d need a new deal for LARP, and not just for one-shots and Eurotrash blackboxes, but for campaign games big and small.
What would that “new deal” even look like? How radically deep into the design of a system would one have to go, to ensure that players had the agency they needed to tell a story? It would be a value independent of the statistics we traditionally balance games around, detached entirely from HP, MP, gold or influence.
It would be a promise, primordial and sacred, between player and game runner, that everyone has a part to play in the game, that everyone has the right to be, in some measure, noticed and remembered, and to effect the setting in some measurable way. And this promise would have to be regarded as the most important thing about LARP, the first thing one should design, before any currency or stat.
It would necessitate a 180 degree flip in the way plots are written, bottom-up versus top-down, because to fulfill that promise, games would need to collect meaningful information from their players about their desires, expectations, and play styles.
It would change the way conflicts are resolved OOC, and even how OOC is viewed, because now instead of ostracizing or silencing people who felt they had no agency or power, we’d have to actually listen and analyze, and determine if their complaint comes from personal failure, as it has been assumed countless times of those who aren’t having fun, or of a failure of game design or game administration.
In other words, it would be a big, fucking, new, deal.
6. The Critic’s Call to Action
As a critic, I have strong expectations of myself to help play a role in the creation of newer and b-
Fucking fooled you there, didn’t I? Should have seen the looks on your faces.
As a critic, I have 0 responsibility to create these new games. None. I sit here, veiled by anonymity, unleashing terrifying opinions barely backed by facts upon the hard working and much beleaguered game runners of the world.
But really, putting aside the cynicism, to those who run games: I think we’ve all been at this upside-down the whole time. Like the doctors of old we have mistaken symptoms for the disease, and struggled to administer cures that, more often than not, kill or lobotomize the patient. I do believe, even of the worst of you damaged miscreants, that you want to run games that are healthy, successful, and actually make players feel impactful.
Read this and think what you want. But LARP is changing, whether games are dying, shrinking, growing or not yet finished. And the “industry,” if we can even call it that yet, has come far in so little time, trying to battle broken stairs and campaign for safety features that protect vulnerable players. Why shouldn’t it change down to its very molecules?
“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” says physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and neither is LARP, or the human spirit. So when you get insight, some knowledge of the elemental forces at work, the best advice this cynic can give you is:
Don’t fucking ignore it.