Power overwhelming!

I just had my first real try at ruling a larp.

It was a big, scary challenge to portray authority and be responsible for the experiences of everyone else, even if just in part. I’ve gathered some of the things that I learned worked well for me, so you can be inspired for when you are the one wearing the biggest hat.

I was asked to take the part of Second at Coven. This meant being being one of the three people in charge of a coven of emotionally unstable teenage witches with colossal cosmic powers . The game can best be described as a sandbox with the transsiberian railroad going straight through it. And being one of the engineers trying to drive through a sandstorm of drama, spells and feels.

The game was nordic larp, but with a lot of meta-rules and fictional lore to keep track of as well as a packed schedule of planned events that required a lot of going offgame to sort things out. This is itself was a huge job, but I’m more fascinated by how things went in regards to keeping charge of and interacting with the rest of the players during runtime.

We were three at the top: The Supreme and her two Seconds. I had the part of “The Authority”, the one who was big on rules and order, doing everything right and creating respect. So I needed to find my biggest presence for when it was necessary, but also find a way not to isolate myself. I did a couple of things, more or less intentionally, that I think really worked well to create respect. But also things to soften up and be some people could, and would want to, play with.

As a “recovering introvert”, someone who has been so agoraphobic as to avoid grocery shopping for fear that the cashier would talk to me (No, I’m not finnish), this was a big challenge and ultimately an even bigger achievement. I’m not sure how much space I naturally take up these days, but I can say that I am not the most experienced at taking centre stage. So this is mostly a list for those of us who need to work with that. Those of you with natural leadership charisma can hopefully learn a trick or two too.

Never walk alone
It is nearly hopeless to try and be in charge on your own. At the very least you need to make sure people know that you are the one in charge before play even starts. Stand up and be heard during the workshop or briefing.

If you possibly can, get more people to be in charge with you. This is especially good if you can have different approaches or styles of authority, so there’s something to respect for everyone. And back eachother up, for fucks sake! I’ve seen too many fractures come in the way of the fun, sometimes even from offgame.

Make sure that the big lump of players really think it’s going to be fun following your lead. It’s no fun if they’re not enjoying it and they’ll ruin your respect in no time.

Get the right tools
For yourself, you need to find a way to channel your inner strength in an immediate and loud way. I’ve found two distinct ways for myself: The deathglare and the doomvoice.
I got the deathglare from Brudpris, I can hate so hard with my eyes that people just cringe down and shut up. It’s pretty handy for handling individuals.
Last Will helped me develop the doomvoice, where I drop my voice a few registers into the bass and shout from the depths of my torso. I can shut up a whole crowd with that one. And crush puny human individuals.
The doomvoice also helped me make my in-fiction tool of magically killing people quite terrifying when I roared the meta words at my victims.
But most important is trusting myself when using them. Your confidence is the thing that determines success.

Go big or go home
As soon as possible you need the other players to see and learn your power. Get their respect early. At Coven we started play with most of the characters arriving as scared and confused juniors, so it was easy to shout them down and get their respect. A small pre-planned demonstration of power during dinner also helped a lot. We managed to establish our authority after that.

Make breakable rules
Part of the initial crushing of the newbs was reading a long list of rules aloud to the, with threats of fire, should they be broken. But we’d also told everyone that those rules were entirely there so there were some to break if the rebellious ones wanted to. They would not be strictly enforced except when it would be fun for everyone to do so.

Enforce the important bits
Two rules were important offgame for everyones experience, so those were enforced with great zeal. The rest only when people obviously wanted to be punished for disobedience and troublemaking.
Don’t get bogged down in keeping everything in check. One rule stated that grievously harming another witch must be punished by fire. Someone came up to me and complained about being stabbed and burned, to which I just looked at him with dead tired eyes and asked if he was GRIEVOUSLY harmed. He saw that there was no help and I got to play on more important stuff.

Break them yourself
The most famous rule my character had made. was “No personal relationships. No. Just no.” It was famous because the two Seconds had the world’s least discreet secret romance. It made it possible for the other players to have their cake and eat it. Both feel fear about doing wrong and also just not giving a fuck, depending on their proclivities.

Reveal the human
This was also part of making my character human and flawed. He wasn’t someone superhuman that you couldn’t approach, but you still had to listen when he raised his voice. I had a lovely moment of pettiness with his peers, where he cursed someone who had pissed him off for example.

Give an out
One of the magics players could use was one that commanded others to do something. It was super handy for not ruining awesome scenes without undermining myself. The victim always had the choice of whether the spell succeeded or not, but pretty much I let everything through when I interrupted someone’s illegal activities. No point in stopping obvious fun.
I’d like to see if I can find something similar in a less magical setting. I wonder what would work…

You break it, you buy it
This was the most common response when people came running to us with their troubles. Turn back the responsibility for getting things fixed. We gave them prepared rituals and advice if they wanted, but people had to fix their own problems. Never get caught fixing people’s stuff or it’ll drag you down.

 

I’m a firm believer that anyone is capable of taking on any role, with enough practice and preparation. Roleplaying is way more fun when you push yourself to play something challenging and explore who you can be. I have had all of my best experiences just outside my comfort zone, that one step further than I would think I could go. This was no exception and I hope you get the chance to do the same.

In conclusion, my tips are:

  1. Find your personal style of authority.
  2. Be open offgame, explain how you want the other players to respond to you and when it’s important that they obey.
  3. Make sure you have play where your authority is not a factor.
  4. Use your strengths only when you need to, but then go big.
  5. Create openings for those below you to take charge of their own stories.
  6. Have fun with it!

Text messages from beyond

Coven had a really interesting component, in the way we had npcs who sent text messages during the larp. It was an optional thing we could do as players, to recruit some friends as text-larpers, to take the part of a contact outside the coven itself, that we could interact with during play.

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Bad roleplayer or intense play? Photo by Carolina Dahlberg.

It was a fun addition, providing a feeling of a world that extended outside the physical boundaries of the larp. You had a lot of control in how it was going to start, since you recruited your own minions to take the part of your family and loved ones, but quickly took on a life of its own as the text-larpers got going and started coordinating their efforts, sharing numbers of people in the game.

I set up an old friend from my character’s previous coven and his ex from that same coven and got them in touch with the other player who shared that background. During play I also got messages from another character’s grandmother who was very insistent that I take care of her grandchild as well as threats from two different anonymous sources.

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There was a lot of threatening and scary pictures sent, this is one of the less creepy ones.

It worked really well for a larp about teens, that we had our phones out all the time and doing stuff on them. I have been to teen-larps without phones and it felt weird. There was a lot of story and interesting developments coming out of the texts.

There were some small issues with it, that should be kept in mind if you want to do it in your own larp.

First off, I’d estimate that the text larping ran at about 120% efficiency. So quite a bit above what would have been optimal. There was a lot going on that took players attention away from what was going on in the “real world.” Also, the text-larpers got carried away and escalated some situations beyond what was established in the fiction and sent some really scary photos and videos of loved ones being tortured and killed. It put some issues into play that the fiction had been designed to steer around and that ended up messing with gameplay on site. There really should have been a gamemaster function with tabs on play at the larp in charge of coordinating the text larpers. As well as a better briefing of the text larpers.

I also found that the texts were unevenly distributed, some players had a lot going on there, others not so much. During play you’d find groups huddled around one player’s phone and what was going on there, it was a bit distracting to more immediate interactions. A minimum level for everyone should have been offered, rather than everyone having to set it up for themselves. Not everyone is privileged with a large network of eager larpers with phones. I did like that the organizers helped the few of us who didn’t have Sweden-friendly sim-cards with some that worked there.

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The main thing i realized was that this was a perfect example of a piece of advice that Vincent Baker gives in Apocalypse World: Create PC-NPC-PC triangles. My contacts were all shared with someone else and two of them had direct agendas to push me to play with someone at the larp. I shared two of my contacts with another player and the interaction through the intermediaries and sharing opinions was great. We’d set it up so we each had an ally and an enemy, but reversed. It worked well. The other part was getting pushed to play favourites with the new arrivals. I had very little reason to do so in the fiction, but having someone from outside forcing me to do so started up some beautiful play. So I heartily recommend making sure each text-larper goes in between two actual players in an interesting way. Otherwise you just have stuff that dead-ends out of the larp. Some might like that, but I think it is a waste.

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Of course there were many selfies taken as well. Photo by Clara Linderland.

Another fun advantage to having people on the phone during the larp is that you can take pictures and video during play. And it’s a lot less weird than having someone sneak around with a camera documenting people’s lives for no reason.

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The embarrassing but well documented “teabagging” incident. Photo by Hannah Merkelbach.

I am definitely putting this in my larp technique toolbox. It’ll be a lot of work to set up, but you could easily delegate it to a helper and I think it could add a lot to a game.

Coven

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One of the less bloody rituals in progress. Photo by Carolina Dahlberg.
Elli, the mistress of blackboxing and heartbreak asked me to take an open spot at Coven. I’d missed the signup, so I eagerly jumped on the chance to play after all. The larp was run twice, first in swedish and then in english. Each with about 30 players and a large group of npcs. I was part of the second run.
Clara Linderland
A lot of rumours were shared via the bathroom walls during play. Photo by Clara Linderland.
The setting for the larp was based on the swedish book Cirkeln and the third season of American Horror Story, with some minor alterations to make it larpable. My friend Liv, Elli and I made up the Acting Supreme and two Seconds, the super adult leaders of the coven of teenage witches. We were so mature at age 23 compared to the rest. The story was that the coven was so small that it nearly died out, but had recieved reinforcement from other covens and the game started with getting a huge load of more or less kidnapped young people with powers. Two thirds of the characters were new witches. Before we had a chance to get to grips with this new situation we were forced to conduct trials to find a new Supreme just in time to be attacked by evil witch hunters.
Liselle Awwal
A quiet morning ritual. Photo by Liselle Awwal.
The larp was a sandbox of teenage drama and intrigue with a huge railroad of plot down the middle and the three of us on top had to steer the train along. It was a lot more work than we’d expected from signing up as players, but we went with it and spent A LOT of hours on skype before play to get everything planned out and making sense, so we had a chance during play. We had about ten fixed scenes that HAD to be prepared before play and also going offgame right before to get the last details and directions in place. So I’ll estimate about 40% of the larp was spent in a very much non-immersive mindset and 20% in a state of utter exhaustion in my case. It wore us out and not in a good way. It’s taken me about a week to get back to functioning human levels.
Isabel Baeré Pedersen
The witches chosen to participate in the Trials. Not everyone was happy to be there. Photo by Isabel Baeré Pedersen.
It was a classic case of first-time organizer entertainment paranoia. You want to make absolutely sure the players have something to do during play, so you add in everything you can find. Besides the fixed plot scenes, there was also people outside the larp that sent in-characters text messages from relations in the wider world, a creepy household staff and late night hauntings. Oh yeah, and we were teenagers with feels and magic powers. No rest for the witches!
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Getting advice from an old friend. Photo by the author.
The text larping was surprisingly good. I didn’t think I would have time to really engage with it, but once I got started and the web of outside contacts began contributing to the play I had a lot of fun writing back and forth with old friends who wanted stuff from me and threats from upset relatives of the junior witches. It did go quite a bit overboard and took the game in some problematic directions though, due to lack of oversight. I’ve got a blogpost coming with more details.
Herman Langland
Juniors messing with each other in their cabin. Photo by Herman Langland.
The other players were great, the play was super dramatic and entertaining, everyone got easily into the impulsive teenage mindset and made trouble for themselves. But not so much as to break the game, just the right amount. Especially the players of the senior witches were great at sharing play with the juniors and helping keep things going in the right direction. I’d larp with them again anytime! The only problem was that everyone ran out of steam and went to bed pretty early, so the night time play was a bit disappointing. I don’t blame them, though. They burned brightly nearly the whole time!
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Sunday breakfast interrupted by a severed head sent from the witchhunters. Photo by Hannah Merkelbach.
The magic worked fantastic. There were five powers, you started with one and you got more as you progressed as a witch, you could go pick up a new one from the organizers if you felt it made sense. Some powers were more useful than others, but all worked well in the larp context.
My main power was Mortis, the power to kill people. It’s not usually super great for larping to kill off characters, but when other people have the power to ressurect, you get to use it. Also it’s a great way to make people stop being idiotic. Others had the power of Transfero, where you could transfer injuries or emotions to others. That got used all the time. Those witches were so annoying, dumping unwanted feels on you!
Each power consisted of a key phrase to start it, followed by narration as to what was going to happen or count-down hand signs for dying and reviving. And it was always the recipient of magic that decided the outcome. It worked great, people used their powers in fun and surprising ways: One player dumped all her feelings of guilt onto me after I had chewed her out for being an idiot. So I apologized instead.
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The author’s character pulled back from the brink of death by his true love. Photo by Clara Linderland.
We had a lot of awesome rituals. They’re usually tricky to get right in larps and often fall flat, but we started some solid basics and built on top of that. We’d prepared some fifty small rituals for various stuff, we only used a fraction, but it was great to have a store of inspiration.
We also had a fuckton of fake blood, candles and props to use during the big rituals and those were awesomely messy. Especially when we brought out the porn-sperm for the big finale. I’d also taught Monica Traxl’s technique for making communal sounds to the players and everyone pitched in with making the rituals powerful and intense.
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Two of the Household Staff. So uncanny. Photo by Karin Edman.
The witchhunters at the end were truly terrifying. If the tv-series had had the same kind of opposition, there would be no witches left i New Orleans. They had brought (blunt) steel axes and knives as well as an actual shotgun with blanks. Scary as fuck to hear that boom, your magic powers don’t seem worth much. Big compliments to the npcs for their part. The organizers taking the part of household staff were great too, they did so many small uncanny interactions while also cooking incredibly delicious food and keeping the coffee pots full and warm.
Carolina Dahlberg
This jetty saw a lot of intense and introspective moments from the witches. Photo by Carolina Dahlberg.
So in short, I really loved nearly everything about this larp, except for the fact that I had to spend most of it as an npc. I would have been okay with it, had I known in advance, but finding out while preparing for play was too much work. Still, I walked away with some incredibly memorable scenes: Interrupting a bloodsoaked ritual to replace the soul of an unborn child with that of a dead girl, killing obnoxious kids with just a gesture, summoning forth a demon from a text-message, being called back to life by my true love and cursing a charm while singing songs from Buffy. That is just top level larp experiences in my book.
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Three tired witches after the larp. Blood, sweat and tears. Plus some sperm and egg for good measure. Photo by the author.