End of the Line – Part One: Introduction, Liminality, and Mechanics

Introduction

End of the Line is a nordic-style LARP held at the Grand Masquerade in New Orleans this past weekend; I had the honor of being able to attend the game, and wanted to take some time to get as many thoughts down as possible. During the ride home to Texas the day after, I had a lot of time to jot down some of my thoughts and I’ve received a fair number of questions from friends and family about the game, giving me a great deal to write about!

I’d like to cover some of the basics of what Nordic-style LARPing is, and how it differs from what a lot of my fellow Americans might be used to. I’ll also go over some of the in-game and off-game mechanics used in End of the Line, and how I think they were intended to work as well as what makes the experience so much different than anything I’ve ever played with before. In addition to my thoughts on how the various mechanics were intended to work, I’d like to cover a bit of how I think they held up in the battlefield as well. Last but not least, I’ll also throw in some information about what happened in my experience, since what LARPer can resist talking about themself?

As a note: I’ll make every attempt to ensure that the facts I promote as facts are true, but as many things go with this kind of thing, this will likely end up being an amalgamation of things I know to be true, things I believe to be true, and how I feel. I make no apology for or guarantee of factuality. Additionally, this article/blog-post is likely to swing back and forth from an almost-formal academic tone and something a lot less formal. This is due to the fact that I want to impress some of the people who might read this, but it’s also my post and I’ll do what I want.

If this all sounds interesting, read on.

A Brief Primer on Nordic-style LARPing, and what it means to me.

Stolen blatantly from nordiclarp.org

The following description is basically just copied and pasted from nordiclarp.org, one of the many  online resources I’ve used to do research into what this whole Nordic-style LARP is, and why I want it in my life so badly.

Nordic-style larp, or Nordic larp, is a term used to describe a school of larp game design that emerged in the Nordic countries. Nordic-style larp is dramatically different from larp in other parts of the world – here are a few examples of aims and ideals that are typical for this unique gaming scene:

Immersion. Nordic larpers want to feel like they are “really there”. This includes creating a truly convincing illusion of physically being in a medieval village/on a space ship/WWII bunker, playing a character that is very close to your own physical appearance, as well as focusing on getting under the character’s skin to “feel their feelings”. Dreaming in character at night is seen by some nordic larpers as a sign of an appropriate level of immersion.

Collaboration. Nordic-style larp is about creating an exciting and emotionally affecting story together, not measuring your strength. There is no winning, and many players intentionally let their characters fail in their objectives to create more interesting stories.

Artistic Vision. Many Nordic games are intended as more than entertainment – they make artistic or even political statements. The goal in these games is to affect the players long term, to perhaps change the way they see themselves or how they act in society.

When I first started LARPing, it was because I was looking for something more intense than the table-tops I had been running and playing it. I wanted to explore myself and the world I live in, and all the beautiful complexity that comes with that. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted at the time, just that I knew I was looking for something more.

LARP quickly became that something more, and Nordic-style LARPs’ emphasis on immersion feels, to me, the next natural step towards the experience I’m chasing.

How This LARP Differed From Others I’ve Played In: Liminality

If I had to point out the major difference between the End of the Line and other LARPs I’ve played in (including other LARPs based on Nordic principles, such as the Changeling the Dreaming one-shot run by one of my best friends), I would have to place the emphasis on the liminal aspects at the end of the pre-workshop and the end of the game itself.

Liminality, for those not familiar with the term, is a word used by anthropologists to describe the period of changing from one role to another. It’s used a lot in describing preparations for rituals (cultural and religious rituals), wherein the participants adopt some meaning outside of themselves by artificially inducing liminality, but has been really well described to me in a simple example: college graduation.

In between the period where the last grade comes in and the graduate actually goes out to enter the world as the recipient of a college diploma, there is a period of liminality: transition from student to non-student. Part of the process of this transition is the ritual designed to symbolically represent it: the graduation ceremony. By allowing for a defined moment of “Here, this is when you stopped being a student and started being a non-student”, an individual can more easily internalize the transition.

In End of the Line, there were several small rituals (I think they prefer the term workshop techniques, but the idea is the same) designed to help solidify the exchange of self of the Player for the self of the Character. First of these came in the pre-game circle (a technique which I myself have implemented in the Austin MES Sabbat Troupe, and made me happy to see used) when we were to go around the circle and speak a single sentence:

“I am [Player’s Name] and I will be [Character’s Name].”

As a note: I was saddened by most of the players alteration of the statement to “I am [Player] and I will be playing [Character].” In the end, i don’t think it mattered, but it diluted some of what I thought to be the purpose of the statement.

Immediately after making the statement, we were taken to the dance floor, where we were instructed to dance at least ten minutes before going off to explore the rest of the LARP. I see now that the statement itself was the beginning of liminality (probably designed to induce it, actually), and the dancing allowed for that liminal moment to internalize and sync with the themes of the game. The opening of the game was a recitation of poetry to a backdrop of techno music that helped shape thoughts in an almost subliminal (get it?) way.

When the game was over, we did much the same thing in reverse. We danced (the dead, the undead, and the survivors alike) and when all was done we went back to the workshopping room and we made another call-out.

“I was [Character] and now I am [Player].”

I think the liminal return (the transition back from Character to Player) had been underway for a little bit already by that point. It might have been more useful to have the players return to the circle immediately after the dance, and start the return callout right away. Then again, that might have been more instruction than one could expect players to hold onto after 5 hours of having been transported to a much darker world.

All I know is that this whole starting and ending ritual led to me being more in-character than I think I’ve ever been outside of a tabletop game run by close, personal friends. I found this particularly interesting, because it was the single most surprising element of the LARP. I had gone in knowing that one of the biggest draws of Nordic style LARPs (to me) was the way that a player could really become their character for a while; but while I expected that to come from blurring the lines between Player and Character into some gestalt, I came to realize that instead those lines were going to be made razor sharp: a clear delineation from one to the next that let us more easily step over them. I wasn’t Kevin, who was really really close to feeling what Klaus felt. I was Klaus, a terrified near-suicidal ex-theology student with a grudge against bullies and a desperate need to feel like something matters.

This actually led to my number one issue throughout the LARP. Jumping so deeply into character, I had a great difficulty taking that step back when consent negotiations came into play, which I’ll get into next.

How This LARP Differed From Others I’ve Played In: Simple Mechanics

One of the other biggest differences between this game and most of the others I’ve played in was a distinct simplification of mechanics. Though there were formalized processes (which I’ll get into) to achieve it, the core mechanic of the entire game was this:

If everyone involved agrees that something goes down a certain way, that’s the way it goes down.

Let me throw that back down in a different way, because I think it’s so very important. It’s probably the biggest lesson MES could learn:

If the story is good enough, then you don’t need anything but everyone’s agreement and comfort to move forward.

When faced with the question of “What kind of person will enjoy this style of LARP”, this immediately comes to mind as the defining factor. The person who will enjoy this game is the one who is willing to look at the events around him and collaborate on the outcome for the good of a shared story.

If you’ve ever chosen to relent on a challenge because it was way more interesting to get your ass kicked then to be the one doing the kicking: this LARP is for you. If you’ve ever slipped up on purpose and let your dire enemy have clues on how to defeat you: this LARP is for you. If you’re the kind of person who will allow for (or even who can enjoy) allowing your character to suffer for the story, be enjoyed for the story, or otherwise make any choice for the good of the story: this LARP is for you.

That being said, there are some players who might not enjoy this style of LARP, and that’s okay. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being the kind of player who enjoys the challenge of competition with other intelligent minds, or who enjoys the elegance of mechanics as a way to represent a fictional world. If you’re the kind of player who wants to test himself against those around him, and wants that test to mean something so that everyone around you is working their best to succeed as well: this LARP *might* not be for you.

I’ve been both types of players, and I’ve enjoyed both sides of things.

I said earlier that collaborative consent was the root of the game, which means that with the exception of one, the mechanics that existed were designed to either:

Emulate some facet of the world that is entirely un-actable.

Or

Ensure the comfort and safety of all participants.

If something didn’t meet either of these two criteria, there was no mechanic for it, nor was one needed. For the most part, the game was entirely What You See Is What You Get (™).

The one exception is the Brawl skill. Each Character was assigned a Brawl skill from 1 to 5 in order to represent their physical ability. I think because of the way Potence and Celerity work (see below), these skills were really designed to help showcase that some characters were just pure-and-simple faster and stronger than others. Again, just a guess.

As far as mechanics of the first type go, we pretty much have the Disciplines and their effects. As far as I am aware, there were only five or six Discipline mechanics in play (this is a little harder to guess at, as I don’t have access to a Vampire’s character sheets, so I can only go by what I know from others and what information was given to all of us). Obfuscate was the traditional “crossing-the-arms” maneuver, and came with it the usual “ignore this person you can’t see them” mechanic. I know that Auspex was in the game, but I am not certain how it was implemented. I suspect it was a matter of “you can ignore Obfuscate by spending blood”, but that’s purely a guess.

Potence and Celerity were used as bonuses to a player’s Brawl score, if I recall correctly. I suspect but cannot confirm that no mortal had a Brawl higher than 3, maybe even 2, and that even Vampires didn’t have very high Brawls without access to Potence and Celerity. (I suspect this because a vampire that Klaus picked a fight with had a Brawl of only 1, which was surprising but probably due to not having much in the way of martial background or access to Physical Disciplines.)

Dominate and Presence were given a really, really simple mechanic (You’ll see in a bit what I did there). In short, both Dominate and Presence required eye contact and were then enacted through a code phrase. “You really, really [some instruction].” The victim of the power was given full liberty to choose how to interpret the power, which feeds into the overall meta-mechanic of Most Escalated Common Comfort Level (one of the things I’ll be getting into next). A vampire who used Presence to say “You really, really fear me” couldn’t always count on a person to just run away and cower. Sometimes our first instinct is to lash out against the things we fear, and a vampire who relies on his powers to get his way could find himself in trouble at the whims of humanity’s diverse ways of thinking. While I’m not sure it was intention, it is absolutely an elegant and beautiful way of answering one of the age-old meta-questions of Vampire, which is: “Why do vampires fear humanity?”

Outside of vampiric disciplines, there were a number of techniques used to ensure player comfort and safety. One of the biggest imprints the coordinators tried to instill into the players was the idea that “Players are more important than LARPs”. They made us say that, at least twice. It’s so important, and so very true, that I might start making my players say it at Sabbat.

The primary techniques used in the game were Checking-In, Opting-Out, and Consent Negotiation, all of which are actually fairly common Nordic LARP tools designed to help assure the comfort and safety of everyone involved.

I’d like to take a moment here to say that though these techniques are simple, they are absolutely key to having a successful experience. You can’t really transition to another place if you think the place you’re going is dangerous. Equipping a player with tools to make sure that the world and roles they inhabit will be safe for them is essential to making the liminality elements successful. In short, a LARP is only as healthy as its players are safe and in a one-shot game where there isn’t time to build consent castles, these tools are pretty much mandatory.

I would recommend them for just about any LARP that wants to explore themes and moods that might be uncomfortable; without them, I don’t know of any good way to prevent doing actual harm in your quest for exploration.

Checking In

Checking-In is a technique I’m familiar with from the Planetfall LARP that I play in, and is a pretty handy technique for differentiating between what a player is feeling and what a character is showing. It’s actually a really useful technique, which consisted of discreetly flashing the OK hand-sign to another player. In response, they can respond with either a thumbs-up (for I am fine), a hand-wave sign (for I’m not sure or I’m not doing okay), or a thumbs-down (for I am unwell). The rules were simple: if someone responded to the OK symbol with anything other than a thumbs-up, you offer to take them to the off-game room. You cut the scene, break character and take care of the person. People are more important than LARPs.

It was recommended that we check in more often than we really think we need to and I agree wholeheartedly with this. Check in if you are even a little bit unsure if what you are seeing is an actual issue with the player. If it is a problem, then we know that Players are more important than LARPs, and we need to be there to help. If it isn’t, then we know that we’ve got something to explore together with the player in question.

Opting Out

The second meta-technique we were taught was the ability to opt-out. This had two forms: the “See no Evil” hand sign, in which a player places their hand directly in front of their eyes, and “Tapping Out”, which consisted of a pair of taps on someone’s arm (either the player tapping out, or someone with which they are involved in a scene).

Both had the same significance: the Player wants what is going on to either de-escalate or to end altogether. The proper response to both should always be to allow the player an exit from the scene. The reason why I think it’s important to offer that way out is because it can help to establish to what degree the scene needs to be modified. Sometimes it just needs to be scaled down, and if the opting-out player decides to remain in the scene you know this is the case.

Either way, I wonder if it would have been useful to have that be a mandatorily explicit offer (either as accompaniment to the off-game room, or just an offer to exit the scene). If tapping out or the See-No-Evil sign were both met with the “Can I take you to the off-game room?” offer, it could offer a quicker way to establish if the issue is only with intensity without having to try to suss it out from whether or not the player remains in the location of the scene.

Consent Negotiations

The third and most commonly used technique we were taught was the Consent Negotiation. Arguably the most involved of the three, it allows players to remain on the same page and take advantage of total collaboration absent the consent castles built out of long-term relationships. (This is the second time I’ve linked that comic. For real, go read it. I’ll wait.) With this tool, almost perfect strangers can explore severe themes without fear that they’ll be intruding upon the boundaries of their fellow players.

It’s a mechanic that bears explaining in person, but I’ll do my best to summarize: when considering an action that touches upon an element of play that might intrude upon another’s boundaries, you ASK THEM. The process was a little more formalized to ensure that it’s used appropriately, but at it’s core the Consent Negotiation was a short off-game aside to ensure that everyone involved gets a say in how something happens.

The formal process was that it would begin with a brief request to discuss a matter. We were required to bring up Consent Negotiations for Violence, Sexuality, and Feeding, but one of the most thoughtful CNs happened when a player briefly asked me if I would be comfortable with his character being sick all over mine. I didn’t mind at all, but I was really happy that he thought to ask.

(As a note, I cannot remember which character or player it was, otherwise I’d totally be throwing props in here.)

This usually happens by simply asking if the subject itself was open to negotiation:

“Off-game. Sexuality?”

That’s it. The initiating player simply asks, Are you okay with this element being in our story?

Part of this process was to be sure of our answer before we gave it. As I alluded to above, this is the element I had the most difficulty with, because of how much I wanted to stay in the mindset of the person I had become. Still, I definitely see why it’s important, and I’m glad that part of the formal process required a three-second pause before answering the question. Even if you think you know the answer, it’s important that you give your subconscious that time to step in and say, “Actually, self…”

Once the pause passed, the asked player would offer either “Yes, Please” or “No, Thank You”. It was actually mandated (for good reason) that this be done without explanation for one’s response. Nobody needs to explain why they want something, or why they are uncomfortable with something, and those reasons aren’t really relevant to the asker. As they said (and had us say, too): It’s not about you.

If the asked player says no, the only acceptable response is “Okay, thank you.” Not only because thanking people for saying no is just classy as hell, but because it’s important to remember that one ought to be legitimately thankful when another player establishes their boundaries. It keeps the initiating player from doing or saying something that could cause both of them distress. The kind of person who WANTS to be the guy who pushes people past their boundaries is absolutely not welcome at this kind of game (or any other game, if I get a say about it).

If, instead, you got an enthusiastic “Yes”, then you started negotiating comfort levels. This is where the idea of what I am calling Most Escalated Common Comfort Level comes into play. The idea being that since by this point we’ve both enthusiastically agreed that this is something we want to explore, we’re looking for the way that best expresses the element while remaining FIRMLY in the area of mutual comfort.

As a note: One one point, the workshop became a little unclear on the process of nebulous consent. (To be fair, we were running late because we had a lot of questions about these kind of systems.) Whereas during a Check-In, anything but a “thumbs up” was treated as a thumbs-down, it felt like “not-a-no” could be interpreted as a desire to explore the element cautiously, with negotiation proceeding but at a much lower initial level. In my experience, however, I did not encounter any situations in which the answer wasn’t clearly “Yes” or “No”, so I’m not sure how important it is a factor to consider. I think at one point, players were encouraged to say “no” unless they were certain about meaning “yes”, but from an American standpoint wherein peer pressure and the need for the the appearance of ‘toughness’ are particularly endemic issues of our culture, it might be worthwhile to touch on that more specifically.

For the purposes of explaining the negotiation, let’s take an element of Violence as an example. It’s important to note that this same process works no matter what element of play one is bringing up (one of the three mandatory subjects–Violence, Sexuality, or Feeding–or any other subject). If both players have stated they feel it’s appropriate and they want to include an element of violence into a scene, then we can expect that both will want to experience that violence in some form or other. The negotiation becomes a matter of determining: what manner of simulated violence will allow both players to comfortably have that experience?

This always began with: “How would you like to play this?” The asker is setting upon another person’s boundaries, and offering that person the chance to begin the negotiation is–I think–a way to ensure that the asker places the power fully into the hands of the other person by allowing their response to set the negotiation’s initial level. In general, this took the form of the asked person setting a level: “I’m comfortable with full speed violence and you actually hitting me at full force a few times, as long as you’ll stay away from my face. Then I’ll fall down and crawl away, terrified.” (My default answer, by the way, because I like fighting.)

Then the initial player offers their comfort level as well. In my experience often took the form of an acceptance or counter-offer. This might be as simple as, “I am comfortable with that as well” or “I’m more comfortable with going at half-speed.”  It was made explicit to us that the boundaries have to be CLEARLY DEFINED. “I’m okay with anything” is not only never a true statement, it does the game a disservice by preventing you from actually analyzing your own feelings about what is going on.

Remember Most Escalated Common Comfort Level? Here’s where it comes into play. When the negotiations are happening, the idea in my experience was to reach the simulation method that gave the most “realism” at the clear hard line of both player’s comfort. If the most escalated common level was “we slowly mimic fighting with no actual hitting”, then that is what play continued as, no matter whether that lesser-escalated standard comes from the asker or the asked.

Once the level is established, and the players have decided how the scene will play out, then the scene plays out. The game returns to What You See Is What You Get, and the scene plays out. In practice, a common consent negotiation took at most 30 seconds or so, and often led to some of the more intense moments of the game.

As this thing has hit 11 pages, I’ve decided I’m going to go ahead and break it up into three parts. Next, I’d like to talk a little bit about my personal experience as a Player, including what I expected, what I got, and what you might want to expect if you decide to participate in this kind of game in the future.

 

Until then,
All is Love.

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