This is part two of my write-up on the End of the Line, 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 Part One, I explained what I felt were the major differences between this game and the troupe and MES games I’ve grown used to.
The breakup of this article is going to be pre-game, during-game, and post-game; in each section, I’m gonna try to cover what I expected, whether or not those expectations were matched and how I felt about it, and what you (as a potential player for the next incarnation of a LARP similar to this one) should expect.
As a note: whatever expectations I might set are not indicative of what you will certainly get. There are a thousand things that can change between even incarnations of the same one-shot. If there is a number one takeaway from this, it’s that adaptability and paying attention to the material you are given are key.
One of the developers of End of the Line, Johanna Koljonen, has an excellent blog post about managing expectations of players. I’ll wait here while you give it a read.
Back? Okay. Let’s get to it.
Pre-Game: The Character Packet and Connections
As I mentioned in Part One, I first started LARPing because I was looking for something more intense than the table-tops I had been running, something where I could explore myself and the world I live in, and all the beautiful complexity that comes with that. LARP quickly became that something more, and when I saw an opportunity to try out Nordic-style LARP with its emphasis on immersion and play as art, I knew that I could not give up that chance.
I knew that the game would be a one-shot, and that we would be assigned characters by the organizers themselves based on our responses to a survey. I’ll admit that I was worried that there was no way these mere mortals could possibly create a character fit for me based solely on a few questions! (Hi, I’m an arrogant little snot.)
And to an extent, I was right. What was given to us wasn’t so much a tailor-made character crafted with loving detail to the person who would play it. Instead, what we got was a piece of clay in the color and size we asked for, and the tools to shape it as we see fit.
Now that I’m reflecting on it, it’s really the perfect strategy when you’re building characters for a large number of people who all want different things. And, while I’m being fair, the characters given to us weren’t lifeless soulless cardboard either. I was given a character that made me want to know more about him, complete with connections that made me want to know more about them.
Specifically, I was given Klaus. At the risk of giving too much about my character away, Herbert Klaus (who I immediately decided went by Klaus because it sounds cooler than Herbert) was a man undergoing a crisis of Faith in a bad, bad way. Each character was assigned three traits, which had absolutely no mechanically effect whatsoever. They were just ways to help distill your character into something you can keep core. I remember two of them off the top of my head. Faith 1 and Self-Sacrifice 3.
I remember being happy with the Self-Sacrifice part; the trope of guardian and defender plays hard with my heart, and I knew that I would find something to connect to with that. My first thought in dealing with the Faith 1 was to recognize: oh, that’s a low Faith score, which makes sense given his recent crisis.
It wasn’t until I slept on it that I came across an epiphany: Faith 1 isn’t Faith 0. I remember that thought blowing my mind. I remember thinking that I was reading way too much into such a tiny, tiny detail and I also remember that I couldn’t get it out of my head. As the process went on, and I read the character packets and became more clear on how to move forward, I kept being unable to put the idea “Faith 1 is not Faith 0” out of my head. It shaped a good deal of who Klaus was coming in, and who he was during the game.
You may be wondering just how much freedom we had to tinker with the character–how much was spelled out for us and how much was up for interpretation. I wondered the same thing for the longest time. The truth is that I was never really sure when or if something I was tinkering with was going to affect the game, and I didn’t feel it fair to bother the organizers with every little question of, “Is this okay for what you intended?”
At first, I tried to limit myself to only filling in the specifically granted gaps and to be as true as possible to whatever vision the creator had when he made this character. As time went on, I slowly found myself making more and more compromises in the name of interesting story. I’d find myself thinking, “That’s… not EXACTLY what it said in the packet, but damnit if I don’t find that interesting”, and I would make it part of my character. In the end, I’m fairly certain I didn’t play the Herbert Klaus that inspired the character’s creation, but I am also fairly certain that’s okay; that the Klaus I played is just as legitimate and honors his initial creator just as much as me. Or at least, I hope it does. I hope that as he or she or they read the story that unfolded, they can see the elements they put in there and that they approve of how the character’s story unfolded.
Ultimately, though, whether or not the character is as he was ‘intended’ to be is irrelevant. End of the Line is a Vampire: the Masquerade game at its core, and one of the primary themes of Masquerade is Personal Horror. There’s a not-small amount of contribution that I feel is necessary in the creation of a character in order to really have the investment you need to be truly, personally horrified. I think not everyone needs as much as I did, and not everyone is willing or able to make that investment even if they do, and that’s okay. There are a thousand worlds underneath the sun, born of a thousand decisions made each day. Or, less poetically, you do you boo-boo.
In the end, what I wound up wasn’t the faithless nihilist I thought I was going to play. I bumped up the Self-Sacrifice a lot, imbuing in him a hatred of those who are strong and would pick on the weak (born of the fact that he now knows that there is no God to make sure that they get what they deserve). I made him not faithless, but a doubter; a man who lied to himself, telling himself that he believed God was dead, but with a small but very much real part of himself that kept insisting that he would find some proof of his faith and be able to live that way again.
I decided that I wanted to see if the world would affirm or deny that last vestment of faith; that I wanted to go in full Hedonist to see if there existed at The Line a single good soul who would pull him back from the brink of death or if he would die in a blaze of drug-fueled bad decisions. I didn’t put much thought into Klaus’s place in the supernatural; he was a pure mortal, and I was intent on making his story as pure mortal as it could be. So he was just a man on the edge of a chasm– a man rapidly nearing the End of The Line.
If you have a character in front of you right now, and it has a few paragraphs of text, three mechanic-less stats and some connections to another three vague paragraphs of text, then my advice to you is pretty simple: first, figure out what kind of story this character is designed to tell. The writers are all very, very talented people with a strong grasp of stories and the building blocks that make them. I promise you that there was some idea of a general direction for your character when it was made. If you can’t suss it out yourself, don’t be afraid to contact the organizers and ask. Once you know where the track begins, make it yours. Tear apart every single element of that character until you find something you connect with, or something that engages you, or even something that mildly interests you. “Play for what’s interesting” is a major component of the game, and it doesn’t start just when the LARP does. Discard what doesn’t suit you (I still can’t remember what that third trait on Klaus was) and when you’ve got the outlines of a character that interests you, then you can begin.
If you absolutely can’t find an angle on what you’re given that interests you, then you need to let the organizers know– sooner rather than later. And then try all of this again with the new character that you’re given. Once you have your baseline, then you can ripple outward from there.
When I looked at the character packet’s connections sections, I was initially pretty happy with what I saw there. My ties were to a girl my character was (probably stupidly) protective of and enamored with, an overbearing boss who seemed nice at first, and my drug-dealing club-owner friend from San Francisco. Of the three, it was my tie to Kristin that interested me the most. I knew that Kristin would be played by an amazing woman whom I have (in real life) something between a schoolboy crush and not-quite-a-relationship with, and I knew it would be very easy to imprint those feelings onto the connection. Knowing that I wanted to go into this playing for bleed and already having her contact info, that relationship was one of the first ones I sought out the player to establish.
As a note: negotiating character relationships is hard. It’s even harder when one or both parties have to keep some major part of their character’s internal nature a secret. Now that I think about it, it’s a pretty fitting metaphor for the Masquerade. If there had been any vampires in my connections, they would have to have constructed all this time we’ve spent together without ever revealing what they are.
I repeated the process for my connection to Jean-Pierre and Jonah, but won’t go into much of the specifics here. Suffice it to say that it involved some serious communication. One of my connections lives in Germany, so the hour-difference alone was a barrier! But it was worth it to be able to come into play and recognize at least three other people there, to know that the story that I had already put a lot of time and effort into molding to my own mind was able to reach out and touch other players.
If I have one word of advice about making connections: make them strong. Make them the kind of thing that will allow your fellow players to mention your character even if he never shows up to the Line. It’s not always a perfect goal, but if you and your fellow-player are willing to put in the effort, you can make it so that your character will be missed. Put together a memory or two, even if it’s just “One time, this thing happened”. There’s a lot of good things in the workshop that will build your character ties, and I wonder if it might not be a good idea for the organizers to release the “build character ties” part of the workshop ahead of time. It could allow for players to spend less time building new bonds and instead focus on restating the one’s already built. There will always be the player who shows up having communicated to absolutely nobody about anything character-wise, but I think they’re an exception and not the rule.
At-Game: The Workshop and the Experience
I covered the contents of the Workshop pretty clearly in Part One, so I’ll stick to what the workshop was actually like itself.
If I had to describe one detail, it felt “late”. There were so many questions, and so much to cover that I can see why some people might have felt that it was rushed near the end. I don’t personally mind that, though. We were finally covering things that mattered to me. Tools to help dig into the heart of what LARP could be, and also really useful tools for every day life! I honestly would have paid money just to attend the workshop and spend more time with the exercises. As it is, I recognized most-to-all of the techniques being taught to us, so I was able to focus on the subtle details of how THESE people implemented them.
For example, they used a three-sign response to the OK hand-sign check-in (you did read Part One, right?), whereas in Planetfall, we only use thumbs up or thumbs down. Small details like that. I was able to focus on my impressions of the tools they gave us, and how I felt about the way they explained them to us.
The major impression I got was that the creators seemed to share a worry that I had, too: that the information given was a LOT to go over and absorb in a single session. While, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t, I had a very real fear that we were going to run out of time that kept me (probably for the better) from asking all the questions I had, like Why these tools? How would you do X. What’s the best way to explain Y to players who don’t understand the concept? Reading through Johanna’s blog has done a lot to help answer some of those questions, and I’m preparing a list for them anyway because they said I could ask them any questions I had and have no idea the monster they have unleashed.
I don’t want this to worry you, too, hypothetical imaginary future End of the Line participant. So what I recommend is this: google some of the terms I used in Part One. “Check-In”, “Opt-Out”, and “Consent Negotiation”. Google nordic LARP techniques in general, and learn all you can. If you’re reading this hoping for advice on what to expect, then you’ve proven you have the two things you need to learn ahead of time: an Internet connection, and the drive to know more.
https://nordiclarp.org/ is an excellent resource that I used a lot, as are many of the people around you. I ask questions all the time of my friends Matt and Sarah, and now I have Johanna, Juhanna, and Bjarke to pester with questions, too.
Pay attention to the workshop activities. PRACTICE the things they are teaching you. The first time you actually do the things you’re offered, it will probably feel silly. If you happen to be practicing sexuality negotiation with a Canadian who has hair like the deep sea, then it will be incredibly hot, but most likely: silly. It’s important to practice them anyway, so they’ll be at your ready when they have context and won’t feel silly.
When the techniques designed to induce liminality begin, be aware of what they are and what they’re for. The more you are meta-cognizant of the what is happening around you, the more you’ll be able to participate.
I won’t go into too much detail how my personal story went. Instead, I’d like to tell you that it was everything I ever wanted. I jumped deep into exploring a man on the edge of a meltdown, which led me to a surprise I never expected. I learned that, for Klaus at least, people will do whatever it takes to look away from that darkness. I expected a man with nothing to lose to stare into the chasm that will be the wreckage of his life, but what I found instead is that Klaus took the first opportunity to fill that chasm with literally anything. And I saw first-hand how avoiding that emptiness can make you do things you never thought you would, stripping away all the good parts of you until there is nothing left but who you are at its core. And then I saw that there are some fates even worse than to be stripped down to the man you are at its core.
As for what to expect during the game: that’s your own surprise to find. I saw what I think are glimpses of the new canon meta-story for the World of Darkness, but they’re not my spoilers to offer and may or may not be real to begin with. Keep an eye out for the things that interest you: supernatural and mortal; play for what’s interesting. The negotiation tools can tell you how to play safely, but only you can tell yourself how to play in a way that will be fun. Chase after every little thing that even MIGHT be interesting. Dig down into someone else’s business or drag someone kicking and screaming into your own.
This is a Vampire game and, at least in my showing, the supernatural became a very real component. To the extent that you might have to choose how your character reacts to the world behind the World of Darkness. Use that: jump into Ghouldom, drink Blood all you want, and make otherwise terrible and questionable decisions.
Or don’t. There is no right way to play this. There is nothing wrong with being the only person there who did everything right and stood as the calm center of a giant storm of fucked-up-ness, so long as you personally enjoy that story.
I know that for me, when the game was over I had difficulty breaking away from character. Klaus was still infatuated with his new sire–it was the first feeling that I remember breaking apart from, was this intense desire for and affection of the thing that made him. As we transitioned back to ourselves, I remember thinking “I should probably stop petting her. That’s creepy.”
Post-Game: The I-Can’t-Tell-You-What-To-Feel
This is probably the hardest part of this blog to write, because it was the hardest part for even our organizers to express. There is no way to tell what you will feel after the game. There is absolutely no way to prepare you for what you will have in your heart and your head, because it could be everything and it could be nothing at all.
It’s important to go through this remembering that at the end of it, no one will be looking to quiz you on “what you learned” or “what kind of experience you had”.
If all has gone well, you’ll have a clear idea of who your character was. You’ll see thing inside him that you’d like to take with you, and you’ll have things you very dearly want to leave behind. The post-game debriefing was a really good way to formalize and structure these ideas, but I think the general gist of it will be to help you get every last bit out of the game you can. Pay attention to what your organizers are asking, and give them real consideration before answering.
After the game, you might still have some problems unpacking– or you might not. You might worry that you did too much, or didn’t do enough; that you didn’t “get enough out of it”. All of these feelings are okay. Ultimately, you’ll have learned something about yourself, even if it’s just that nordic-style LARP isn’t for you.
When you’re done with your experience, hit me up on Facebook. I’d love to talk about it with you, and see how your experiences differed from mine.
All is Love