One of the things I’ve been asked the most to write on is how well the integration of Nordic-style LARP techniques has fared inside one of the massive behemoths of American LARPing: the Mind’s Eye Society (previously The Camarilla).
After attending my first few LARPs that embraced Nordic techniques (brief shout-out to Planetfall by Matthew Webb, and End of the Line by Bjarke Pedersen, Juhana Pettersson & Martin Ericsson) I quickly discovered that there was a level of immersion that I had previously been missing in LARP, and that I wanted to take what I had learned from those experiences and bring them back into my first and favorite love: Vampire LARP. After being elected as the Sabbat Venue Storyteller for the Austin MES Domain, I began to do some preliminary workshopping for Nordic LARP techniques during game announcements. Specifically, I chose to focus on game play calibration techniques as I wanted to steer the Sabbat game towards the kind of dark themes that I knew it was capable of finding, while creating a safe space for players to explore those themes.
I began with two very simple techniques: the OK Check-In and the Bow-Out technique. Feel free to click those links for a more detailed description of these meta-techniques, but the short version is that they are methods of ensuring that players have a method of exiting situations that are distressing out-of-character, and differentiating between in-character and out-of-character distress. I also started a pre-game ritual which players have come to refer to as “The Circle”, which was designed to help players stay in-character by artificially reinforcing the boundaries of Alibi and establishing a temporal version of the Magic Circle.
In regards to the two calibration techniques I put into play, I wish I could say that the players immediately absorbed the information and ran wild with it, exploring the rich darkness of the Sabbat venue while establishing and respecting each other’s safe space. What did happen is that things remained more-or-less identical to what they had before, save that players were aware that I was going to make them test the hand symbols before the circle.
I saw the techniques being used extremely infrequently, if at all. Wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some kind of miscommunication, I spoke with players to ensure that they understood when, where, and how they were supposed to be used, and what they were for. Those talks were encouraging in that, on the whole, it showed that it wasn’t a lack of understanding the techniques that co-opted their use; rather, what I learned, it was a lack of belief in their necessity and usefulness.
The majority of the Austin Sabbat troupe’s player base are individuals well-acquainted with LARP–or, more appropriately, well acquainted with the way LARP had been run for the MES. To most of them, there was a kind of comfortable equilibrium that was established as to what the appropriate level of intense roleplay was and how much interaction with unpleasant themes and moods there would be. This pre-formed Castle of Consent meant that those players who were interested in exploring those unpleasant themes had already sought each other out and would do so irrespective of calibration technique while those who were unwilling or unaware of those themes maintained a more surface-level interaction with them.
This kind of implicit awareness of the subject matter is an interesting emergence; one that, I think, can only happen among a group that has played together for a long time in order to self-calibrate among themselves. While that kind of self-calibration can be intensely immersive for the players who exist inside the ‘bubble of spooky-dark’, I also feel like it is likely a strong detractor to new players who may not be immediately aware of the preferences of the other players.
(As an aside, I speculate that this reliance on implied calibration could also be a strong factor in the ‘cliquish-ness’ that is commonly perceived in the Mind’s Eye Society.)
While it was disappointing to see that players would rather have relied on their implicit analyses of each other rather than explicit check-ins, I do feel that the introduction of those calibration techniques was received well overall. While not completely accepted or internalized (I at one point overheard some players openly mocking the OK check-in system), I feel like there is still room in the MES for these kind of immersive tools, and I did find that establishing a pre-game ritual was a far more successful endeavor.
Unlike the calibration techniques, which were primarily focused around the idea of player safety, the pre-game ritual was something I wanted to establish in order to help clearly delineate the marker between “in-character” and “out-of-character”. By having the troupe assemble in a circle and state clearly “I am (their own name), and I will be (the name of their character)”, we allow for players to more directly transition to their character’s head space, and to grant them the opportunity and freedom to fully explore that space. After a player’s opening statement, it becomes explicit that they are no longer themselves, but have taken on the role of their character.
I’ve had a few players approach me about the circle, and say that it has the logistical benefit of clearly defining game-on and game-off terms, as well. However, I did learn in my discussions with players that its effectiveness in helping players feel more immersed into the role of their character varied: some found that it did not help at all, while others felt like it was a very useful tool. In general, I’d summarize the efficacy of the technique as ‘at least not-harmful’, which is to say that in the worst case scenario, it did nothing to hurt any of my players’ immersion, and provided a useful springing board for others.
That the results of the more successful of the two Nordic LARP technique experiments was “it didn’t hurt” says something about the paradigm inertia of established organizations, especially in regards to players who have been participating in the hobby a specific way for a very long time. That being said, I am in no way inclined to abandon the techniques; instead, I intend to work on a player-focused basis with specific players who show interest in these kinds of immersive techniques. Additionally, I hope to introduce two of my favorite techniques, the Bird-in-Ear and Consent Negotiation, to players who are interested in taking a more free-form approach to our shared hobby and it is my not-so-secret hope that buy-in from Jason Andrew and the By Night Studio’s team (for real, go buy this book: http://drivethrurpg.com/product/213624/Minds-Eye-Theatre-Immersion-Secrets ) will help make these kind of experiments more successful in both my home domain and domains across the entire organization.