“Alien” characters and making them work: guest post by Robin Steen

I’m a bit of a fan of the College Of Wizardry as I’ve previously frothed here. Or rather, I’m a bit of a fan of a particular style of CoW – it’s a sandbox larp, and the style of play I like about it is far from the only one. Robin Steen of Dziobak Studios kicked off a lovely thread on the many playstyles – “Which element of CoW was your favourite, the first time you went?” 

Some folk like the same things I do in their larp, some don’t. No surprise.  Then on that thread, he referenced the following post he’d made elsewhere on Facebook, which I thought was an interesting bit of experience about “increasingly “extreme” characters/settings/storylines”. I think it’s worth remembering, and with his permission here it is.

“Disclaimer: This is by no means a “You must do this” or “You can’t do that” thread. I’ve been LARPing since the 80s, and I’ve accumulated a number of experiences that may or may not apply to you. Do with them as you please.  🙂 

A number of years ago, I spent a lot of time playing World of Warcraft on Argent Dawn, a roleplaying server. People got really into it, and I learned a lot about text-based roleplaying, and what you can do with it. For years, we told stories about our characters’ adventures in Azeroth that I still remember fondly.

After a while, things began to change. People had been playing the same kinds of stories for a long time, and many of them began to experiment with tales of demonic possession, half-angelic night elves, death knights (before that was a thing), etc. etc. The limitations of the game mechanics began to show, and players took to emotes and a mod called “FlagRSP” (pictured) to describe their characters and their actions.

I understand why people did this (if a game keeps being more of the same, there’s a good chance the players will lose interest). However, people seemed to experience what I call “diminishing returns”; doubling the extreme situations/stories/characters did not mean doubling the fun. In particular, a lot of players ended up with something that seemed like a great idea to them, but which didn’t work for the players around them, for a number of reasons.

In College of Wizardry LARPs, I’m beginning to see the same situation as the one I saw in World of Warcraft ten years ago. People are playing the same game, but with increasingly “extreme” characters/settings/storylines. This is not a bad thing in itself, but there are a few considerations I think are necessary in order to make it work in a game with 100+ other players. I’ve tried to break it down in a few headlines:

– What you see is not what others will see

One of the many strengths of the CoW setup is that a lot of people can have different experiences, and they will still be able to exist in the same space. I’ve seen one interaction interpreted in several very different ways by different players. All of them made sense, and they didn’t “clash”. However, you should keep in mind how other people will experience your character. Talking to people beforehand is always helpful, of course; sometimes we need other players to “play up” our character (just make sure they’re cool with it). But do try keep in mind how the people around you are likely to perceive you and your actions.

– We are (somewhat) limited by reality

Yes, boo, I know.  We’re LARPers, and we shouldn’t let little things like facts, reality, and the laws of physics get in our way. Even so – if you want to play a character who is literally on fire 24/7, chances are that people will forget that this is the case, or worse, that people will want to forget. Players must always have a chance to opt-out, and what may seem like an awesome concept to you might not really work in the grander scale of things. I find it helpful to ask myself two questions: “Will this still work after 48 hours of game time” and “What would the game be like if everyone did something like this”.

– Alien characters should be alien

One of the greatest compliments I ever got for a character was when I played a professor who was briefly possessed by the spirit of a dead colleague. The reason it worked so well was contrast; the two characters obviously looked exactly the same, but they were very different from one another in speech, movement, and mannerisms. Whether you want to play a thousand-year-old vampire or a changeling who has no experience with the human world, I recommend that you look into ways of making it look as inhuman as possible. And keep the above two paragraphs in mind: Will that work for three days straight, and will people see what you’re doing?

– If it’s too subtle, people might miss it – If it’s too far out, people might want to miss it

This is really complicated, but here’s the gist of it: There’s a balance. It’s hard to find. Talk to the other players beforehand. I recommend keeping it simple, but clear. If you can describe most of your character concept in five words or less, chances are it’ll work well in a large group of people. Also, consider how the characters around you are likely to respond to a certain concept. If you want to do something that is going to piss off 90% of the faculty, check with them first, and expect conflicts.

Finally, I will say this: Beware the lure of the “Mary Sue” character: Just because you really want to play something doesn’t mean it’ll work at the LARP. If your concept depends on people around you to act a certain way, consider whether that is realistic in a game with 100+ players who all have their own concepts and complicated storylines. Of course it’s fine to play a bully who needs a few people to play scared of her. But you should perhaps reconsider if your character needs everyone around them to cower in fear, or be on fire, or understand the turmoil you are caught in when your Telepathic Telekinesis Demon Half Queen Vampire Night Elf is wearing a vampire heart around her neck.”

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