Experts have no Easy mode: guest post by Sebastian Gerstl

I had the good fortune to be cast alongside Sebastian Gerstl at Fairweather Manor 5: he had some thoughts on the Expert experience on Facebook I wanted to be able to find again, and he’s OK with them posted here, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Experts have no Easy mode – The challenges of playing an “Expert” at Fairweather Manor (from an outside perspective)

At Fairweather Manor 5, I was cast in the role of Earl Thomas Fitzgerald, head of the Irish household – a role filled with a lot of responsibility, and one that I felt honored to take on. As part of the role, I was a father of four, with a brother, a wife, the serving staff and two professionals in our employ to take care of – all present at the game itself. Most of these players I encountered for the first time in my life. And my personal experience at the LARP was a great one – I had a demanding but fantastic time, and I got a lot of positive feedback, not only from the players within my own family but from other players upstairs and downstairs alike.

However, there is one thing that left my experience with a bit of a sour note. Because when everything was over, I heard that the two experts in our family had a very hard time at the LARP – the couldn’t find their way into play, and by the time they finally got a grip on their characters and their possibilities at Fairweather Manor, the LARP was already pretty much over. As the days passed, I heard that other players in the “expert” category had similar problems – that they found it hard getting into play, had difficulties getting to grips with their characters and getting traction within the overall experiences of upstairs and downstairs world. Which is too bad – not only because they weren’t having as good as a time as the rest of the player base; but also because experts may have the potential of being the most important roles of them all, with a way higher degree of freedom than nobles or servants have. However, this exact potential is probably what makes Experts the hardest role to play at Fairweather Manor – especially when you’re a newcomer to this style of LARP.

The difference between the servant and the noble experience

Now, I’ve never been an expert at Fairweather Manor before – I have played downstairs twice (once as a personal servant, once as a regular Footman), and a noble character this year for the first time. But from what I‘ve seen or heard, I think being an Expert may be the toughest role to play at this kind of LARP.

Playing a Servant is comparatively easy, because it is very clear-cut what your job is: Serving. That might not seem very attractive at first glance; in fact, looking at the pictures, it seems like the LARP completely revolves around the experiences upstairs. But personally, I‘ve always found servant play VERY rewarding. Don’t know what to do? Go downstairs and see whether another servant is currently having a break. Or grab a serving tray and snoop around in some nobles’ quarters, pretending to clean away glasses or similar stuff. Ask the Butler if there’s a task at hand that needs doing. Yes, there is a lot of running around involved, and serving the nobles at dinner for 2 hours can be taxing – that part I would say is actual work! But there is definitely never a dull moment. You can play with the hierarchy downstairs and try to climb in respect, or you can share the feeling that you have a family of your own – your fellow downstairs servants, who know what it’s like to be in that role and not to be part of that flamboyant, self-righteous upstairs world. Also, while a noble usually only cares about his own problems, it’s the servants who are generally best informed about what’s going on in the ENTIRE house, not just within a specific family. And the servants have deep-seated problems of their own that may or may not be completely unrelated to the going-ons upstairs. There is a very strong bond between servant characters in my experiences. My servant character at FM4 never had a single relation to any upstairs character, but I still experienced a rich and rewarding LARP- one of the best LARPing experiences I’ve ever had, in fact! I don’t want to knock the noble experience, but I firmly believe that many people underestimate how great of a time you can have as a servant at this type of event. I’ve heard a few people say that they actually prefer the downstairs experience to the upstairs one, and while I would say that it is hard to directly compare the two of them, I can certainly see where they’re coming from!

Noble play, of course, seems to be the most attractive. If you’ve ever seen photographs from a Fairweather Manor LARP, you probably get the impression that this is what the LARP is all about – grandiose people wearing great costumes having the time of their life! And yes, it is also a great, very rewarding experience – though 100% different from what it’s like downstairs. I always had the feeling that if you are playing a noble character, the downstairs world ceases to exist for you – and I was kind of startled myself when I found that suspicion to be true. I actually knew about a few things that some servants had planned to do off-game that would have upset my noble character immensely had he ever found out (like the ‘secret servant party’ for example) – but in-game, I never noticed such a thing. The servant world and their problems virtually cease to exist, everything is really just revolving around you, your family and yours and their personal affairs. If you just want to relax and party, or sit at the sidelines and just bask in the overall atmosphere, it’s easiest to do as a noble: Just get an idea in your head, ask for permission, and then you can send off someone else to prepare location, drinks and send invitations. Invite someone for tea spontaneously – you will find a servant to fetch some for you. If you’re not just in this for the good times, you have a lot of motivations that draw you into play, whether it’s your personal problems or the ties within your family. You have a very clear idea how you would react to what player, and you have a very good idea where the boundaries lie – overstepping those boundaries, thus, also creates tension and generates play (but if you’re too careless about that, it creates problems for other players that you yourself might not be aware of… more on that later).

The Expert character – caught between worlds

And from what I`ve seen or heard, it seems this is what makes Expert roles the most difficult to play, especially for inexperienced players. They usually don’t have servants of their own, and their bond to “their” family is generally weaker than it is between family members – a brother would certainly have any sort of relationship with his siblings or parents, there’s not much to think about. But what reason would an engineer, who works for the patriarch of the family, have to interact much with one of the sons or even daughters? What are the motivations? And where exactly do the boundaries for interacting with the serving staff begin or end? Does he really care if he’s overstepping them? How much would his hosts care? There are a lot of questions here that more or less answer themselves when you are either a noble or a servant, but are way more difficult to pin down when you’re an expert, I believe.

Also, there is this feeling of belonging. In our case, we have had two experts that “belonged” to the Irish family. But I must admit, both my (in AND off Character) wife and myself had struggled a bit getting the relationship pinned down. For example, one of the experts attached to our family was a female psychiatrist – which, while certainly not impossible, was a rather uncommon profession for a woman to have at that time. However, both heads of the Irish household were EXTREMELY conservative and traditional. So one unanswered question that lingered for a very long time was the question of: who hired Dr. McEllen in the first place? How did she come into the family?

On top of that, unlike Nobles – which have a lot of family ties going on – and the servants – who as a whole have a very strong feeling of ‘togetherness’ and so more or less form a ‘family’ of their own – the experts don’t have these ties of ‘familiarity’. What do an American submarine engineer working for the Irish and a French poet have in common? Why would a psychologist hang out with a Playwright or a Banker? Why would they be aware of one another when they work for different families to begin with?Personally I’ve felt that the servant play is in some regards even more rewarding than noble play – but on the other hand, when you’ve got a noble role it really feels like the world is revolving just around you, and I can understand why many players would rather want that. Experts are caught in the middle – they don’t have that many concise goals and tasks to fulfill like servants do, but they aren’t as important and in the center of attention as the ‘true’ noble characters. Like I said, I have never played an expert before, but it seems to me that experts have a lot more homework to do in order to prepare for the role, set their own motivations and get strong ties and bonds to other players established than either nobles or servants have to.

Careless Nobles make it harder for experts

As I mentioned before, I think Experts can be great roles with a lot of potential – in theory, they are unbound by the limitations of either nobles and servants and can interact with whomever they want. However, these freedoms also break down the more players in both nobility and servant roles exist that do not care about these boundaries and constantly overstep them without consequences. That is another problem that makes Expert play more difficult – When Nobles or Servants get too chummy with one another, they rob Experts of one of their most distinctive features – and the Experts can’t do anything about it! So servants and nobles overstepping these boundaries need to be reined in BY OTHER, PREFERABLY NOBLE PLAYERS every once in a while, so that experts are able to play on that very freedom.

Unlike servants or nobles, the expert has no “Easy Mode”!

As I mentioned earlier, both of the experts were not having that great of a time at Fairweather Manor; one of them was a complete newcomer to the LARPing scene, while the other had a bit of experience, but was never part of this type of LARP – Nordic LARP or mainly communications-based ones – before. They did not blame us for not having a good time; still, as the head of their in-game household, I felt bad for not being able to draw them more into my family’s affairs and thus create more play for them.

I think it might have helped if we got to know each other a bit better before the game. In the Irish family, we had two family webcam chat sessions using Google Hangouts where every family member was there – with the exceptions of the experts and one Valet, who were invited but never found the time joining in. It helped getting to know every other player a bit better, it created a certain familiarity, it helped getting the feel for the family get nailed down and created ideas of what one could do. In hindsight, I think It would have helped if they had been present there as well – one of their biggest problems was that they felt a bit intimidated by our familiarity and overwhelmed by our (apparent) level of preparations for our roles. One of them told me that he didn’t dare approach me out of character and ask me for help or advice, as he didn’t want to ruin our immersion – but I would have loved to do so!

So, as it turned out, he was feeling unnecessarily inadequate and an alone, while I was completely unaware of what was troubling him. I think, had he been able or found the time to talk to me or other players in our family before the LARP started, it might have given him a bit more security and might have made it easier for him to approach us OC when he felt he couldn’t get into the play. But I don’t blame him that he didn’t – as I said, this was his first time at this kind of LARP (or any LARP, really), so how was he supposed to know? And like I mentioned before, it’s easier for a noble or a servant, because there are always others of their kind around – siblings or other servants – but as a noble, the number of in-game characters you could automatically relate to is much more limited, and you would also need to find them first (how DOES the psychologist in the Irish Family get in touch with the village Doctor, for example – especially when both players have no idea that such another character even exists?)

While it may seem that an expert role may be something of an “easy” start, like I said before I actually believe these roles to be harder than most other parts. They take more preparation, more planning, more involvement of the players to create motivations and contact points within the game by themselves. They are quite literally lost between two worlds, and the fact that they are still technically treated as “noble” by the game mechanics doesn’t make it easier. Both Servants and nobles can be played in some sort of “easy mode” setting: The “easy” servant just focusses on fulfilling orders, the “easy” noble just kicks back and takes in the atmosphere. But there is no such “easy mode” for Experts. A newcomer hoping for a relaxed time as a noble that gets thrust into an unexpected expert role can also cause a clash of expectations, I reckon.

How to improve the situation of the Expert?

So, what can be done about that? I am sure the Dziobak staff in general has already put a lot of thought into that, but from the top of my head, these are some ideas or questions that pop into my mind (some of these points may appear a bit redundant or address similar notions, so apologies for that, it’s just an unordered list of thoughts):

Don’t hand expert roles to newcomers. While it might seem that this would be the easiest role to just sit by the sidelines and take everything going on around you in in a relaxed fashion, it also detaches you from the rest of the game. It is very hard for new LARPers to create gameplay on their own accord, and as I said before, I believe the experts are the ones who need to do that the most.

Encourage newcomers to become servants or, if they absolutely want to book upstairs, try to cast them in some sort of “lower noble” role, where the expectations might not be so high? I know that is hard to do… but maybe it’ll help if you’…

Include a question (or in fact several questions) about Larping experience on the Casting Document? I do not recall the details of this years Questionnaire I’m afraid, but I believe there was only a question stating whether one had been at FM before. It would, however, be better to ask players: Have you been at a Nordic Larp before? Are you looking for plot, character or atmospheric play? Would you consider yourself to be a novice or experienced player? I know it must already be quite difficult to find the right role for the right player, especially if you’ve never encountered a particular individual before. But gauging the experience level might be more important for a LARP like Fairweather Manor than any other Larp I’ve ever taken part in. I mean that as a compliment, by the way – I truly feel that FM is a place where both Novice and Experienced Players can have a rich, fulfilling experience where both of these groups can constantly interact, much more so than most of the other LARPs I’ve been to in past years.

Create (more) Expert roles that have servants of their own. The period setting would allow rich Expert characters with their own Valets; a rich newspaper publisher for example, an industrialist or a rich Banker. You were starting to have people rising from commoner levels trying to get a knighthood of their own, and those kinds of people usually also got themselves servants to emulate the ruling class – and unlike some noble families they could actually afford them. A newcomer might have a much more easier time when he is paired with a personal servant; like I said, servants are the characters who tend do know best what’s going on in the entire household – by attaching a personal servant to an expert or an expert’s family, they indirectly get attached to that flow of information.

– Other Players, Nobles in Particular, must take care of keeping the boundaries between upstairs and downstairs intact. More or less, at least. That doesn’t mean that no noble should be allowed to become too familiar with servants or vice versa. But when other servant or noble players become aware of such a familiarity, they should act accordingly – they are violating an established order, after all! So you need traditional, conservatives figures that intervene and should actively take care to keep these boundaries – more or less – stable. Not only does that actually create even more play, it also allows the experts to let one of their “class features” shine. Besides, if to many nobles and servants became familiar, and the distinction between up- and downstairs went away completely, one of the major appeals of the game would go away completely – the fact that there even is an upstairs and a downstairs!

Make sure that experts know what will be expecting them. Experts are treated like nobles when it comes to ticket sales, but they are not treated as nobles during gameplay – even during workshops they form their own group. This causes a rift in expectations that – again – may be hard to overcome if you’re new to the game.

Try to connect experts with one another beforehand, outside of “their” respective families. Doctors and nurses should be aware of their existence; as should for example Lawyers and bankers, Poets and Playwrights, engineers and other sorts of “natural scientists” if available and so on. Professionals in particular should have connections outside of family bonds – after all, that is an essential part of their job! If for example everyone in the medical profession were aware of one another, they could find a reason to get together, have tea and discuss medical issues, etc.

– More than any other role, encourage experts to seek out other players to establish additional relations. Most of them are businesspeople or artists in their roles, after all – they DEPEND on having contacts across all levels of society. A simple Facebook Groups for FM: Experts is not enough I’m afraid; this time around there were many groups that didn’t see any action at all I’m afraid (I think there were just two posts made in FM 5: Old, I believe…?)

– Finally, one more piece of advice for Players in Expert roles: Talk to your nobles! If you are having a hard time finding your way into the game, feel free to approach them, without hesitation! In-game, they are your employers, so there should be enough reasons why they would want to talk to you or you to them. In fact, you can be less shy in trying to approach them than other players for that very reason – even other nobles, I would say. After all, technically you are part of their family. And if you still cannot find a way to get more play that way – talk to them out of character, or approach the organizers directly. The play at Fairweather Manor is generally very open; and if your fellow players don’t know that you are not having a good time, they cannot react accordingly and create or adapt scenes I a way that can help you with the amount of play you’re getting.

The Fairweather Experience needs the Expert Class!

I can absolutely understand why there is no separate ticket option for “Commoners” or “Experts” by the way. People who want to go for the cheaper option can book servant play – and these roles are already (unfortunately) hard to fill, as people tend to go for the more attractive “noble” option (because more people, at superficial glance, would like to see the world revolving around them than doing other peoples’ work, as I mentioned before – which is only human). Having a third ‘middle ground booking’ category as the go-between between “Cheap” servant tickets and “Expensive” Nobles would probably be a hard sell – And I can imagine that the cost for a noble and an expert role would be pretty much the same for the organization staff anyway. But maybe it would help making the distinction clearer? That alone might help many people get a better grip on the feeling and the importance of the role in advance.

Because let’s face it: Without the Lawyers and Engineers, the Doctors and Nurses, the Actors and Artists, the Bankers and the “nouveau riche” types – without them, the Fairweather experience would be much weaker. They were a very important, maybe even the most important, aspect and symptom of the changing times. So it’d be too bad if those roles were unattractive because expert players weren’t having as good a time as nobles or servants.

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