Monstering: changes in the air

It has been a really long time now since I attended a fantasy LARP. Well over a year, and unfortunately my work and personal commitments this year make the outlook bleak. I missed much of last year due to personal and wedding plans,  and subsequently I’m a bit out of the loop on what is going on in our ‘finely woven webs of magic and belief’! I hope to attend 2-3 events later in the summer though, so hopefully we will have fabulous LARPing weather!

So this rather explains why the blog has remained in stasis for so long, but there are new entries to come! In this entry in particular, I have recently noticed that this year seems to be shaping up to be the year of controversy over monstering. So, for the non-LARPers out there, monstering is basically being the helpers, crew or bad guys in any given event (see my previous post). Monsters traditionally participate in events for free, and recieve small benefits in return: this is where controversy is emerging, as some events are beginning to request small fees from monsters to secure a place, or promising bigger rewards. There are always concerns for organizers about monsters, for several reasons;

1) monsters are a cost

Most sites have a per-person charge, or a scale of charges based on occupancy, so the price of tickets for players will always be directly or indirectly affected by the size of the monster crew. Even for the rare event which is being held on an open site, public liability insurance charges also scale on a per-person basis (usually at 50 participants, 100 participants, >150 participants basis though this varies). Keeping costs for players low therefore will always rely on having an effective and appropriately sized monster crew.

2) monsters are needed

A good quality event relies on good monsters who are experienced, informed and enthusiastic. Including organizers in the category of ‘crew’ here, it is simply impossible to have an event without them. It is also true, however, that player expectations in fantasy LARP are seen to demand fewer low-activity events where little effect can be made on the world, and more open-world events where players have free choice to engage in different aspects of the plot or storyline. These type of games require more props, bigger sites, and more monsters.

3) are monsters motivated?

Following the above very significant points, most participants (whether players or monsters) know that enthusiasm and contribution to the event can weigh much more than money. An eager monster who finds some great costume in a drawer and brings it along, a group of friends who come along as a group and can work well together to portray a military unit or even someone who gets enthusiastically stuck in to whatever job needs doing (even making the tea!) is an incredible contribution to the success of any event. Motivated monster crews are also important to increasing player numbers, because many people get their first introduction to LARP through monstering an event.  Yet this is a completely unpredictable element, which may rely fundamentally on any variety of possible causes, so may be nerve-racking for the organizers! There are little things that organizers try to do to improve motivation, including providing tea, coffee and sweeties, priority bunks, experience for your player character or other incentives, but these often include costs which need to be outweighed by the benefits. And there is always the danger that these incentives might drift into ‘payment’, resembling the feeling of work (see below).

 

So that explains why organizers might have to deal with conflicting ideas about what monsters should be expected to give or pay, and how much/whether they should be rewarded. Yet there also seems to be a problem for monsters around obligation and enjoyment which overlaps between the hobby and other commitments.

4) How much does it cost?

People volunteering to monster an event may well participate for ‘free’ but may have to pay associated costs of transport, catering, accommodation and equipment. These are the same costs that might be a part of playing the game, but with no guaranteed level or type of enjoyable participation in the game, and less leeway to ‘make your own fun’ these costs may seem more significant.

5) Am I having fun? (is this like work)

As a player, it’s easy to choose your own preferred style of play. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing very minor monsters; the squishy one-hit-goblin type who is destined to lose (as monsters are, unlike some amazing one-hit super-goblin players with magic swords I could mention). However if you prefer a competitive playing style, taking on roles where you have no chance of winning is not going to be particularly enjoyable. In addition, many of the other tasks that might be necessary as a crew member can be draining and mundane; too much like hard work rather than fun. Even an unlimited supply of sugar and caffeine can sometimes be a poor substitute for enjoyment.

6) Do I have to be here?

As paper bookings gave way to email and online forums have become wider through social media such as facebook, there is in some ways a stronger sense of a LARP community. But in some places this seems to put a serious (stated or implied) obligation on regular players to participate as monster crew or risk losing their hobby altogether. There is an equally strong tendency to report on events as they happen, emphasising what is sometimes termed FOMO (fear of missing out). Also, a wider reach of advertising about events puts more pressure on players and monsters to attend more events, and increases demand for experienced monster crew (including referees and organizers). This presents monstering as a more serious obligation, as a necessary way to maintain the community, adding a level of pressure which may simply override a decision to participate on other grounds.

These pressures on monsters and event organisers are hardly new. In addition, there have been a number of events in the past which have been so popular to monsters and players alike that these grievances have been shown to be insubstantial. But in the circumstances of rising site costs, rising transport costs, dropping player numbers and more significant ‘real-life’ demands, these problems seem to be getting squeezed from both sides.  Of course, this is only a rough summary of debates I have seen elsewhere and I am only adding a little information drawn from wider debates around conditions of economic life in the UK to spice up the discussion.

What has your experience been? As a monster or organizer what is your best experience of an event? Or the worst?

Comments especially welcome to this post!

 

 

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LARPwriting, the 25-step list…

Event organiser, LARP director, Entrepreneur, Logistics expert, Referee…being in charge of a LARP event makes you all of these things and more. Some groups attempt to separate the different roles of running a LARP event among a team of people but in many cases unless running a full-scale ‘fest’ system, one person will ‘wear many hats’. For the uninitiated these are some of the many tasks;

1. Register with a group to run an event using their rules system or design your own system and publicise it.

2. Survey and book a suitable site (scout camp, country house, self-catering cottage, municipal parkland…) for an appropriate date.

3. Purchase public liability insurance for your event.

4. Write an event plot which incorporates a scenario overview and planned ‘encounters’ to provoke crises, details any costume, props and makeup that will be required and outlines an approximate timeline of the narrative.

5. Write character details and background narrative for non-player characters of substance. Recruit volunteers to play these roles.

6. Book a caterer or plan catering for players and monsters/volunteers.

7. Create an advertisement or booking flyer. Advertise the event to potential players and  monsters/volunteers.

8. Write character outlines or request that these are submitted for review by players.

9. Take payments or deposits from players. Register monsters/volunteers and assign roles (including first aid or other roles as required by insurance policy).

10. Manufacture or purchase props, costume and makeup or special effects

11. Provide players and volunteers with all relevant and sufficient information they require prior to the event (including character information and OOC information such as directions or catering information).

12. Acquire radios or walkie-talkies if needed.

13. Arrange transportation of all relevant materials to the site.

14. Travel to the site to prepare the event. Walk over the site to ensure all locations can be used as planned for encounters. Make any last-minute changes or adjustments. Liaise with site manager and put up signposts to the event if required. Check all site facilities (e.g. bathrooms, lights) are functional. Check all props and equipment. Complete a risk assessment if required by insurance policy. Establish and set up any any set-piece areas. Mark out a control area or ‘monster room’. Direct caterers if required. Direct vehicles of volunteers and players as they arrive. Brief all volunteer crew and players.

15. Start the game…..

As may be clear from the above list, there are many tasks not directly involved in the ‘writing’ of an event. In fact, very few of the above tasks will even ensure that an event is ‘good’ or enjoyable for the players (and volunteers). If an event is poorly written, or if the caterers are not appropriately set up, or if all the players get lost trying to find the site….all of these things could result in a poor game before the game even begins. The tidy nature of the above list also conceals the chaos of organising many such events, when a site is re-landscaped or props are not transported to site on time, key NPCs are delayed by traffic and last-minute changes have to be made. Even these challenges seem quite orderly compared to the problem of trying to manage the budget or cash-flow of such an event. Many costs have to be paid up before the event is even advertised, and props can only be commissioned once money is available to pay for them. So the above list is really a misleading model of what might go into organising such an activity.

Any person or team running a LARP event may also face numerous challenges once the event begins. These might at first seem clear, but in so many cases the problem becomes remarkably complex;

16. Brief, make up and costume monsters, send out to ‘encounter’ the players according to the timeline.

17. Liase with caterers around timing of ‘crises’.

18. Adjudicate rules queries and provide players with information regarding IC enquiries.

19. Improvise additional encounters or set-pieces ‘on the fly’ to respond to player improvisation or to account for differences in the pace of the event.

20. Debrief monsters and NPCs to attempt to predict player actions.

21. Respond to any OOC problems with the site, catering or relevant crises.

22. Orchestrate the ‘finale’ of the event, or final encounter (this will often involve a larger scale written encounter with more significant props or special effects) to present a narrative ending – either by killing the player characters or through resolution of a final challenge.

23. End the game

24. Debrief players and volunteers.

25. Ensure all event materials are cleared up and site keys returned, any breakages noted and paid for. Collect all remaining consumables and props. Congratulate volunteers and players, then transport all materials off-site or to secure storage.

How hard can it be? Let’s take number 16. Do you have the person who wrote the narrative available to brief the monsters? Does everyone clearly understand the objective? Is the font size on the printout too hard to read in the approaching darkness of a crowded tent with few lanterns? Do you have time to brief the monsters after they are made-up or do you have to brief them during costume changes and make up being applied? Who is applying the make-up? Do they have the appropriate skills and expertise? Are the monsters allergic to latex prosthetics?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. Many of the articles I have read about running LARP events seem to concentrate on the narrative and matters of pace in the game, ensuring appropriate levels of immersion and so on. Yet this ‘directorial’ focus seems to obscure the ‘backstage’ chaos and skill which goes into any LARP event. Some games notably employ a ‘meta’ level of discomfort to players in order to help with immersion, insisting they ‘survive’ on their own rations and ability to find a safe space to sleep, another character trustworthy to keep watch and so on. Yet not all games (or game organisers) are prepared to take this line. The notion of ‘bleed’, a beneficial crossover between IC and OOC experience, is a helpful one in understanding why organisers may wish to promote such activity, yet how often do we see Conan the barbarian visit the lavatory, or Sherlock Holmes tying his shoelaces? In some cases the narrative genre which inspires the LARP event encourages the game to eliminate various spaces and activities from the storyline. In our pursuit of immersion, we have to make decisions about what will be part of the game and what will be outside of it. This post, then, simply serves to highlight the hidden parts of organising a LARP which nonetheless have a huge impact on the game itself.

Usual disclaimers apply. YMMV. Comments welcome.

What’s that coming over the hill?

…is it a monster?

Most LARP activities rely upon a crew of volunteers to run, often known as ‘crew’ or ‘monsters’. These volunteers may help with anything from digging holes, to acting out the roles of ‘bad guys’, refereeing game regulations or providing first aid assistance. They are usually rewarded in some way for their time and involvement, either through in-game benefits, or out of game considerations such as free food, indoor accommodations and the like.

Such a description does not really ‘fit’ the idea many people might have of a monster, or a monstrous agent. Quite the opposite. In the above illustration monsters seem to be quite helpful, self-sacrificing creatures; more beauty than beast. I thought in this post it might be interesting to highlight both the function played by ‘monsters’ in LARP, and a broader reflection on how monstrous they seem in general. To be more specific in the use of the term, although volunteering to monster, or ‘going monstering’ may refer to undertaking any assistant backstage task to facilitate the game on behalf of the organisers, in the majority of cases it refers to performing a costumed acting role according to a specified ‘monster brief’. A brief comprises a rough guideline from which the volunteer may improvise an appropriate script of dialogue or behaviour.

Igor, the servant of the god-like master

Where a player in a LARP game may have full control of their actions and dialogue, subject to the restrictions of their embodied capabilities, monsters can be understood as lesser people, subject to the whims of the organiser or referee. Some monster roles may involve representing ‘cannon fodder’ such as weak little goblins or gretchen tasked with inconveniencing players, who are obliged to slaughter the beasts and reaffirm their status as heroic figures (this is the LARP equivalent of removing a household spider from the bathtub). There is little opportunity, in such roles, for the monster to act autonomously or to sway the course of events.

Even in more developed monster roles, such as reoccurring appearances of ‘evil masterminds’ or knowledgeable figures to interact with players, the detail of the brief and the abilities associated with the role lie firmly in the hands of the organisers. Monsters, then, are in this sense the serfs of the fantastical performances constituting LARP events, with organisers and plot writers their masters. As creatures without free will they are not fully human, but stunted individuals subject to their Machiavellian overlords. In a sense, they are pitiable monsters, unable to reach the status of a fully autonomous player.

The mercenary, the gunslinger, the barbarian outsider.

Such a depiction of monstering is one many players would likely reject, as it is not entirely accurate and it is slightly derogatory. Like any labour, monstering is often a process with tangible and intangible rewards. To paint a picture of monster volunteers as shackled servants would be the same as stating that the ticket sales clerk at the cinema, or the teenager in the House Griffindor costume at a Harry Potter attraction is in some way ‘monstrous’. While Karl Marx would likely take such a view, it is perhaps worth exploring the potential rewards of monstering more thoroughly.

In most games that require significant numbers of monsters, a select crew of volunteers will be recruited for the whole period of the event. As well as the potential enjoyment offered in the guise of successful role performances, social camaraderie and broader exploration of the fantastical world experienced through the ‘bad guys’ perspective, monsters are also often provided with free food and/or board. In persistent game worlds, monstering may likely confer benefits on the volunteer’s player experience, through transferable advantages or items which have a particular effect in the game. These are often tailored to the volunteer’s preferences by way of a token exchange system, so those playing fighting characters might ‘buy’ a special weapon, while knowledge based characters might ‘buy’ access to libraries of information on languages or herbs.

Although in theory monsters might be paid in ‘real’ coin for their time, I have never encountered this or heard of it in the UK LARP context. The closest such exchange I have ever come across has been through payment ‘in kind’ in the form of monsters being offered the ability to keep game costumes or props for personal use, or discounts on such items from affiliated traders. However, there are distinctly intangible benefits accrued through regular monstering. Experienced monsters gain expertise in many aspects of the game such as the rule mechanics, the makeup and costume presentation of particular monster types, and in the improvised portrayal of diverse and sometimes complex roles. In each of these areas such stalwarts acquire a level of kudos or respect from the community, and are often consulted on difficult situations or recruited to show new volunteers ‘the ropes’. Such veterans are often identifiable by their extensive repertoire of stories or accounts of earlier experiences which often figure them in a significant (and at times even maverick) role. It is this social approval of the volunteering role that perhaps lifts the ‘monster’ from wage-slave to contributing citizen. However, as I once discovered, rejecting some form of payment is considered unacceptable, as such behaviour impunes the status of monsters as a whole as no more than the Igors described above. As much as such community members may be applauded, monsters must remain outsiders, secondary and parasitic agents.

The invisible man, the terrifying unknown

The function of monster roles in LARP is to introduce or advance moments of dramatic tension as part of the narrative encountered by players. However,
when they appear in the game, it may not always be apparent that they are a ‘monster’. Some games make frequent use of ‘planted’ characters under the control of the organisers, either to add drama to the game or simply to add colour and assist with creating a particular ambiance. Although referees and ‘backstage’ crew are frequently easy to spot by specific markers that denote them as outside the game world (high-visibility jackets, specific costumes or coloured markers are often used), many in-game monsters are carefully costumed to be indistinguishable from a player character. Although in many circumstances players within the game can identify monsters by their lower costume standards, or by recognising the volunteer as someone they can identify as associated with a different character, conspicuous by their absence, monsters which are concealed as players or simply well-costumed and prepared can pose an ‘invisible’ threat.

A key aspect of this lies in the function and status of a monster. These ‘monsters’ are dressed as players, in the same space as players, indistinguishable from them, yet their intentions are unknown, and may be threatening. These ‘double agents’ may be less attached to their roles than players, and as they are under the control or direction of the organisers their motivations are unpredictable. Should a monster ‘die’, they are likely to still fulfil their function by adding to the drama of the game, yet for such an occurrence to befall a player undermines their position as key agents or ‘heroes’ in the narrative drama. Monsters are in this sense a threatening ‘other’, different from players and yet seemingly the same. As chimera, in this sense monsters truly are monstrous since they illustrate the arbitrary distinction drawn between player and game-world. At the same time as monsters heighten and draw attention to that boundary, their task is to artfully conceal it from players; to promote a sense of ‘reality’ in the construction of the fantasy.

To be a monster at LARP is something of a double-edged experience. The very existence of monsters, as of the back-stage crew in general, is to perpetuate the dominant fictional narrative. Yet in the liminal space they occupy, the in-between world that separates the fantastical construction from the mundane one, monsters perhaps highlight the fragility of both those worlds.

LARP Glossary

I thought it would be helpful to people who are new to the idea of LARP to have some quick reference terms handy. These are just a few key words which are used frequently in the UK context with which I am familiar.

LARP Live Action Roleplay. A game of interactive theatre.

System Organising body of persistent world games. Also refers to the rule set used by that particular organisation

Player Self-determined participant in the game. Usually pays to participate.

Character Theatrical role created and performed by a player in line with the rules of the System.

Crew People helping to coordinate and run the event. May include monsters, logistical work (often hard labour!), referees, caterers. All non-Players (the majority of the time).

Keener A player described by other players as overenthusiastic about the game, to the extent that they may obsessively talk about the game world or display game behaviours outside of time in (for example, being in costume early).

Monster Volunteer theatrical ‘extra’ performing a predetermined role in line with the rules of the System directed by a referee. Usually also a player.

Monster Room Backstage, out of character area where volunteers await instructions and are provided with relevant costume and makeup to play their specified roles.

In Character / IC The state of performing the game. Also refers to geographical zones where the game is played, as in “this field is an in character area”.

Out of Character / OOC The state of not performing the game, or temporarily not performing a character role. Also refers to geographical zones where the game is suspended, as in “the bathrooms and showers are out of character”.

Referee An administrator of the theatrical performance, adjudicates on rules and facilitates game performance for players and monsters. Also ensures safety requirements are met.

Time In The beginning of the game performance. Also used as an instruction by referees to indicate the start of the game; “We’re now time-in”.

Time Out The end of the game performance. Also used as an instruction by referees to indicate the end of the game. The instruction “time freeze” is also used to temporarily suspend game performance.

Time Freeze A call made, usually by a referee, to temporarily suspend gameplay. This may be to set an effect in motion, introduce new elements into the game, or as a result of a safety issue. Players are required to remain in their current position and usually keep their eyes closed.

XP Experience points. An earned currency that allows players to improve their character’s abilities within the endogenous rules of the System.

Phys-rep Abbreviation of ‘physical representation’. A stand-in or prop indicating a reality within the game. Roped off areas may ‘phys-rep’ magical barriers, for example.