LARP Pitfalls... Part Two

Game Obstacles
These are matters that are unrelated to the plotting or character-creating aspects of a LARP

Accusations of GM favoritism
This one is most recurrent in an ongoing campaign, but it can come up in a one-shot game. I will admit right now that my own point of view on this issue might be unpopular.

GM favoritism happens. Cope.

That said, there are different flavors of GM favoritism, some more palatable than others. The most palatable variety is the GM who plays favorites with the most dynamic roleplayers. I've always believed that good roleplaying should be encouraged and rewarded - with more interesting/powerful/plot-dependant concepts. In an ideal world, the presence of such reinforcement will encourage everyone to become a "GM favorite" and the playing field is once again level. So I'm a crazy dreamer, so what? It's my game, darnit!

The less palatable - and, I will admit, less acceptable - flavor of favoritism is when a GM favors their out-of-character friends, regardless of their abilities. That sort of favoritism can sink a game.

If you are accused of playing favorites, ask the aggrieved player to provide examples and give their words some thought. Despite my pro-GM stance, there is always a possibility that the you have goofed. If you have goofed, swallow your pride, apologize to the players and take steps to remedy your behavior from that point forward. If you cannot rectify past mistakes, your players will leave and you will rapidly discover that it's hard to run a game without players...

The GM is the only person allowed to have a high-powered character
In my opinion the GM of a one-shot game shouldn't have a character, at all. A GM of such an event is going to be far too busy riding herd on the troupe, and making sure the plot plays out in a timely an appropriate manner, and that's a little hard to do if the GM is having an in-depth conversation with a single character.

If the GM insists upon playing a character, be it in a one-shot game or an ongoing campaign, the GM should not be the highest powered thing there unless there's a damn good reason. Rank hath its privileges and all, but abusing rank is a short-cut to player resentment - and resentful players tend to leave games.

Is the GM power level justified? Within CAST - a local Vampire LARP - I am the Character GM, and also play a fairly powerful character. However, that character started at the same level as every other beginning character, and earned her way up through Experience Points (awarded at the same rate as the rest of the players) and by just staying in the game for fifteen months. I came by that powerful character honestly, and I have already told critics to go hang - they could be just as powerful if they didn't change characters every three months. In this case, I believe that my character - a powerful character in the hands of the GM - is justified.

It is another matter entirely, for a GM to bring a brand-new character who could wipe the floor with the rest of the troupe, particularly if there is no good plot-reason for the GM to be wielding such power. I know some GMs believe that they should have a character powerful enough to 'nudge' the plot if needed, or kill a PC that is getting out of hand. I used to agree with this point of view, but no longer. NPCs and the occasional discreet word with a PC should suffice to keep any plot on track. If not, there's something wrong with the plot and that requires a GM to fix it, not a ten-foot-tall GM Powerhouse.

GMs should carefully consider whether or not to take on a character within their LARP. The easiest way to avoid accusations of being a piggy power-monger is to not have a character at all. Then, your attention can be fully focused on running your game, instead of divided between GMing and playing.

GMs Who Railroad the Game
Railroading - to deliberately manipulate PC actions (more so than usual) in order to force them to follow a certain course of action. Railroading can take a variety of forms, from fudging dice-rolls, to withholding information that the PC has earned - but you have decided the 'time isn't right for that to get out, yet' - to throwing hastily-conceived obstacles into a PC's way to change his course of action.

GMs need to be flexible - it's part of the job. Players will always do the unexpected (and how!) and a game-master exists to keep the plot flowing despite these little hiccups. It is not the GMs job to force the players back onto the "anticipated" course of the plot. As mentioned in Part One, sometimes the troupe will wander off on a tangent. That's okay. The players want to finish the game as much as you do and they will come back onto the map. Far better that they do it following their own route, rather than being forced onto the main road by a GM. A little nudge is acceptable. Flat-out sitting on, for example, vital plot information until you think the PCs deserve it, despite the fact that they had a hugely successful research roll half an hour ago is not acceptable.

This is a tough problem to solve, as most GMs are either unaware that they are pushing matters too hard, or they're convinced that such pushing is their sacred right and vital to the game. It's up to the players - or a co-GM - to point out the situation, and they might be rather reluctant to do so, particularly if it's a case of the GM considering the game to be his sacred, flawless child. But, for the good of the game, someone is going to have to point this out, so it may as well be you.

If you are a GM and have become aware that you're manipulating events too much, take a step back and try to examine your plot objectively. You are probably pushing matters because you feel a certain plot element is being ignored/moved upon too quickly. Take a tip from the Zen masters for this one: Let it go. There is no rule which states "All plots must be played out to their conclusion". Sometimes, players lose interest in a plot line, or just plain forget about it - this is particularly true in an ongoing LARP campaign. So be it. Your job is to be flexible and keep the game-as-whole on its feet, not carp about distinct plot lines being pursued all the way to the end. Just make a note of the consequences of ignoring that particular plot element ("So, when Mr. Jameson tries to summon the Awful Monster, he does not have the Binding Spell") and keep on.

Railroading a plot is ugly, hamfisted and players can spot it more often than most GMs would like to admit. If your plot is so sacrosanct that you will rail-road your players into fulfilling your vision, then there's a problem with your plot. Well, it's that you need to go into theater where you can justifiably bully people.

The location does not suit the game-needs
I've run into this one, several times. When running Evil At Bay with Serious Moonlight, we had been promised a large space at a local convention, and we plotted accordingly, announcing our intention to accept fifty players. When con-day rolled around, we were crammed into a space that was half the promised size and entirely short on much-needed electrical outlets. In another instance, two-weeks before con-day, I discovered that I was expected to run the Chuckling Cthulhu event Deep Secrets (set on a research submarine) in a large pavilion tent that had been pitched on the lawn of the game site.

In the first instance, we had to grit our teeth and bear it. The players crammed into the space and, as the game unfolded, the sense of claustrophobia enhanced tension and, in general, it all turned out quite well. In the second instance, I couldn't perceive of a way to make a dank, sabotaged submarine setting work in a bloody great tent at noon, so I tossed that game out and wrote an entirely new event - Pandora's Carnival - which made a logical use of the pavilion and outdoor setting.

In both cases, the convention staff were given a right earful by the GMs after the events' conclusion.

As I mention in How To Run A LARP At A Convention, you should take the time to check out your space - preferably far in advance of the convention. The same goes true for if a friend of yours has offered their house for a special event. Check the place out before you make any irrevocable commitments.

But, unexpected things do happen. If your location is too small, inquire as to whether or not you can have the game 'overflow' into other areas - be it the patio at the convention site, or your host's back yard. If the location is too large (oh, to be so fortunate!), then break the space up with whatever furniture you can lay your hands on (gaming tables, folding chairs, room dividers, whatever) and also create focal points - clusters of chairs where weary gamers are likely to sit down - to keep your troupe in physical proximity. Keep an extension cord in your trunk for those moments when you discover your short on outlets - or ask to speak to the convention-site's engineer, as they will probably have spare cords to loan out. You're a GM, be flexible.

Once the event is over, then you can decide if you need to shout at anyone. More often than not, your game will have come off successfully, despite that initial hiccup, so what would have been a screaming diatribe before the event has now been reduced to a few polite-but-firm words asking that, next time, perhaps an advance warning to the GM that there are no power-sources at Location X would be a good idea...

The GMs are having difficulty keeping each other informed of plot-progress
This one comes up when you have chosen - or been forced - to spread your event out over a large area. When you have three separate game areas, all of them at least fifty yards and a set of stairs apart, it can be a challenge to remember to tell your fellow GM that the Austrian Ambassador just met a grisly end at a cricket match, and will be returning as a zombie, shortly. By the time you've found your fellow-GM, you've forgotten what you wanted to tell him.

One word: radios. Motorola et al produce very serviceable radios for $25/$30 apiece. If you're too poor for that, ask around, as you probably have a friend who owns a pair. These radios have a range of up to a mile, usually work within a building - just make sure you're not using the local security frequency - and last about six hours on a set of batteries. Better yet, you can buy earpiece/microphones for most models, which enable you to communicate confidentially with your fellow GMs, so there's no risk of players at the other end hearing about the unfortunate Ambassador's anticipated return...

If you can't afford radios, beg, borrow or steal a handful of celphones from your friends, and promise to pay for minutes used. It might cost you a couple of bucks, but better that than having your entire game fall apart because neither GM X was unable to tell GM Y that the Vast Monster had already been summoned by the old professor...

Persistence of "meta-gaming" (aka "cheating")
As you might guess, I've got some strong feelings on this issue. First, let me explain what I've witnessed under the label of "Meta-gaming" so that we're on the same page. Player A watches the game's GMs closely, and notices that the GMs spend a lot of time in confab with Player X. In-character, Player A has no connection with Player X, but Player A decides that, since the GMs clearly consider X to be important, he must be a plot-vital character, so therefore, Player A should go hang around Player X with all due haste before they miss something exciting.

Where I come from, that's taking an Out-of-character observation (The GMs talking to Player X) and making an in-character decision (Player A decides to hang out with Player X). A shorter word for that is cheating.

There is no justification for taking out-of-character hunches and playing them in-character. 90% of roleplayers I have encountered are very faithful in following that rule. Even if you know, OOCly, that following a course of action will get you stomped, you follow it anyway, because it's in-character for you to do so. It's that other 10% that get a GM down.

Like with Social Butterflies (see Part Three), you should take a meta-gaming player aside and warn them that you don't tolerate such behavior and that the offending player has just used the first of their three strikes. Your player might take great offense at the accusation, but stand your ground. "If there's been a horrible misunderstanding," You say, "then obviously I'm not going to have to mention it again." Let the player back into the game, warn your other GMs about them, and then keep an eye on the situation.

Meta-gaming is hard to spot, but it can be done. In my opinion, it should be treated exactly the same way as cheating - as an offense that will get a perpetrator bounced out of the game. After all, such "meta-gaming" can easily unravel your well-crafted plot and for no good in-character reason.

The GM is burning out, but won't admit it
I get into this a bit over in GM and Player Responsibilities to a LARP and it's a problem that's going to occur only within an ongoing campaign, rather than a one-shot event, but it's still worth addressing, as GM burnout is an ugly thing.

When you've got a GM who declares that they hate the game, but continues to run it... When your GM is showing a distressing frequency of drinking themselves during the game... When your GM quits administering plots, dodges communications and is surly to their co-GMs... You've got a burned-out GM on your hands.

Burnout is an ugly thing. I've been through it more than once, myself, so I know whereof what I speak. A lot of GMs feel an obligation to keep a campaign going, to keep the players 'happy', despite the fact that it's plain to everyone else that the players would be much happier if the GM could relax and take a break. Us GMs are an egotistical lot - we have to be, to run LARPs - and it's hard for us to admit when we've worn ourselves out and it's time to let the game go on without us. Clearly, the GM has forgotten the first rule: Always have fun!

Tip to GMs who are burning out: Gritting your teeth and nobly sacrificing yourself to the game is a bad idea. You are giving off resentful vibes that are making your players feel guilty and uncomfortable, and you're still going to fall apart and sooner rather than later. Do yourself and your troupe a favor, acknowledge that you're tired, you need a break, and step down. Either give the reins of leadership to another GM, or shut the troupe down entirely. Just do what it takes to get out. And don't bite the heads off your concerned players who have tried to suggest that you need a break - they're just trying to do what's best for the game and for you.

A GM who will not admit burn-out is going to destroy their game. As the game is neglected and word gets around about the GMs behind-the-scenes martyrdom, the players will see no reason to stick around, and they will leave the troupe in droves. This will happen, I assure you. Take the graceful way out, and as soon as you start feeling resentment overtaking your pride in the game, step back. You will recover and a graceful exit greatly enhances your chances at recruiting veteran players when you're ready to start again.

Return To Part One

LARP Advice

Go On To Part Three