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Safety and Calibration LARP Mechanics

by Hawke Robinson published Jun 21, 2017 12:44 AM, last modified Jun 21, 2017 12:44 AM
Creating a Culture of Trust through Safety and Calibration Larp Mechanics
https://nordiclarp.org/2016/09/09/creating-culture-trust-safety-calibration-larp-mechanics/
When Ben Morrow and I decided to offer a College of Wizardry-like experience in North America in April 2015, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Not only did we need to form a larp production company, secure the venue, build the costumes, obtain props, find players, and all the other duties associated with organizing a larp; we also had to write an entirely new magical universe for North America. We had to design the larp for what would be a predominantly American and Canadian audience, players who were not used to playing in the Nordic-style.
Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, creators of New World Magischola. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp LLC.

Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, creators of New World Magischola. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp LLC.

Even if we seeded the game with experienced players of Nordic-style larps, we knew we wouldn’t have what Teresa Axner refers to as “herd competence,”[1] whereby enough players in the game understood and used the Nordic-style of roleplay, thereby bringing along the players who did not. In fact, we knew we would have a herd competence of a different kind. We would have the majority of our players whose only larp experience was playing in the kinds of larps that are mainstream in the US and Canada: campaign boffer larps set in high fantasy, medieval, or post-apocalyptic settings; or Mind’s Eye Theatre White Wolf games, especially Vampire. All of these larps rely on statistics, skill calls, points, levels, and numeric combat resolution, as well as gamemasters and storytellers. New World Magischola would use none of these. Thus, we not only had to pay careful attention to the design of the game, but we also had to teach nearly all of our players — who were primarily either first-time larpers or larpers who had only played numerical mechanics-heavy games — how to play in this style. That meant developing explicit mechanics and pedagogy for some of the techniques that are now an implicit part of the Nordic- style larp culture. It’s also worth noting that the needs of each of these types of players in our primary participant group are different. The safety, calibration, and culture design system had to be flexible enough to work for each player, no matter their experience.

Because this game and universe was new for North America, we had the opportunity to create a game ethos and community culture from the ground up. For us, this project was always more than making a wizard college. It was about changing larp culture to make one that was based on the feminist principles of value, care, and compassion. So, while the structure of the larp is very similar to College of Wizardry, the community design principles and the magical universe is unique. Larp designers are fundamentally experience designers. Often, we tend to concentrate on the organization aspects of the larp, e.g. logistics and scheduling. By design, we tend to think of lighting, sound, and other aspects of how the story will be told. What is often overlooked in design – or left to the “herd” – is how players will interact with each other, both in- and out-of-character. Since larp is experienced generally between two or more people, it is interesting that we often do not consider designing the community principles, norms, values, and behaviors that are expected of players and characters,[2] which fundamentally impact the experience of a larp. Yes, as designers we will post mission statements, creative visions, and even conduct policies, but how do we go about naming, modeling, teaching, and enforcing the game ethos and community culture that undergirds, predicates, and indeed makes possible the creative and artistic experience of the larp? This process must be intentional, and it must be designed and practiced by the participants so that they can express it. This article will discuss a system of techniques and mechanics developed or adapted for New World Magischola (NWM), a 4-day Nordic Style larp for 160 people, set in a magical universe specifically written for North America.

New World Magischola’s design is based on the Opt-In/Opt-Out Design principles espoused by Johanna Koljonen[3] and requires the consent of the player to have anything happen to their character. These principles of “no one can do anything to your character without your consent” and “you consent to role-play at the level of your individual comfort because you are in control of your character” are largely unheard of in North American larps pre-NWM, although they have been used and discussed in Nordic Larp communities[4] for many years. Many North American larps operate on principles that discount bleed[5]  between player and character, consider discussion about the player during a game to be evidence of bad roleplay or metagaming. Additionally, some players value ambushing and/or betrayal by gamemasters and other characters as the norm of play. Players of these games know that at any moment in any game a more powerful character could flash statistics and end your game, including killing your character. For very real in-game and off-game consequences, these players tend to have their guard up throughout the game, suspicious of the motives and honesty of other characters, and often of the players who portray them.

Negotiated magical spells in NWM3. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Negotiated magical spells in NWM3. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

We set out to create the opposite type of game by building on what College of Wizardry began. CoW uses consent-based spell mechanics, whereby the recipient of the spell decides its effects. The College of Wizardry design document overtly states that wizards have a variety of sexualities, working to normalize a variety of relationships and identities at the game.[6] To design the game ethos and community culture for New World Magischola, we would:

  1. Use feminist and queer design principles to explicitly write a world and characters that showcases non-masculine, non-heterosexual identities in positions of power;
  2. Write character and player norms that value self-determination, autonomy, and expression of identity, and;
  3. Write mechanics that both establish and reinforce a community of care.
A vampire and a poltergeist pretend to face off in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

A vampire and a poltergeist pretend to face off in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

This article discusses the workshops and mechanics used in New World Magischola to establish and reinforce a baseline culture of empathy and compassion for fellow players.[7] This ethos and environment was necessary in order for players to feel safe and able to take the risks that role-play requires, particularly play that is in a completely different style than most of our players were used to experiencing. Subsequent pieces will look at the feminist and queer design principles and how they were aligned through world-building, characters, workshops, and mechanics. These topics are intertwined, but looking at the discrete mechanics created or adapted for New World Magischola demonstrates not only how players accessed the game, but also how they discovered a new way of playing that valued them as individuals and as members of a community collaborating to create a powerful and transformative experience.

Community Design is a System — with Rules and Mechanics

First of all, we have to acknowledge that these techniques are game mechanics. We often like to state that Nordic larps don’t have rules or mechanics. It is true that these larps don’t have skill calls and points and hierarchies, what are often referred to as mechanics. But as Johanna Koljonen and John Stavropoulos remind us in a recent Game to Grow webisode on Emotionally Intense Play, Calibration, and Safety,[8] it’s a mistake not to think about safety, calibration, and culture-building tools as mechanics. They are systematized and symbolic actions, norms – and, dare we say, rules – for accessing and regulating play. They are, at their definitional heart, mechanics that govern player and character interaction. It’s time we recognized the tools used to create and moderate safety, play calibration, and community culture as the mechanics they are.

The mechanics featured in this article and pre- and post-game workshops at NWM were developed by Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman, and Harrison Greene. They were implemented — and revised and re-implemented based on player and staff input — at the four runs of New World Magischola held in June and July of 2016. Each game had roughly 160 players, so these mechanics were tested and evaluated on approximately 600-700 players who came from 40 US states, several Canadian provinces, and four European countries. The eight safety, culture, and calibration mechanics used at New World Magischola discussed in this piece are:

  1. Normalizing a culture of Player Care: “Players are more important than games”;
  2. Normalizing off-game moments for player negotiations using “Off-game”;
  3. Checking-In with fellow players using the “OK Check-In”;
  4. Slowing or stopping roleplay using “Cut” and “Largo”;
  5. Graceful exits and calibration using “Lookdown”;
  6. Negotiating physical roleplay (aggression and sexuality);
  7. Pronoun Choice, Placement, and Correction, and;
  8. Full opt-out of romantic play using a sticker on the nametag.

Additionally, this article will discuss the inclusion of the metagame characters of in-game/off-game Counselors, who were responsible for participant care.

New World Magischola students work together to heal a professor of a previously uncurable curse. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp LLC.

New World Magischola students work together to heal a professor of a previously uncurable curse. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp LLC.

New World Magischola had four hours of workshops prior to the game beginning. The workshops used at NWM were explicitly designed to teach the safety, calibration, and opt-in/opt-out mechanics of the game. We would have preferred to have used even more time for workshops, and some player comments in the post-game survey corroborated this preference, but we were managing both player expectations and venue constraints with the four hour timeframe. In North America, with the exception of the small group of people who have experienced Nordic-style or freeform larps either in Europe or in small pockets at conventions in the US, larps do not have either pre-game workshops or post-game debriefs. Participants come to weekend or multi-day larps to play, and the concept of off-game workshops was both new and subject to a great degree of skepticism. We had to work to sell the concept of the workshops and to explain that they were an integral, and indeed mandatory, part of the game experience. [9] The four hours allowed us to get through much of what we needed to workshop. However, one of the takeaways from the four NWM runs is that six hours of workshops would be preferable in order to expand the negotiated physical role-play portion, both for greater specificity and for more intentional practice and modeling. More time would also have allowed for the additional development of character ties. The larp also featured a designated Sanctuary space where players could go for off-game quiet, rest, refueling, or conversation, as needed.

Greene running a workshop in NWM 1. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Greene running a workshop in NWM 1. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

1. Normalizing a Culture of Player Care

In many gaming cultures, the game is considered paramount. Players will make decisions regarding their own safety, comfort level, and needs by considering the impact on the game or their characters first, and the impact on themselves second (or even last). Breaking character is frowned upon, as is admitting player needs or emotions, which are seen as interrupting the game. While many larps have procedures for physical safety and mechanics to use if someone breaks an ankle or hits their head, the majority of North American larps do not have systems in place to account for a player’s psychological or emotional comfort and safety. In some cultures, attempts by players to opt-out of certain types of play, or to problematize certain themes — such as sexual violence — as triggering results in in- or off-game consequences, or a perceived assault on the game’s creative vision. Recent changes, such as Mind’s Eye Society’s summer 2016 ban on rape and sexual assault in World of Darkness games, are increasing the discussion around player safety and care within gaming communities and fictions.

At New World Magischola, we had to introduce, reiterate, and enforce this reversal of importance: Players were the most important element, not the game.[10] Players were urged to put self-care first. Self-care included physical needs such as sleep and hydration, but also individual psychological and emotional needs. Players were continually told that no one can make them role-play something or participate in something without their consent, and that no one can cause their character to experience something that they do not find interesting. The culture of this larp worked as the reverse of most mainstream North American larps: player autonomy and choice trumped “game needs” and the mechanics both encouraged and enforced this principle. Players faced no adverse in-game or off-game consequences for choosing self-care; in fact, it was celebrated. Once players realized self-care was the norm, they felt more comfortable exercising the other techniques described below, which specifically helped them make self-care calibration choices.

Students show empathy for a chupacabra in NWM3. The rights of parasapient creatures are a major subject of debate in the larp. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Students show empathy for a chupacabra in NWM3. The rights of parasapient creatures are a major subject of debate in the larp. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

2. Normalizing Off-game Moments for Player Negotiations Using the Cue “Off-game”

This mechanic may seem very simple, but we needed to establish that it was not only okay to pause the game for a moment, but we actually preferred players to do so in order to clarify or negotiate. For many players accustomed to the norms of campaign boffer larps and MES vampire larps, “breaking game” is anathema and players are expected to either guess at levels of interaction, be surprised by them, or to tough through off-game player needs for fear of being derided or ostracized for breaking character and “ruining” someone else’s game. The mere idea of quick off-game negotiations was already a change for our player base, as was the idea that such negotiations were considered normal and helpful, not “bad roleplay.”

The idea of an off-game symbol was known to most US larpers, where it is often used to pass unmolested through a camp because you are not “in play” at the moment, e.g. you cannot be attacked. We elected to piggyback on a known symbol, raising one’s fist to the forehead to signal “Off-game,” and to use the word “Off-game” to signal that the following conversation was between players and not characters. The hand-signal was intended to be more of a shortcut and to be used to signal at a distance, and the use of the verbal cue “off-game” was more for use during character interactions, but we did not make it as clear as we should have that one could be used without the other. We had to calibrate after the first two NWM runs when some players kept their fists on their foreheads during an entire off-game conversation, which was fidelity to the mechanic, but not necessary. To avoid players having their hands on their heads so often – an action that some found immersion-breaking since it is unusual for “normal” behavior – we clarified that it was a quick signal and then the hand could be lowered or one could simply use the phrase “off-game.” I prefer reliance on the verbal cue, “off-game,” but the hand signal does retain some utility for loud situations or use at a distance. It’s important to think about players’ access to the tools and to have alternative versions, e.g. in case the audible one can’t be heard or the gesture can’t be made due to hands being unavailable.

A poltergeist disturbs a Magical Theory and Ethics class in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

A poltergeist disturbs a Magical Theory and Ethics class in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

NWM piloted two new safety, culture and calibration techniques: a revised version of the “Check-In” with fellow players and the “Lookdown.”

3. Checking-In with Fellow Players Using the “OK Check-In”

This technique uses a discreet hand movement of making the “OK” symbol at another player, who is then tasked with responding in one of three ways: thumbs up, thumbs down, or a flat hand/“so-so” gesture. Flashing the “OK” symbol as a gesture to indicate concern for another player appears to have developed as emergent play in some US larp circles in 2009 or 2010. Rob McDiarmid reported using it at a game around that time and Aaron Vanek and Kirsten Hageleit later used the “OK” symbol to check in with each other during larps in Southern California. The Texas game Planetfall has used a version of the Okay symbol for the last couple of years. The current version of this response system — thumbs up, thumbs down, or flat hand — was unique for New World Magischola, although Koljonen writes of its recent use in the American run of the Nordic Vampire larp End of the Line here.

The Check-In Procedure:

  1. Player 1 flashes the “OK” symbol — with the thumb and index finger touching in an “o” and the other three fingers extended upward — to another player and establishes eye contact. This gesture means “Are you okay?”
  2. Player 2 responds to the signal with one of three responses:
    1. Thumbs-up, which means “Doing fine, no need for follow-up.”
    2. Thumbs-down, which means “I am not okay.” Player 1 should respond by asking if the player needs to see the in-game/off-game counselor or go to the off-game room.
    3. Flat hand, which means “I am not sure.” Player 1 should still respond by asking if the player needs to see the counselor or go to the off-game roomcheckin
    4.  Additionally, a player could proactively flash the “OK” signal when displaying strong emotions, taking a break alone, or role-playing choking or a seizure, for example, to let approaching others know this was role-play.

The “Check-In” by using the OK symbol was beneficial because often it is difficult to tell whether a person is performing convincing role-play, or is in actual physical or emotional distress. Sometimes, a character is sobbing, but a player is having a good time. Sometimes, the player is sobbing because they are triggered or emotionally overwhelmed.[11] If we simply assume that a player is role-playing unless they reach out, then we miss the opportunity to care for a fellow player. Also, players in distress are often too overwhelmed, embarrassed, or afraid to risk reaching out to another player. This proactive mechanic encouraged players to check-in with each other. It was easy to flash an “OK” symbol to the player alone in the corner. This gesture could be done non-verbally, from a reasonable distance, without a full interruption for either player, and obtain a quick mental calibration by the player, who then responds in a similarly discreet and unobtrusive way. It’s designed to be player-to-player communication without causing large breaks in character play.

Students model "thumbs up" with an ethics professor in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Students model “thumbs up” with an ethics professor in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Some feedback suggested that the flat hand signal was redundant and not needed, since the result was the same as the thumbs-down signal. While this is true, we elected to keep the three-tiered response due to socialization both within the gaming community and in general society that makes it difficult for many people – particularly women and people from other marginalized groups – to demonstrate distress or ask for assistance. Too often, we will “power through” and state that we are fine, so as not to be a bother, not to admit weakness, or — in the case of some gaming and larp cultures — so as not to be subject to retaliation with direct accusations of not belonging, breaking the game, or needed to be “coddled.” It is far easier to give the “so-so” signal than the thumbs-down; in the absence of the middle option, with only the thumbs-up or thumbs-down choices, too many people would have just defaulted to thumbs-up, figuring they were feeling “not that bad.” When Vanek and Hageleit used the technique, they used it by flashing the “OK” sign, over the heart, and the other player was to respond with the same sign to indicate “I am okay.” In the current system,  the responses to the “OK” sign were deliberately not the return of the “OK” sign. This mimicked response can be done reflexively without discernment, like returning a wave to someone. By creating the three responses, we required a thoughtful response from the players to assess their feelings and determine which of the three was appropriate.

Players began using a hack for this technique in the final two runs: players were proactively using the “thumbs-down” symbol to indicate “I’m not okay,” rather than waiting for another player to check-in with them. This symbol would provoke the same response from another player: breaking play to assist them by escorting them to the counselor or the off-game room. We have now updated the system to include the use of a proactive “thumbs-down” to indicate distress or the need for assistance.

4. Slowing or Stopping Role-play Using “Cut” and “Largo”

Borrowing from the Nordic community, where kutt and brems — Cut and Break/Brake — are widely used, New World Magischola, like College of Wizardry, used the “Cut” mechanic. Any player could call Cut if they were in distress or needed play to stop immediately. Cut works like it does on a movie set: all action stops. Other players were instructed to step back and check-in with the player who called for the Cut and to determine if they needed to exit the scene; go to the off-game room or counselor; or address some other need.

We elected not to use Break or Brake, as is more typical in the Nordic community because it is an imprecise mechanic, at least as typically understood in North America, where there is confusion whether the word means “break” as in stop, or take a break — and is thus confused with “cut” — or “brake” as in slow down, which begs the question to what degree and for how long. We dispensed with brake and used “largo” instead, a word borrowed from musical vocabulary where it means “go slow.” Any player could call “Largo” and the result was that co-players immediately toned it down a notch by lowering the intensity. Calling “Largo” did not require a follow-up check-in like using “Cut” did, nor did it require any explanation, nor should one be demanded. Largo is Largo, and when it was called, the intensity was lowered by everyone with no questions asked.

A goblin journalist interviews a professor in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

A goblin journalist interviews a professor in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

We liked that “Largo” sounded like a spell, since this was a magic school, but we especially liked that it is an unusual word that isn’t used in common vocabulary, so it wouldn’t be lost in a conversation like the word Break can be. Largo was a clear indication that the intensity – whether it was anger, noise-level, flirting, etc. – needed to be lowered and slowed. Some players used it in one-on-one or small-group interactions, while others used it as a control measure in large groups, e.g. players who were talking over each other, or to quiet a boisterous group for more productive conversation and role-play. Feedback from the survey indicates that “Largo” was well-received and perceived as more clear and precise than “Break/Brake.”

Cut Procedure:

  1. Player 1 calls “Cut.”
  2. Player 2 (or all players within hearing) immediately stop all role-play.
  3. Player 2 checks in with Player 1, focusing on their needs. No one asks for an explanation for why Cut was called, nor makes any comment whatsoever.
  4. Player 1 makes the decision to either exit the scene, return to the scene at a lower intensity, or go to the Sanctuary space.
  5. Play resumes among remaining players.
A student club in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Students in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Largo Procedure:

  1. Player 1 calls “Largo.”
  2. Player 2 (or all players within hearing) take a step back, then lower the volume, or otherwise lower the intensity of the scene. No one asks for an explanation or comments. Stepping back was visual confirmation that “Largo” was heard and understood.
  3. Play continues at lessened intensity. It can continue uninterrupted, although an “OK Check-In” may be used to determine if newly calibrated play meets Player 1’s needs.

5. Graceful Exits and Calibration Using “Lookdown”

NWM piloted a new mechanic that Johanna Koljonen mentioned in her “Opt-in/Opt-out Safety Systems” keynote at the Living Games Conference in May 2016.[12] Lookdown was originally created by Trine Lise Lindahl and Koljonen in conversation earlier this year as a suggested technique for exiting a scene or conversation[13] without causing as much disruption as calling for Cut, Break/Brake, or Largo. We called this simple gesture the “Lookdown” and it consists of placing one’s hand on one’s forehead, as if shading one’s eyes from the sun, looking down, and then stepping back and walking away. No questions asked, no explanation needed or demanded and no consequences given.[14]

Lookdown Procedure:

  1. Player 1 shields their eyes and walks away.
  2. Player 2 (and all other players) continue play as usual.

We decided to implement Lookdown as a useful calibration and self-care tool for when someone realizes that a topic or scene isn’t going in a direction they want, is something they aren’t interested in playing, or is something that they may find triggering or troublesome. When using the Lookdown, a player isn’t signalling that they need or require assistance, or is any distress. They are simply making a choice to opt-out of the scene at the moment for whatever in- or off-game reason. No explanation will be asked or given, and all other players must accept their departure. Players were instructed, “If you see someone holding their hand over their eyes, ignore them.” This technique was practiced in pre-game workshops.

Johanna Koljonen patterns an early version the Lookdown method on her blog, Participation Safety.

Johanna Koljonen patterns an early version the Lookdown method on her blog, Participation Safety. https://participationsafety.wordpress.com

Leaving a scene can be extremely difficult for many larpers, especially those from marginalized groups. It can be awkward at best, and draw unwanted attention to one’s self or character. It can be an action that one feels they have to explain or defend. Leaving a scene can draw comments or outrage from other players and, as a result, many players choose to stay in situations where they do not feel comfortable. By using the Lookdown, players can gracefully exit, no questions asked, and choose what they wish to play. This mechanic could be used even in situations where there was an in-game imbalance of power between the player using Lookdown and the other players, such as in class. A professor could not penalize a student for exiting class via the Lookdown mechanic. No in-game or off-game consequences of any sort were possible for using the technique. As a result, many players told us that they felt more comfortable being able to choose what scenes they wanted to experience.

Another use of the Lookdown mechanic was players using it to arrive into scenes rather than exit them, including arriving late to class. Many players told us they had anxiety over being late to an event, scene, or even a conversation. They were afraid of being called out, having to explain themselves in front of the group, or losing House Points. This anxiety was so great that some skipped classes and/or stayed in their dorm rooms out-of-character if they were late, even though they really wanted to go. By using the Lookdown mechanic, a player could arrive to class and the response was the same “no questions asked” as if they had just been there the whole time. Alternately, players could opt-in to roleplay where they could make a scene of being late to class or a meeting (no Lookdown hand). By using the mechanic, they could slip in and choose the role-play they wanted.

6. Negotiating Physical Role-play (Aggression, Violence, Combat, Sexuality)

Because this larp operated on the principle of Opt-In with Consent, players needed to negotiate outcomes, desires, and boundaries before entering physical role-play. Negotiation was also required for the results of certain types of magic, such as healing.

The above video shows the techniques of “off-game” signaling and negotiating so that both players know how to play a scene requiring healing. As demonstrated, without negotiation, the approaching player may have healed the person too quickly when the receiver wanted to role-play being in pain, or otherwise might have ended a scene or surprised the player with an unwanted result.

Players were coached that when dealing with matters of sexuality, violence, aggression, or combat, they should use the “off-game” cues, take a step back, and discuss what they wanted and were comfortable playing. Only when both parties had agreed on boundaries and outcomes should play resume. If no physical touch was discussed as permissible, then it was not to occur.

Members of House Laveau in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Members of House Laveau in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Due to the length of the workshops, we did not provide a specific process for negotiating, although we did give an example negotiation for asking someone to the dance in the Player’s Guide. This process got more specific as the four runs of NWM progressed and we realized that players required a detailed process for negotiation of consent and boundaries. The main issue was that their negotiations were not specific enough. As a hypothetical example, a player might ask, “Are you okay with physical role-play?” and the other player, imagining pushing and shoving perhaps, states “yes.” The first character proceeds to slap the second character in the face, which the second player is not okay experiencing. So, while we found that players were negotiating, without coaching, modeling, and practice of a specific negotiation process, there was opportunity for miscommunication between the parties. These issues were then generally resolved using the other care mechanics, such as OK Check-In. However, by improving the specific nature of the negotiations through workshopping, this mechanic can be improved in future runs. We would like to extend the pre-game workshops by one or two hours primarily for this reason.

7. Pronoun Choice, Placement, and Correction

Sara Williamson (here as a Dubois student) and Liz Gorinsky (here as a revived House Ghost) in NWM4, who helped develop the pronoun workshop. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Sara Williamson (here as a Dubois student) and Liz Gorinsky (here as a revived House Ghost) in NWM4, who helped develop the pronoun workshop. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Pronouns matter. A player who is continually misgendered experiences immersion breaks in their role-play at best and triggered gender dysphoria at worst. Sometimes, a player portrays a character with a different pronoun than they use as a player for a variety of reasons. Assuming pronouns for a player or a character can lead to trouble. To avoid pronoun assumption, the triggering effects of misgendering, and the sometimes troublesome process of correcting a misused pronoun, NWM used an intertwined system of four techniques:

  1. All characters were written in the second person with a single initial for the first name and no gender markers indicated. Players could play any character as any gender they chose and pick their own name.
  2. We made “they” the default pronoun of the magical world, which was used unless told differently.
  3. All players had player nametags and character nametags, both with player-chosen pronouns clearly displayed under the name, in a large enough font to be seen at a conversational distance.
  4. A pronoun correction mechanic was modeled and practiced in the workshops, for when mistakes happen.

Players were asked to assume that other players had the best intentions and were attempting to use the correct pronouns — as was the in-game and off-game norm — and to use those instances to demonstrate a quick, non-judgmental pronoun correction. When someone uses an incorrect pronoun in reference to you or your character, players were taught, “If you make a mistake, and use the wrong pronouns in spite of your good intentions, the best response is to acknowledge the mistake, correct, and continue the conversation.” This technique was used for both in-game and off-game interactions and was developed in consultation with Liz Gorinsky and Sara Williamson, co-authors of the larp See Me Now, which explores queer identities.

Pronoun Correction Procedure:

The British sign language P. Photo from British-sign.co.uk.

The British sign language P. Photo from British-sign.co.uk.

  1. Player 1 accidentally uses the incorrect pronoun to refer to someone.
  2. Player 2 says the word “Pronouns” and shows the P hand signal, derived from the British sign language symbol for the letter P. If the player does not have both hands available, they can just use the verbal cue “Pronouns.”
  3. Player 2 follows the verbal cue and hand signal with the correct pronoun for Player 1 to use.
  4. Player 1 says “Thank you” for the reminder. Play or conversation resumes

8. Opting-out of Romantic Play Using a Sticker on the Nametag

By the fourth run of NWM, we realized there were some players there for whom any flirtatious or romantic interactions created player stress, and who preferred not to play on those themes at all. This feeling was for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to have those interactions so they could focus on other plots and themes. We gave players the opportunity to place a 0.5” (13 mm) colored circle sticker on their nametag, which indicated “I am not interested in romantic or sexual interactions.” Players wearing that sticker were not be approached for any role-play that dealt with romance or sexuality. The stickers functioned as a full opt-out of that type of play by the player and were easily visible to others from a distance. Players could point to the sticker as a reminder if mistakes occurred. We heard from some asexual and aromantic players that this practice was particularly inclusive and normalized their identities. However, many players used the sticker to opt-out of romance play, not just those identifying as asexual or aromantic. By having the sticker, a player not interested in romance or sex was spared having to repeatedly use the other mechanics in this system.

Students take dance lessons with the Chancellor in NWM3. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp LLC.

Students take dance lessons with the Chancellor. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

The Counselors: Metagame Characters  Responsible for Participant Care

Because we knew the majority of our players were either first-time larpers or larpers who had not played in the Nordic-style, we anticipated that players would need access to organizers who could assist them with their logistical, fictional, physical and emotional needs. With 160 players spread out over a 320-acre campus, we recognised that, even without deliberately creating challenging content, we’d have a statistically certain number of players who would have need of some kind of emotional support. In addition, since the result of several of the mechanics listed above was to walk the other player to a counselor, to the Sanctuary space, or to the off-game room, we needed to create additional points of interaction for when the off-game room was a 30-minute walk away, unnavigable for some players even in their best situation.

In anticipation of these needs, two characters were written into the game to serve as in-game liaisons for players. Written as NPCs at the faculty level, the counselors had free range of any classroom or meeting, and maintained a visible presence throughout the game as people characters could approach if they needed to talk. They functioned in-game as a school and career counselor, roles that make sense in a college environment. In-game, a character could speak with a counselor about their career, classes, a conflict with another character, worry about the dance, or any other life decision. At any moment in the conversation, counselors could switch to off-game conversation if the player required it. Sometimes players visiting the counselor needed to role-play into admitting needing off-game care, so this meta-function eased their transition. It also gave a plausible diegetic reason for being upset or leaving a scene by simply saying “I need to see the counselor.” Exiting a scene that is no longer fun or is making one uncomfortable can be hard to do; having an in-game reason to do so that was accepted by all characters, no matter their in-game power, was a helpful resource.

The Divination professor (left) helps solve a time magic mystery with the two counselors (Greene and Bowman) in NWM4.

The Divination professor (left) helps solve a time magic mystery with the two counselors (Greene and Bowman) in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Conclusion

While design visions, larp community guidelines, harassment policies, and codes of conduct help establish norms, they do not help players know how to enact the behaviors required to meet those visions, policies, and norms. Creating mechanics to break down expected behaviors into discrete steps, modeling them, practicing them, and then enforcing them with consequences if they are not used is required to bring a vision of an ethos and norms to life through interactions and play.

The Dean of Students officiates the first years sorting ceremony with the House Presidents in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp, LLC.

The Dean of Students officiates the first years sorting ceremony with the House Presidents in NWM4. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

While these techniques and mechanics are neither perfect nor portable to all games, the aggregate toolkit does represent a step forward for systematic design of safety, calibration, and culture in larps. The careful attention to naming, modeling, teaching, practicing, and enforcing behaviors that create the norms that we wished to create for in-game and off-game interactions was a deliberate design choice. Many of these techniques formed the basis of the workshops and safety and calibration techniques we helped design for the End of the Line run at the Grand Masquerade in New Orleans, a White Wolf Vampire: the Masquerade Nordic-style larp organized by Bjarke Pedersen, Juhana Pettersson, and Johanna Koljonen with help from Sarah Lynne Bowman and Harrison Greene. We have heard from other players and designers that they are using some of these mechanics — such as the “OK Check-in” — in their larps, and we have heard from some NWM players that they are using some of these same techniques in their everyday life relationships and jobs.

Role-playing requires taking risks. Safety and calibration techniques create a measure of assurance, empathy, and trust among players that helps them feel able to take the risks they must to portray a character, feel emotions, and engage with others. Many players remarked that they felt more safe and comfortable with the fellow players of NWM — who they had not known previously — than they do in everyday interactions. Their reasoning is that they knew fellow players would support their boundaries and choices. Others told us they felt more cared from these erstwhile strangers than they do in familial and friend interactions in their everyday life. Having someone check-in to be sure you’re doing OK is powerful. Negotiating consent is powerful. Being able to make choices about one’s own needs without receiving retaliation is powerful. While this may not be the everyday world our participants’ experience, it is the “new world” we wish to create. For the duration of the larp at the very least, players were transported into this new world of magic, not just with their wands and spells, but also because of the way they cared for themselves and others using these safety and calibration mechanics.

Casa Calisaylá celebrates winning the House Cup in NWM3. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Casa Calisaylá celebrates winning the House Cup in NWM3. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

For other articles on this site about New World Magischola, see Tara Clapper’s “Chasing Bleed – An American Fantasy Larper at Wizard School” and Sarah Lynne Bowman’s “When Trends Converge – The New World Magischola Revolution.”

Cover photo: Casa Calisaylá initiation ritual in NWM3. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

New World Magischola

Date: June 16-19, June 23-26, July 21-24 and July 28-31, 2016

Location: University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, United States

Duration: 4 days including workshops, play, and debriefing

Participants: 140-165 per run

Participation Fee: $375 to $895, $450 for a regular ticket

Website: https://magischola.com/

Credits

Producers: Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, Learn Larp LLC.

Make-up Lead: Katherine Kira “Tall Kat” McConnell. Prosthetics by Mark Mensch

Costuming Lead: Derek Herrera.

Stitchers: Jenny Underwood, Robin Jendryaszek, Jennifer WinterRose, Amber Feldman, Summer Donovan, Michele Mountain, Nancy Calvert-Warren, Jennifer Klettke, Kristen Moutry, Caryn Johnson, Datura Matel

Music: Original songs (lyrics and music) by Austin Nuckols (Maison DuBois, Lakay Laveau, Casa Calisaylá and House Croatan) and Leah K. Blue (Dan Obeah), lyrics to New World Magischola Anthem by Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, music by Austin Nuckols. Other music and sound by Evan Torner and Austin Shepherd

Props: Mike Young, Carrie Matteoli, Indiana Thomas, Summer Donovan, Kevin Donovan, Gordon Olmstead-Dean, Jason Morningstar, Matt Taylor, Molly Ellen Miller, Michael Boyd, Moira Parham, Martin John Manco, Ken Brown, Dale, Laura Young, Harry Lewis, Mark Daniels, Michael Pucci, Terry Smith of Stagecoach Theater Productions, Yvonne and Dirk Parham, Jen Wong, Caryn Johnson, Jess Pestlin, Orli Nativ, Kaitlin Smith, The Center for the Arts of Greater Manassas at the Candy Factory, Melissa Danielle Penner, Jess Sole, Liselle Awwal, Nathan Love.

Helpers and advisors: Anders Berner, Claus Raasted, Christopher Sandberg, Mike Pohjola, Bjarke Pedersen, Johanna Koljonen, Anne Serup Grove, Mikolaj Wicher, Jamie MacDonald, Eevi Korhonen, Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, Staffan Rosenberg, Anna Westerling, Michael Pucci, Ashley Zdeb, Emily Care Boss, Daniel Hocutt, Charles Bo Nielsen, Joe Ennis, Kristin Bezio, Rob Balder, Kat Jones, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Harrison Greene.

Assistance with writing, editing, graphic design, music, art: Frank Beres, Claus Raasted, Richard Wetzel, Bethy Winkopp, Oriana Almquist, Craig Anderson, Zach Shaffer, Erica Schoonmaker, Madeleine Wodjak, Toivo Voll, Marie DelRio, Mike Young, Laura Young, Anna Yardney, Lee Parmenter, Stephanie Simmons, Nancy Calvert-Warren, Jessica Acker, Jason Woodland, Jason Arne, Harrison Greene, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Kristi Kalis, Quinn Milton, Anna Kovatcheva, Browning Porter, Orli Nativ, Rhiannon Chiacchiaro, Miranda Chadbourne, Lars Bundvad, Ffion Evans, David Horsh, Dani Castillo, Frank Caffran Castillo, Dayna Lanza, Sarah Brand, Tara Clapper, Suzy Pop, David Neubauer, Chris Bergstresser, Jason Morningstar, Evan Torner, Peter Woodworth, Peter Svensson, Daniel Abraham, Harry Lewis, Alexis Moisand, Alissa Erin Murray, Jennifer Klettke, Kathryn Sarah, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Austin Nuckols, Leah Blue, Joelle Scarnati, Dan Luxenberg, Chad Brinkley, David Clements, Niels Ull Harremoës, Adria Kyne, Emily Heflin.

Production and logistics: Austin Shepherd, Claus Raasted, Olivia Anderson, Kristin Bezio, Shayna Alley, Mike Young, Zach Shaffer, Dayna Lanza, Derek Herrera, Kristin Moutrey, Jenny Underwood, Jennifer WinterRose, Caryn Johnson, Amber Feldman, Michele Mountain, Summer Donovan, Robin Jendryaszek, Jennifer Klettke, Datura Metel, Amanda Schoen, Mark Mensch, Katherine McConnell, Chris Bergstresser, Christopher Amherst, Holly Butterfield, Uriah Brown, Kyle Lian, Evan Torner, Jeff Moxley, Ashley Zdeb, Thomas Haynes, Mikolaj Wicher, Charles Bo Nielsen, Jamie Snetsinger, Claire Wilshire, David Donaldson, Brandy Dilworth and the staff of the University of Richmond Summer Conference Services office.

 

References

1. Miriam Lundqvist, “Making Mandatory Larps for Non-players,” Nordic Larp Talks 2015, YouTube, last modified Feb. 11, 2015, https://youtu.be/xnIKzQlnRuU 
2. Lizzie Stark, “Building Larp Communities: Social Engineering for Good,” Leaving Mundania: Inside the World of Larp, last modified March 18, 2014. http://leavingmundania.com/2014/03/18/building-larp-communities-social-engineering-good/
3. Johanna Koljonen, “Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design Parts 1 and 2,” Patreon, https://www.patreon.com/posts/basics-of-opt-in-5808793
4. Lizzie Stark, “Player Safety in Nordic Games,” Leaving Mundania: Inside the World of Larp, last modified April 26, 2012, http://leavingmundania.com/2012/04/26/player-safety-in-nordic-games/
5. Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character,” Nordiclarp.org, last modified March 2, 2015,
https://nordiclarp.org/2015/03/02/bleed-the-spillover-between-player-and-character/
6. Rollespilsfabrikken and Liveform, “College of Wizardry Design Document,” Rollespilsfabrikken, last accessed September 6, 2016, http://www.rollespilsfabrikken.dk/cow/dd/designdocument.pdf (see p. 18, section on “Boys & Girls”).
7. Maury Brown and Benjamin A. Morrow, “Breaking the Alibi: Fostering Empathy by Reuniting Player and Character,” Wyrd Con Companion Book 2015 (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con), https://www.dropbox.com/s/xslwh0uxa544029/WCCB15-Final.pdf?dl=0 
8. Maury Brown, Johanna Koljonen, Lizzie Stark, John Stavropoulos, moderated by Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Episode 2: Emotionally Intense Play, Calibration, and Community Safety,” Game to Grow Webisode Project, YouTube, last modified September 1, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YtRJd5CR2I
9. We had one instance of a player deciding on their own to skip the workshops (unbeknownst to organizers), who then proceeded to have a disastrous first few hours in the game, causing conflicts with several other players. This was directly because they did not know how to play, and their interactions with others were toxic as a result. This incident prompted organizers to create a makeup policy for workshops, barring entry to the game until a player who had missed workshops had met with organizers to learn the ethos and safety techniques described in this article. This doesn’t fully make up for the workshops, since they do not have the opportunity to form relationships with fellow players, but it at least covers the basic game system and ethos. We did not feel we could tell people they could not play the larp at all if they missed workshops, as some were delayed due to travel problems outside of their control. However, in many larp situations, we would support barring playing the game at all if a player does not attend workshops.
10. Maury Brown, “Player-Centered Design,” Keynote at Living Games Conference 2016, YouTube, last accessed June 10, 2016, https://youtu.be/oZY9wLUMCPY 
11. Maury Elizabeth Brown, “Pulling the Trigger on Player Agency: How Psychological Intrusions in Larps Affect Game Play,” Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014 (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con), https://www.dropbox.com/s/3yq12w0ygfhj5h9/2014%20Wyrd%20Academic%20Book.pdf?dl=0 
12. Johanna Koljonen, “Opt In/Opt Out Safety System,” Keynote at Living Games Conference 2016. YouTube, last modified June 10, 2016, https://youtu.be/7bFdrV3nJA8
13. Johanna Koljonen, “Toolkit: Let’s Name this Baby! (Bow-Out Mechanics),” Patreon, last modified May 30, 2016. https://participationsafety.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/toolkit-lets-name-this-baby-bow-out-mechanics/
14. Matthew Webb notes that a similar gesture, exiting a scene by putting the hand on the back of the head and lowering one’s gaze, is used at his larp, Planetfall. However, Planetfall has in place an adjudication system so that if one player feels another player is abusing the bow-out mechanic to avoid in-game consequences, they can see a Gamemaster who will make a ruling and narrate a consequence.

Authors

Maury Brown
Maury Brown is the co-founder of Learn Larp, LLC, a games design and educational consulting company. Brown co-designs the wizard college Nordic larp New World Magischola in the United States.
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