Sunday, October 24, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: So You Think You Can LARP

A couple of opportunities to pass on. Next Friday and Saturday, I will be in Pipe Creek learning more about camels, and you could be, too. Although the website says "preregister," there's no form to fill out and Doug Baum says it's okay to just show up, though it's not a bad idea to call ahead so they have an idea who's coming. (I still need to do that.) Also, call with questions. Bill Rivers, the person running it, is traveling and doesn't keep up with his e-mail too well.

On Saturday, November 6, a local LARP group will be hosting a Zombie game, for which my friend Wendy will be doing the makeup. This will be a one-off game and I will not be attending because dashing through the woods shooting Nerf guns isn't my favorite kind of role-play, but as an introduction to the concepts and a way to work off your kid's energy and desire to fire Nerf guns it should do well.

Let's say you go to the Zombie LARP, and you have a great time. You're likely to come away feeling pumped, reviewing the dramatic moments and the unexpected developments that occurred as a result of someone pulling off (or not!) a difficult maneuver, or realizing that a certain rule could be exploited in a way the organizers hadn't planned. Maybe you had the pleasure of dragging somebody with you who didn't really want to do it, but then got into it and became a star player, or discovers a hidden talent, demonstrating an arc of character development before your eyes. Maybe you were thrown into play with a group of total strangers, some of whom dressed or looked or sounded like people you would normally avoid, but under the stress of hunting zombies together you left all that behind and formed mutual bonds that change the way you look at folks who dress/look/sound like that in the future. Or maybe star player among the zombies, who performs so well you walk up to him afterward to congratulate him for his acting skill, will turn out to be a troubled or handicapped kid, who has found in the LARP a group of people who don't define him by his problems.

And, being a writer, you think: "This is what I want to write about! There's a story in this day!" But then you sit down to write fiction based on it, and it just doesn't work.

That's because you're writing from life, and life has no plot and no protagonist. Even though the game itself had a plot, more or less, it did not unfold as planned. You wouldn't have come away so pumped if it had. An RPG and a story are both fictions, but their chief pleasures do not derive from the same source. A story imposes order on the chaos of life; satisfaction lies in the experience of structure and meaning unattainable in the real world. An RPG imposes the rich human chaos of choice and chance onto the mechanics of the game; satisfaction lies in the interplay between physical reality (whether the fall of the dice or the player's capacity to outrun or outshoot an antagonist) and abstract, comprehensible rules.

It follows that, if you want to turn your LARP experience into a story, you need to isolate the meaning you found in that experience, and create the fictional structure that will highlight it. If you liked the thrill of hunting zombies, you should probably go with a straight action story, creating a protagonist out of bits and pieces of the real players and tweaking the real events to fit the story as it develops. If bonding with the other players was the highlight for you, that's the place to start; but you don't want to model the characters too closely on the people who were there, because thinking about them reading their own portraits will inhibit you. Bear in mind that you bonded with those people at two levels: you were all yourselves, but you all also had roles in the game. The guy whose character ruthlessly cut your character's throat when you were infected in-game may be unable to kill a bug in real life. In order to write a good story about a team bonding under pressure, you'll need to understand each member of the team better than you will ever know any real person, much less anybody you've only met when you were both playing somebody else!

So to that extent making a story out of a game is no different from making a story out of any experience. If the story you wind up with remains structured around the gaming experience once you've worked out all that, another question arises: Who is the audience? How much do they need to know about gaming in general, and the game system being used in particular, in order to enjoy the story?

If real game mechanics and rules are important to the development of the plot, how does that affect its publishing potential? It is possible that, if you use a real, copyrighted system in structuring your story, the holder of the copyright will have a viable economic interest in your work. Game companies are publishing companies, and some of them publish fiction, but they don't function like publishers: they function like toy manufacturers. You don't want to go to all the work of making a story, and then find that, though the story itself is yours, only one company is legally capable of publishing it! If you want to write for gaming companies, you'll be dealing with work for hire contracts; and if you go work-for-hire, you want your contract negotiated and all your parameters in hand before you commit a word to paper. Anything else is bad business.

Fortunately, once you've started playing with plots and characters, playing with underlying mechanics and tweaking settings so that they're not restricted by trademark will probably be simple enough. If the story winds up being about characters playing in a LARP, all you have to do is give their system a fictional name and change some details. Readers will not care to be overloaded with nitpicky detail about rules that aren't essential to the plot. The only difficulty I can see is if your cast includes a Rules Lawyer, someone who understands and manipulates the specific rules of specific games to his advantage; in which case, you should get a real Rules Lawyer to help work out some new rules.

But the result will be a specific kind of story that appeals to a specific audience, one that is less outcast than it used to be, but still struggles with its status outside the mainstream of society. How well do you know that audience? Will you be able to reach a sufficient number of them to repay the effort you put into that story? To what degree can you expect to appeal to non-LARPers without alienating this core audience?

Art for art's sake is all very well, but you'll never fulfill your own potential if you don't engage with exterior questions like these as part of the process.

In the meantime - game on!

1 comment:

  1. I got to be at Camp Verde when the camels returned 150 years after their first arrival. (We live like 8 miles away.) What a wonderful experience. Took lots of pictures. Interviewed Doug. Wrote an article about the whole experiment. Sold it. I learned tons about the camel experiment and what they did for the US. Too bad the unCivil War got it the way of their further use.