Thoughts on Secret Cinema

This has been sat in my drafts for nearly two months now. I’m not sure why. So here it is.

I went to my first Secret Cinema show last weekend (or y’know, months ago, now) – “Tell No One”. The run is over, so I can say that it was based around Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Secret Cinema is obviously not a LARP, but like any interactive dramatic presentation, it shares a lot in common with it, and it’s certainly closer to being a LARP than say, a Punch Drunk production.

A lot of this is going to sound negative, I suspect, not because I didn’t have a good time (I really did), but because I naturally noticed the stuff that didn’t quite work more than I did the stuff that did.

I’m going to use the term NPC or actor interchangeably in this post, because they performers sat right on the line for me – they were clearly doling out a fixed narrative, with no scope for it to be changed, but at the same time, the performances were clearly very, very improvisational, and all the crew were superb.

The action was set on an military base, and the paying public were either military personnel, in a variety of different groups, intelligence staff, government officials, or press. The various actors/NPCs were people you’d see on an airforce base or figures from the movie in question.

It was incredibly loud, everywhere, at all times – regular sirens and background noise, lots of people shouting. That was far and away the most serious problem I had with it. When you’re standing less than three feet from an actor who is telling you something you need to know, and you literally can’t hear them, that’s a problem. I suspect it was a deliberate design choice, but if you’re two people back in a crowd, you can’t exactly lean in to hear better, and the actors were not in a position to repeat themselves – there was almost always a group waiting at every actor I came to. Lots of the space was open, with open frame space dividers, that denoted zones, but didn’t limit sight (good) or sound (bad).

I don’t know who does the narrative design work for the various things they get the audience doing, but I would bet money that they come from a theatre, rather than game-narrative background, because everything seemed linear to me. Meet person A, get quest 1, which will lead you to person B, who will give you quest 2, and so on, very little branching. And crucially: if the story line gets derailed, as happened to me, you find yourself standing about wondering what the hell to do next.

The group I was with got given a simple fetch quest – go to the secret bar on the base, get a ring, and return to the NPC to get on to the next bit. Except, when we got back to where he’d told us he’d be, he wasn’t there, or anywhere nearby. No idea why not, and there was nothing around to give us a cue to go elsewhere. My group stood about for a few minutes, then broke up, and wandered in separate directions. And I had no other events to fall back on. I tried to go back to the start, but the actor parts had their own narrative going on, so the person I thought I needed to talk to wasn’t there, presumably having moved to somewhere else. I was literally left with nothing to do.

So I wandered about a bit to examine the sets and tagged along with another group, that had absolutely nothing to do with what I had been doing – I basically just joined an entirely different narrative line, that was clearly equally linear. I spent the next two NPC encounters a bit sidelined at the back of a group – they were fun, but I didn’t have the information from earlier in the narrative to participate – my new group had clearly learned “facts” about communists (can’t say the word “blue”, a few other absurd things) earlier on, so I was reduced to spectating, rather than participating. That was OK-ish, because the actors were entertaining, but I felt like I could have had more fun if I’d known the right facts – by the time I’d picked them up, the narrative was coming to an end. And I never found out how my original narrative ended.

Crowd control wasn’t flawless, either – where the groups met up often got very crowded, which exacerbated the noise problems, and made it hard to hear the actors, or bottlenecked people in corridors/doorways, so that by the time that was sorted out, there was a risk of having lost your group, or at least of having missed the first minute or two of a five minute encounter. Often that was a recap, but there were definitely a couple of points where I (and the other folk at the back) arrived pretty much as my group were wrapping up and leaving for the next thing.

That said: most activities were clearly designed to be group activities, very little solo play, which is good at that scale. And the NPCs were pretty good at involving players, pulling them in, rather than waiting for them to volunteer, although there was still priority given to proximity, which sucks if you were at the back of the group.

I’d also note that I arrived with someone, and we were instantly split up by the actors, and basically didn’t see one another again until the end. Which was kind of rubbish. A better integrated booking system, that allowed them to be smart about keeping duos and trios together, but splitting larger groups into pairs and trios would be good.

So, in summary:


  • Crew and actors, all great.
  • Set dressing, excellent.
  • Narrative easy to engage with, didn’t require any serious role-play stuff that might’ve made people feel awkward.
  • Narrative events were designed to be engaged with as a group, rather than one on one.
  • Game elements were simple, easy to follow, basic memory stuff, nothing that would tax someone who just came for an interesting evening out.
  • Worth noting as well: generally high standard of costuming on the part of the audience. You can get people to pay dress up, if they’re invested in the idea/given a clear brief in advance.


  • Way, way too loud.
  • No branching in narrative.
  • Limited recovery options when things went wrong.
  • Logistical/crowd movement issues.
  • Most “game” elements (all the ones I encountered, anyway) were the same – remember a thing you’d heard earlier.

Overall, though: A lot of fun. Very expensive fun, it has to be said, but the ticket price is definitely on show in what you get – I’m sure they make a profit, but I don’t think they’re waltzing off with a boat-load of cash, they clearly spend a lot on the show. I would absolutely go to one of their events again, and would probably get more out of it, now I know the scale and kind of idea.

Violence in LARP 1: Context

Last year, in a post on part of the Dogma 99 manifesto, I wrote:

When two characters cannot agree to disagree, their methods for settling their squabble, nine times out of ten, are some form of violence, be it physical or supernatural. I can bang on for a bit about why this is, but it basically comes down to “blah blah, root of hobby, power fantasy, blah blah”.

Time to bang on about it a bit.

There’s an old joke about the dominance of the superhero comic in the comics medium – that it’s analogous to walking into a bookstore and finding the shelves full of nurse romance novels, with all other novels consigned to 10% of the space, under one label “alternative”. Comics has improved markedly in the last decade, but violence in games feels like about the same thing. Trying to find an RPG where violence isn’t assumed to be a component of the game is hard.

It’s one biggest issues I have with role-playing games in general, this trend toward violence-as-problem-solving-mechanism. It’s obviously born in the tabletop wargame roots of the hobby, but here we are 40+ years after D&D was first published, and we’re still largely at it. There are very, very few games published where physical violence is strictly off the table, and those that are tend to be indie games with a tiny audience compared to the already pretty small audiences of the mainstream games.

It’s understandable. Roleplaying games are about drama – about conflict. And of course the ultimate expression of conflict is violence. So naturally they include it. Same reason that action movies are popular films. But action movies aren’t the only films.

But finding a literally zero-violence LARP to play in that isn’t an experimental one off is next to bloody impossible. The “mainstream” of LARP can be considered what I think is known as “boffer” LARP in the US, or “fest” LARP in the UK, and it’s pretty much the classic image – people with rubber swords running around in a forest in funny costumes, hitting one another. There are all sorts of variations within that, in setting and theme, but strip it all away, and that’s what you’re left with. (The hitting one another may not be the point of the game, but it’s definitely a key component.)

There’s a secondary mainstream of Vampire LARP – people dressed in black lace in a backroom somewhere, pretending to be vampires scheming against one another, but as anyone who has played one of those can tell you, 90% of the problem-solving in that ultimately comes down to violence, even if there’s an exciting game to be played in getting other people to do your violence for you. Sure, a lot of setting has some kind of ostensible prohibition against violence, but really, everyone knows that’s there in order to create challenges, not to actually prevent the violence.

In both of these forms, conflict almost always comes down to either “can you avert this problem without violence?” or “can you do enough violence to solve this otherwise insoluble problem”?

I should perhaps say that I have played in, and run, many game sessions where no violence has actually taken place, but the fact remains that I’ve never played a LARP where there wasn’t a system to handle violence, if it occurred. It was never off the table by design.

I definitely have it on my ambitions list to run a serial LARP in a pulp vein – ie. the kind of game I like – where violence is simply not on the agenda.

Next time: so, the above notwithstanding, what is violence good for?

Child-like gaming

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past few months.  Partly, I’ve been thinking about it as I see my friend’s and family’s kids grow up, and I think about the challenges of running games for children, rather than adults and partly I’ve been thinking about it in relation to games based on children’s literature, partly inspired by the Redwall game a friend ran a while back, and a lot of it has been crystalised by the superb Moomin’s World an Apocalypse World hack for Tove Jannson’s creations, that could easily be adapted to almost any form of children’s literature. One of the reasons I keep coming back to it is, of course, because LARP and RPGs in general are often simply a structured form of the children’s game “Let’s Pretend”, and I suspect there’s mileage in trying to strip games back to very simply, childlike concerns.

Moomin’s World, I find particularly interesting, in that the usual character skills have been simplified down so that you roll when you “have to keep on going”, “have to be brave”, “don’t know what’s going on”, “trick or fool someone” or “try to help”.  And that’s it.  They immediately and perfectly give a sense of the scale and stakes of the game, and work perfectly for Moomins, and indeed, just about an children’s literature.  A friend has been talking for years about wanting to run a Care Bears game, and I’m certain this would work for that.

And yet, just look at them again.  I could run a horror game with those, with zero alteration.  I could probably run a game set in the trenches of the first world war pretty effectively, too.  And a something set on a space station.  Or one of a hundred other settings.  In sliming a system down to children’s literature, and children’s concerns, I think the developer has come pretty close to the soul and centre of a lot of narrative gaming.

In terms of LARP design, I suspect that can be simplified further, depending on the goals of the LARP. A well put-together horror game, for example, probably doesn’t need “be brave” – it can rely on the players to judge an appropriate emotional state for their characters. A zero-combat indoor LARP wouldn’t need “have to keep going” – Moomin’s World intends that as an environmental challenge, a stat for pressing on in the teeth of a snowstorm, or when very tired, but it would obviously be applied to combat easily enough if one wanted. “Try to help” is expressly about teamwork on one of the other four, not a generalised “do something nice” stat, although now I think about it, in relation to the Care Bears game my friend is thinking of, perhaps it should be that, but in any event, I’m not 100% sure every LARP would need it.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, it’s just been on my mind.

London Under

Yeah, this still exists, doesn’t it? A couple of people periodically nag me to write something on here again, and this time I’ve actually got something I want to write about so, yeah, back on this horse.

For the first time in a good few years, I went and played in a LARP, oh two months ago now. My usual line on why I run LARPs but don’t play them is because I can’t find any I want to play in, so all I can do is run the kind of game I want to play.

Criteria to get Alasdair to play a LARP: indoor venue in London, no hard physical skills (running/airsoft/rubber sword wielding are not for me) required, system-light, ideally a single-day event, and a setting that is not cod-medieval fantasy (I will make exceptions to the last one, but I will require Significant Reassuring about the nature of the game.). Oh, and the game has to be stand-alone. I like the World of Darkness as a setting, but the Isles of Darkness games are not for me.

But in fact, in about six years, I literally have not been able to find a game that ticks all those boxes. And then a friend tipped me off to London Under, a game based on Neverwhere, the works of Kate Griffin and Ben Aaronovitch, and basically directly using all the same kind of stuff I was reaching for in coming up with Armistice – which to be honest, makes the game much more accessible than my own efforts. In any event, it sounded absolutely perfect to me.

It pretty much was. When I wrote up my feedback, I had two minor niggles, and loads of things to praise. I’m really hoping there’s another event, although given the amount of work this clearly was to put on, I cannot blame anyone involved for saying that twice was enough (I missed the first event).

So, this post, in the short term, is going to serve as a aide memoire for me – thoughts sparked by playing in this game.

  • Playing games is plainly good for me. Feel enthused about the hobby in a way I haven’t in a while.
  • Starting players groups off geographically distant from the venue – doesn’t need to be more that 20-30 yards – gives a much more natural session open.
  • Longer sessions can be structured in chapters – and this doesn’t need to be subtle at all, in fact, having an obvious clock ticking and marking off intervals can really help.
  • Writing up very specific briefs for PCs and assigning them goals does not abrogate player agency, and is actively helpful to new players.

Some of these are probably obvious techniques to others, but the fourth one particularly goes against my own instincts, hence the notation.

Post-Hauntological LARP

Nothing like starting a project getting out into the wild, past the point where I can make enormous structural changes to make me see all the flaws in it.

Well, nothing to be done now, but I want to note this set of thoughts down so I can try and get some use out of them later.  Sitting on the bus the other day, it occurred to me that with one exception, most of the LARPs, and indeed most of the RPGs in any form I’ve run are broadly hauntological.  And certainly, Restitution and Armistice are extremely hauntological, expressly reaching for anachronistic aesthetics, locked into examining aspects of the present through the lens of the past.

This bleeds through into their narrative design, as well, particularly in Restitution, which was very much about the inescapable hidden past of the setting.  In Armistice, it’s the characters, rather than the setting that are haunted (by their own prior actions), but the same concern with the past is still there.

There’s a reason for all this – it’s to do with laying the seeds of narrative down in the fictional past, in order that the play in the present can contain richer conflict and drama.

It occurs to me that Testament, failure though it was, was exactly the reverse – it was entire concerned with moving into the future by jettisoning the past.  I’d like to go back to that at some point.

While writing this, the notion of a generational game has occurred to me, where the players don’t have a fixed character, but play the scions of various houses at different points throughout history, although I think that might also get pretty hauntological if not very carefully designed.  Maybe start it in the present day?  Mind you that leads to SF type budget-concerns – LARP is not an SF-friendly medium by it’s nature.

Not really sure where I’m going with this, other than adding “run an unhaunted game” to my to-do list.

Fell Off The Edge Of The World

Well, that didn’t go so terribly well, did it?  I kind of stopped writing here as the real work of getting this LARP together started.  I have, over the intervening months, had Many Thoughts, of course, and I probably ought to catch this blog up on them, but it’ll take a while.

So the short version is that we’ve pretty much settled on a system, and a world, I’m currently writing the gazeteer of the fictional London that the game is set in, and we’re starting in a matter of 6 weeks, and no I’m not panicking at all, why do you ask?

The slightly longer version is that what we’ve evolved is an urban fantasy game, with a rules-light system that determines outcomes, rather than strictly simulating actions and events.  In terms of some of its basics, the setting owes a lot to White Wolf/Onyx Path (who are pretty much the kings of modern urban fantasy RPGs, at least for setting), in the sense that a character is made of their supernatural axis (the kind of creature they are) and their political affiliation (the kind of things they believe) and then powers are stacked on top.

Interestingly, I found that the narrative focused, rules-light system enabled me to produce a vast array of power-stunt type options much more easily that I’d been expecting, because the rules themselves took care of the game balance part – for example, in a contest between someone with mind control powers, and someone with mastery of, I dunno, mystic shadows, it doesn’t matter how the two powers stack against each other in some weird set of dice rolling designed to simulate a “real world” – instead the rules let us determine who is going to win (get what they want) in any given conflict, and then it’s up to us as players to explain how that victory came about, rather than debating tactics beforehand, and working out modifiers, or anything like that.  Buying the stunts can have some effect on what options are open to characters, certainly, and they can modify the likelihood of outcomes, but I don’t need to spend ages trying to “balance” powers against each other in the same way as I have in previous systems.  I’ve found it very freeing.

Anyway, if you’re at all curious, the early-stage website is here.  It’s a bit of a wall of text at the moment, until I have time to finish breaking it down into a better navigation structure, but it’s better than nothing for now.

In the meantime, here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m writing up for the Gazeteer of fictional London.  It’s actually proved a lot harder to do that I found writing the Gazeteer for my previous game, but I think I’ve finally cracked an approach.  I’d be focusing on places, to the exclusion of people.  (I’m not actually sure why), but having cottoned on to that error, I think I’ll do a bit better now.  As so we get things like the following, which is some of the content about the broad category of:


In much the same way that the police are not entirely unaware of the presence of the supernatural in the world, neither are the more organised parts of the criminal fraternity.  Members of The Fleet Company are known to have particularly extensive ties with various forms of organised crime in London, but there are number of independent operators who are known to have a certain amount of supernatural pull of one sort of another.

The Blackshaw Family

Earnest and Ryan Blackshaw are the current heads of a criminal gang that stretches back three generations – Earnest having inherited his mother and grandfather’s minor talents in the field of illusion, and put them to the traditional family use – hiding things that one might not wish others to see.  The Blackshaws have been involved with various illegal activities over the years, but are currently widely supposed to control a substantial portion of the illegal arms trade in London – if you’re looking for knocked off firearms of almost any sort, they’ve probably passed through Blackshaw hands at some point.

Mr Raum

Mr Raum is a people broker.  If you need to accomplish something, he can put together a crew to do it.  The price?  That varies.  Sometimes, it’s a cut of the proceeds.  Sometimes it’s a favour, later.  Sometimes – well, surely there’s no truth to the suggestion that Mr Raum deals in souls, is there?

It’s not wildly original stuff, but at this stage, it doesn’t need to be – the point of the gazeteer, and these characters, is to provide a toolset for us all to use as we tell a more original story against the backdrop they provide.  So instead of focusing on shoving in the most original ideas I can think of, what I mostly do is spend time thinking about the sorts of things that we’re likely to need as we tell that story – so a soul-brokering heist organiser might very well come in handy – either because we want to do something involving soul-brokering or a heist of some kind.  And at the point that happens, I’ll sketch in Mr Raum further, to make him more thematically relevant, based on the characters who are approaching him, and the context in which they’re doing it.

It’s an interesting way of writing, one I had forgotten how much I liked.  It’s as if everything might be Checkov’s gun, but I won’t know what is until the game is played…

Radio Silence

Sorry, it’s all gone a bit quiet around here. I’m currently expending most of my LARP-brain energy on writing a basic system to use for our next LARP, which means I have less time for abstract theory in amidst all the annoying maths, and trying to work out how to mechanically incentivise certain kinds of behaviour without over-incentivising them.

Regular blogging should resume next week (with any luck) when I shall probably start jabbering on about setting design, because that’s more-or-less next on my to do list, and is generally my favourite bit of the whole thing.

Horror in LARP, part 3

Warning, this one gets a little incoherent.  I’m clearly trying to have an idea here, I’m just not sure what it is yet.

So, having basically said that I think horror is being alone and helpless in the dark, and therefore not terribly well suited to the agency-prizing communal space of LARP, it’s time to look at what I think can be made to work.

The short version is that it’s all about what’s in the character’s heads.  It’s no accident that White Wolf’s World of Darkness games are as popular as they are, being pretty much the only commonly-played LARP system where internalised horror is a mechanical part of the system.

The most effective horror in LARP is the stuff that the characters cannot get away from, because it is them.  As I said yesterday, I don’t think externalised horror works very well – at least not in a way it’s easy to design for.  But internalised horror can work very well.  The battle scene is not horrifying – even with the best prep and make-up in the world, it’s well, it’s not real. But the character who has killed a dozen people with their bare hands, and does not feel bad about it, that can be horrifying.  Not so much to other players (because in many respects they’re just another externalised monster), but to themselves, and to the player playing them.

And of course, it’s a strength entirely unique to LARP.  In every other medium, the monster is other – even in a movie or novel told from the monster’s perspective, the person consuming the medium is not the monster.  In LARP (and roleplaying in general) we have the opportunity to try and see what it’s like inside their head.  And then we can get horror that operates on a couple of levels: firstly the purely IC level as we play the character who is horrified at themselves.  The character who knows they should feel bad about their actions, but finds that there is something inside them that is happy at what they’ve done.  Secondly, we can get the extra level of horror – that we as players can conceive of these things, and, because we’re inside their heads, we can understand, and even empathise with them.

The World of Darkness games do this very well.  They trap the characters between voluntarily doing monstrous things, and having to confront and come to terms with the fact that they are not good people (and of course that realisation can make them capable of worse things), or involuntarily doing much worse things.  It’s actually easier to do the worse things, because there’s a way in which they’re not 100% culpable for them – their curse, their affliction, the thing that makes them other than human, that’s what’s at fault.  All they have to do is externalise it, and they can let themselves off the hook.

And it’s so easy to agree with that point of view.  Of course we, as normal humans, can understand it.  We can find ways to consider their struggle noble, and excuse the crimes they commit in its name.  The horror is all about what goes on in the characters’ heads, and on a meta-level, the horror is that we can understand it.

But for all they do this kind horror better than most LARP systems, in that they leave each character effectively alone in the dark, with the monster.  What the WoD games I have played (and run) have done less well at is fusing that sort of horror with something actually scary.  For any number of practical reasons, we don’t often play what it’s like to wake up in a room full of corpses, covered in someone else’s blood, and to know that you killed them.  We don’t play out the moment of terror itself – it’s almost like we’re always playing the last five minutes of the horror movie, where all that is left is the ruin.

Like I say, LARP is not a form suited to horror.

I’m just going to close this one off with a talk that is not specifically about horror – it’s about a principle of lightweight LARP design, but the LARP used as an example is a horror LARP called Pan, which, from what the designer is saying, kind of proves my point.  The horror they reached for is all born from something psychological and personal, and even then, what they got was creepy and intense but not the full-on horror movie experience.

But of course, that’s OK.  While they couldn’t do a straight horror movie, a horror movie couldn’t do what they did, either.

Horror in LARP, part 2

So here’s my start point with horror in LARP: it is incredibly bloody hard.  It may even be unworkable.  (I should say at the outset that I am aware that one could run special events that get around any of the individual limits that I’m laying out here, but for the sake of the argument I’m defining here, I want to take what I think can reasonably described as a “regular form” LARP – a minimum of a dozen PCs, in a place where we worry about people’s physical and mental safety, and the goal is to have fun in some form.)

I’m not saying you can’t scare people.  I’m not saying you can’t given them a terrific, adrenaline packed hour, two hours, weekend, whatever.  But scaring people is scaring people.  It’s not horror.  I could pack a LARP time in with jump scares and special effects to frighten people, but that won’t make it horror.

The absolute essence of horror, when you boil it right down, is lack of agency.  It is hopelessness, it is the evil you cannot defeat.  It’s the zombie horde, representing the inevitability of death.  It’s the vampire who is simply more powerful than any of her mortal prey.  It’s Lovecraft’s vast and unbearably hostile cosmos.  It’s the unstoppable serial killer.  It’s the deluded protagonist suddenly coming face to face with their own madness and learning they they’ve been the monster all along.

Horror is the thing that cannot be defeated.

Any horror movie that has a happy ending with the heroes triumphant, while it may be a scary movie, is not a horror movie.  The most one can really hope for, in a proper horror movie, is that the protagonist survives their encounter, at the cost of their loved ones, their normal life, their sanity, and that it is obvious that this is the cost.  If they walk off into the sunrise, bloodier, sadder, but unbowed and able to return the real world, then they’ve had a terribly scary experience, but that “horror” movie is copping out badly at the end, in my view.

Yes, I could run a LARP where everything the players tried was doomed to fail.  Where the universe was cold and uncaring and there could never be a happy ending.  (Indeed, a number of my players might argue that I already do, although I’d contest that.)  But having said that scary is not the same as horror, I’ve got to recognise that without it, horror is pretty much indistinguishable from plain old misery.

So how do we make scary work?

Scary is the cold hand on the back of your neck.  The monstrous whisper out of nowhere.  The door that won’t open as the water rises.  Scary is sudden, scary is surprising, and scary is personal.  And honestly in it’s simplest form: scary is alone.

How do you make scary work for 20 people, other than an unexpected loud bang?  Well, you could always face them off against superior numbers.  Scary is being outnumbered two to one by zombies, and running low on ammunition.  (Or is that just a valiant last stand?)  You could put them against an something implacable and unstoppable – just something like being trapped in a room with no food.  (Or is that just a study in how people deal with the inevitability of death?)

I hope you can see what I’m driving at.  LARP is communal – there are other people there, sharing the experience, and in any context, and experience shared is made easier and less frightening.  It may be hopeless, but you’re not alone.  LARP is about agency – it’s about what the players/characters decide to do.  And ultimately: LARP can always stopped, simply by opting out of it’s frame of reality.  Then the zombie is just someone in makeup, the vampire is your mate with some fangs in, and the universe while still cold and uncaring, is no longer actively hostile.  (Well, probably not.)

It’s not a good medium for horror – many of the basic facts of how LARP generally operates as a form work against some of the basic building blocks of horror.

And yet I describe the games I like to run as falling somewhere between urban fantasy and horror.  Come back tomorrow and I’ll spout on about the kinds of horror I think can be made to work.

Horror in LARP, part 1

A friend of mine went Zombie paintballing at the weekend, and did not have a good time.  From the descriptions they gave, and indeed, from the company website, it was clearly paintballing, with a zombie apocalypse scenario added for fun, rather than a “proper” LARP, even though the organising staff remained “in character” all the time – even the weapons safety training was delivered “in character”.  I’m told that actually the scenario was well done, the make up was superb, and it was all very immersive, and generally praiseworthy as a LARP experience, but the company are very clearly a paintball company with a well-executed semi-LARP value-add, not a LARP company.

It was clear that while the event organisers provided all sorts of up-front info and disclaimers to the effect “this will be physical, this will be scary, don’t sign up if you’re not up for that”, they didn’t apply any thought to how to handle people who thought they would be able to cope, and then found out they couldn’t once things had started, or indeed, to better provide tools to help people cope.

The simple thing they did not do: they did not, at any point say, in an OOC context: “If at any point, this gets a bit much for you, find one of our staff, say ‘I am absolutely for real having a problem here, can I stop now, please.'”  They did not include any kind of safeword.  My friend had to ask three times to stop and every time they were rebuffed by a staff member who refused to break character and who did not offer any particular reassurance.  In the end, they left unaided by the event organisers – they just spotted a door they recognised as a way out, and left.

Let’s be clear here: I’m not condemning them or trying to shame this company of their staff (although honestly, the total lack of support my friend got was shameful).  They’re a paintball company offering an add-on experience, not a LARP event.  It didn’t work for my friend.  I think they could do better, easily, but I also assume they know their market, know the common experiences people have, and their failure cases, and have catered for them to the extent they consider necessary.  Didn’t work for my friend, but honestly, I wouldn’t have said my friend was their usual target audience in any case.  (And I’m not condemning them for that, either.  Wild horses couldn’t make me do something that said up front “this will be physical and scary”.  One or the other, not both.)

But hearing about this got me thinking about horror in LARP.  I’m going to bang on about it for a post or two.

The first thing to talk about is obviously safewords.  They’re applicable to more than horror, but they’re especially important there, I think.

The thing about safewords is this: people feel better knowing they’re there.  People who know that they can tap out at any time will probably find they can go further than they think they can.  They will feel enabled to push their limits, knowing that they have the support of the group in both pushing them, and in respecting them.  This is not rocket science.  Indeed, a large chunk of the reason my friend left the zombie paintball was because they hadn’t been told what to do if they couldn’t cope (as much physically as mentally), and they were worried they might not be able to.  They stopped because they felt unsupported by the staff, wanted to stop almost in case they couldn’t cope, rather than risk spoiling someone else’s fun in the moment.  Effectively, they couldn’t cope with not knowing what to do if they couldn’t cope.  Which is fair.

I am actually quite ashamed that I have run live events for years without ever formally saying “this is the safeword”.  In my own defense, I think all my players have always known they could say something like “Time Out: OK, I need to stop you here.” or “Out of Character: I am not able to deal with this bit.”, and that no-one would think any the less of them for it.  But still: I should have made it explicit.  I will make it totally explicit in future.

And this goes double for anyone running an event where fear is an emotion they wish to evoke.  Not having a clear and express safeword in a horror context is flat-out irresponsible, to my mind.

I know that there are people out there would would argue that someone knowing the have the option to safeword out works directly against setting up something properly scary, prevents true horror.  I don’t disagree – I think LARP is a bad medium for certain kinds of horror.  I’ll come on to that next time.

In the meantime: has anyone played any games were there was a particularly effective way that a player could safeword out without necessarily having to bring play to a halt for everyone else around them?  Halting play is of course, preferable to someone doing anything they’re not comfortable with, but I am wondering if there are non-disruptive ways it could be handled – so any player who needs to use them can feel better about doing so.