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.

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