On Pausing the Game At a LARP

I encountered a situation I don’t remember running into at a LARP this past weekend (Land Without a King, run under the auspices of EyeLARP, as it happens). This was when the entire game was paused in order to deal with a breach of the conduct policy.

Pausing the entire game for this sort of thing is generally more common in tabletop, because it’s vastly easier to pause the game when every single participant is sat around the same table (whether in person or over voice chat). Various safety mechanics like the X-card have been developed for the tabletop context; whilst the X-card can be used in a way which maintains the flow of play (if everyone at the table is happy for that, and if the thing which triggered the X-card is unambiguous enough that it’s clear what content needs to be steered away from), the X-card writeup makes it clear that in some contexts taking a break from play would be necessary.

For instance, whilst the X-card writeup makes it clear that participants never have to explain why they used the card, it’s easy to imagine a situation where the in-fiction scenario is quite complex and has a lot of moving parts, or where the thing which triggered the X-card was something which crept up on the player who invoked it slowly over a period of time rather than something which suddenly and abruptly made them nope out. In those situations, you can see how it would be rather opaque as to why the card was used – and, therefore, not really possible for the other participants in the game to keep the action of the game going whilst accommodating the player who has deployed the X-card without some discussion of why it was used in the first place. (Indeed, one can even imagine a situation where the X-card is used but the player says “I don’t need you to change any of the content of the game, I just want to pause and talk quickly about making sure it doesn’t go into a particular direction/I am finding the emotional intensity of the scene difficult for me on an OOC level and would like to take a break and restart at a lower intensity”.)

LARPs often have similar mechanics – sometimes including a nuance between “I need you to stop roleplaying around this now” or “We need to stop the game in this immediate area because there’s a mental health crisis/physical injury that’s happened” on the one hand and “I need you to ease off a little on that” on the other hand. But they tend to be local rather than global in scope. Outside of some specific niches, LARPs tend to take place distributed over a large enough site that it’s actually logistically difficult to get a message to all participants at once, and often won’t be necessary to do so either – if a first aid incident has happened at one end of the site, then obviously play needs to stop there, but there’s often no compelling reason why play should stop at the other end of the site. (Indeed, in a sufficiently large game with thousands of participants, like those run by Profound Decisions, stopping the entire game to deal with a first aid incident would be logistically impossible, or at least impossible to do at all quickly.)

I have been at LARPs which have had unplanned pauses mid-game, but usually this has been more to do with logistical stuff than conduct issues – for instance, I’ve been at indoor LARPs where we had to stop play and all troop outside in costume because the fire alarm went off. I’ve also been at LARP where there were conduct issues that kicked off, but it’s more common to deal with those in a fairly private way: often such incidents will only be witnessed by a subsection of the player base, and it will be kinder to the player who has been subjected to OOC mistreatment not to make a big public thing out of it at any rate, and any warnings or sanctions issued to the player who crossed the line would likewise be handled confidentially.

However, what happened at the latest Land Without a King stood out from the way these things usually go. In part, this may well have been due to the unusually public nature of what happened. Without going into unnecessary specifics, a player was making jokes targeting someone’s height – a type of teasing which the game brief specifically cites as being not acceptable conduct, any more than making people uncomfortable about any of their other OOC bodily features would be acceptable. They were called on that by a different player who made it clear she wasn’t cool with those jokes; the player making the joke doubled down on it, and targeted it at the player who’d explicitly said she wasn’t happy about that.

That would be crude, annoying, and a serious failure to both a) read the room and b) abide by the game brief in any event, but in the context of a game where a certain level of laddish culture made it difficult for women playing knights already it was deeply crass. And it happened right in front of half the player base, because we’d all amassed at the village gate ready to go out on a mission, so it was an incredibly public act of rudeness. The woman targeted made what I thought was a genuinely brave choice to break character, OOC state that this wasn’t OK, and go back to her camp, at which point other players made it clear that this should not be taken lightly – one player explicitly said she thought that play should be suspended until it was dealt with, and an entire group of men made a pointed statement by moving away from the village gate to sit around the main camp circle, sending the message that they weren’t up for continuing to play if it meant excluding the player who’d been reduced to going off-game and walking away because of this culture of hurtful banter.

The referee team’s response to this was heartening, in that they took it seriously enough to stop the entire game – calling the other PCs and the encounter crew back from the locations they’d gone to and assembling everyone around the main camp circle so that one of the lead refs could pointedly restate the parts of the brief relating to player conduct. It was extremely clear that the ref in question took the situation with the proper level of seriousness, and when play restarted (the player at fault having been given a clear warning and opting to step away from play for the next few hours, after offering an apology to the player affected by his behaviour), the rest of the event flowed somewhat better.

As it stands, the issues facing Land Without a King aren’t solely about one incident that happened; that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. There’d been a rising tension, and I think any one of several players could have been affected; I am aware of at least one other player who had left the game prior to this crisis point happening because she was no longer willing to put up with the way some of the player base were being unceasingly rude. I think EyeLARP definitely want to turn this around – the fact that they took the incident seriously enough to stop the game is evidence of that.

However, in some ways stopping the game to deal with one specific incident is the easy part: the hard part is taking a good look at the culture which has developed around your ongoing campaign and making the changes that need to be made, even if that ruffles the feathers of long-standing players. Land Without a King has apparently been through the hands of at least three different configurations of lead referees, so I wouldn’t hold the current referee team 100% responsible for the culture that’s developed in the game, since a chunk of that is what they have inherited from previous refs – but how they respond going forward is decidedly within their wheelhouse. The next Land Without a King is in October – we’ll see then what the long-term plan is.

2 thoughts on “On Pausing the Game At a LARP

  1. Shim

    That’s an interesting account. While I haven’t done any LARPing, it’s clear from your posts (and our other chats) that running large-scale games is very demanding and calls for a lot of diplomatic and management skill from the runners. It’s good to see people are standing up against that kind of casual misbehaviour, and I hope EyeLARP will be able to turn it around.

    1. They have said they’re going to roll out a 100% new design document for the system next month, which should set out their vision for how they want to take the game forwards – and they aren’t taking pre-bookings for the next event until that design document drops, which suggests they expect that it’ll be a major enough shift that it’ll be worth people’s time reading it before booking even if they’re old hands in the campaign. We’ll see.

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