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The conscious stream: "Playing a character, and not letting it play you."

December 2, 2018



It should be said first and foremost that LARP bleed is most definitely a thing. There have been many who have been affected by it to different degrees, and some even in a positive light, but it is also true that there are those out there who will never suffer from such a thing and that is okay too. What works for you doesn’t always work for everyone else, and what affects others may never affect you. That is what it’s like to be part of such a diverse community. In saying all this “letting your character play you” isn’t always connected to LARP bleed and sometimes is a completely different thing all together. So, what we will be doing here is having a look over certain pitfalls and character traps that people easily find themselves falling into and can struggle quite a bit to get back out of. Starting with the simplest and yet most unexpected of issues that most combat LARPs come across: The “Murder Hobo”.




For those new to LARP or those who have stuck mainly to non-combat versions of the hobby, this phrase may be a little foreign to you, so let me explain. A “Murder Hobo” is a player in a combat game who isn’t really taking part in the main story, or sub plots, or even really engaging in role play with other characters, but instead simply attacking and trying to kill anyone who comes across their path. Some people see these types of players as “less than LARPer’s” while others revel in the role, and fully enjoy the game they are playing while attempting to commit ‘mindless slaughter’. We all know every story has at least two sides, so let’s look at them a little closer. “Why would someone become a ‘Murder hobo’ in such a role play rich environment?” I hear you ask. Well there could be several contributing factors to this ranging from social anxieties, to simply knowing that you enjoy the combat portions of the game and not the others. Perhaps you are too shy to engage in role play with characters and feel much more comfortable relying completely on the physical aspect of the game. Perhaps the idea of the game being more of a ‘sport’ really appeals to you, and you have tried playing along with the role play side of things only to realise they don’t quite fit with how you want to play. These reasons plus many others are completely valid, and should be noted by the community that in such a diverse game as LARP there are always going to be those that prefer the more niche aspects of it, as opposed to the entire ensemble product. This does not make the player less of a LARPer than any other, they have just found the way they wish to make the most of the events they are paying to participate in, much like yourself.


 However, looking at the other side of the issue we see players engaging in a much bigger world with more complex ideas and goals they are trying to achieve. They can be constantly hassled and halted by those ‘Hobos’ who are just out mindlessly slaughtering them every time they attempt something beyond any kind of safety net. Be it a safety in numbers type of net or some sort of games mechanic “safe zone” type deal. This can understandably be frustrating and really take away from the experiences of some players. So, ‘not letting the character play you’ can become really important in these situations. Deciding that being a: “Murder Hobo” is how you wish to play this game doesn’t mean you don’t have a character, it just means your character is somewhat already pretty much defined by that term, and that while you may never really stray from that moniker you are a part of the game just like everyone else. By all means play that ‘murder hobo’,have as much fun as you can, but keep in mind, while you are playing a character you are also a real person, and the other people you are playing with, are also real people outside of their characters. You can separate yourself from your ‘murder hobo’ tendencies to analyse and judge whether or not your ‘in game’ actions are affecting other peoples ‘out of game’ enjoyment. Remember, using the phrase: “that’s what my character would do” only really works if you’re helping to heighten the game for everyone involved, it is not a shield with which to hide behind being a dick to other people. Sometimes you need to help steer the situations so that all involved can enjoy themselves, not just yourself.  


Your ‘murder hobo’ character may be an extremely good fighter, and may simply wish to slaughter every single person they come across, but you as a person need to take a step back sometimes and realise when a group of three relatively newer players leave the safety of the town on some quest, perhaps don’t run over and slaughter them all again for the third or fourth time. It’s going to become very unfun for them very quickly if, every attempt they make to take part in the game is instantly destroyed by someone who just likes to fight and kill. Perhaps this time you could simply pretend your hobo character didn’t see them, or head off on your own quest to find stronger more veteran players to take on, thus fulfilling your requirement to have fun at a game but also allowing others to fulfil theirs as well. This simple act of stepping back from your character, assessing the situation, taking into account other people’s feelings and desires can actually allow your ‘murder hobo’ to become a very important part of the game. For the road isn’t all one way. Consistently getting murdered by another player should be a good lesson to other characters that they should also be reassessing the situation, perhaps not leaving the safety of town with so few numbers, or perhaps making a stealthier exit. There should be plenty of options available to them as a “free pass” should never be expected, but there is a very slim line between a challenge and an insurmountable obstacle. It’s important to be the former and avoid the latter. Otherwise you are simply letting your character play you, think for you, act for you, and you can find yourself very quickly being excluded from the community, something no one, not a seasoned role player, or a murder hobo should ever have to experience.




The next biggest issue we come across with ‘not letting the character play you’, comes from a really obvious place: The Backstory! I can tell you right now that we have probably just split all those who read this right down the middle into two warring groups. Those that think backstories define their characters and those that think they are simply a waste of time, and look, both parties have very compelling arguments about why their side is right, but just like real life nothing is ever simply black and white. Every character needs a back story. Whoa! I say. Chill! I plead. Don’t instantly judge me as a pro-backstory-er. Let me explain. Even if your “murder hobo’-esque character just popped into existence, guess what? You have a back story! That story may just be: “you popped into existence”, but it’s still a backstory as that one simple factoid is now going to define a lot of what you do as a character. Because of this you will react to things differently, you will have different traits and different ideas, and most importantly you have created a mystery around your character because let’s face it, even in a fantasy setting it’s quite unusual for people to just “pop” into existence. So, while your back story isn’t a three hundred and forty-seven-page novel, it is still a back story, and still important to what you do.


The other side of that argument however is: “your back story is best left behind you”, and that is also true. Having an overly detailed backstory that adds up to the formerly mentioned three hundred and forty-seven-page novel may be a great character study, but is only ever going to hamper you at LARP and make the character play you more than you playing the character. Once you have such a defined story, you have created a so well fleshed out and rounded character you can often leave yourself with no where to go with it. Instead of reacting to events as they happen, you already have a predetermined reaction based on past events, and this is a very dangerous situation to be in.  Just like with the ‘murder hobo’ the ‘overly complicated back story character’ is locked into a certain way of thinking and acting, and thus when certain situations present themselves can often lead to acting in a way that will upset other players and affect just how much they are enjoying the game. Remember “That’s what my character would do” is not a shield to hide behind, because in the long run, you: the real person, have let your fictional character make that decision for you.



Now if we take the aforementioned process of stepping back out of your character and assessing the situation and all those involved, it can be very difficult to find a solution that suits those around you and will conform with the very detailed back story you have. This is where, and I can’t stress this enough, you need to value those around you more than the three hundred and forty-seven-page novel. The novel can be edited, rewritten and changed, but broken relationships out of game are a much harder problem to fix. The people around you should be the reason you are playing this game, without them you would simply be alone, off in some random park somewhere, talking to the trees about what an amazing backstory you have, and apart from a rare few, most people don’t want that. They want to interact with other characters and be apart of a living, breathing, populated world. This is why it’s best that your back story should cover some vague events that can help you discover your character, but are loose enough that you are only very rarely locked into one set of responses to given situations. Something to help ground your character but allows you to play in the moment. One of the most useful tips in writing is always: “write about the most interesting point in your character’s life. If there is a time that was more interesting than the one you’re writing about, then you’re writing about the wrong thing.” In LARP this should translate into the actual LARP events being the most interesting thing your character has done. If your character has had a more interesting back story than what they are currently involved in, you are going to find yourself very bored, very quickly. Create interesting content for yourself here and now, and don’t just refer to some time that you made up on the bus on the way home one day. You want to live this character, play this character, not have it play you by restricting what you can and can’t do based on a pre-determined doctrine or dogma you have created for yourself.


The next problem we face with characters playing us instead of vice versa comes from two places that are very similar: Stock characters and joke characters. Stock characters or stereotypes have been a persisting problem in all forms of media since the invention of the performance. They rely heavily of preconceived notions of certain traits that are usually over exaggerated ad nauseum. Often presented in racial and cultural insensitivity that has time and again raised several concerns from different minority groups. No one likes being made fun of, and such characters often run the line of being flat out offensive. A certain take on stock characters in different times throughout history and more apparent recently is to take a stereotype and then use it to subvert people’s expectations in a very clever character study of the human being and the different cultures through out the world. When done well this can be an amazing piece of performance art, and if you can pull something off like this in a LARP or improvisational setting you are to be commended for your talent and patted on the back, because it is a very hard thing to accomplish without simply taking a stereotype and pushing it too far back in the other direction becoming just the opposite stock character and offending a different culture in the process. Making something like this play out in a community without offending large groups of people would take a lot of work, a lot of research and even a lot of collaboration with people of who the stereotype is the focus. Even then, I think most of the people in these different cultural groups would prefer you not to get stuck trying to subvert the expectations of a few LARPers by exploiting their history and culture. While there is a lot of learning that can be done in these types of games and scenarios, perhaps there is a more appropriate issue you can be dealing with. And bringing it all back to the point, if you were to embark on this undertaking, how much fun would you really be having constantly having to check every role play option presented to you for a potential culturally sensitive faux par? You would very much end up with this highly complex character playing you, as opposed to you playing a character in a fun and exciting environment available to you.




The other part of this point is similar, but different enough to still bring up as a separate bit, and that is the aforementioned joke character. Now maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a rise in our local group of people taking a single joke and building an entire character around it. Sometimes this can really work. Maybe a once off character for a laugh and a bit of hijinks, or making the joke as a starting point and really growing a character away from the “yuks” and more into a fully fleshed out person. But the flip side of that coin is the characters that have two to three catch phrases that they spit ad nauseum, no depth or development and will literally drop character or flip to the opposite side of the character just to get a simple laugh out of those around them. Now I’m not talking about characters who are charismatically humorous, or those that seemed to have the worst luck in the world that keeps getting them into whacky situations. Clearly those are people playing characters that are genuinely immersed in a world and just happen to be experiencing the lighter side of that world (or darker depending on your humour). I’m talking about the Jerry Lewis’s of LARPs. Now, love him or hate him, you can’t deny he made people laugh, and that is exactly what these characters do, people do laugh at them, but like the late Mr Lewis they are in no way playing a believable character and no one is laughing in character at them, it’s all out of character giggles. Those whacky “dabba-doo” characters often break the immersion of the world around them, but more importantly spend their entire time working. Ask any comedian or funny-funny man out there today if it’s easy being a laugh riot, and 95% of them will tell you about the gruelling work they do week in and week out just trying to make those around them smile and laugh. It is an extremely hard occupation, and why most comedians who haven’t made it big yet often struggle with depression and other mental illness. Heck even well-established comedians are very public about there battles with mental health issues and how much pressure and stress is put upon them to be “funny”. Despite the fact these characters often break immersion to extreme levels, and are often attempting to illicit those breaks as some form of personal challenge they have set themselves, it’s also extremely taxing to constantly be on show. LARP bleed is a very real thing, and that can sometimes come in the form of complete exhaustion from performing such a way for an entire event. If this is happening to you then it should be very clear that your “funny” character is wearing you out, and they are playing you more than you are playing them. Put the jokes away, drop the challenge of trying to break every one out of character with a laugh, play a realistic character with some quirks and I can guarantee you’ll find the natural humour of the situations as opposed to constantly trying to be the joke.


Another aspect of this issue comes from that pesky little tool that a lot of people still use, to this day, to express and explain characters actions, and while its usefulness ranges from a broad understanding to down right hampering, most can admit at one time or another they have referred to their characters by their: “Alignment”. If you don’t know what “Alignment” refers to then by all means minimise this window and do a quick google search (or yahoo, I don’t know which web br