Fundamentally, in my opinion, it’s not the world itself, the rules, the characters, etc. that truly make gaming fun and bring new players into the hobby. It’s the resulting social experience from combining all the elements afore-mentioned with the genuine hospitality and, hopefully, compatible dynamics of the players involved. Some people have very high standards for these experiences. I don’t think I do, although I do like to feel welcome, especially if I’m brand new. That is my number one expectation and while, admittedly, that may be a cultural conditioning, it’s still there.
We played once in a steampunk LARP that shall go nameless. It was the worst LARPing experience I’ve had to date. It was even worse than my D&D tabletop experience, and that was pretty dysfunctional. But I have to say I learned as much from what I thought went wrong as I probably would have had it been a smashing success.
My husband and I played NPCs (non-player characters.) My husband played two NPCs, in fact. One was for the pre-encounter story setup, the second was for the encounter itself at the end of the game. The world was a post-apocalyptic America that was now part of the British empire and we were all at a bar somewhere. There were rebels about and there had been an attack on some airship. The writer of the RPG, also a player (red light), once worked in the theater and he was very big into sets and costumes. As brand-new players, we ended up spending two hours at his home a few nights before just to get our costuming prepared for our very first game! We agreed to it because we thought it would be a quick visit, but no…two hours on a work night. I learned a lot about costuming, but still……
My husband and I were part of a ship’s crew. One of our mates was always making passes at women and getting drunk and yelling at people (in-character). This was awesome. It was very funny and a relief too because, frankly, no one else really did anything. After a while though, it got tiresome. Not because he wasn’t good at it (I had to admire his spirit), but because no one ever played off it. It became repetitive and eventually lost its novelty.
There were several SCA people there. I don’t know if that played a role in the game. One group spent the whole 3 hours playing cards. One woman sat at a typewriter the whole time (she was playing a reporter, I think.) Two guys literally sat around until time came for the encounter. I don’t know if either moved during the whole game except to go to the bathroom.
The chief organizer swept in at one point and didn’t even say hello. She just asked for our site fees. I shouldn’t have been surprised considering that I’d emailed her and she’d never responded. The rest of the night she pointedly avoided looking at us….weird!!
Anyway, four of the guys there (including my husband) were to play antagonist roles for a big combat at the end and one was to play an escaped convict. One of the challenges in LARP, as with tabletop, is how to do a mass combat quickly and efficiently. We have initiatives as well which can be time-consuming. The writer/director of this game had innovated a system in which a whole bunch of people attacked each other at once with a resolution involving the number of fingers held out.
Anyway, nothing happened for 3.0 hours in the game during which one of the four antagonists-to-be gave away the surprise by saying “are we supposed to get dressed now?” This after he found out to his amazement that a girl who had been sitting in his lap for quite a while was only 15 years old! (Her parents were there and seemed to have no problems with that!) Once the four people took off with no explanation to get ready for the encounter, it took about 45 minutes for the antagonists to get their costumes on and to figure out the combat system (it was just being introduced for the first time.) They were getting ready in the hallway and, considering the amount of time they spent out of the game, the other players knew something was going to happen. By then everyone had fallen out of character and some were just checking email.
But, back to the game! The surprise was ready! The escaped convict, enters the bar and gives some speech about freedom. The antagonists (including my husband) follow him to arrest him, the leader wearing a fake beard (!) The amazing emotional drama of “will they or won’t they support the convict” lasted two seconds because everyone just turned and aimed at the antagonists. Everyone was confused with the combat system. It took as long as if they’d rolled initiative. Someone switched off the lights to shock people, but it only lasted a second. Someone threw “dynamite” into the game and then said “did everyone notice that I threw something out there?” To which everyone proceeded to run out of the room. Then someone got left behind and they ran back for him. So there were 2.5 hours of pre-game set up, 3 hours of walking around talking about the economics of Kraken hunting and watching card-playing, 45 minutes of combat dressup and 15 minutes of the encounter in which everyone knew what was up and there was no surprise element and most of the time was spent pointing weapons at each other as people figured out their finger counts. And there was no real danger because there was plenty of time to rescue the one guy that got left behind, they were warned about the dynamite and all the antagonists were easily killed.
Then, we had to help clean up and there was no “thank you” for coming and doing all that extra work as first-time players. It was so weird.
There are many lessons here. Admittedly, the returning players probably had a good time. But when I compare this to the welcoming LARP group we did end up joining…..it was like night and day. Sometimes it really isn’t the game, but the friendly words and hospitality that keep new people coming back for more. Perhaps I’m very old-fashioned when it comes to that, but I just think some things never go out of style.