Players are Scum

Intercon, the annual Boston Larp convention, now has a pre-convention of panels discussing varying aspects of the hobby. (Some call Larping an artform rather than a hobby, and I disagree. But that’s for another time).

Somewhat foolishly, I suggested a panel for Intercon L entitled “Players are Scum”. Several people have subsequently asked me to write up my notes from that panel, and this short essay is the result.
(Oh, and if you hate this you'll probably despise Nordic Larps are Toss)

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When I was preparing for the panel, I emailed a few people asking for a volunteer moderator. One of the replies I received included the following:

“Players are awesome. They make every game more interesting. I love players and seeing what they bring to stories.”

Well, during a game, I agree with this completely. But before and after a game I have a mantra, which is this: Players are Scum.

It’s taken me a few years of running games to develop this mantra, but I now find it extremely useful. It isn’t a rule, a claim, a belief or a generalisation. It’s just something I say to myself every so often. And it makes me feel better.

The mantra applies before, after and during games; and it’s worth thinking about each of these separately.

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Players are Scum before games

If a player doesn’t fill in a casting form, even after I’ve reminded them a few times, then I no longer assume this is personal. No more do I think “They must hate me” and that it’s my fault. Instead, it is because Players are Scum.

When I send out character sheets, I always ask each player to acknowledge they’ve received it. And when people don’t send me an acknowledgement, as is common, I remain calm. They haven’t dropped out without telling me (except, annoyingly, on the very rare occasions when they have done exactly this), and they don’t - necessarily - despise the character. They’ve just failed to reply as requested because Players are Scum.

Any kind of acknowledgement - even a single word like “Received” - makes me happy. Tell me you like the character, and I’ll be ecstatic. Send me a list of questions, or even point out my spelling mistakes and bad grammar and I’ll be over the moon. Tell me you’re worried about this or that and I’ll be in seventh heaven and do everything I can to help out.

Because all this tells me you’ve engaged with the game, and you’re planning on taking an active part.

And if you send me an email saying “I hate the character and I want something completely different” then I’m going to practically wet myself with joy. Because I know I’ve either written a bad character or cast you badly; and so need to fix the problem.

I re-ran an old “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” game in 2010, and got a more polite version of this response from a player I’d cast badly. So I wrote a new character from scratch that the player did like, and the whole game was improved significantly. That new character is now canonical.

However too many players seem to get a character they don’t like, but go into the game without saying anything. Then they have a bad game and - as a result - the game isn’t as much fun for the other players either. But I now realise this is no longer my fault. It is because Players are Scum.

And there is one final thing that players do so frequently before a game runs that I now plan for it in every single game I write – other than for a Paranoia game I ran in 2011. *

They arrive late for games.

I mean, what possible excuse is there for being late? I’m there on time, ready to run the damn thing; and I’ve either been running or playing the previous session. Most games can’t start until everybody is present, because of the game set-up or a pre-game briefing. So why do some people consider themselves so important they can keep everybody else waiting? It’s not because players hate me and my games; it’s because Players are Scum.

So I now tend to assume everybody is going to be late, and we’ll have to start the briefing at 15 minutes past the hour, rather than on the hour. Which is a waste of time for me, and every player who arrives on time.

And, actually, so far as pre-game behaviour goes that’s it.

To summarise: If you fill in your casting form without prompting, engage with me even a teensy amount over your character sheet and turn up on time then you will be in the minority; and I’m therefore going to love you and want to have your babies.
Unless, of course, you blot your copybook after the game.

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Players are Scum after games

But there’s actually only one thing after a game which makes me resort to my mantra. This is coming up to me right after the game or debrief is over, and saying something like “Tony: I had a bad time.”

Now, my mouth will be saying things like “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s terrible. Please tell me why. How do I fix it?” But - like some Pythonesque Viking - my brain will be repeating “Scum, scum, scum, scum….” ad infinitum.

I really like people coming up to me straight after a game and saying “I had a great time, Tony” and I love people – a few days after a game – telling me that they didn’t have a good time, preferably if they give me some reasons why. Constructive criticism means I can actually fix issues for the next run. I genuinely want this, because I want a game to get better with each run. (And far fewer people are willing to criticise a game to the GMs than praise it, so I always - after a delay - appreciate criticism).

But I’m kind of broken immediately after a game is over. So I’d prefer a short break before you tell me what was bad about my game.

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Players are Scum during games

Actually, I suspend my mantra when games are actually running. It basically exists to lower my expectations of players’ behaviour (and stop me taking things personally) and just isn’t necessary during a game.

It is genuinely wonderful to see how players build upon the bare bones of the game and bring it to life. During a game, Players are Awesome.

Sure, a few players have been know to cheat. But that’s a tiny minority. Some players tend to exclude others from the game, but that’s usually just thoughtlessness. And some players have a habit of losing their character sheets, or ability cards, or the key item in the game. But that’s just unfortunate; and everything can be reprinted.

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Conclusion

Larping is my main hobby. I write, run and play Larps because I love doing it. Players make my games better, and almost always do far more interesting things with their characters than I ever imagined.

Players take paper and cardboard – the raw materials of games – and turn them into something approaching magic.

So I love players. I don’t love them all equally, but I love them nevertheless. Even if sometimes, some of these lovely players have caused me to think “Players are scum”.

Anyway, next year’s panel is probably going to be entitled “GMs are bastards.” All suggestions are welcome.

Tony Mitton, March 2012.

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* The 2011 Paranoia game was partially written as an outlet for some of these frustrations. Anybody who didn’t fill in a casting form, acknowledge their character sheet or who arrived late was executed at the briefing.

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Legal type notice thingy: Aside from the quoted email extract, I wrote this.  Feel free to use, quote, reprint, steal from, edit, disparage, ignore, share or recycle it.  I’d appreciate an acknowledgement; but I’m honestly not that bothered.

And I can be reached at tony@tonymitton.com if you have any comments you’d like to send me personally.

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