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The Unspoken Contract

or I Promise to Write a Playable Game if You Promise to Try and Play It

A thunk by Judith O.

As has been said in many places, LARP effectively runs on trust. There are many ways in which trust is essential; the players have to trust the GM to not bully players or to put them in positions outside their OOC comfort zones, the players have to trust each other and the monsters not to act in an overly-inappropropriate or unsafe manner, and everyone has to trust each other not to cheat.

But there is another trust that is necessary to run a game successfully, and it’s not one enforced by the Code of Conduct. It is the trust that GMs will try to write games that are fair and playable, and in return the players and monsters will try to play it.

From the GMing side, this means that games should be written to be coherent, winnable by the players, and make reasonable sense in hindsight. Winnable by the players doesn’t mean easy, and doesn’t mean you can’t challenge them or make them afraid or paranoid; winnable means not statting untouchable monsters for your end of game Big Bad without putting in a way to deal with them that the players have a chance of knowing about or discovering and using. It means not pulling a ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’. It means playing fair – not nice, but fair – with everyone involved. It also means remembering when writing a game to think about things from the player side – a beautiful story with no room for the players to be players isn’t much fun for anyone, as they won’t know what you want from them and you won’t understand why they’re not playing it right.

From the monster side, it means playing your stats and the roles you’ve been briefed on. It means that if you find something in your stats that makes you unkillable, you double-check with the GM that that’s what they meant before using it, likewise that you know what your stats do and avoiding using them in ways that will make you unkillable. It means only being obstreperous and not telling the party about Plot Point A or otherwise making their lives difficult if that’s what the GM has told you to do or if the player party are being particularly obstreperous and unhelpful back. It means, where necessary, gently prodding the players back on track if at all possible.

From the player side, it means that you should try to avoid making the game unplayable and unfun for everyone else if there is a way to prod your character into a more helpful direction. This doesn’t mean ignoring character development and the like; what it means is giving the GMs some leeway as a player, and if you can see that the game is going to get broken giving your character a nudge in a more helpful direction if feasible – or, if it’s a GM whose style you don’t like or a type of game that you don’t like, simply not signing up for the game in the first place rather than coming along and causing trouble. It also means that if you play a game with a character above or below the game’s rank bracket, you accept the risks or lack of challenge and get on with it, and if by your actions you make it impossible to keep playing the game taking it with good grace to the point of joining the monster crew if necessary.

It is very much a three-way contract, with each group also being responsible for helping to fix inbound problems before they break things. As a player or monster you are allowed to have a quick word with the GM before the game or during battleboards and other breaks if you feel it’s necessary to try and sort things out before they bring the game crashing down, and as a GM you are allowed to tell off monsters and work around problems they’ve caused, and you are allowed to deal with players being problematic OOC as long as the IC/OOC line is not crossed.

Of course, if the contract get broken by someone – and not as a one-off but a repeat offender – then harsher recourse is allowed; stopping a GM from GMing, stopping a player from playing, stopping a monster from having roles where they can screw things up or simply not letting them on the game. And the penalties can potentially be IC as well as OOC if it is the character’s actions that cause the failure as much or more than the players – demotions, lack of access to Guild-restricted training, divine intervention. The key is that once more even though someone has broken the contract everyone else must continue to work on trust – trust that there will not be undue retaliation for speaking out about someone else’s poor behaviour, trust that concerns will be acted upon appropriately. Trust that, on the whole, everyone is there to play the game.