LARP House Notes: Family Business

The LARP House ran Family Business twice in November 2013, and I was a player in the second run. It’s a LARP for six players that uses the Drama System. We played members of a 1980's crime family, vying for power and each others’ hearts.

Here’s what I learned about roleplaying, LARPing, and the Drama System.

  1. Tactical Costuming

My assigned role was the Grifter, a heartless manipulator. The only remotely redeeming quality was my love for the Talent; according to my description, “their heart is the one thing you’ve never been able to talk your way into.”

Of course, all character descriptions were public knowledge. Everybody in the game knew that I was going to be playing a ruthless sociopath—and in a scenario where I needed people on my side, that knowledge put me at a distinct disadvantage.

Because, obviously, I was playing to win. I knew it would be a serious challenge for me pilot the Grifter to a happy ending (which I defined as one where I wound up in charge of the family and fucking the Talent), so I went for a maximally distracting costume.

I wore a short black skirt with white polka dots and pink roses, black tights, magenta Converses, a tight black T-shirt, and a black sport jacket with pink roses embroidered. I should probably mention that I’m a cis guy, and I don’t normally dress like this.

My hope was that the other players would be thinking about my costume and wondering about my character’s gender identity (heck, and mine), and forget that I was out to destroy them all. I was also playing to my audience; I knew the other players well, and thought that messing around with gender norms might make one or two of them more sympathetic to me/my character.

I don’t know whether it had the desired effect, in the end. You’d have to ask the other players. But it was certainly exciting, and it gave me a new perspective on LARP costumes, and a whole bunch of new questions. Are there other ways to use your costume to your character’s advantage? Is what I did substantially different from, say, acquiring a thorough and impressive period costume for a Vampire LARP? What other procedural aspects of gaming can be exploited for diegetic advantage? Are people okay with this sort of tactic? If not, why not?

2. Abuse Requires Power

In 2009, Vincent Baker put forward a game design tool he called “Your 3 Insights”. The summary:

When you design a game, you’re taking three different positions, expressing three different insights, putting forth three different opinions. Saying three different things. First, you’re saying something about the subject matter or genre of your game: something you think about adventure fiction, or swords & sorcery, or transhumanist sf, or whatever. Second, you’re saying something about roleplaying as a practice, taking a position on how real people should collaborate under these circumstances. Third, you’re saying something about real live human nature.

I think Family Business showed me something that the Drama System has to say about human nature: abusive relationships are unsustainable without power behind them.

In Family Business, the Boss is the parent of three other PCs: the Grifter, the Bookie, and the Heir. There is strong implication that the Boss is/was an abusive parent, and that’s one of the main reasons his children are doing crimes for him. I think that’s a trope of the crime family fiction genre; you can’t get out of the family with your life intact, so you stay.

But each time this LARP was run, the family did in fact fall apart. And I think it’s because the system places all the PCs on precisely equal mechanical grounds. Everyone starts with the same amount of power and has the same set of moves to use. Characters can’t be hurt or killed without the consent of their player.

There’s no real way to make a meaningful threat to another PC, and no way to exert any long-term advantage; the abused parties quickly learn that their abuser has no actual power over them, and they can leave.

3. The Drama System is Accurately Named

It creates plays! As in, theatrical ones! A player sets a scene with a discrete emotional “ask” in mind (Can I get the Boss to feel respect toward me? Can I get the Bookie to feel fear toward the Heir?), and the scene runs until someone thinks that question has been answered, and cuts it. Then another player sets a new scene, with the same rules. This creates a structure that feels very similar to a play—it’s pretty cool.