Tags: larp


Fragrant Harbour (Kapcon 2013)

This past weekend was Kapcon, one of NZ's biggest gaming events. As it has been for over a decade, the flagship event was a large Saturday-evening live-action game. This year it was "Fragrant Harbour", set in Hong Kong in 1899, enjoyed by 75-ish players.

The team - Catherine Pegg, Stephanie Pegg (also of Gametime), and Ellen Boucher - did an incredible job with this game. I had a great time & there's been lots of great chat and war stories. Here, I want to call out two aspects of the game that might be of interest to folk who weren't part of the game.

** Culture & Safety **

When "Fragrant Harbour" was suggested as a possibility, I freaked out a bit. I'd been thinking a lot about culture in gaming, and starting to address some of the emergent issues, as well as reading a lot about privilege and representation. With visions of players invoking Yellow Peril imagery and general disapproval from my Asian friends, I went on something of a bender saying it wasn't a good idea. Eventually I calmed down enough to see how I was overreaching, and to their great credit, the "Fragrant Harbour" team forgave my outburst and even welcomed my help later on.

In conversation with me, Stephanie identified what was driving my anxiety - it was about safety. The idea as I interpreted it did not make me confident about being safe. I think of it now as a "Facebook Tag test" - if I was tagged in a photo from this, would I feel like I had to untag it so some of my friends wouldn't see it?

(And to be clear why this is a salient test for me - I have lots of friends who work very closely with issues of cultural engagement and sensitivity.)

Now, Stephanie and Catherine and Ellen were already thinking about these issues before I spoke up. In their hard work on this game, they continued to think hard about them and address them carefully, in such ways as:
- strong guidance embedded in a lengthy costuming brochure, mostly by promoting accurate, researched period costume rather than pop stereotypes, but also telling players to avoid using makeup to indicate ethnicity
- plenty of contextual information around the era and cultural forces at work in the society, so players had a framework to rest on (even if some players didn't remember or even read it, they knew there was an historical context and structure to the game which would influence their play decisions)
- offering a big bunch of diverse and individual characters, which clearly pushed players into exploring the individuality of their identities (and thus also to avoid resting on stereotypical depictions)

Most powerfully to me personally, they recruited me to go and talk to some people in the local Chinese-NZ community with some awareness of issues surrounding cross-cultural depiction. I spoke to several well-connected people, and went into detail with three of them. All three were supportive of the idea and the approach the team were taking, and some made suggestions about potential interesting content to include. Apart from being a gentle rebuke to my earlier freakout, it was great to note this engagement, and it gives the game design process an ironclad narrative of honest consideration of cultural risks. (Not an excuse - it ain't about excuses - but a record of definite, sensible, extensive, good faith steps taken to make sure they aren't messing up in unforeseen ways.)

So in conclusion on this point - there are some risks in this kind of project. (Although fewer in this case than I initially thought.) Catherine, Stephanie and Ellen demonstrated a bunch of excellent ways to manage them and even harness them to make a stronger final product. In future I'll point at this as an exemplar of how to address cultural safety concerns in an entertainment project.

Oh yeah, as a final note on how well they handled this: the post-game email asking for feedback included questions specifically concerning cultural issues. Nice.

** Culture & Learning **

All of this got me thinking about the other side of the my recent interest in culture - using this game as a learning experience. (This, I should clarify, is just some idle thinking about what might be possible, rather than any specific call to action.)

Cultural educators I know can spend a lot of time and effort sending groups into "cross-cultural simulation games" - some of which have larpish elements - in order to develop their cultural competency. Here we have loads of people voluntarily researching and costuming and stepping into a different cultural context for fun. Now the constraints of the first that allow learning aren't really compatible with the fun of the second, but there must be some potential for crossover here.

One idea: imagine a run of this game that included a bunch of "cultural experts" as players/NPCs. Chinese people who have knowledge of the history of the period and first hand experience of how Eastern cultures differ from Western. Nothing else changes - the game just runs, everyone plays, everyone has fun. The only difference is in the debrief, where those cultural experts get a platform to talk about what they saw, and what people did. Not judging people of course, but maybe talking about how they would expect a Chinese person to respond to a given in-game situation; or explicitly drawing on their own cross-cultural knowledge to say they did "X" in the game because they were treating it as Chinese-culture-appropriate, even though in their everyday life they'd be more likely to do "y" in response to that type of problem because they live in a Western cultural environment. Other cultural learning points could be hung off this. I think this would be a productive learning experience because after a larp, the urge to trade war stories is high, everyone wants to make more sense out of the experience they just had, and emotional engagement with the game makes expert comment on cultural stuff relevant contextually. It's too elaborate and uncontrolled to be a go-to cultural training tool, but if you want to offer a fun event with some added cultural training value, this has an immediate and obvious appeal...

Second idea: there are some very active Chinese youth leadership networks in NZ. I wonder if there'd be any interest there in such a group hosting another run of Fragrant Harbour, sending their people along to it, and inviting other youth organisations to fill out the numbers and provide a cross-cultural player base? Even with no other cultural learning stuff laid on, this could deliver some cool benefits. Hmm, intriguing.

I had a third idea but it's flittered out of reach right now. Two's enough, anyhow, so I'm gonna post this.

(Keep an eye out for a published version of Fragrant Harbour, too...)

The Bell, and Where Character Comes From

This weekend "Hydra", Wellington's first LARP convention, was held. I went out to play in one game, The Bell, facilitated & co-written by fellow Gametimer stephanie_pegg. (The Bell is available for sale at Drivethru.) This is not a review, not least because I only saw one sliver of the whole.

(There are no substantive spoilers here. I keep things very vague. This account shouldn't affect your enjoyment of playing The Bell should the opportunity arise.)

The Bell uses a device that is widely seen in larp and RPG one-offs - amnesiac characters who slowly recover their memories. This is sometimes called a cliche, but I prefer to think of it as archetypal. (Or as the gaming equivalent of a jazz standard. Every jazz singer has their version of "Summertime", right?) Amnesiacs-recover-memories is a narrative form that is perfectly suited to done-in-one roleplay, because it unifies player and character knowledge and has a built in arc of development. The Bell uses it well.
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Domestic Realism in Larp - Game Design Theory and Practice

So in some recent behind the scenes chatter, a comment was made that Gametime is currently "the lethargic zombie of NZ roleplaying discussion."  Alas for Mash, there will be no zombies in this post.  But then, that's kind of the point of it.

I've been on a larp writing jag for the last couple of years, working in the genre of domestic realism.  I kind of drifted into it via a game about a wake, Sitting Shiva, which I talked about in an earlier post.  The thing is, what I liked about that game wasn't the magic, it was the realism, and in fact I found that removing one of the 'magical' game mechanics in the second run made the game stronger. 

I also think that if you ask people what are the basic ingredients that go into a larp, or any kind of roleplaying game, you'll often get a bunch of opinions back about how what you really need is conflict.  You might also get some comments about how it's essentially an escapist form.  These NZRag conversations are  examples, but I don't think it's that unusual a view.  But I want to challenge that view a bit - in the second conversation I linked to, I made a comment that what you really need is a reason for every character to be there, and something for every character to do. (1)  But if you do remove conflict as a game element, what are you going to put in its place?  What are people going to do?  And does roleplaying have to be escapist, anyway?  Isn't one of the cool things that people can get out of a game a heightened emotional experience?  Don't we have heightened experiences in real life, all the time?

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Chimera aftermath (5) - Hating China

Belatedly continuing from this post in a series about some games I played at Chimera 2009. Took ages to get time to set down these comments, my apologies.

Reflecting on the Dragon

There was a lot about this game that concerned me. As previously noted, I work in the cross-cultural area so I'm highly sensitive to how cultures are represented and how inter-cultural interaction is depicted and managed. This game's representation of China caught my attention.
Now, of course, "China" is not the same as "Chinese culture" (and furthermore China has a bunch of cultures but we'll set that aside for now). However, look at the backstory's presentation of China: aggressively expansionist on a massive scale, launching invasions across the Pacific, suppressing resistance with "brutal force", conducting ethnic and political cleansing of the conquered populations, and more. The in-game events also included depictions of some particularly ruthless suppression of resistance. The Chinese occupying forces are a an unambiguous bad guy.

Here we are, however, in the real world. The Chinese community in NZ is very concerned about discrimination, and feels somewhat vulnerable. The furore in 2007 about MP Deborah Coddington's article "Asian Angst: Is It Time To Send Some Back?" is just one obvious example of the fact that Chinese presence in NZ society is contested and controversial.

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Chimera Aftermath - interlude

Sorry haven't been able to write the fifth and final chunk, life has been rather busy of late.

So in the absence of that, I will linky to this: a post by Karen Healey on cultural consultants.

Karen (who was recently interviewed right here on Gametime, part one and part two) discusses how she as a non_Maori went about trying to do a good job of representing Maori culture in her upcoming debut novel, Guardian of the Dead. She covers a lot of the points that have gone through my mind thinking about the first game discussed in this short series, the Requiem game set at the dawn of colonial New Zealand. Although she's writing about prose fiction rather than a live game, much of what she says is directly applicable.

Highly recommended.

Hopefully I'll get to part 5 before this week is out...

Chimera Aftermath (4)

Continuing from this post in a series about some games I played at Chimera 2009.

Anxiety and Intrusion: Evicting the Dragon

My first game on Sunday, the second-last of the convention, was Evicting the Dragon. This was a stand-alone game written and produced by a small team (two people?) of Aucklanders - Patrick Cummuskey is credited as writer and was the prime mover but he had some help. It was set in an alternate New Zealand that had fallen to a Chinese invasion; the game would depict an attempt to force the occupying Chinese out.

In the near future, China and its allies have unleashed its military might to invade and occupy countries throughout Asia and Oceania, triggering in essence World War 3...

Now, as the Coalition forces have finally got the upper hand, a secret meeting has been arranged of the resistance leaders in Auckland to finalise a plan to strike at the Chinese occupiers and deal them a crippling blow.

Pre-game experience

The first set of content that came to the players was a background sheet explaining what had happened in the alternate reality of the game. Essentially, China had launched a multi-front war, sparking a global hot conflict with China and allies on one side and the USA and allies on the other. New Zealand itself was invaded and overwhelmed, with China asserting direct authority over the urban centres and fending off resistance from the rural areas.

Characters were assigned prior to the game, and character sheets were distributed just prior. I was given the role of Peter Greenway, "an engineer involved in the secretive Sirius Group of scientists and engineers". I dressed in civvies, a mix of clothing that felt right for Peter - nondescript, ready for going rough. Other people turned up in camo; one, notably, in a suit of "power armour". We were all shepherded to the game environment, where the GMs explained some things about the background, about our shared understanding, about how the game would play out. The GMs offered camo outfits to anyone who wanted them, but stated that probably the characters would be unlikely to wear such a motif - in the game, a resistance wouldn't want to be marked as such. The GMs both positioned themselves within the fiction - they would have roles to play in-game.

I was cautious about this material, to say the least. There were several reasons. This was a game with a strategy component - such games have never been much to my preference. More importantly, this was a game in which China had occupied New Zealand. A big chunk of my life right now is engaging closely with issues of diversity and discrimination in New Zealand, and the experience of NZ's Chinese communities (NZ-born and migrant, and their various subsets) is a significant chunk of that. I am unsure about an entertainment that has Chinese soldiers walking the streets of NZ cities, killing the locals. But I was ready to take everything on its own merits; my experience is that people I meet through gaming-type communities have almost always thought beyond the surface. To an extent I'd find that to be true here; but in some other important ways, I walked away from this game concerned.

The game itself

This game began with one of the most audacious and interesting maneuvers I've ever seen in a LARP; I think this moment by itself justified my trip up to the convention. The main GM, at the front of the room and apparently stepping into character, asked that we begin the game by turning to face the flag and singing the national anthem. Sure enough, the hall we were in was equipped with an NZ flag, and the GM held a salute and began to sing. It was an instantly challenging moment.

For overseas readers, particularly from the U.S., I should point out that our national anthem is not a strong symbol. It is little-loved due to its dirge-like character and because it's straight hard to sing. Its prominent appeal to God sits oddly with the mostly-secular NZ society. Going beyond the specifics of the anthem, it isn't a huge part of our culture in a participative way; we hear the anthem performed before sporting fixtures, and sometimes on certain crucial national days, but singing it yourself is pretty unusual for anyone out of primary school. It just isn't hugely important here. So bringing out the anthem is a dramatic move and instantly raises a whole mess of issues - principally, about citizenship and nationhood, especially in a time of strife.

Personally, I'm deeply suspicious of nationalisms of all stripes, and I think a lot about issues of identity, including national identity, in this country. I don't think God Defend New Zealand is the right anthem for Aotearoa NZ. So I haven't sung our national anthem for a long time, and don't mean to change that any time soon. But there I was, on the spot with moments to decide whether I would participate or not. Around me, voices quietly joined to sing the anthem as we all stood and regarded the flag. And in one of those moments of inspiration, I fixed on something that would completely change the game for me. I didn't want to sing the anthem, but I understood from the character sheet I'd been given that Peter Greenway loved his country. In my play, Peter did not sing - instead, he prayed. There is nothing on his character sheet that suggests he has any faith at all, but something really chimed for me in the idea. While the others sang, Peter stayed silent and spoke to God. It would prove a fateful direction in which to take Peter.

Usually when the anthem is sung in public here, the first verse is sung in either English or Maori, and then repeated in the other language. However, our GM character kept going from first verse in English into the rarely-heard second verse, whereupon one of the other players (playing a Maori gang leader) launched singlehandedly into the Maori version of the first verse, representing strongly. The GM continued further into the third verse which I don't think I've ever heard sung before. This persistence was fascinating; the other players, like me, did not know the words to these later verses and so everyone soon fell silent and watched the GM persist alone. One of the other GMs approached him and whispered in his ear, but he shrugged the guy away and kept going, all without even looking at any of the other players. It was a great moment; we were forced to confront and address a whole confusing mess of issues at the heart of being a New Zealander, all engaged through a perfect bit of theatre that transitioned us from "briefing" to "in-game". There's heaps more I could say about the anthem, but I'll leave it for now - as far as I'm concerned, however, it was a hugely successful moment. Kudos to the GMs for this.

When that was done we moved into the planning room that would be the scene of almost the entire game to come. A big table was laid out with a laminated map of the region, while in an adjoining room a communications setup was delivering and receiving secure messages. And we began to talk.

I won't go into specifics - don't want to spoil this for anyone who plays again - but the talk mostly consisted of people trying to identify key objectives and to note important resources, mixed in with some paranoia about spying and counter-plots. It was wildly unstructured, with the loudest voice usually holding the room's attention, and little ability evident around the table to focus on specific issues or adopt a methodical approach. We wouldn't have won any awards for meeting-room efficiency, put it that way. This, in turn, fed into the conception of Peter that was building for me; I found him turning more and more inward (also helped by another metafictional factor, namely that at the big game the previous night I'd been intensely voluble and sociable, so this game probably caught some rebound into silence). Several times I kept my mouth shut when I knew I had useful information; not to be spiteful or because I wanted people to fail, but because I/Peter was becoming increasingly furious at the failure in the room to provide some authority and structure and to act swiftly on the things I did speak about, and above all to engage with the situation strategically rather than tactically. Peter, described on his sheet as "pessimistic and determined", more or less gave up during the game; in fact, I think I realized my version of Peter had given up a long time ago, and his determination was not directed towards victory. I could go into greater psychological detail, but I won't because it will swiftly get into spoilers territory; suffice it to say that we could have fared better at our stated goals if I'd played Peter in a more generous way. Sorry, fellow players!

As that note above suggests, we did not achieve a shining success by (for example) minimizing civilian casualties, but we did achieve our main objectives. The game ended with a short dramatic scene and then a general debrief about the strategic and tactical decisions we'd made, about what certain maneuvers had meant, and how we could have done better than we managed. We left the game area and mixed back into the main crowd of Chimera-goers and all started making ready for our next game.

Next: probably the last post in this series - reflecting on the Dragon

Chimera aftermath (3)

Continuing from this post about some games I played at Chimera 2009.

Colonization and Racism: Curse of the Pharaoh

The first game of the weekend, on the Friday night "horror slot" (which was, in practice, taken over by the massively popular alternative for those not into horror games, Spy Hard) was Curse of the Pharaoh, by UK murder-mystery writers Freeform Games. It was a small theatreform game for less than a dozen people, set in Egypt's Valley of Kings on April 23, 1894. [111 years later to the day was when I visited the Valley of Kings. It was hot.]

We gathered in the small room, went through our briefing papers, and dove into an intense experience full of intrigue and mystery with a steadily worsening supernatural threat. My character was Sir William Saville, host for the evening with not a few secrets himself (which I won't mention in case others end up getting to play this fun game). It definitely says something about my comfort level going into this game that I spent far more time coming up with ways Sir William could thoughtlessly insult the Egyptian people ("wogs", "fuzzy wuzzies", "Johnny Foreigner", etc.) than thinking about his goals or secrets.

For me, this game was a highly enjoyable experience, if a bit haphazard in its final resolution. I quite liked the way the rules worked to govern interaction between characters, but this opinion was not universal. I recommend it - lots of fun. But, as the existence of this post will have tipped you off, it started some wheels turning in my head...

The Myth of Western Superiority

There are some character types that are highly likely to crop up in a role-playing game from a given setting. One of these, familiar from countless games of Call of Cthulhu (Gaslight and 20s), is the upper class Brit who thinks other ethnicities are basically primitives. You know the one; all "Haw haw haw" and "Bally foreigners don't know what's good for them what" etc. You've probably played one; I certainly have.

This game actively invites such portrayals. Its shared introductory document, a fictional newspaper called the Cairo Gazette (find it in this .pdf), includes lines such as "Superstitious Natives Restless ...Rather than attempt to secure an interview with a native Egyption, from which little of value could likely be learned...". (Interestingly, it shifts gears as it goes, the same article concluding with a comment on the "Egyptian political-intellectual classes" and their concerns over the extraction of resources from and colonial manipulation of their nation. These concerns are dispatched with an appeal to the superiority of British rule to any other power, but it's an odd note alongside the first, as if the game is attempting to have its cake and eat it too - we'll mock the silly racism of the past, and we'll also reflect on realpolitik as it played out in the late colonial era.)

It's an interesting character type in lots of ways. The racism is almost always played for ironic laughs, the player inviting mockery of their character. Often it is thrown forward with enthusiasm, as if the player is keen to distance himself from these ideas by satirically disavowing them (I think this motivation is part of what drove me in this game). Even otherwise heroic characters can be played like this, without contradiction; we can admire the selflessness and heroism of the character within certain limits, and observe how they are blinkered and foolishly racist men/women of their era at the same time.

The racism of these characters has been obviously and thoroughly discredited, and that is part of why it is so easy to play it for laughs. However, the fact that it has been discredited doesn't do enough to explain this. After all, racism against black Americans has likewise been thoroughly discredited, but that racism isn't played for laughs often. (There have plenty of mocking portrayals of the Ku Klux Klan, of course, their rituals and costumes do most of the work there; but the everyday racism of pre-Civil Rights America is almost exclusively a serious subject.

Why can we laugh at and mock one and not another?

Is it distance? Through shared media and shared language I feel closer to the black experience in America, I feel I have some understanding of the perspective of the victims of racism. However, the experience of India under the British Raj, or Egypt under British occupation, is not as well-known, and in particular the perspectives of the local peoples are not well-known. When I think of the racism of the British Empire, I think mostly in terms of the people who perpetuated that racism; their perspective is the only one I can access. Perhaps if I was better acquainted with colonial violence and repression in these places, I wouldn't be so ready to play characters who toss of epithets about the dirty, primitive natives, because I'd know the real-world consequences of such thoughts.

It it power? Perhaps it's just that Black Americans are still embedded in the consequences of their oppression, whereas India and Egypt are (superficially at least) charting their own course, with the colonial era locked in the past.

Is it class? This archetype is almost exclusively an upper class member of British society; it's easy to attack and mock those who have power in society, such satire has been the tool of those who don't for millenia. Racism in the US, however, is at present highly concentrated among the lower classes, the poor and disenfranchised. (It was not always so, from what I've read.) Would I play a coal miner in 1900s Newcastle and spin his racism for humour?

There is a lot of weirdness that sits under this portrayal in gaming fictions, and one of the most notable is that this archetypal racist disregard is almost always embedded in talk of "superstition". The poor native is so superstitious, believing in ghosts and witches and things that go bump in the night!

And yet, the most common games to call upon this archetype are - you guessed it - horror-based games, in which the native superstition is accurate. Ghosts, witches, bumping things - all are real, and the native guides usually know far more about it that the sophisticated British toff.

While I've never yet seen it emerge in play, it has occurred to me that this actually changes the meaning of the "scoffing racist colonial" archetype. Horror games, almost without exception, offer an anti-modernist construction of reality, in which rationalism and humanism are fanciful distractions from the horrible, primitive truths that we have forgotten. Thus, the character is not racist for labelling a culture as primitive for its difference; rather, the character is racist as a side-effect of their retreat from primitive values. For the character-as-she-is-played there is not much difference, but one posits a native culture that is essentially contemporary-but-different, while the other posits a native culture that is essentially romantic-primitive. And that opens a whole heap of other cans of worms.

Fortunately (?), in play, the characters all usually die or go insane before that can really be worked out.

In any case, this game gave me a chance to dive full-throttle into such a character, and I did so and had a blast. Without the other games providing more reason to reflect on these themes, I doubt this aspect of that game would have stood out for me at all. As part of the weekend I ended up having, however, it was a very interesting counterpoint.

Next: Hating the Chinese

Chimera aftermath (2)

Continuing from this post about a Requiem game played at Chimera 2009.

Reflection and analysis

There was a lot about this game that was laudable.

This was an honest attempt to deliver a game experience founded in a cultural context that is not founded in Western (popular) culture. For that alone, it deserves respect. Rare is the game that takes predominantly white middle-class Western-culture gamers and puts them in a world in which they aren't competent. Crossing cultures is a challenging and valuable thing in and of itself, and for stepping in this direction the game gained power and layers of meaning beyond the obvious.

This was a New Zealand game. It was a game that could be played nowhere else in the world; it was highly specific to New Zealand, and in particular to New Zealand at the start of the 21st century. It was a game that felt entirely ours.

(Which reminds me of visiting the Edinburgh wargames convention Claymore in 2003, where the Phoenix Wargamers Club of Glasgow presented a dramatic battle from the land wars, complete with dozens of carefully-painted Maori warriors. I experienced no small degree of cognitive dissonance, observing these diligent Scottish wargamers enacting through play and discussing through conversation the tactical and strategic intelligence of the Maori during the land wars.)

Finally, while it was not a game about politics and colonization, it was structured to bring those issues to the fore and provide plenty of opportunity to engage with them. It is hard to think of a more consistently charged subject in New Zealand political discourse over the last two decades than the process and effects of colonization. It is very much a live issue, by no means settled, and one that speaks directly to the lives of New Zealanders, and particularly to Maori (as the colonized) and Pakeha (as the colonizers). Any game that steps into the realm of political relevance for the participants is brave and these matters were presented here in a way that did not force any particular conclusion, which is of course the best way to enter into such territory.

However, there were plenty of aspects of the game that gave me pause.

We who took on the roles of Maori in this game all felt some kind of responsibility to do the job well, and to do our best to step out of our own cultures to portray a different mindset. Also, I think, everyone was wary of romanticising the Maori, of depicting them as "noble savage". This was helped by the game material; the writers made it impossible to ignore the brutality of some of the warfare between iwi, for a start.

However, perhaps inevitably, the game couldn't escape these traps entirely.

The treatment of colonization in the game was the strongest example of this; the narrative that emerged was itself a romantic one, in which Maori were forced into trade with the insidious white man by a kind of prisoner's dilemma logic, with foreknowledge that European culture would be disastrous for them; in actual history engagement with European traders and culture was incredibly varied and haphazard, and many tribes enthusiastically embraced not only the valuable weapons but also the ways of the visitors, including their religion and their entertainments. Others, of course, resisted vigorously, or were cautious in their entrance into trade, or worked to develop their own hybrid cultures. And these divisions occurred of course at the individual level as well as the group level. The near-unified front that developed among the Maori factions says much more about the contemporary cultural and political stances of the players than it does about history.

My character was a "storyteller and historian". It was an interesting position that, to my knowledge then and now, does not exist in any Maori cultural context. Oral traditions were hugely important to Maori, of course, but I don't think there was any specific storyteller "role" in the same way, for example, the tohunga was a specific role. This further struck me as, perhaps, betraying a kind of primitivism in the game writers' assumptions - that oral societies tended to ritualise their knowledge and imbue certain people with supernatural authority over that knowledge. In my personal engagement with the character I interpreted the phrase "the storyteller and historian for the Ngai Tahu" as meaning I was renowned as an accomplished storyteller and a knowledgeable historian; that is, I had no special position with any cultural authority, I was just a guy who was really good at those two things. (Of course, if there was actually a "storyteller/historian" position in pre-contact Maori society these concerns instantly disappear.)

Another aspect of concern to me was the representation of Maori that we were encouraged to adopt. The adoption of moko in particular was a point of concern. Ta moko, as mentioned in the previous post, is something of great significance among Maori. Moko are not taken lightly, or worn lightly; they are imbued heavily with meaning. The adoption of moko by celebrities (Mike Tyson) or fictional characters has produced fierce debate among Maori, with a lot of agreement that casual or un-informed use is objectionable. Here, we were asked to moko ourselves purely as a signifier or Maori-ness, moko as costume with no deeper meaning, and while I didn't find it offensive at all, I was very uncomfortable with it and did not personally participate.

There were several secondary issues that were problematic but not of great significance. I found the choice of groupings in the game to be odd. A gathering of chiefs from three of the major iwi in New Zealand never quite seemed justified - the provocation for the meeting, as dramatic as it was, seemed to be essentially a local issue. It would have made more sense to me if the game had set a meeting between hapu (large family groups) rather than iwi to discuss these events. However, the use of iwi meant the GMs could use historical conflicts to inform the game, and gave greater weight to the underlying conflicts that encouraged trade for muskets; major aspects of the game would have been impossible without an iwi focus. So perhaps the answer would have been to communicate more effectively just how important this meeting was.

Another secondary issue was the use of language in the game. Obviously, English was used at all points during the game, but this had unusual effects for suspension of disbelief. It would be vastly more appropriate for Maori to be using te reo for their deliberations, especially because the Europeans were not important to the main decisions to be made. The Europeans in question could certainly be assumed to be fluent in Maori, but in play both fluency and vocabulary resided with the outsiders, with Maori players asking for explanations about terminology used by the Europeans. More powerfully, it meant that the whole discussion was framed within a European/English-language context, and Maori worldviews could not be asserted effectively. There's no obvious way around the language issue, but greater attention to the matter would have been appreciated.

Finally, and most importantly, play in this game was hampered by a lack of understanding of what it meant to be Maori. The play offered by everyone was weakly informed by history and cultural appreciation. Knowledge of Maori protocol was spread very thin among the group and there was no support through briefings, structured play, or metagame communication techniques to make the most of it. More pointedly, the main action of the game, the argument over what to do with the mother and her unborn child, was one for which we were massively ill-equipped as players. This argument turned on matters of cultural principle and compromise that we could only guess at. This in turn made the argument the weakest part of the game, for it was a dilemma that rested explicitly on a supernatural problem founded in an inaccessible cultural worldview (and one that was of necessity devised by the authors of the scenario and bearing little to no relationship to anything in history). Ultimately we had no way to navigate this argument without reference to our own contemporary worldviews, or the cultural assumptions we were comfortable making. It was impossible to engage with this plot within the roles we were ostensibly playing; this can only be seen as a missed opportunity.


The game was interesting and ambitious but it did not allow its players to engage fully with the cultural content it raised. As an entertainment it was successful, but viewed with a wider lense it left much to be desired.

I was, throughout the game, conscious of what my Maori friends might say were they there. I don't pretend to know their minds entirely well, but it was safe to say that I would not be confident of their approval. To my mind, what the game needed was some Maori leadership - a strong voice, confident in tikanga, who could lead the players into their roles and duties with some authority and insight. Someone to advise on how to represent protocol, on how to signify moko without inadvertant offence, on how the matters raised related to Maori cultural understandings. This is not to say that a game is impossible with a seal of approval from some designated Maori - lord knows there are disagreements among Maori about what is appropriate and what is not, they are hardly a monoculture - but rather that a game entering into terrain like this would be immeasurably improved by a skilful guide who was actively serving as cultural guide. It is no secret that the status of Maori in NZ society is contentious, and the meaning and value of Maori culture even more so. Given the very real stakes at play in depictions of Maori culture, it would be very responsible to have some active guidance.

I also think it would have been a lot more fun.

What else? In order to escape romanticised narratives you need to steer the participants away from them; they're the downhill that water always runs towards. Priming material should work to provide a diverse set of perspectives, none of which give participants space to fill in the blanks with the well-rehearsed narratives that lurk in our shared local knowledge. Force players to see things differently, and they will certainly rise to the occasion.

Also, pay attention to the kinds of history that are being used to feed into a game. The dramatic warfare stories were obvious elements to use, but there is more to Maori history and activity than that; more could have been made of this, to provide more anchors for understanding than war and rivalry.

The bigger recommendation, of course, is about being aware of the cultural context in which you're operating. Everything gets value from what is going on around it and from what people bring to it; the more awareness writers and players have of these effects, the better. But more about this in the next game I'm going to talk about.

To come: ignorant wogs and Chinese-as-enemy

Chimera Aftermath (1)

Over last weekend I attended Chimera, the second annual Live-action roleplay convention in NZ. LARP is a form I've drifted away from in the past decade, but I have enough of an interest that travelling up to Auckland seemed worthwhile; and it did prove to be an interesting and valuable expedition.

However, some parts of the weekend caught my attention, especially because I returned from Auckland to land right in the thick of the NZ Diversity Forum. I was, perhaps, primed to notice and consider diversity issues, and the games I participated in gave me much to think about on this subject. Here is some of that thinking. I will be trying to work this out as I type; it will probably take me a couple posts to get through it all.

I'll start with a fairly lengthy description before I get to reflection and analysis.

Colonization and indigeneity: Requiem

The first game on Saturday morning, and the second overall in the convention, was a "special episode" of an ongoing game of Requiem, the White Wolf Vampire live game. The ongoing game is set in contemporary NZ, and this session was a flashback to NZ in the early 1800s. Participants in the game were present for the birth of one of the game's important NPCs, and in principle at least the outcome of this game would echo forward to impact on the ongoing experience. I was very intrigued by this game once I saw that the premise was an early-colonial period where the player characters would be predominantly Maori. In a weekend where costume was widely encouraged, instructions for this game were to come wearing simple black clothing.

Pre-game experience

We turned up to the muster and character sheets were handed out, more or less at random, while the GMs advised us of some of the parameters of the game. As I looked around the participants I was extremely aware that we were a very white bunch of players, although with a fairly large percentage who weren't born in NZ. Notably, there weren't any brown faces in the bunch.

The players of Maori characters were divided into three (real-world) tribes: Ngati Toa, Ngai Tahu and Ngapuhi. It was explained that we were coming together to determine the fate of a woman who had fallen pregnant to the taniwha who had destroyed her tribe. A taniwha is a type of creature in Maori mythology that has many aspects, most prominently as fearsome monster and as guardian spirit. Here, the fearsome monster aspect was invoked in a story of a community being killed leaving only this woman alive, and then taking her against her will as a mate and impregnating her with a spirit child.

At this point the GMs distributed small pendants to each member of the tribes. They were small, plastic tourist-style artefacts. The Ngapuhi and Ngati Toa characters were given small green plastic hei tiki, which is the classic piece of commodified Maori culture. The tribe to which I'd been assigned, Ngai Tahu, were given bone fishhooks (made of plastic of course). These, we were told, represented an element of backstory taken directly from real history, in which members of our tribe had tricked, killed, and eaten a chief of Ngati Toa. This was a reference to the events in 1828 at Kaiapoi Pa, where Te Pehi Kupe was killed and his bones made into fishhooks.

I was, I admit, quite pleased when I heard that one of the pendants had fallen and shattered, so I could go without wearing this marker; they did not entirely sit right with me, and I don't put anything around my neck lightly.

Then, the GMs produced pencils to mark the face and asked men and women to give themselves moko, or facial tattoos. I was not comfortable about doing this. Ta moko is an important cultural signifier within Maori society, and it carries much importance. It was, to be blunt, a symbolic marker that I was not prepared to mess with. I left my face bare for the game. One person questioned me, but I just said I wasn't going to wear anything on my face, and that was accepted immediately.

As we made our way to the game venue a few other interesting aspects of the game became clear. First, more by accident than design, the players we had playing our three chiefs were all women. This was entirely ahistorical; even more notable was that the chiefs were all real. Thus in the reality of this game, Te Rauparaha of Ngati Toa, one of the greatest warriors and military strategists in NZ history, was a woman.

Secondly, it became clear that the three tribes were primed in the game materials to disagree about the appropriate response to the woman's survival and pregnancy. Ngati Toa was primed to seek the death of both woman and child, in order to prevent some future catastrophe; Ngapuhi was primed to save both woman and child, to honour the taniwha and show mercy; Ngai Tahu was primed to save the woman but ensure the child died so it could not grow up to threaten the taniwha (and thus endanger the fundamental balance existing in the natural and mystical world).

Additionally, one of the participants who was not playing a Maori character approached us in the Ngai Tahu iwi and said that his whakapapa was Ngai Tahu, so more power to us. Following this I made it my business to speak to my fellow members of Ngai Tahu. I can't remember exactly what I said, but my main point was that we should stand strong. We were representing real people, and we owed it to them to represent them well. (I was thinking, as I said this, of one of the experiences I'd had at a marae, where a Maori friend lightly chastised me for being reticent and deferential; these behaviours were polite in my cultural background but they made me look out of place and unworthy of respect within a Maori cultural context.) My short comments were happily accepted by those around me, and in fact sparked a discussion over how we would present ourselves in the face of our rivals and enemies in the other tribal groupings.

My assigned character was a "storyteller", who was an advisor to the chief and secretly a member of a supernatural caste.

The game itself

The game began. One GM took the role of a tohunga (a cultural role with elements of wise advisor, cultural expert, shaman and priest) and began the game by announcing the beginning of a meeting to decide the fate of the pregnant woman. He also introduced the other trio of players, all white men who were in fact providing the neutral ground on which the meeting took place. These were, again, all historical figures: James Busby, sent by Britain to mediate disputes between the Maori and the increasing numbers of European visitors; Samuel Marsden, the first missionary to NZ; and Captain John Stewart, who in real history would go on to help Te Rauparaha avenge the Ngati Toa defeat at Kaiapoi and capture Ngai Tahu chief Te Maiharanui. Te Maiharanui was another character in the game, played as noted earlier by a woman. I should also note here that the player of Samuel Marsden was the Maori player who had approached us earlier.

It was obvious that all participants were sincere in their efforts to honour the Maori they represented. Everyone was trying very hard to stand strong, and to engage in some level of cultural immersion.

The theme of colonization was extremely strong in the game. It was virtually unmentioned in the pregame materials and discussion, but the events of the game foregrounded it by sitting three figures from colonial days at the table. Additionally, it became apparent that the colonisation of New Zealand was intended to be at issue in the game, primarily through the trade in firearms which was a point of action for several characters and which, historically, had a huge impact on NZ history by empowering some iwi over others.

Even accounting for these in-game prompts, however, my impression was that the colonial theme was irresistible in play on all sides. A great deal of time was spent by Maori players arguing forcefully that their world view was not for sale and would not be abandoned, and that trade with the European visitors would end poorly. Direct arguments with the European players were frequent. Often these took the form where the European player would explain the benefits of engaging with them, and the Maori player would vigorously refute those benefits.

There was another curious note: a number of times Maori players asked the Europeans to explain the meaning of some of their terminology. This was an interesting ploy as far as it went, but it would have been particularly nice if the device had been used to show how the two worldviews were different; instead, it seemed in practice to simply indicate that the Maori questioner was ignorant and needed to have a term explained to them.

Discussion of the ostensible purpose of the gathering, the fate of the woman and her unborn child, did not proceed very far. Essentially the three tribes presented their expectations, and when it was apparent there was no obvious way to resolve the difference, discussion stalled. The three chiefs met with the woman and tohunga in private and continued discussion, while outside the others devised arguments as to why their approach to the problem was the best one. However, these were not founded on a shared metaphysic and so did not carry much argumentative weight. Meanwhile, the European characters tried to win us over to trade, Christianity, and the benefits of engagement.

This was the way the first half of the game went. The second half began when an omen of death was seen in the meeting house (a piwakawaka, or fantail; if the small bird enters a house it is taken as a sign that someone in the house will soon die - this customary interpretation is widely known even among pakeha New Zealanders). Soon after, some players began to push their hidden agendas, and the scale of the conflict escalated swiftly into a large battle with substantial supernatural activity. Throughout this, I had my character sit crosslegged, watching but not participating. (One of the other players noted this with amused approval, saying it was very Parihaka of me, which I thought was an excellent comment to make!)

After the main pieces of action had been resolved, we came together and the GMs discussed with us what had happened, what hidden information there had been, what was based on real history and what was invented, and where this would impact on the events in their ongoing Requiem game. And then the game was ended.

Next: why this game was great, and why it bothered me

Let's Talk About Death (Actual Play Report)

At KapCon, I ran a live game called Sitting Shiva. There was no story, only the lightest of prewritten characters, and no programmed conflict. We were at a wake. Fortunately for the person who had died, he was there, too.

First, I’ll give some background. Last year, I played in a live game called Tryst by Ryan Paddy, which was over at the unusual end of the spectrum. I think what Ryan got out of it was experimenting with magical elements in a realistic setting; what I got out was the experience of being myself with a slightly different history, and that was a really cool thing to try. A few years ago, I’d also been in Tony Shirley’s Couples, which dealt in heavy psychological realism; we weren’t playing ourselves, but we were playing people with a lot of emotional layers and real world context. That was also a really cool thing to try. What I found was that in most of my roleplaying history, the escapist element is quite large – it’s normal to start with a fiction and use the reality that is you to inform the skeleton. When I started with a reality that was myself, and built up fictions on top, the feeling during and after the game was a lot different, a lot more meditative, and that’s something worth looking at some more.

Another thing happened on Tryst day. During that game, random talk had moved on to families, and I’d mentioned that my father had died a long time ago. Later on that day during a meal break, one of the people who’d been in Tryst was sitting next to me and started a conversation about my father. Then it turned out that that person’s father had died. Then it turned out that that person’s father had died quite recently and I think that they had wanted someone to say that to, even or especially someone they didn’t know very well. I think that I am a product of my cultural upbringing, and I think that I as a Pakeha share a trait of not talking about death very often. Maybe we should talk about it some more. Now, in roleplaying, you can do anything: you can slay dragons, fall in love, ignite and extinguish suns, fly. So lets talk about death.

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