Harbinger’s Advice Column: Sneaky Bastards

Some time back, a reader asked about starting up sneaky characters in LARPs, especially when you are new (to whatever degree) to that game’s community. Characters who telegraph that they are untrustworthy are tough to begin with, but when you tack on having no established OOC relationships, it’s all the harder. I’m going to address this question as three separate matters: the character archetype in itself, the matter of being new to a community, and finally both elements together. Also, two disclaimers: first, I do not advocate law-breaking behavior of any kind in real life. Second, don’t be so vain – this post isn’t about you doing anything wrong.
Also a note: I’m not discussing what Plot and established players can do to make it easier on the new player, but what the new player can do to improve their own state. That’s a good conversation to have, and one I’ve touched on in previous posts, but in this case it misses the point.

Rogues in the House

Most games that have anything to do with action and adventure have social and mechanical space carved out for rogues. Let’s be real, Fantasy Flight Games knew their audience well enough that when they were publishing a new Star Wars tabletop game, they started with the books on smugglers and bounty hunters. Even if there isn’t an explicit area of rules for rogue-types (you don’t have to have backstab or Sneak Attack rules), folks are always going to be drawn to the mystique of shady types, anti-heroes, and ninjas. (It always comes back to the ninjas.)

Just one problem. People don’t go around trusting pirates, ninjas, self-confessed thieves, outlaws… it’s just asking for trouble. This is the tension of the character dynamic:

  • Publicize what you can do, and everyone knows you can’t be trusted to keep your mouth shut. Also, word will get back to the wrong people and you might end up in hot water with the in-game authorities, including law-enforcing PCs.
  • Don’t publicize what you do, and no one will ever bring you along when they need someone of your particular talents and creative ethical structure. 

It’s a complicated needle to thread, though I had a comparatively easy time of it in Eclipse as my ninja lawyer cyborg pharmacist. (The Secret Duke wears a lot of hats, is what I’m saying.) There are things that really helped me, though.

  1. I started with a team that, while not themselves involved in underworld activities, at least knew what I was about. This would normally be completely sufficient to the task of getting a sneaky character hooked up with “work,” but the inter-team culture at the start of Eclipse was in kind of a weird place overall. The combination of being an Imperial and being a commoner meant that I couldn’t get work with the Fringers and I couldn’t easily socialize with even the thoroughly degenerate members of the Imperial nobility.
  2. I was affable with some of the right people. This is where it made a huge difference that I knew most of these people out-of-play – I am intensely shy around people I don’t know well, but it’s relatively easy for me to relax and joke around with people I do know. This was much more true in the second and third year of the campaign, but I tried to make myself approachable. The point here is that the outlaw mystique is important, but no one cares enough to work past an air of hostility to find out what a cool person you are underneath.
  3. I was fortunate that my sneaky skills – the rules-side expression, that is – were not illegal or socially unacceptable, and my character history included a legitimate career where such abilities would be useful (specifically, courier). This gave me any necessary cover to use my abilities publicly in fights, and thus advertise them – life is a lot harder if you have a bunch of forbidden powers. In general, if there are “forbidden” abilities, Plot ideally spends some time and energy putting players with those abilities in touch with one another.
  4. A lot of people in Eclipse at the time were playing somewhere in the antihero spectrum. It’s a common starting point in a lot of games, but in Eclipse even more so than normal – again with the Han Solo influence. At least I fit in well with that bunch of lovable scumbags.

The important advice, then, is to be as open and friendly as possible, buddy up to or join a team if you can, and advertise through action rather than words. Really, if you can help it, don’t advertise through words at all. (For the love of God, don’t walk around asking every Tom, Dick, and Harry how to join the thieves’ guild, even if you’re pretty sure there is one. Depending on the game, you might be talking to a cop working a sting operation.) I get it – it’s awesome to have that feeling of respect that comes from people knowing you’re a badass at whatever it is you do. There are no shortcuts on that path – you have to get there the long way. Words without thoughts never to heaven the other players go.

I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll say it again: the number-one way to get people to care about your character and the content you’re bringing to the table is to show that you care about listening to them and the content they’re bringing to the table. Ideally, this leads to constructing a bit of trust, which might be the chance you need.

Fresh Meat

It’s tough being the new player, even if you join the game already knowing a small handful of people. It’s been a long, long time since I joined the LARPing community I now belong to (er, late ’97), and at that time I knew maybe six people at the game, several of whom were themselves new, or social outsiders in-game. I have a tough time with starting new characters, as well as being The New Guy; only with great effort do my new characters get past my reflexive shyness and talk to the characters of people I’ve known for… huh, right about seventeen years. I’m 33, so more of my life than not.

To a certain extent, I now lack perspective on what it takes to be a new player. The last new LARP PC I started was Finder… back in late 2006, I guess? So it’s been a minute. Something I am a little surprised people don’t do more often is post to OOC boards announcing that they want to join a pre-existing team. I mean, I haven’t done this either, but for various reasons in all three CI/Ro3 campaigns I knew which team I was joining before I started the character. (The first of these almost went colossally badly, because I was 17 and unsubtle about my skills that had FORBIDDEN stamped on them in big sorcerous letters. I wound up being a not-great fit for that group anyway.)

Dust to Dust, Eclipse, and King’s Gate all have/had culture groups on their message boards. While it takes a certain comfort level to introduce oneself there, it’s some of the best odds of starting some conversation with players who have something in common with you. I’m happy to say that this is pretty commonly done.

All of my advice about playing an outgoing and friendly character goes double here. I am not good at following it – my instinct is to make characters who have just suffered a terrible defeat, making them crushingly depressing to play and completely self-absorbed. I have got to stop doing that. There’s nothing in the world wrong with playing a character independent of whatever the game has in the way of teams. It’s a short-term cost in exchange for a possible long-term benefit: if all of your loyalty and involvement is with one team, other player groups aren’t likely to approach you when they need help, but loyalty to one group does get you involved in that group’s content (well, presumably).

I often hear people advise new players to find their niche and let people know what it is. When that is put into practice, though, the chosen niche sometimes lacks a way for others to satisfyingly interact with it. The goal here can really be summed up as, “Have a clear, digestible high concept, and teach it quickly.” If the niche you select is a solitary activity, though, your choice has both a good side and a bad side. Good, in that you may have picked something that entertains you; bad, in that it makes other players a little more uncomfortable in approaching you. If you care about getting involved at all, make sure it’s something you can put down at a moment’s notice. Looking like you’re too busy to be interrupted is a sure way to make sure you’re never interrupted.

New AND Untrustworthy

So you’re sure you’re ready for this hard mode? It can be done well, but it takes a longer supply of patience than having only one or the other hurdle to overcome. Talk about a cop-out answer, right? The reason you’re reading my advice is to speed up the process and cut down on the necessary reservoir of patience.

Therefore, some suggestions:

  • Start with a highly trustworthy cover identity, and be prepared to slow-play your outlaw side. Think of all of the cop dramas that wait a few episodes to reveal the dirt on some of their characters – the same thing works for priests, knights, anyone who “should” be upstanding.
    • Just make sure you don’t sour everyone on your whole concept when you reveal – think “layers of an ogre onion,” not “heel turn.”
  • Don’t establish yourself by perpetrating offenses against other PCs. Look, it would be great if everyone played as if there were no boundary between PC and NPC. Playing to that ideal is a luxury for established players. Since established players don’t yet know how awesome you are, they can’t tell whether you’re a griefer planning to have your fun at their personal expense or a fun-loving rogue who will eventually be one of their best friends. Why would they take that risk? The playerbase as a whole has an obligation to welcome you in and give you a chance, but very few players make decisions for their characters with “what would be good for the community” as their top priority. The obligation to extend a welcome is diluted among the individuals that comprise the community – it’s a tragedy-of-the-commons situation.
    • Try to understand when people react to you with great caution – no one has ever run fantasy adventure stories without actively inculcating paranoia in the playerbase, and these folks are no exception. If they’re slow to trust, read that as people taking you seriously and getting a read on you.
  • Do establish yourself by looking for ways to take risks that usefully advance the cause of other players. Not showboating, as such, but it’s especially good to look brave and pro-social if you’re hiding a spot of knavery. At least in the combat dynamics I’m used to, fighting rogues are skirmishers – a high-risk, high-reward role. Another part of why we like Han Solo is that heart of gold – he comes through in the end, even if it seems for awhile like his self-interest is going to win out. (Oh, sorry, spoilers I guess?) The resolution of that tension makes us like him even more than if the question of his loyalty had never been raised.
  • Watch people’s reactions closely. If you do something that bends the law or social expectations slightly, watch how people react. As long as you don’t go too far, you can probably walk back a faux pas, but when people react positively, you’ve found a data point – someone who might be willing to work with you on some dirty deeds (at bargain-basement rates).

I’m interested in collecting more advice for all three new-character situations, so if you’ve got anything to add, please share it in the comments. I’m much more interested in cases that went well than cases that went poorly.

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