Trust in Vampire: the Masquerade Chronicle LARPs Part 1: Storytellers
Once upon a time, shortly after I’d become the primary V:tM storyteller for my local larp, a friend of mine asked me, “What would you do if you could get away with being unfair to someone?”
My response came easily, “That’s not a hypothetical question,” I said, “I could get away with being unfair to someone. I could get away with it right now. In fact, one of my more serious concerns as a storyteller is that I’ll accidentally be unfair and people will just let me get away with it instead of pointing the problem out so I can try to fix it.”
It’s probably not news to anybody that big V:tM chronicle larps have a trust problem. Players who don’t trust other players, players who don’t trust storytellers, local storytellers who don’t trust national storytellers, national staff who don’t trust local and regional; we’ve seen it all. How does that joke go? “The Camarilla is being the Camarilla again.” We don’t just have a trust problem– we have people resigned to having a trust problem. I’m not sure I’ve met a single entrenched Masquerade player who didn’t have some kind of coping mechanism for this, anything from the popular only playing with friends option to the min-maxer’s prepping for inevitable escalation, or even my own personal favorite: throwing yourself into volunteer work to try to change things.
So I’ve thrown myself into the work, and that means facing this trust problem down and asking, “How do I change something like that?” When it comes to trust, being the new storyteller on the block only goes so far. Eventually I’m going to make a mistake and people will ask questions about it. There are no rules about who they’ll ask or what they’ll ask, but they’ll ask. If they don’t get answers that build trust, then I can expect to lose the trust I’ve been borrowing. I saw it happen as a player– all the ways trust failed, all the people who bounced questions off each other and came away unhappy. And so to head off this problem, I’ve come up with some ideas about how to keep everything I saw from happening again. It’s an easy list to say, though not necessarily an easy list to follow: 1) increase communication, 2) increase transparency, and 3) increase consistency.
Increasing Player-to-Storyteller Trust
When it comes down to it, trust is a relationship, and communication is the engine by which relationships live or die. It’s written right into my assumptions up there: people ask questions, people need answers. So I need to make sure questions get to someone who can answer them and answers get back to the person asking before I even start thinking about the content of those answers. Problem is, people don’t usually ask questions about out-of-character matters when they’re busy playing the game. That leaves a lot of space for questions to get lost. The relationship between staff and players is founded around an in-character space, and for people new to the game, that might be the only space they even know exists. Increasing communication is about making sure everyone’s questions get asked and answered, and ideally that those questions get dealt with in game spaces, not in interpersonal spaces stacked on top of game.
When I say game spaces, I don’t necessarily mean in-character spaces. Game spaces can mean the storyteller-specific email account, getting food after game with everyone, social events specifically created for the game group, the out of character channel of a game’s discord server, or any form of staff office hours. That’s actually the list of spaces my local game already had when I became storyteller, although I did add online meetups for people who couldn’t stick around after game or easily travel to a physical event. Increasing communication is about making communication easy, not just possible, which means paying attention to both the number of spaces and who uses them. People who can’t attend in person events can show up online, people who are afraid emailing in a question is rude might be willing to talk about it over food, people who don’t know what questions they can ask benefit from seeing what more confident players will ask in a chat channel, and the more I talk about and show up to all of these events, the more people know I’m willing to talk. Being obviously willing to talk is very valuable for increasing communication– every positive interaction is a story that encourages more communication down the line. This is one of the reasons to encourage all communication to take place in game spaces, so that the ‘communication works!’ story can be passed along from player to player. But this is about more than just appearances.
I’ve already said my local game had several communication channels set up back when trust was decreasing. People talked about communication, people were encouraged to email the storyteller, but a lot of people tried that, then came to me and said, “Hey, I emailed the storyteller, waited for weeks, and never got a response.” They had all sorts of potential answers as to why– he was busy, he didn’t like their question, he didn’t like them personally. Some people found other ways to get the storyteller to reply to them (please imagine an ominous foreshadowing sound here) and some of them just gave up trying to communicate. I’ll talk more about why this was a terrible setup for trust in the consistency section, but what I want to emphasize is: if you care about communication, you need to do your half of the work. Do not open more communication channels than you can use, do not pretend to be more accessible than you are. Try to make sure the channels you do use are accessible to as many people as possible, and if you’re not getting the communication you need, then yes, create more channels targeting those missing voices, but always keep your own abilities and boundaries in mind and be honest about them. There’s no compromise here that won’t leave people asking why you didn’t get back to them and coming up with their own answers, with a bonus side of storyteller burnout.
That said, let’s talk about ways to increase communication that don’t leave storytellers wondering hey, shouldn’t they get paid for this sort of customer service? The greatest form of asynchronous communication is documentation. Documentation can answer questions before they’re even asked, can provide phrasing and framing for people who weren’t sure what they should be asking, and can make replying to player outreach as easy as pasting a link into an email. Documentation even lets other people (players, assistant staff) answer questions with the storyteller’s own words. If you have very little time available for communication outside of a game, writing that policy down can keep people from jumping to conclusions about why you need three weeks to reply to an email. Documentation is invaluable, as long as it stays up to date and visible. Always make sure documentation is somewhere permanent such as a wiki, a web page, or google document. Emails get buried and the players who read backdated entries in a mailing list are few and far between. If you’ve ever played a larp with workshops, consider that those are documentation of a sort. If you can record workshops and put the video link somewhere permanent, then you’ve got a great point of entry for new players for the entire duration of a chronicle. If you don’t have a lot of documentation or a national organization to supply you with documentation, you can also try to find assistants who can do some of the back-and-forth communication for you. You still need to stay in sync with assistants if you use them, but it shrinks the size of a communication problem. But while assistants come and go, documentation is a one time effort resulting in a permanent communication boost. And assistants willing to write documentation are gold and have all my thanks.
Now let’s talk about the content of the questions and answers we’ve got going back and forth between players and storytellers. Obviously, a big part of that is just going to be rule calls and story, but there’s always an underlying assumption present in those answers which is extremely important for long term trust. That underlying assumption is: “The game works like this.” Transparency is about describing how the game works and increasing transparency is making sure everyone knows how the game works. Everyone needs to know what they can interact with, how they can interact with it, when they can interact with it, and how you as the storyteller make those decisions. V:tM is a low visibility game, which makes transparency complicated, but this low visibility also makes trust absolutely vital. There are many situations where absolute transparency would mean giving players information that puts them in danger of metagaming and would put the storyteller at risk of losing trust with other players. It’s very hard to answer “Why did this event happen?” when that event is part of a CvC plot. V:tM chronicle larps aren’t built to work with absolute transparency, but we can have abstract transparency and when trying to build trust, being very emphatic about that abstract transparency is my answer to the low visibility challenge. “I can’t tell you exactly why that happened, but here are some standard ways you can interact with it.” is what abstract transparency looks like.
I suppose I should say V:tM is a low visibility game for the players. Meanwhile, storytellers get to see everything and define the world with their words. When it comes to transparency, it’s very important to remember how easy it is to fool players. Did the NPCs lie? Make sure the players know to expect lies– otherwise they might have been treating that NPC speech as part of the definition of the world. This sort of miscommunication leads to players distrusting everything that comes from the storyteller, because they don’t know when to expect lies and when to expect setting. The one thing storytellers don’t have visibility into is what players are thinking, so be explicit about checking their expectations to avoid these sorts of situations. If players file an action which makes no sense or has no impact relative to effort involved, it’s a particularly good idea to check on their intent. From the low visibility point of view, it’s easy to be completely wrong about how the game works. Most players only engage with the world once or twice a month. People forget things. It’s much better to get the players on track with how the game actually works and what their character should know than it is to no-sell them on their action. If you no-sell players, you leave them confused about how you’re making decisions and how the game works at all. This is especially important for new players who don’t have a defined idea of how the game works, because they can get the impression that things aren’t interactable, period. That path leads to boredom. For players with very defined ideas of how things work, who are also wrong, this is still important– they need to know how to adapt to your game.
Players can increase transparency by providing intent and talking to STs about their expectations, but new players and fixed-in-their-ways players will both need help learning to do this. If you want to create a game where everyone is working off the same assumptions and trusts those assumptions, teach everyone about transparency by actively describing how the game works and how to match that to intent.
Alright so, I let the experienced players do some CvC, helped the targets I thought needed help figure out how to react, and hey, wait now both sides are using all those communication channels I opened to tell me how upset they are, what the hell? Nothing’s quite so dangerous in a chronicle game as the perception of favoritism. Consistency is our weapon against that perception and also, not-so-conveniently, it’s one of the hardest parts of the whole storyteller job. A situation like the above example can turn into a consistency issue because the experienced players think helping new players see possibilities is unfair, or because the new players think the experienced players knowing how to initiate situations they didn’t expect is unfair, or because the new players think the experienced players also got help that they didn’t need, or a million other reasons. Transparency should mean that the principles of who needs to know what were established in advance, and the storyteller can point to them and calm the issue, but both sides need to believe that those principles were applied fairly as well. Nobody gets to see the communications to the other side in a low visibility game, so this sort of trust can only be established over time.
Here’s a CvE example of consistency: if two players ask after the same NPC, they should receive similar amounts of opportunities to interact with that NPC. Not necessarily the same information, but the same amount of information, however you want to measure that. Vampire is often a game about leverage, a game about turning small opportunities and secrets into bigger opportunities, prestation, and other valuable levers to affect the game. How you measure the value of levers is a matter of transparency (how the game works), but providing those levers to everyone is a matter of consistency. Because a reputation for consistency can only be established over time, it’s as important to be consistent in CvE situations as it is in CvC situations, and because leverage grows in impact over time, it’s important to be consistent early and often. CvE situations involve much more communication between players than CvC situations, which lets them compare ST treatment and establish that everyone is receiving equal opportunity to affect the game. This is where a storyteller can build up trust for the more complicated CvC situations that will eventually come around.
Another important part of consistency is avoiding the asshole filter. No, I don’t mean avoiding filtering out assholes– I mean avoiding filtering for assholes. It’s all very well to make anti-burnout rules about how to contact you and what players will get back when they do contact you, but consistency means you need to stick to those rules. If you respond to people who break your rules, then you’re weakening the rules and encouraging people to break them again. Even worse, If you spend significant effort on players who break your rules and have less energy left for players who followed the rules, then this ends with a pile of people who disrespected the rules who’re enjoying the game and are going to continue to disrespect the rules, and a separate pile of (probably very surly) neglected people who followed your rules or would prefer to follow them, who’re not having anywhere near as good of a time. And neither of these groups are what you want to deal with when you’re probably also burning out from ignoring your own boundaries. Remember, you set those rules up for a reason.
The people who care about the game the most are the ones most likely to be affected by an asshole filter in the filtering-for-assholes mode, which means if this reaction sets off, it turns into more and more unwanted behavior from heavily invested players. Remember that ominous comment from above about people ‘finding ways’ to get responses? If you teach people not to respect your boundaries, this can get very ugly, very fast as it pours into out-of-game spaces. Keep your filter in the filtering-out-assholes mode by keeping game discussions in game-related spaces, saying no when you said you’d say no, saying yes when you said you’d say yes, and getting back to people when you said you’d get back to them. If you fail at this, be honest about it. Change whichever rule wasn’t working for you if you can’t obey it yourself, or just identify the problem and strategize your way around it for the future. Your actions will always speak louder than your words. Additionally, remember the time factor of consistency can work against you here. Communication about change takes time to spread, and reputations for inconsistent behavior take time to shift. But even if you get into a bad situation and need time to resolve it, watch for the people who will disrespect your boundaries regardless of how well you establish them. Part of being consistent is also filtering them out, as firmly and formally as is necessary.
Here’s what it comes down to: communication, transparency, and consistency are values. Be consistent about your values. Embody these values in your actions. One of the reasons I’m documenting all these things for myself, here where everyone can see, is to make these strategies obvious and to make them actionable before trust problems come up for me. I don’t think I can get away with perfect consistency, transparency, or communication. As much as I’d like to pull it off, I’m too human for that. But I know that if I only try to increase trust after a lack of trust becomes a problem, I’ll look like I care about the problems more than trust itself. Consistency means I care about these values before their absence gets in my way and I will continue to care about them when I screw up and have to face down whoever got hurt.
This is an essay about trust in Vampire: the Masquerade chronicle games, and so it expects low visibility, a storyteller-to-player power dynamic, lengthy game-driven social relationships, and players who’ve been around for decades, some halfway to traumatized with all the trust wounds they’ve suffered in that time. But you may have noticed that I’m linking out to essays about MMO design and psychology. There is nothing special about the hurt done in vampire games that could not happen in another low trust environment: a bad workplace, an abusive family, a game without vampires that shares the same low visibility/high investment environment. In fact, you can actually get people joining the game with pre-existing trust wounds from these other environments. These new players will need the same careful treatment as the folks with established coping mechanisms discussed at the start, plus maybe some help noticing that they even need game-specific coping mechanisms and expectations in the first place. Nobody is incapable of developing trust, but there’s a range of difficulty and a range of existing levels of trust for every player. A one-size-fits-all approach to what players “should” be comfortable with will generate misery for everyone outside of that accepted degree of trust. On the other hand, the range of human experiences is so wide that sometimes leaving the game is a better option than trying to adapt. If there’s not staff capable of the needed levels of communication, transparency, and consistency for a given player, if the player doesn’t have the self-awareness to communicate that they’re having a bad time, or if a player doesn’t have the spare resilience to develop trust in the first place, I’m going to recommend that player leaves the game. The most common version of this is telling someone running on no sleep and no food to go eat something, because they’re going to have a bad time trying to roleplay the scene they were excited about with low blood sugar, but it extends all the way up the scale of experiences. I’m talking about this specifically because I hope nobody will read this essay and try to turn the existence of trust-building tools against people who do get hurt and realize leaving is the best option for them. Just as I advocate for you, the hypothetical storyteller, to establish your boundaries, it is also important to trust other people when they discover their own boundaries.
Not every problem can be fixed, no matter how much anyone writes about fixing them. In this particular case, I think there’s more to say about trust issues that develop between players (and what storytellers can do to try to prevent those issues from the outside) and there are also some words to be written about how to catch players who don’t deserve trust as quickly as possible. That’ll be part two of this series. Regardless of the challenge, it’s still worth trying to create a healthy community. Every drop of hurt avoided is worth it. That and, well, I’m a Vampire: the Masquerade fan, ain’t I? “A properly managed community becomes the ultimate political game” writes the MMO designer, and I would actually go even farther with this and say, “You cannot have the ultimate political game without a properly managed community.” As long as I’m trying to run the best possible game with all the politics that attract people to Masquerade in the first place, trust and the community it creates has to be one of my top priorities.