“What’s a man now, what’s a man mean?
Is he rough or is he rugged,
Is he cultural and clean?
Now it’s all change, it’s got to change more,
Cause we think it’s getting better
But nobody’s really sure…”
‘Real Men’, Joe Jackson
The other day Kevin Burns and I got to run the first playtest of a chamber larp that we’ve been working on, Real Men. It examines notions of masculinity, and the ways that maleness is performed in our society – with particular reference to the difficulties that men have in communicating and sharing with each other. It takes a group of young men in the 1980s and examines how their lives and interrelationships develop, decade by decade, up to the present day.
Boys and girls
Real Men is based upon an earlier game I designed, Women on the Verge…, which has a similar structure but is about a group of women friends. I wanted to work with Kevin on it because he has considerable expertise in the field of men’s emotions and the psychological aspects thereto. He has made Real Men into a much deeper and more thoughtful and fulfilling experience than it would have been with just me writing it.
Both Real Men and a game with female characters, These Are the Days of Our Lives (which for reasons too complex to go into here is not quite the same as Women on the Verge…) are going to be running at the Grenselandet festival of chamber larps in Oslo at the end of October. Which Kevin and I are very excited about! So it was fantastic to have the playtest work so well.
Men at work
The structure of Real Men goes like this. It’s for 4–6 players, who each choose one of the six character skeletons that we’ve designed. Each skeleton is of a young man in his late teens, in the mid-1980s. There’s a series of self-questions to help the player flesh that skeleton out into a playable character. There’s the usual kind of pre-game workshop which includes safety and meta- techniques. Then the players are pitched into the first of four half-hour scenes, which consists of their characters all meeting each other for the first time. Subsequent scenes see them meeting again in the mid-90s, the mid-00s, and the present day.
Time and tune
Each scene is soundtracked with half an hour of music of the period, in all cases ending with Joe Jackson’s ‘Real Men’, which is kind of the theme song of the larp. When the players hear that song come round, they know there remains only a few minutes of the scene. It’s a handy way of prompting them to carry out any actions that they haven’t yet got around to.
Events, dear boy; events
Inbetween each pair of scenes there’s an out-of-character interlude. In this, the players decide what happens to their character, and to their interrelationships, during the intervening ten years. They can choose life events from a set of cards (relating to work, family, health, sex, travel, etc), and they also draw cards randomly that put ups and downs into their relationships with the other characters. They have a period of reflection and discussion about how their lives have thus evolved, and then go into the next scene.
Death comes as the end
During the last interlude, one of the players can choose for their character to die. The last scene then takes place at that person’s funeral, with his friends gathered. The dead character starts the scene with a eulogy to himself and then lies on a bier, but he also enters the scene in a meta way by whispering in the ears of the other players – injecting reflections and reminiscences about their shared past. Then, after the end of ‘Real Men’ playing for the final time, cut to warm-down, de-roling and debriefing.
Last and first men
So overall the game worked pretty well. We had a great group discussion afterwards, and it seemed like people had enjoyed the experience, and got a range of different things out of it. It was apparent that there was some tension between the desire to tell and be part of fun stories about the character, and the desire to explore him psychologically – I myself felt that it was easy to lose sight of some of the psychological insights that Kevin had written into the characters, and the potential emotional journeys that they could go upon, once caught up in the flow of events and encounters. But I think this can be addressed by gentle reminders from the GM from time to time.
The psychological side is more Kevin’s baby than mine, and I expect he’ll write about that on his own blog at some point. But I think we were both pretty happy with it generally, and looking forward to seeing how it flies in Oslo in a few weeks’ time!