Mind’s Eye Theatre

We called it “Night Under the Clocktower.” Fantastic venue — but the nearby malls and cafes worked too.

(Note: This was published privately elsewhere, so if you were there, you can probably skip this.)

I’m not thrilled with the current incarnation of Mind’s Eye Theatre (MET: the system used for live action Vampire: The Masquerade) but that’s not its fault. It’s not a bad game. Its designers know their audience, and refined it to do a certain job extremely well: run PVP LARPs for hardcore members of organizations. Emphasis on “hardcore,” and “organizations.” My salad days with MET were in the mid to late 90s, where I ran LARPs ranging from five people patrolling bars to events with hundreds of people from multiple territories.  I inherited our local game for a year, after its original mastermind graduated and moved away (and taught me that school cohorts are the heartbeats of long MET games). It managed to accumulate another decade or so of continuity before it mutated and collapsed. After I ran it I played a couple of times, ran it once again and visited other games in our organization, the Shared Universe.

Later I’d discover the Shared Universe collapsed in acrimony, and its homepage told people to go away.

After the early 2000s I was done. The game had increased in complexity and moved away from performance to the hardcore PVP era. Subsequent development seems to have given this competitive subset exactly what it wants, but I don’t think this is what the majority of LARPers wanted back then, or what the majority of potential LARPers want now. Certainly, the Nordic scene has served as a refuge for former MET players from the Grey Book era. I’m calling it that because the rules — Laws of the Night — were in a compact, easy to memorize book. It fit in your pocket.

MET served as a gateway for tabletop roleplaying. Half the gamers I play with drifted to the tabletop from MET. As a tabletop designer, I sure want that back.

Grey Book Laws of the Night also promoted self-organization like no other LARP. You just needed a little book and if you were feeling fancy, clothes for your character. There were so many self-organized LARPs ranging from big networks to “street” games, you could play a few times a week and always find a game when you traveled. And over on the Internet, you could read about games *everywhere.* I remember a link to something called “The House of the Gray Laurels” in Japan. Was anything cooler than the idea you could take your character from semi-rural Ontario to fucking Japan?

I remember going on a trip to Montreal for an event with the Shared Universe organization. We went to a goth bar, the Sphinx, to meet other folks from the organization. We couldn’t find them, but of course we ran into an independent, “street” Sabbat LARP running in the bar. This wasn’t a “venue.” There were mostly non-LARPers. the impeccably-dressed Montrealers used Trait names and hand signals, and overlaid reality with their game. We were the only others who understood the code. Cool. Playing embedded into the rest of the world wasn’t just a broke-ass innovation, either. It was mentioned in the text.

But this trip introduced us to hardcore play, and people devoted to “winning” at all costs. (They were in the basement below the Sphinx. We didn’t bother going down on the first night. The street Sabbat were more fun.) “Winning” could be individual character victory, or give you the biggest privileges over being able to interpret the setting, so you could bully other characters, games, whatever. The Shared Universe complained when we allowed a Justicar to appear less than omnipotent. LARPers entertained endless arguments about how badly vampires from certain clans should be treated. They demanded increasingly elaborate rules for Influence and Status. These were the guys who started mob combat, all the fucking time. And they always had the strongest characters.

Maybe I’m going on feelings over facts. But I wasn’t the only one with those feelings.

The green book tried to emulate tabletop powers and such, and make the rules fairer, but it was also a bigger book to read and easier for a minority to exert mastery over. Those street games dried up. Mid-level MET networks withered away, or like the Shared Universe, burned. This left the hardest of the hardcore: people familiar with MC and XP transfers between characters and proxy play and all sorts of things that drifted beyond my interest.

NWoD/Vampire the Requiem required two huge books, and a die or cards or new, funky hand signals. That snuffed out my thoughts of getting back into it. I still followed it voraciously because as a tabletop designer, I was interested in how my work was adapted.

The new White Wolf’s already run a Nordic style Vampire game, and is gearing up for another: the deep-immersion Convention of Thorns. We’ve entered an experimental phase alongside rules for the hardcore networks. This is good stuff. Yet I can’t help but wonder how to get my MET back and make it better, and I can’t help but think that I’m not the only one interested in that. Some of us don’t want to get rules heavy with a network, but we don’t have the money or inspiration to go to Poland.

My MET would bring back Trait names and allow easy, street level organization, so it can be played in public with minimal scheduling and tricky sentences about being “Wise.” It would be short — under 200 pages in a pocket-sized book. You could play without extensive memorization, but you wouldn’t need full LARPwright preparation, either. Yet it could be scaled to organization-level play, and modified for the needs of a theme or storyline.

In recent work for Storypath (the system that will drive the Aeonverse and Scion RPGs at Onyx Path) I identified three schema (schemae, schemes, chunks of stuff?) for action in the game, and split systems along them. This happened to use the Mental/Physical/Social split familiar to anyone working in thme White Wolf design tradition. In my ideal MET, I imagine the as areas that can be modified to suit different games, without throwing out everything else. I could envision an MET event where Social systems like Status and Influence work out of the book, but the Physical conflict “module” gets replaced with symbolic escalation that requires no testing at all.

Embryonic versions of these could be included in the core rules, and they could be refined to integrate ideas from improv, Nordic LARP and even tabletop play. For instance, interpersonal Social Challenges without powers are often not very functional, but if we include the improv concept of emotional energy we can make the states a certain type and level of emotional energy (“more anger”). We can incorporate automatic clue discovery and interpretation. We’ve still got a core system and the possibility of high system-oriented “walking tabletop” play, but we can change that without creating a new game, breaking continuity or losing broad play networks, with one character sheet and continuity, but rules that can be customized from event to event. I should be able to take my character from one game where only my name, background and clan matter to one where I can whip out obscure Discipline rules.

This is not just a matter of systems, but expectations. MET always permitted freestyle play with nothing but basic safety rules, but never supported the idea beyond a mention. If hackable rules become a basic part of the culture, system mastery withers.

We need to look hard at the good and bad parts of MET culture, from the perennial problem of gendered harassment in games to how power is concentrated, and what the expected (un)life cycles of characters are. Jesse Heinig’s Dying Kingdoms deals with this by rewarding retirement and supporting character arc structures. Yet systems can’t fix everything. Over time, I came to find the MET player base less than giving as a performance troupe and unable to really act on strict player/character divisions. The game should let you know that you ought to be interesting, include others in evolving stories and say that if you can’t do that and be true to your character, he probably isn’t interesting.

That’s the MET I want. If nobody creates it, I’d love to see a similar LARP someday. I remember 200 folks crowding a room for a vampire wedding and I remember freezing my ass off in a street game, crouching in a borrowed stairwell because we decided we wanted to an hour before. I want them both again.

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