No Touching: Should Parlor LARPs ban contact?

Most of my role play experiences involve sitting around a table describing the story and slipping into character for dialogue.  I do, however, love a con game and, thanks to Team Coffey and Ice Cream, I’ve had even more opportunities to experience once off parlor larps.

The Last Summer Weekend is one such event that I’ve been enjoying for years now.  It’s run in the last weekend of the Irish summer, which is the end of July.  It plays overnight from the Saturday evening till the Sunday morning. And, most importantly, all the games are themed for horror.  I love horror.  Not everyone makes it through the whole night, but the event was a huge success for me with three well written and well run games that were all memorable in their own ways.

But this isn’t an event review, I want to talk about a particular issue with larping that is mentioned at every event I’ve attended in the last few years, but isn’t, generally, taken very seriously.  Physical contact with other players.

To be clear, I don’t really have many boundaries when it comes to larping.  In fact, I’ll shift my boundaries away from the ones I have in everyday life to suit a character.  For example, while I might not like someone I’ve never met getting right up in my personal space or touching me on the leg or whatever, my character might enjoy that, or be too nervous to say anything.  That, to me, is a big part of what makes role playing engaging.

So I think we can presume that these contact rules are not for me.  But then, who are they for?  Why are they there? And are they working as intended?

Violence is an easy issue to analyse. I have almost no experience in field larps, but I believe there’s a host of rules making sure that no one gets seriously hurt.  In a parlor game, it’s easier to just say, “no contact” and have GMs manage physical conflict out of character.

But when I asked around a little, the first thing people suggested to me, was that it might be about sexual behaviour.  I have played in many games and LARPs with sexual content, some consensual and some power based and that can certainly become uncomfortable with or without physical contact. For someone with personal experience with sexual violence or harassment, for example, a confrontation of this sort could add serious stress to what was planned as a fun evening of escapism.

At first, I wondered if that was the problem?  I’m not really an escapist.  I don’t get anything out movies that are ‘just fun’ or games that just ‘pass the time’.  When I engage with entertainment I expect it to challenge me.  And in an interactive setting, that will likely clash with those who really don’t want a challenge in their downtime.  Especially the kind of super personal and emotionally charged challenge that comes from intense role play games, like those themed for horror.

And yet, it’s not as simple as saying, ‘game A will be for fun, and game B will be emotional and challenging, pick your poison’.  Even in an over 18s settings, it’s not unreasonable for organisers to have limits to play, but every game is subject to its’ players whims to an extent. Using ‘it was in character’ as an excuse for bad behaviour is the oldest trick in the book, and I’m all for shutting that right down. I’m just not convinced that touch is a relevant place to draw the line.

The other side of the argument, is that touch is an important element of human communication.  I once found myself in a game standing shoulder to shoulder with someone who was (IC) about to crack.  We were relegated to the sidelines, listening to someone rant out in the open, and he was becoming visibly angry and upset at what was being said.  I didn’t open might mouth, I didn’t make eye contact.  I just lent my shoulder firmly against his until his shaking subsided.  We talked (IC) afterwards and by the end of the game he sought me out (OOC) to tell me how much that had meant to him.  It was one of those rare moments that stick out in my memory as powerful and meaningful.  And the more aware I’ve been made about the increasing push against touching, the more I’ve realised that I don’t want to lose that.

I honestly think that well intentioned people fight for these rules, I’ve fight for them.  But when there isn’t a clear reason why or it’s not clear that the rules are actually helping, we need to take a step back.  Trigger warnings have become murky territory for this very reason, and Political Correctness, while attacked regularly by people who want a free pass to be jerks, has also become a very old fashioned and shallow way of dealing with diversity, especially if applied to private individuals rather than governments or businesses.

Of course you might say that one persons comfort is more important than anothers satisfaction, in this case, but asking around gave me the impression that this approach is accepted because it’s well intentioned, without ever asking if it’s well informed.

Instead of setting universal boundaries with no context, I think we can have systems that open us all to learning more compassion.  Having safe spaces to retreat to, and clear discussions about consent and personal responsibility can go a long way towards developing a deeper trust between players and GMs.  These are the kinds of things I want to see more of, but I wonder if those who benifit from the ‘no touching’ rules would agree?

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4 Responses to No Touching: Should Parlor LARPs ban contact?

  1. XY Feminist says:

    I agree that players should be able to set their own personal boundaries, but you need really good GMs to enforce those boundaries (and to respond effectively to the ‘subtle’ tricks that harassers may employ to cross them).

    The best games that I’ve played had the no-touching rule enforced by default, but allowed players to cross the rule once they got consent. So a player might gesture for a physical contact (be it a hug, or kiss, or grapple, or whatever…) but hesitate for a second to give the other player an opportunity to respond positively. If the player moved in, the contact would continue. If the player took a step back, the physical contact would be desribed between players out-of-character.

    We even had some back-up rules to keep the boundaries clear. For example, some players were unfomfortable with any touch, and they would declare this to the group before the game began. For them, all physical contact would be played out-of-character. In our small group we all knew who those people were, but for larger LARPs one could easily add a symbol to the player’s nametag to indicate a no-contact player. And we also had an out-of-game symbol that could be used to stop the action at any time, akin to a safeword.

    Unfortuantely, all of this takes a lot of work, especially if you have to confront/kick-out players (or GMs) who refulse to respect and enforce boundaries. So I think a lot of groups prefer to dodge the issue entirely by just banning all touching.

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    • I love the idea of a tag. While I prefer to self police my own boundaries, I don’t think everyone should have to. Building a no touch option into the rules really makes it clear that everyone’s expected to be considerate of a variety of comfort levels. I’d hate it if people opted out just in case.

      Perhaps it’s more the communication of contact rules that makes larping feel cold to me, because your description if the offer accept approach sounds mightily familiar.

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  2. eliste says:

    I’m with you on not wanting to lose the touching. One of my more memorable LARP moments was clinging to my “husband” because I was desperate not to lose him while the entire thing was pitch black. As I was rather distraught he later pulled me to him and rocked me until I stopped freaking. Totally IC for both of us. But not allowable under “no contact.” And you couldn’t use the typical pause described above as we couldn’t see each other to do so.

    Its a tough one, but I don’t like the idea of totally losing it. I can see the arguments, but for me the immersion often means that I would forget that anyway…

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    • I guess no touch is the short cut. Ideally, we’d have different rules for people who we know well and strangers. But that requires discussion and planning. It gets ambiguous when you’re rping as a relative, for example, of someone you don’t know in real life.

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