This post is really about the OK check-in safety mechanic. But I like to talk, so there’s three paragraphs of preamble before I even get there.
Two or three of the currently most influential techniques or concepts in player safety and playstyle calibration in our play communities were invented or significantly iterated in literally the last half year. I love this because even after decades it still excites me to see the community innovate together.
One of them is the word “calibration” itself, which I desperately needed to use in theory discussions at Solmukohta this March, and went around describing to people, until my friend Kristoffer Thurøe finally said “you mean… calibration” and I was like “YESS!” and that, friends, is how larp theory happens. (Calibration means the many explicit and implicit ways that players have to negotiate playstyle, play intensity and sometimes things like genre).
Another is the technique variously called the Lookdown or the See No Evil. And the third is what I call the OK check-in, which has a longer history* in particular at Planetfall, but was interestingly tweaked by Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman and Harrison Greene for New World Magischola this summer. At the last larp I was designing safety and calibration techniques for, End of the Line at the Grand Masquerade in New Orleans last Sunday, I had the pleasure of working with Sarah and Harrison with a lot of support from Maury. We ended up using their version, explained below.
The OK Check-In
The OK Check-in is a tool allowing for players to communicate with each other out of character about their well-being without pausing the flow of play around them.
One person makes the “OK” hand sign at another one. This indicates the question “are you ok?”
The other player responds in one of three ways.
- Thumbs up – means they’re OK and play can continue.
- A level hand – means the player doesn’t quite know how they feel, or that it’s neither very good or very bad. This should be treated as a thumbs down by the person doing the asking.
- Thumbs down – means the player is actually not OK, and should be extracted from the situation.
You should codify what the appropriate response to the latter two signals are. If your players are not very used to these kinds of mechanics, you should offer them a script. At End of the Line in New Orleans, we offered “can I walk you to the off-game room” as an appropriate script. (The off-game room was staffed by an organiser with listening skills and cookies).
The middle option is there to hack the default reaction many people have of not wanting to be a bother. Like, not asking for help until your head is literally on fire. When in doubt, it’s “easier” to say “meh” than “I AM SUFFERING”, especially if you’re not suffering, just uncomfortable. But that’s the point – you don’t have to stay in a situation that makes you uncomfortable!
An important extra rule to establish is to never pressure a player who is feeling bad to talk about why that is. You can communicate to your co-player that you’re willing to listen if they have something on their mind. Otherwise perhaps just help them to an organiser, or ask if they’d like you to keep them company for a while.
What It’s For
There are different ways of feeling “not good” in a larp. You might be feeling bad physically or emotionally for reasons perhaps not even related to the larp.
Your character might be in a situation the player does not care to engage in (but is still in because of politeness, or because it happened gradually and the player never stopped to consider how they were feeling when the situation changed around the character). You might find yourself in a physical situation that makes you feel unsafe or interacting with players you, upon consideration, do not trust. In all of these cases, it is useful if someone passing by or outside the situation checks in with you. If someone inside the situation checks in with you, it’s even better, because it demonstrates they care whether you’re ok.
Sometimes you’re in a one-on-one role-playing situation that gets intense, perhaps violent or intimate. One thing led to another, and now your characters are screaming at each other, or necking, or perhaps your character was just stabbed by an assassin with a latex knife, ending the life of a campaign stalwart. If you’re not sure your co-player is entirely into it, or whether they’d be less into it if they stopped to consider, or if the content is not typical or obvious to the larp, or the whole thing was a bit of a surprise, or something meaningful and important (like a campaign character death) just happened, it’s a good idea to check in.
If your larp allows play on potentially traumatic topics, or it has no particular stance and an intense topic that comes up emergently, check in with your co-players. Especially if someone is looking a little queasy or studiously making Normal Face. In fact, if at any point in the larp you find yourself wondering about whether that character is really unhappy, or whether that’s a player being unhappy, or if something just feels off somehow – check in. If you don’t, your worry will distract you from your play experience. If it’s nothing, you’ll be relieved. And if that person needs the nudge of the check-in to take care of themselves, or your help to get out of a tricky situation, you’ll be happy you did.
At last Sunday’s run of the Nordic style collaborative Vampire larp End of the Line at the Grand Masquerade, we added two additional signs to the basic procedure. The first was suggested by Sarah Lynne Bowman and the second grew out of a conversation with White Wolf’s Martin Ericsson, who wondered whether there was an escalation mechanic in the game. We judged it wasn’t necessary, but realised the enthusiastic approval could work as a kind of light escalation, or be useful for quick communication. So we threw that option in.
Unprompted thumbs down – players could use the thumb down sign to spontaneously signal to other players they were uncomfortable. (There were also other tools for calibration in play, which I will blog about later). The thumbs down signal could also be used to signal to the two photographers (who were both IC and OOC) that the player did not wish to be photographed at that time.
Double thumbs up or big smile thumbs up – when checked in with, especially in a one-on-one situation, signalling ENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT would work as a positive signal to actively continue with whatever you’re doing.
Safety and Calibration SYSTEMS
The OK check-in is a safety mechanic, because it’ll help you identify and help co-players who are unhappy, ill or in some other way incapable of removing themselves from some situation that’s doing them no good and might at rare occasions actually be harmful.
It can also be used as a sort of rough calibration mechanic, to check in with the other player about how they feel about specific ongoing kinds of play. It’s not a high definition tool, obviously; it will give you no detailed info until you pause or step out of play and talk to each other. In a larp with other calibration tools, it will mostly be used for safety, but it also has the important side effect of enforcing a culture of care. Of demonstrating that the participants live by the principle that players are more important than larps. In a larp with extensive negotiation and players continuously stepping out of character to talk about their feelings, it might be redundant. Or it might not be a match aesthetically for what you’re doing, in which case you might want to use something different that produces the same results.
This is important you guys: you can’t just copy a safety mechanic from one larp to another and think that you’re fine. Most of them don’t even work unless all players practice them together, their use is normalised, and causes no in-character or off-game embarrassment. Safety and calibration mechanics have to be coherent with each other and the overall design and not hinder the player from engaging with the meat of the experience, whatever that is, and you need to either design your mechanics for your player culture, or re-design your player culture around the mechanics.
Over the next week or two, I’ll publish more of the safety and calibration tools we used at End of the Line. You’re free to use them all (but please credit the designers or at least point at their history). Don’t use the whole EotL system blindly though. I don’t know your larp. Figuring out which tools are part of your system is the job of the designer – you. For inspiration about what a different really ambitious and coherent system can look like, there’s an article about New World Magischola over at Nordiclarp.org that you should seriously take a look at. In it, Maury Brown also documents some of the early history of this technique:
*Flashing the “OK” symbol as a gesture to indicate concern for another player appears to have developed as emergent play in some US larp circles in 2009 or 2010. Rob McDiarmid reported using it at a game around that time and Aaron Vanek and Kirsten Hageleit later used the “OK” symbol to check in with each other during larps in Southern California.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! The pictures in the post are from the New Orleans run of End of the Line.