I’ve had “write a LARP” on my LARP Bucket/LARP Resolutions lists for a long time. And as of this year, I can finally cross it off.
I’ve contributed to LARP creation in the past, with things like brainstorming ideas or editing character sheets. And a few years back, I wrote a sample extended module to help introduce newbies to the Accelerant rules system (which arguably has all of the features of a LARP, and I may have chosen to call it a “sample module” to reduce expectations from both myself and players.) But this year, there are no semantics to dispute; I co-wrote a one-shot theater LARP, designed to run online, titled Reformed, Rebound.
Reformed, Rebound came out of Q-MOLW, or the Quarantine version of the Marathon of LARP Writing. MOLW is structured somewhat like Intercon’s Iron GM contest — participants are given three secret theme ingredients (e.g. “metropolis” or “duality”) along with one prop ingredient (e.g. a chess set), and they have 48 hours to write an eight player, two hour LARP that incorporates said ingredients. Judges play through the LARPs in a single weekend and score them based on various criteria, such as quality of written materials and incorporation of the ingredients.
In January of 2019, I volunteered as a judge and played through five LARPs that all included themes of metropolis, duality/dichotomy, and rediscovery, and used a set of Bristle Blocks as a prop.
Q-MOLW was much less formal than previous MOLWs, with writing teams all writing at different times, no particular single weekend event for running all of the resulting LARPs, and no judging (or prizes.) There were still ingredients as writing prompts though — the physical prop was “a number of internet connected computers with webcams” in order to ensure the games would be social-distancing friendly. The three themes were “strange bedfellows”, “sublimation”, and “created life/created minds”.
Usually, the writing schedule for LARP writing events (MOLW, Iron GM, BYOG, the Peaky weekends) just isn’t compatible with my own schedule, so instead I contribute to the process by signing up as a judge, reader, and/or player. But because the pandemic meant a lot of LARPers’ places of work were temporarily closed, suddenly the writing schedule was a lot more flexible. When an experienced writer asked me if I wanted to team up, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I was worried I wouldn’t be able to contribute at all. Who knew if I’d ever get another chance?
We started with a video chat to read over the list of ingredients and brainstorm ideas. Most of the collaboration after that was done via chat and emails, which worked fine for me. Based on our concept, we basically had two primary character sheets, each of which got copied four times and given small additions, so divvying up the writing was pretty simple — each of us wrote one character sheet. We brought in a third writer for the setting, which turned out wonderfully richly detailed. She also contributed a lot more besides (such as designing some of the mechanics.)
We missed the 48 hour writing deadline by a long shot, but given that it wasn’t a formal competition, we didn’t really care. I got off to a pretty solid start with the character sheet I was writing, then hit a creative block somewhere around two-thirds of the way through. I kept waiting for inspiration to strike again. It took a poke from one of my fellow writers asking if I needed anything to keep going, and honestly, I think what I really needed was that poke. Before the poke, I was feeling like the most important thing was to figure out how to perfectly craft a pivotal event in the character’s life, but the poke reminded me that actually, the most important thing was to get something written. If I ever came up with something better, I could always go back and edit. (I still feel a little guilty about holding up my fellow writers with that long delay.)
I’ve always loved LARPs that explore the concept of identity — I really enjoy character concepts and plotlines involving clones, alternate timelines/universes, the same person at different ages, transplanted memories and personalities, etc. So the ingredients “created minds” and “sublimation” pointed me in the direction of characters who have split off from one another, formed around different aspects of a single person’s personality. I was also knee-deep in a Cold War media binge when I began working on Reformed, Rebound (I was preparing to play a Cold War-era LARP called Debrief,) so the ingredient “strange bedfellows” made me think of James Bond and a villainous Bond girl.
The overall concept ended up featuring two mages falling in love while studying magic, breaking up, then becoming spies for opposite sides of a Cold War in a fantasy Renaissance-inspired setting. Both use a forbidden magical technique that enables magi to split themselves into multiple entities, each dominated by a particular facet of their personalities, which can maintain psychic communication. But when two of the duplicates, one from each spy, meet up and go rogue together, the two sets of mage-spies realize they must contact their ex-lover(s) to resolve the situation.
Having played LARPs that involved various formats of online interaction — not just video chat, but also text chat and combinations thereof — I was inspired to try and experiment with the structure of the LARP. I was surprised by how much I liked LARPs that involved text chat. And while I liked LARPing over video chat, I found that even a moderate number of people in a single video chat felt unwieldy to me. (My own laptop’s limitations had some influence there.) I wanted to try combining the best of both worlds, which lead to a structure with everyone being involved in one one-on-one video chat (representing the magic mirrors), while simultaneously involved in a four-person text chat (representing the psychic communication). We started with this structure for interaction, then created the magic mirror and psychic link setting elements around it, and then from there, created the in-game metaphysics to justify it. (The metaphysics ended up, admittedly, somewhat convoluted, but fortunately, players have generally been willing to roll with it.)
I’m quite happy that we ran with this structural experiment — I think our LARP is a unique experience, and in particular, information has a dynamic flow that I haven’t seen in other online LARPs. But I’ve learned about various pitfalls through observing a few different runs (and playing more online LARPs with varying structures.) Some players do great with multiple available avenues for communication, others find it makes it difficult to focus. Some players really dislike text chat, others dislike video chat, and when LARPs comprise of entirely one or the other, some LARPers simply find them entirely personally unplayable. The multiple options might mitigate their discomfort with one format… but both are always present, so it’s more likely to simply be unappealing to anyone who dislikes either.
Additionally, while a one-on-one video chat is great if the players have solid “roleplay chemistry”, it’s particularly rough when two players don’t. In theory, I was hoping that having the text chat would offer natural breaks from the focus on the one-on-one video chat — if the face-to-face conversation stagnated, players could check in with others via text, and then use new information or suggestions from the text to redirect the course of the video chat.
In practice, it does sometimes work out this way. But there is also the real possibility of uneven roleplay. One player may be involved in a very active text chat, while the other’s text chat is silent. And having long moments with nothing to say can feel doubly awkward with a camera pointed at your face (even if the other person is distracted by text and isn’t actively looking at you.)
The use of lots of text chats also creates a pretty significant burden on the GMs, both to set up and to manage during the LARP. (Minor spoiler: it’s possible during the LARP for players to change who they can communicate with via chat.) Frankly, I wasn’t very adept at Discord settings when we created the LARP, and since one of my fellow GMs hs been willing to do the set-up and manage the chats during the runs, I’ve never done it myself. (I feel a little guilty about this.) I think if I had planned to run the LARP by myself when we first created it, I would probably want to reduce the number of text channels.
Which brings me to another downside of the structure — I have played a number of LARPs designed to run online that can also easily run in person, as they are or perhaps with minor tweaking. I’m struggling to imagine Reformed, Rebound being able to run in person. But I remain hopeful that online LARPing will continue to have a presence (if diminished) post-pandemic, so the end of the pandemic won’t see the last ever run.
I believe Reforged, Rebound has run around seven or so times by now. GMing is an interesting experience. Some GMs really like to observe the video chats of players when running online LARPs; I find it feels a little awkward to me, especially in one-on-one chats. So I mostly stick to reading the players live chat logs. The cool thing about text-based LARPing is that you won’t miss the best lines, and every run has had lots of great little quotes for the GMs to exclaim over in our private chat. Other satisfying moments: one player commented post-game that it was the best romance he had read in a character sheet. And another player wrote some epilogue fanfiction. I must say, that really warms a GM’s heart.
I feel quite proud to have finally joined the ranks of LARP writers. And this experience has clearly inspired me to keep going, as evidenced by my subsequence projects. I’ve since created a Letter LARP (which is still going), and I’ve begun co-writing another online LARP designed to run in Remo. I’m looking forward to Under the Fairie Hill debuting at Extracon, and after that, it might be time to take a good look through that document of jumbled, disjointed LARP ideas and find something half-baked to develop.