It’s Not What You Know…

While driving to and from a spar-b-q (barbecue with boffer sparring), I had a conversation with a friend of mine. Years back, I invited him to Intercon, which primarily hosts theater (aka “parlor”) style LARPs (though I have PCed and NPCed boffer LARPs at Intercon.) He enjoyed his weekend, but mostly as a chance to socialize with his theater LARPing friends. And through Intercon, he got introduced to boffer style LARPing, and much preferred it. These days, he plays a few boffer LARPs and works on the staff of others, though occasionally, I can still convince him to make an appearance at Intercon, mostly for LARPs he knows he has friends playing.

His LARPing predilections bring to mind the “GNS theory”- specifically as someone who falls outside of it, reminding me that though it is useful as common terminology for those who like to discuss “LARP theory,” it is flawed. For those unfamiliar, here is the simplified version: GNS theory refers to a theory on how role playing works, with motivations for players falling into one of three categories. Gaming- the drive to compete, Narration- the drive to create a good story, and Simulation- the drive to experience the content of the role playing game. (Which many like to divide into two subcategories- experiencing the experiences of the character — namely, their emotions, and experiencing the setting of the role playing game, which is often referred to as “Immersion”.)

I believe GNS theory was originally created for analyzing tabletop roleplaying games (such as Dungeons & Dragons,) but as LARPing is a style of roleplaying, it applies equally well. (Or equally unwell, as opinions go.)

Said friend doesn’t care particularly about winning, about creating a story outside his own, or experiencing something else… he just wants to hang out with his friends, and if the context is a theater LARP, or bowling, or a road trip, it’s all good. Which places him squarely into what is commonly thought of as a possible fourth category- Socializing, but I digress.

We were discussing how theater (or “parlor”) and boffer style LARPs compare, and what the pros and cons of each are. There are many, of course, but there was one in particular that got me thinking. I was telling him that most one-shot theater style LARPs, by virtue of having characters being pre-written by GMs, rather than each being created by an individual player, allows for more tightly knitted stories and connections between characters, whereas campaign boffer style tends to have characters who have each been walking their own, separate path until they suddenly come together at the beginning of the first event.

I’ve felt the impact of this distinction myself. I joined Lost Eidolons, the steampunk campaign boffer LARP, a session or two late (and didn’t complete my own character’s backstory until a session or two after joining). By then, everyone had their characters’ backstories created, and though I asked a few friends a few times for help tying my backstory into theirs so we would have common ground to start with (and reasons to trust- or distrust!- one another,) but it never amounted to much. I even took advantage of one character’s amnesia-riddled backstory to fill in some facts that tied his character to mine, but he chose to leave the LARP (and got his character killed off for good, or “permed,” before any of it came up in game.)

Oddly, Sunshine, my character for Endgame (the other campaign boffer LARP I’ve tried) is doing a bit better in this regard by virtue of having joined a criminal gang- a tight-knit group within the Endgame community that looks out for one another. This is in spite of having joined not a session or two late, but rather 6 or so years later than everyone else.

The point remains, though, that one-shot theater has the advantage in this regard.

Actually, let me clarify that.

This distinction, that is, the tendency for a LARP to have a tightly interwoven group of backstories among characters is characteristic of a pre-written game (that is, the characters all being written by one GM or a one group of GMs). And the tendency for a LARP to have diverse character backgrounds with no common points (no blood relations, no on-going feuds, etc.) prior to the onset of a LARP, is a characteristic of any LARP where people write their own characters and bring them to game.

The former is extremely common among one-shot theater style LARPs. The latter is extremely common among campaign boffer style LARPs. Neither trend in character creation is exclusive to either type of LARP- this is merely a commentary on trends in my own experiences. It’s worth noting that I’ve never played any campaign theater style LARPs, and only ever played a character in one one-shot boffer LARP (a demo for End of Seasons at Intercon, which was a ton of fun, but on its face was pretty much a classic dungeon crawl- no more, no less.)

So as I was saying, in my experience, trends show that one-shot theater tends to have the advantage when it comes to knitting character backstories together.

It is possible for me to walk into a typical theater style LARP with a character who has never encountered anyone else in the room thus far. I tend not to prefer such characters (though it is possible for me to have a lot of fun as such- my character in the classic The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste comes to mind.) But it is possible to request tons of interconnections via character questionnaires. And when I do, it’s fair to expect that relatives- close ones and those long lost, will be present, along with enemies and lovers, past or present or both, acquaintances and allies… superiors and servants all may be present. In fact, in theater LARPs, a lot of character sheets come with a “Who You Know” section at the end, which contains a list of other characters known to be present, and a summary of your character’s impression of each.

(Short funny story- while writing the western LARP, Redemption: High Noon at the Devil’s Luck, the authors were creating the Who You Know sections, and copying and pasting a lot of it to make the process quicker, as a lot of characters got similar impressions about one another. They chose a young female’s impression of a charming male character to copy, and in one fell swoop turned all of the male characters gay- or at least bi- before the mistake was caught.)

It makes for stronger roleplay possibilities within a single session, as I pointed out to my friend in the car. And it allows for players to have an easier time entertaining one another, instead of relying primarily on staff to come out and provide plot.

He countered with something I hadn’t considered- everything listed on those Who You Know that described an emotion was entirely manufactured, no matter how logical it was. Even if the history of the LARP indicates that another character killed my character’s relative, the anger is informed, and it’s strictly my character who feels it, not the player.

But that’s not true for anything Taz,  my Lost Eidolons character, feels about her fellow PCs- that is, the people of the town of Greyhook (called “Greyhookers”… seriously!) When Taz likes another character, it’s because I actually like that character, and I like that character because I’ve come to like them through getting to know them and interacting with them in game… the emotion grew organically over time through events I actually experienced, not events I read about experiencing on a character sheet.

And that half of real emotions is great- I hang out with people I genuinely like, not people I’m told I like… there’s no struggling to fake it for 4 hours, followed by forgetting them at the end of the LARP. The huge downside is this is also true of negative emotions. When I felt annoyed at the actions of a fellow PC in a boffer LARP, Taz was annoyed, but so was I as a player, and it was hard to shake off… even after the event was over.

Lifelong bitter rivalries are fun to roleplay out in theater LARPs. Irritation and frustration with other people in boffer LARPs… not so much.

Which might seem odd, if you consider that people are also just playing roles in boffer LARPs, just as they are in one-shot theater LARPs. The actions of the characters aren’t necessarily representative of the actions the player might actually take in their character’s shoes. When I end my sentences with “brah” as the Californian hippy character Sunshine in Endgame, that’s obviously not me. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t use that slang outside of the LARP, and frankly, anyone who doesn’t know me can probably easily tell it’s fake by the poor quality of my attempted Californian accent. But it’s not the blatantly obvious actions that create real emotions- I know that if someone consumes the soul of the fallen, that’s their character’s action, not something the player would really do, given the chance. But, say, someone were to interrupt and shout over me while I’m trying to talk at a Town Meeting? Maybe that’s them roleplaying a brash, impatient character. Or maybe that’s really the player acting naturally. And then it creates a genuine negative emotional reaction.

Maybe I should be trying harder to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I think people tend to put a lot more of themselves in their boffer characters- the ones they create for themselves to play- than they do in one-shot theater LARPs, where the character is created by the writers handed to them, pre-made, with all their quirks and foibles and motivations.

I’ve noticed that LARPers in a theater LARP often take on a halting speech pattern that pops up much more rarely in boffer LARPs. I think it’s because the characters are so much farther from their true selves in pne-shot theater (or rather, any LARP where the character isn’t written by the player), so it requires more thought and effort to produce speech as that character. But the boffer LARP characters are created by the players, and thus are closer to their true selves (often)… and the evidence shows up in their much more natural flow of speech.

(Again, for clarification- I know not all boffer LARPs are create your own character and campaign style, and I know not all theater LARPs have pre-made characters and are one-shots… those are just the extremely prevalent trends in my experience.)

And that’s just one comparison in the boffer vs. theater discussion.


About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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4 Responses to It’s Not What You Know…

  1. Lily says:

    I like that distinction between the two simulationist types. It explains why I’ve frequently gotten cast as a character without any real hooks when I’ve put ‘simulationist’ on my questionnaire. The GMs assume I’m an immersionist. I am really not – I am an experiencer! And would be really unhappy if I get nothing interesting to experience, IC.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Yeah- this is why I think the concept on its face is flawed- it’s overly simplified and tends to pigeon-hole people past the point they want to be. I’ve never heard anyone say “I’m strictly a classic X-type.” If it pops up on a questionnaire, it ought to allow paragraph responses, rather than “select one.”

  2. Hnmm. You should try a theater-style campaign game and compare and contrast again. *grin*

    For Serendipity Station, the core ‘cast’ characters got to create their own backstories, yes, but also worked together with the other core characters to build integrated backstories. My character, the station CO, for instance, had saved the station owner in a previous adventure, when my character was just a cargo pilot. We also put in open hooks for the GMs to use with the non-cast (revolvingish) characters, so that even if someone was walking in that day with a completely new and unseen character, it could be hooked into backstories. So one of my open hooks was a son who had run off and joined the alliance, and there was some tension and separation between us. And they brought that character in on a couple of games.

    Also, with the game being a campaign game, and with the central cast being constant, and many of the other characters being regularly recurring ones, there was the chance to build some of the intercharacter emotional connections like the ones you describe in the boffer campaigns.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Yeah, I made a lot of assumptions based mostly on two campaign boffers, without any real experience in campaign theater styles. Though I recently read a post for Shadows of Amun that left me highly impressed with their character creation/integretion. Also, the more I hear about this Serendipity campaign, the cooler it sounds.

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