NELCO Panel: “LARP Theory 101”

Jeff D. graciously sent me the powerpoint from his “Intro to BYOGs – LARP Theory 101” panel presentation. I’ve reread it and thought I’d share my thoughts here.

First of all, part of the introduction to this presentation includes the sentence “Any rule can be bent or broken, if you’re careful. Usually, breaking a rule just leads to avoidable problems.” Very well said- first gem of the powerpoint. There’s no such thing as an absolute for LARPing (…wait, is that an absolute?) and it’s important that we always look at our basic assumptions about LARPing and consider what ways they can be challenged if we want the hobby to continue to grow and evolve… however, ignoring  wisdom born of experience is also a bad idea- there’s no reason for LARPs not to have guidelines so writers, especially new ones, can avoid as many mistakes as possible.

The introduction also includes a section on defining LARP- but not an attempt to come up with a definitive, dictionary-style definition… (I think I’ve seen enough attempts to consider this a potentially impossible task!) but it’s worth noting that as I read down his list of aspects that constitute a LARP, I could think of at least one exception to every item. (Some people claim those exceptions aren’t really LARPs… there’s some kind of No True Scotsman logic problem going on here. Should they not be called LARPs because they break those rules? Or are the rules wrong because there are things that are called LARPs that break them? And have I mentioned that I love linguistics?)

An example of an exception: “A LARP has no audience. The players are the audience.” Almost always true, though Muppet Purgatory had an audience both times I saw it run. (True, the audience wasn’t strictly necessary, since two players are always cast as Waldorf and Statler- aka God and Satan- to watch… however, I think the game wouldn’t work nearly so well without an audience.)

From there, the powerpoint gets into rules for writing LARPs, which opens with “interesting characters“. Great rule, though again I would argue there might be exceptions, especially with light, comical LARPs (aka Sunday Morning LARPs), where some characters (especially horde characters) which can be comprised of nothing but a single shtik… Comedy lends itself to lots of rule-breaking.

I’d like to share the quote that accompanied this rule: “Actors love mental disorders, dialects and corsets. Give them one of the three and they’re happy.” – Robin Tunney, The Mentalist. I laughed when I read it- it rings very true for me.

Second gem from the rules: “Give the players things they can talk about in game, ways that they can connect to other characters.” I love this suggestion because I find that LARPing often involves trying to make small talk. Not every sentence out of my character’s mouth can be directed towards plot, especially if I have a character who needs to be secretive and subtle, or a character with amnesia who has yet to figure out anything significant. But small talk is hard enough in real life. It’s that much harder to make small talk when you’re speaking as a character who doesn’t have a favorite sports team, or opinions on the current president (or royal family, or whatever)… and may not even know what the weather is like. I’ve heard of some players who make a point to fill in as many of the blanks for their characters as possible (what would my character’s favorite drink be? Their fondest vacation memory? Who gave them their first kiss?) but even that doesn’t completely solve the problem. I’m not saying to over-saturate character sheets with tons of fluff, but it is a good idea to think, “before someone knows who they can trust with their murder conspiracy, what will they talk about?”

I did notice what seemed to be a couple of contradictions in the powerpoint. The rule of including “Human Stories” is important- I can’t imagine any LARP (well, any LARP that isn’t purely comedic) completely lacking in human stories, though I disagree with the statement that “saving the world stories are highly overrated and cliche.” I agree that they’re cliche, I’ve played through a great many, but I still very much enjoy them. This feels like something that’s very much a matter of personal taste (though it’s still good to mention to new writers as food for thought.) There’s a later slide titled “So, How Do I Build The Story?” that says “Classics are that way for a reason. Don’t be afraid to use and adapt a classic.”  The concept of “classic” and “cliche” are not so different.

Third gem: “You can never have too many plots.” Yes, yes, yes. I would much, much rather have more than I can possibly accomplish in four hours than less.

The rule on “Try Something Different” mentions avoiding typecast player. It’s a good suggestion and certainly something for GMs to think about, but ultimately, it’s largely out of the hands of the writers/GMs. Players exert a fair amount of control over their casting through their questionnaires, and if they say they only want to play a bad guy, I feel it’s best to honor that request. Alternatively, they might not be dead-set on a bad guy, but not enough of the other players are willing to play one. I think casting is one of the most important and often difficult parts of running a LARP- a fantastic LARP can be a complete flop if not enough players are happy enough with their casting. Meanwhile, a mediocre LARP can have a fantastic run if everyone really loves their casting. (We’ve had casting panels at Pre-Cons in the past, but I wouldn’t object to seeing more of them.)

Rule 12 instructs us to “Play without Interruption,” which seemed to translate into having as few mechanics as possible, and having the mechanics as seamlessly integrated as possible. Jeff D. says that when we consider our best moments in LARPing, there probably wasn’t a mechanic in sight, but I’m not sure I agree. My best moment in LARPing happened when stones pulled from a bag indicated that a swordfight had gone badly… and my character was accidentally critically wounded by her father, who was aiming for her lover. Wouldn’t have happened without mechanics. Some players really like mechanics, and while there’s nothing wrong with writing games to exclude mechanics as much as possible, I think it’s important to note that it’s a matter of personal preference, and maybe not a basic rule of all LARPing. After all, as I mentioned in my previous post (and will probably elaborate on more in a post about the Combat Bubbles Suck panel) minimizing mechanics and making them as close to our physical actions as possible limits what our characters are capable of. Wanting to make impossible actions possible and allowing players to play characters with skill sets they don’t actually possess is an equally valid priority for mechanics as immersion is.
The rule sets also states that “To Do” lists are a must, and I personally like them a lot and think they’re generally very helpful. However, I do know that some players feel they can come off as “railroady” and certainly some GMs want their games to feel as flexible and as open to interpretations for the players as possible.

Jeff D. introduces the concept of the Golden Triangle in his presentation- the notion that decisions characters have can be represented as triangles, with the decision maker as the vertex, and two other characters, each desiring a different conclusion at the other two points. I think this is a great model for LARP writers to picture when considering connections between characters and how to ensure that the decisions each character has to make is difficult and interesting. The concept can certainly be expanded to other shapes. That is to say, if my character has a decision to make between 4 different options, we can have a Golden Heptagon, with 4 other characters influencing me in different directions.

The powerpoint mentions a common fatal mistake in LARP writing- the notion of giving people “Find the X” (whether X is a piece of information or an object) and those plots can be incredibly difficult to pull off, especially when X is information. I think it’s particularly difficult because it’s often either trivially easy or next to impossible. Either someone has the information and is willing to give it up, or nobody who knows it is willing to reveal it. I disagree with the notion that it’s a waste of time for a player to pursue such a plot- sure, it can take a long time, but who says the pursuit isn’t a necessarily good use of time? If it turns out to be fruitless, players in retrospect often feel that it was a waste of time…. but that’s true of any plot where players can only see one avenue for accomplishing their goal, spend a lot of time in that avenue, and then fail. If it turns up the information the person is looking for, then it’s often seen as an enjoyable reason to chat everyone up. I think the key is to ensure that if someone is seeking information, there are A) people who may not have the information, but can point the seeker in the right direction, i.e. they know who is likely to know- which ensures the player feels as though they are making progress along the way, and B) people who know are willing to give it up… for a price. And as Jeff D. says, there should always be multiple sources for any sought piece of information.

The Cardinal Rule, asking “Would this be fun to play?”– vastly important, and yet incredibly difficult to ensure that one is following it. What is fun to play? Everyone has their own tastes, including writers. I recall having a terrible experience in a LARP and complaining about the various problematic aspects of my character. The LARPer I was speaking to shocked me when he said, “actually, I’d love to get a character like that.” To each their own. Odds are, characters that seem terrible or dull or frustrating and unpleasant to us might still be fun for someone else. The question is, given the pool of players one is drawing from, what are the odds you’ll have someone who would enjoy it in your LARP, and will you be able to spot them from their questionnaire and appropriate cast them? It’s good to be able to experiment and create characters that have the potential to be unpopular, but I think players should be fairly warned (and given the chance to bow out) before being cast in a risky role.

This reminds me of is another golden rule of LARPing “set reasonable expectations.” Player tolerance rises considerably when they know what they’re getting into, which allows writers and GMs to experiment a bit more if they choose.

Fourth gem — never write a To Do that involves leaving game space. An important addition forcing people to stay can be annoying. It’s not a bad idea to have some kind of Space/Time limits that forces characters to remain where they are and solve their problems before the LARP ends (sometimes this takes the form of literal force fields, bombs, armies with guns posted around your game space with orders to shoot on sight… sometimes it’s the fact that characters are on board a boat or a space ship) but if the only reason my character is still in the LARP is because she physically can’t leave, it’s really not ideal.

Fifth gem- – avoiding the “Primogen Council” problem– characters going off in groups and being unavailable to others. I’ve seen this happen over and over again, and it’s always resulted in other characters waiting around. I understand it’s not completely avoidable (and some Away Team style adventures can be a ton of fun), but it should be minimized if possible.

Sixth gem — Your estimates [for how long your game should run] is TOO LONG. Yes. Well said. Worth repeating. I think the Intercon LARPing community has fallen into this rut with the idea that LARPs are mostly four hours, possibly two hours, some eight, because that’s what seems to fit best in the Intercon schedules, but really the content of the LARP and previous runs should inform the length of a game, not arbitrary schedules. I don’t see why a few LARPs can’t take less than the four hour slot allotted.

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 NELCO Panel: “LARP Theory 101”

  1. Re: rule 12 – In the presentation it seemed this went pretty hardline on the side of “the ideal is no mechanics ever”, which was disappointing, because I felt it left the realm of “Larp 101” and into the advocacy of a specific playstyle over other, equally valid playstyles. For one thing, violence is a key part of many genres and violence is not achievable in larps without mechanics (assuming you don’t want your players actually doing violence to each other). And while I generally agree with the goal of making mechanics more seamless, there are legitimate priorities that might lead you not to. For instance, the most seamless combat mechanic is often to hand your players a boffer sword, but theater style larpers often eschew this for a less seamless system because they are trying to fill other, equally valid, priorities.

    It didn’t help that, like you say, when we got to the point of the presentation that said “Think of your best moments in larping, I bet there wasn’t a mechanic in sight” my immediate thought was “No, some of my best moments in larping were entirely made possible by mechanics”.

    Re: the “sixth gem” that Intercon-style larps overestimate the length their games need to be – Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. Part of the problem is, as you say, a desire to fit a larp into one of 2 or 3 standard slot times. But I don’t think that’s the whole story:

    I think there’s a mistaken tendency among GMs to think that because their game was still buzzing when game is called off that it needed all the time they had or even needed more. Players know when a game is scheduled to end however, and often hold off on using their special abilities, making big decisions, and taking big risks until near the end, for a variety of reasons. What this means is that even a game with much more time than it needs will have a lot going on near the end. The place to look is in the middle third of the game; if the action is slow there, the game is probably longer than it needs to be.

  2. Chad B. says:

    Thank you for doing these writeups. It’s nice to see a glimpse of what I missed in the other panels.

  3. Pingback: NELCO Post Event Report — Friday Panels | FairEscape

  4. I don’t think the Primogen Council issue can be entirely avoided — at least in campaign games. Important decisions can’t be made if they’re constantly interrupted or talked over in the main game space, and any game that has certain key groups who need to negotiate or which has a main hierarchy will need to have meetings. I think the trick is to build in an expectation that plot shouldn’t bottleneck at the top. Characters need to feel like they have delegated authority to act, and report back later, for most issues. In a one shot, you can just prevent them from spending too much time in a side room … or have no side room at all!

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