Pop-LARPs

I had a fascinating conversation with a fellow New England LARPer, Nat Budin, at Intercon about a particular phenomenon in LARPing. It doesn’t have a name, as far as we know, which was actually one of the major points of the discussion. We tried to coin a new term, but have yet to settle on one. I’ll temporarily call them Pop-LARPs for clarity’s sake.

Nat describes the genre as follows: “a traditionally structured New England style one-shot theater style LARP.”

I loved this little description so much I had to write it down right away so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve got it scribbled on a piece of Radisson stationary — you know, one of those little pads of five sheets of paper they leave by the phones in your hotel room.

The unfortunate aspect of this description is that it uses terms that lack a clear definition. What is “traditional”, and what does “New England style” mean? I suspect many members of the New England community (an admittedly faulty term, as it’s not strictly defined by geography) can already see what I’m getting at, or at least could accurately guess a number LARPs that I would consider to fall squarely into this category. The “one-shot” and “theater style” descriptors are, at the very least, concrete enough. “One-shot” means the story stands alone (sequels or prequels not withstanding) and is not part of an on-going campaign, and “theater” means combat, if present in the LARP, is abstracted (not played out by hitting or shooting at one another with soft weapons).

Nat shared with me this list of common traits of Pop-LARPs, which helps clarify the “New England style” and “traditional” descriptors. His words are in bold, my own interpretations and explanations are in plaintext.

Player actions affect game outcomes.  Some LARPs are are essentially on rails, and/or have predetermined endings. These LARPs don’t.
Multiple threads of action. In other words, multiple “plots”. LARPs which have a single plot, such as a small group of people remaining seated around a single table for an open discussion that lasts the entire LARP, wouldn’t qualify.
Game on -> one continuous scene -> game wrap. This one is a bit trickier. I think there are certain forms of scene changes and cuts that contradict this criteria and some that don’t. Take, for example, the style of LARP labeled “tale-telling” or “storytelling”. This actually describe two very distinct styles of LARPing. One style involves players acting out mini-scenes where they temporarily drop their main character role, take on new characters and act out brief scenes before returning to their main characters and plots. The mini-scenes are often meant to be tales told by the main characters; they could also potentially be something akin to memories or dreams. Examples of this LARP style include Across the Sea of Stars, Tales of Pendragon, and The Last Seder. This format excludes them because they’re not composed of one continuous scene.
The other style of LARPs that sometimes gets described as “tale-telling” or “storytelling” involves a focus on characters sitting in a group (or small sub-groups) and listening to one another tell stories, typically from the characters’ lives. An example would be World’s End, which I played at Intercon G. (The blurb describes it as “a no-combat… social LARP for nine to thirteen people with stories to tell,” but people at the convention were calling it a “storytelling LARP”.) These are not Pop-LARPs either, for a different reason.
Other forms of breaking up the continuous scenes are also pretty clear cut. For example, Venezia, Lovers and Madmen’s Renaissance LARP of 3 acts, violates the one-continuous scene descriptor because it’s clearly broken into 3 scenes (between which are short breaks which represent several years going by, and players get handed new, short character sheets which reflect their decisions in the previous scenes.) But other LARPs involve players taking off to play out small adventures, in which time passing may get compressed or otherwise screwed with. In King’s Musketeers, small groups of characters went off with GMs to sail from France to America. Is that a continuous scene? It sounds like it isn’t, but my gut instinct says this doesn’t violate that rule… even though some ambiguous amount of time is supposedly going by, it’s essentially being ignored, or treated as no differently from characters going off to a secluded corner.
Characters are pre-written, designed, controlled by GMs. Very few theater LARPs that I’ve played violate this. I pretty much always create my own character for boffer campaigns, and pretty much always receive my characters fully written in advance by someone else for theater LARPs. (“Controlled” is a trickier term, but I think it’s safe to assume this does not mean during the game- once game starts, characters are controlled by players.) The one possible case that falls between these two are the bid-your-own-character LARPs. Clue, Impaired was a fantastic LARP in which I bid five characters that I would like to play, and the GM picked one- Hades, from Disney’s Hercules, and wrote a character sheet for it. I would say this still counts as pre-written, designed, and controlled by the writer. The entirety of how the character related to the LARP was still determined by the GM, even though the identity and personality was dictated by me and Disney. And James Woods.

Yours truly as Disney’s Hades. I used an entire can of blue hair spray.

Runtime team as relatively neutral arbiters implementing a potentially biased game. LARPs are often written without the intention of giving all of the characters an equal chance at succeeding at their in-character goals, but Pop-LARPs generally operate under the premise that during the run itself, the GMs will try to adhere as best as they can to a neutral interpretation to the rules.
There is a casting questionnaire. This one is also a bit tricky, since there’s no reason the average Pop-LARP couldn’t run without one. Perhaps GMs just cast as they see fit. I know some Harvard LARPers sometimes do this, and it’s something I’d really like to try- both as a GM and a player, though thus far, every LARP that otherwise fits all of the Pop-LARP criteria was also designed with the intention of using a questionnaire for casting.
Incidentally, Triple Blind might be considered an interesting contradiction to the rule — it feels much like a Pop-LARP during a run, but there’s no casting. People randomly generate their characters by taking a sheet from each of three shuffled piles. One pile contains cover identities, one pile contains secret identities, and one contains membership to a secret group. Part of why it feels like it might be Pop-LARP is because everyone has a secret identity.  (See the first item in the list of common but not necessary attributes of Pop-LARPs below.)
Information economy is the primary game mechanic. I completely agree, though this one is a bit harder to explain and I can’t be totally sure that I’m understanding this the way Nat intended. Another way I’ve heard someone put this is, “the LARP turns on secrets.” Spoilers alter the fun of the game, metagaming is a concern, characters are generally expected to put effort into gathering information, and much of the challenge comes from a lack of complete information for most players. Contrast this with some Nordic-style LARPs, where everything is public knowledge for all players before the LARP opens, even information your character may not know, and metagaming may even be encouraged.
Goals = Plot = actions with game consequences. This one follows from the one above, I think. Or they come hand in hand. This is also not so set in stone; some characters may be written with the purpose of giving a character emotional moments, not goals to achieve, but the majority of characters will have at least one primary actionable goal.
There is a combat system. You’d think this one might not be strictly necessary, but in my experience, it holds true. Pop-LARP type LARPs tend to have some kind of physical combat, where characters can attack one another and the results depend on character abilities and other mechanical factors. (Such as weapon items, or allies present.) Combat systems that don’t count, I would argue, might include the Time Travel Review Board system, which works as follows: someone declares combat. Burly NPC guards drag them out of the room and beat them up.
Here, I’d like to add this is one of my favorite combat systems ever. I’ve heard TTRB wasn’t the first LARP to use it, but it’s the first LARP where I personally encountered it.
There are no declared winners/losers; failing well can be a success from player POV. Technically, very true, though many LARPers don’t act as though it is. And I’m actually not sure if this is distinctly a Pop-LARP thing or just a LARP thing, because I’ve never heard of a LARP with a win condition. It’s not like a board game where whatever player reaches the last square first has satisfied the win condition and the others do not and therefore lost. A character can succeed at an in-game goal, but a player cannot win a LARP the way someone can win at monopoly or basketball. I guess LARPs are fundamentally cooperative in a certain sense. Not that people all see it this way- some people really do treat it like an inherently competitive hobby. I actually kind of hate it when people say “I won that LARP” even though I’m guilty of saying it myself.
 
So all Pop-LARPs, by and large, fulfill those criteria. But what actually makes them… well, like pop culture for LARPing, is that they typically have all, or most, of the following:
 
Widespread secret identities. Typically, there’s a high percentage of characters with secret alternate identities, whether they’re superheroes, spies or supernatural beings in hiding, people who have been cursed and transformed, people in witness protection, or whatever. This is part of what can lend the LARP a somewhat contrived atmosphere. (See the Triple Blind comment above.)
Über plot. The Uber plot is a large, overarching plot of great importance — often, it involves a threat to the lives of everyone present, up to and often including a threat to the entire world. Ostensibly, everyone present has a stake in the outcome, and it’s of such importance that other plots may get temporarily (or permanently) ignored until it is resolved. Characters who are mechanically prevented from affecting its outcome may end up feeling like they’re on the sidelines.
Item/ability economy. Typically, this can involve MacGuffin hunts (people trying to obtain a MacGuffin) or widget collecting (widgets being those little, random items, often represented with index cards, that by themselves mean nothing, but are often used as ingredients for something… whether it’s herbs and flowers for potions, odds and ends needed as spell components, or random mechanical items needed to build some scientific device.) The economy involves some kind of limit on the items, and what characters can do is limited by their given mechanical abilities, and they’re needed to achieve various character goals.
Genre clash. What Nat means by genre clash, I think, is that there’s a mash-up of genres going on. I call this the “kitchen sink genre” — you can expect anything and everything, from fairies to robots to time travelers to pirates to mad scientists. Others have called this the “but something strange is going on” genre, but I personally dislike that term because many people use those to describe other things. For some, “something strange is going on” refers to a LARP with a single hidden supernatural element to a LARP. Or people secretly being shady, perhaps because they’re spies or drug dealers… or a Lovecraftian plot and Cthulhu is likely to show up.
The Ur Example, by the way, of genre clash (or genre mash-up, or kitchen sink, or “mishmash” as I apparently called it when I first started my Master List of LARPs), is Jim MacDougal’s The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste. It’s a LARP about all the wild theories as to what happened to the titular ship that vanished, and it’s something of an iconic “classic” in the New England LARPing community. Most of us have played it at least once, some of us have played it a few times, and there have even been runs that were explicitly for people who have already played. There’s a “stuffy” version, Bear-y Celeste, which involves playing out the LARP with stuffed animals. And there’s a sequel about an expedition to find the ruins.

Uli Morningsong, the shaman in The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste

Looking over my Master List of LARPs, I would say, in my experience, if genre-clash was present, it was a Pop-LARP, though not all the Pop-LARPs I played contained genre clash. Alternative to genre-clash, Pop-LARPs frequently adhere pretty strictly to the trappings of some particular common genre. Generic fantasy is particularly common genre for Pop-LARPs, as is sci-fi, but most major genres — Western, superheroes, swashbuckling adventure… can and do have Pop-LARPs.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good start. I think a good way to come up with more might be to look at some LARP that you find creative, or unique, and think “how does this differ from what I would consider the typical theater LARP?” The opposite to the answer might well belong on this list.
So now that I’ve repeatedly used one of the terms Nat came up with… I can think about the various potential names we came up with.
I have issues with the term Pop-LARP, though it’s actually a very fitting title. LARPing is still too much of a fringe hobby to be part of pop culture, but if it could be, this format would be the pop version of theater LARPing, at least in New England. (I imagine generic fantasy would be the pop version of boffer LARPing.) The problem is that “pop” has a somewhat negative connotation. It’s too easy to look down on pop culture, as music fans might down on pop music. “Classic LARP” might be a more flattering way to say the same thing… though it sounds more open to interpretation.
And I personally actually really like this form of LARPing. But I know others don’t. I recall a conversation I had with someone who had stopped playing LARPs (and eventually stopped running them, as well) and said he stopped because he felt he’d play the same plots over and over… Pop LARPs are particularly conducive to generating this kind of burnout, I think. And Nat actually said that he did mean it somewhat negatively. (He also jokingly called himself a “LARP Hipster.”) I don’t think he’s alone in this, but I’d rather not stigmatize this form of LARPing. Especially because I think it has an important role in introducing the hobby to newbies.
Another potential term for this kind of LARP, and one that I really love, comes from Brian. R.- “LARP-flavored LARP“. It comes from a Dennis Leary comedy routine, in which he gets frustrated because all he wants is plain coffee, or “coffee-flavored coffee”. It’s almost a form of the linguistic phenomenon of reduplication. I guess you could shorten it to “LARP-LARP” but that sounds too non-specific.
Another term Nat came up with that has great potential: an “orthodox LARP“. I confess I personally can’t get my head around this one, because the strongest mental association I have with the word “orthodox” is “orthodox Judaism” which, to me, has connotations of a very conservative nature (perhaps somewhat ironically, as it’s more conservative than Conservative Judaism.) But if I force myself to look past this association, orthodox is actually a very good adjective for this sort of LARP.
Originally, I had the notion of the “traditionally structured one shot New England style theater LARP” was synonymous with the term “Intercon style LARP”, but I’m now thinking it’s actually a sub-category of Intercon style LARPs. But I’m not sure what constitutes an Intercon style LARP, though the term gets bandied about a fair amount. I think it was almost a topic for a NELCO panel.
Any thoughts you might have on this topic are more than welcome — if you like one term better than the others, or have a name of your own for it, or opinions on the genre itself, please share!
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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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10 Responses to Pop-LARPs

  1. Aaron says:

    Great piece!

    These larps that you describe are very similar to what we call “Enigma-style larps” out here, because that was the mean average of things we had, except they weren’t at a convention. Look at our list of past larps, and it’s almost like an Intercon event schedule: http://smartin.bol.ucla.edu/enigma/2006/larp.html

    The only difference between what you describe and what we were doing was in the characters. The traditional Enigma larp (maybe “traditional theater larp” for a term?) was like this:

    GMs post idea and some sample character types or ideas
    Players submit their character ideas, anywhere from one line: “I wanna play a Han Solo-type guy” to 10 pages of historical research. There was often back and forth between GM(s) and player, tweaking a few things here and there. For the Sandman: Season of Mists larp, the biggest headache for us GMs was stringing plots together between characters. That was frequently our biggest problem: how to bring someone else’s idea into your own, and how to connect them to other people’s ideas?

    I was going to say that we didn’t have questionnaires, but we did, usually things like “How involved in important plots do you want to be?” I rarely got useful info out of those numbered opinions, but we did them anyways.

    As to terms, I don’t think you can call them New England style, because UCLA/Los Angeles came up with almost the same style around the same time on the other side of the country.

    I think “traditional” is good, because they have been around so long. What if we shortened it to the hipster “trad larp”? (trad = shortened form of traditional), and make people think of Irish music??? It slips off the tongue easier, at least.

    And as a traditional, there are certain conventions/styles/rules that they usually (though not always) follow, and you listed them above. Thus you can see that your trad larpers were able to play with our trad larpers very very easily, notably Karen and Hal Bowman and when my posse visited Intercon J (our first). With only minor hiccups, we all were playing the same larp. It’s like jazz musicians getting together playing an old standard (“standard larp”?), and the only difference is the beat, or the key, etc.

    Anyway, great entry, thank you!

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think the idea of having people contribute ideas for what they want to play. It does sound like both good inspiration for writing and also a headache. I think some MIT LARPs are written that way. The closest I’ve come are the bid-your-own-character LARPs (like Clue, Impaired where I played Hades or TBC, where I play Arya Stark.)

      Looking at it from the point of view of how people from different communities interact with one another’s LARPing styles is really interesting. I think it would be a good way to indicate what constitutes a significant difference in format, and what is actually fundamentally the same.

  2. Tony V says:

    I’m curious only how you think “PopLARP” needs to be defined as a subset of “theatrical LARPs”. Ie, as far as I can tell most of the things you say apply to most theatrical LARPs (and as there are exceptions, well even the PopLARPs you list have exceptions to these rules.) Do you think there are a lot of theatrical LARPs that don’t meet these criteria? What are those? (I may of course be betraying my massive ignorance here).

    Questionnaires are interesting. I’d say my group uses them half the time? (And the two games I wrote in a lead role, one used a questionnaire, the other did not.) We all know each other well enough that we have a good idea of what our desires and strengths (and triggers and weaknesses) are, and for the cases when we don’t then a few private conversations can do. So ceteris parebus, we don’t use them.

    Questionnaires can also inflate expectations. A player can express something they want in the questionnaire that just isn’t realistic (either it doesn’t exist in the game, or the player can’t pull that roll off), and because they expressed it, get more disappointed when they don’t get it. It’s sometimes better for players to go in with no expectations at all.

    But we do play a lot of LARPs. And in the course of that, people can begin to feel typecast. Or encounter new triggers they don’t want to deal with again. A questionnaire provides a good way for friends to express “I was cool with this role before, but now I want to try this”. So about half the time we do those, and always occasionally find some surprise desire we hadn’t expected.

    Additionally, questionnaires just make good signups. You have to tell people to commit anyway, by emailing you or what not. Might as well ask them to fill out a couple questions. If you’re worried about flakiness, it can even serve as a way to filter out the marginally less interested people.

    Also, most of our games when run the first time, the character sheets are written to the cast member (who again, we know fairly well). If a LARP of ours gets rerun, well there’s going to be much less of a tight-fit there, and rough methods like questionnaires come into play again.

    So, about half and half.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think most of the things that make a Pop-LARP a Pop-LARP are meant to indicate that they don’t deviate at all from the basics of theater LARP. Many LARPs I play deviate in at least one significant way. And beyond that, they tend to have similar plot structures (hidden identities, uber plots) that make them feel similar to one another, even if the flavor differs a lot.

      I thought it could be a very useful term. Describing LARPs is difficult, but very helpful when people are deciding which LARPs to sign up for. Players like me, who enjoy pop-LARPs, would probably consider the term a reassurance- I feel like I can go into a pop-LARP knowing it won’t be a waste of four hours. But if it’s got some strange deviation from the norm, it’s worth trying, but there’s no way to know if I’ll like it or hate it in advance. And for LARP Hipsters, they’ll know to avoid them.

      But you’re right in that it’s possible that the percentage of theater LARPs that are pop-LARPs may be so high that it’s not a useful term. Here I turn to my handy-dandy Master List. Let’s see. Out of 125 theater LARPs… About a 1/3 definitely are, but a lot more I’m unsure whether or not they fit this label, even ones that ostensibly have all the criteria listed above, but instinctively, I just don’t think are “pop”, Which makes me suspect the list is lacking, and there’s a bigger emphasis on a not-dark tone than I originally thought. Clearly Nat and I need to go over our list of LARPs we’ve both played, see which are pop, which aren’t, and then try to analyze why.

      I find the notion of casting without questionnaires fascinating. It sounds like it’s a nice option to have thanks to the small group. Another reason I’ve got to get in on it.

  3. Ivan Zalac says:

    That’s a great article – well detailed and very informative to read, especially for someone coming from a different larp culture.

  4. Philip Kelley says:

    I must admit I don’t think too much of “pop larp”, it sounds like something from the sixties. Last Intercon I heard Mike Young use the term “Eclectic Theatre Style”, and I like that term. It’s not regional, is hard to confuse with fairly recent cultural phenomena, and it sticks in the mind. (The strange thing is that I’ve never heard Mike use the term before, and Mike has been in larps since the Triassic era.)

    • Fair Escape says:

      “Eclectic Theater Style” sounds like a good name for the genre clash type of LARPs.

      • Philip Kelley says:

        “Kitchen Sink” is a common term for individual games that have a mish mash of elements from a number of unrelated genres, with Mary Celeste being the classic over-the-top example of this. (I’m pretty sure Jim MacDougal used this term years ago. [Incidentally, he played Cobra Commander in your run of G.I. Joe it this year.] )

        To my mind, the type of games discussed here would probably have a greater or lesser level of weirdness or element of the fantastic in them. (Another term: how much wuj does the game have? Woo, wooj, the term varies.) Lump a bunch together, such as all the games in the average Intercon schedule, and for me that’s why the term “eclectic” seems appropriate.

        • Fair Escape says:

          Now that you mention it, I think some amount of “woog” (which is I think the version I’ve heard) is a very common aspect of LARP-flavored-LARPs, and that probably belongs on the list that are extremely common but not explicitly required traits. But I also think strong adherence to one particular flavor of woog, like generic medieval fantasy, is fairly common, so electic would probably refer to a type of LARP-flavored-LARP, but not all of them, if that makes sense.

          Jim was fantastic- he had Cobra Commander’s voice spot-on and delivered some really great one-liners on the fly.

  5. Pingback: NELCO 2013 Post Event Report — Saturday Afternoon Panels | FairEscape

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