Guest Post: Three Types of Casting in Theater-Style Larp

I’m very excited to share another guest post on this blog. It’s written by Brian R., author of the popular Boffer Lessons for Theater article and whose LARPs rank among my all-time favorite theater LARPs.

In the style of larp I often play, players are assigned a pre-written role by the GM. The players are then given a character sheet that contains their history, personality, goals, etc. It has become the dominant way of writing short (2 – 48 hr.), one-shot theater style larps in my area because it allows the players to be sure that they’ll have a character intricately bound to the other characters and to the plot, for games that are short enough that a player wouldn’t normally have time enough to build up those connections themselves.

The question becomes: how on Earth do you match all those pre-written roles to players in your game? GMs and event organizers have come up with all sorts of tools and techniques to try to come up with the ideal casting for a game. There’s very little agreement, and even less data on what actually produces better games.

What I want to talk about here isn’t any of those specific techniques, but rather the underlying philosophy behind how we cast our games and why. I’ve listened to a lot of GMs talk about how they cast their games, and I think we can broadly break up casting philosophies into 3 categories:

The Director

The director’s concern is for the game as a whole, and the director considers primarily each players ability to play their part well (be that convincingly, or entertainingly). Like the director of a play, this GM-type puts far more weight on what roles people will be succesful in than in what roles people asked for. They might cast good actors in prominent roles, charismatic people in leadership roles, or give villain roles to those likely to push the plot forward while avoiding detection. The director figures that the more entertaining the piece is as a whole, the more entertaining it will be for the majority of players involved – even if people don’t get exactly what they asked for.

The Travel Agent

The opposite of the director, the travel agent considers only what people ask for. Like a travel agent selling vacation packages, their only concern is listening to the type of experience someone asks for and trying to give it to them – these GMs figure it’s none of their business how good people are at the activities involved. This could be either out of a sense of fairness (it can truly suck to be cast in a role you didn’t want because of preconceived notions of what you’ll succeed at), or because the GM just doesn’t feel they’ll be able to judge in advance what people will be good at, or doesn’t find it important. A travel-agent GM might cast a shy player in a leadership role if they ask for it, or continue casting a player who enjoys playing villains as the big villain – even if the other players of the larp expect this casting and figure it out immediately. The travel agent figures that people will have more fun if they get to play their preferences – even if the larp as a whole suffers a little bit.

The Guidance Counselor

Somewhere in between the two extremes is the guidance counselor. Like its namesake, the guidance counselor is concerned with fitting a player into the role that they like best, out of all the roles that they could succeed at. It doesn’t matter if someone would be the best detective in the world – if they’re capable of pulling off the murderer, and they ask to be cast as the murderer, the guidance counselor casts them as the murderer. Unlike the travel agent however, a guidance counselor-style GM only considers people for roles the GM thinks they’re capable of. For instance, they might avoid casting a shy player as a character intended to be a driving force behind the larp, even if they ask for it.

I wrote these three categories as neutrally as I could, and I don’t think any of them is right or wrong, just different priorities. I myself tend to be the Travel Agent, both out of a sense of fairness and because people continually suprise me with the types of roles they do well with. For those of you who do casting for these types of larps: which category are you?

Brian R. has been theater LARPing for about 6 years and boffer LARPing for about 3 years. He makes up half of the theater LARP writing team called Lovers and Madmen, which ran its first LARP, Redemption: High Noon at the Devil’s Luck in 2010, and has since also written and run Stars of Al-Ashtara, Venezia, and Devil to Pay.

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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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20 Responses to Guest Post: Three Types of Casting in Theater-Style Larp

  1. Aaron says:

    Great article.

    If it wasn’t mentioned in an earlier article, all of these are predicated on knowing the player beforehand, and having a regular player base that you understand on something more than a superficial level.

    Personally, I think I’m the guidance counselor; where I ask players to pick two or three pre-gen characters they would want to play, but I also ask other questions that hopefully will help me determine who can best pull off that role.

    I usually go in as a director, in that I have a preconceived notion of who I want to play certain roles, but I also do my best to communicate with the players to see what they want. Maybe my ideal hero is sick of playing the good guy and suddenly wants to be the heavy for this larp. In that case, I’d like to be the travel agent and allow them to try that role out.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think you’re right- this definitely makes sense for communities where people personally know their players. At events where the GMs don’t know their players, you pretty much either have to be the travel agent… or else cast randomly.

      • Brian R. says:

        You can totally be the director when you don’t know the players – it’s the difference between asking “do you like to lie” and “are you good at lying?” on the questionaiire. The latter is a Director-style question.

  2. Mo Holkar says:

    There’s also what might perhaps be called The Hand of Fate: assigning characters to players at random.
    I started off having to do this all the time, because of running pick-up games at general role-playing cons, mostly for people who I knew nothing about and who were inexperienced larpers.
    As the hobby matured, though, and it became more practical to cast in advance, I carried on doing it randomly for the more light-hearted games; and still do.
    It seems to me that it can sometimes be good to remove both (a) the GM’s preconceptions about players, and (b) the players’ preconceptions about what sort of experience they’ll enjoy.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I’ve heard of this kind of thing going on at cons, where pre-casting isn’t an option, and also the variant where GMs hold up character sheets and say “ok, who wants the pirate? Who wants the captain of the ship?” etc. so it’s partly based on the most basic, surface description. I definitely think avoiding preconceptions has major advantages- people don’t feel slighted if they don’t get what they were hoping for.

      • Mo Holkar says:

        Yes, indeed. They may still be aggrieved, but at least it’s just bad luck to blame rather than the GMs’ active decisions 🙂

        And also, slightly more seriously, I think players can find it quite liberating to know that they’ve been cast without having to meet either the GMs’ or their own expectations. For confident players, it’s the buzz of “I can play any character that fate throws at me!”; for less confident ones, it’s “The pressure’s off, we’re all in the same situation and will help each other make the best of it.”

  3. Nat Budin says:

    I think you might actually be underselling the Travel Agent a little. Here’s the argument I’d make for it:

    The single most important factor in the success or failure of a LARP is the happiness of its players. Period, end of story. Happy players will work better at puzzles, play their characters with more gusto, and come into game with infectious enthusiasm.

    What is the biggest thing a GM can do to make players happy? Give them exactly what they ask for and make them feel listened to. That’s why I am a Travel Agent.

    • Fair Escape says:

      But having GMed as much as you do, don’t you ever find that sometimes there are players who ask for things they’re likely to complain about later? Or players who ask for things that you know isn’t a good idea (like someone asking for romance when you know other players are uncomfortable in a romance plot with them)?

      • Nat Budin says:

        Some players do that, yes, but most are at least somewhat self-aware about it, and that can be a learning experience for them. “I thought I wanted this, but it turned out I didn’t enjoy it – I guess I won’t ask for it in future games.”

        Fundamentally I think it’s a matter of trust. As a GM, I have to trust my players to make accurate self-assessments and to deal well with it when they haven’t. I think that to treat your players as trusted collaborators in this way is better, long-term, for the GM/player relationship.

        The only time I do contact players about casting after receiving a questionnaire response is when, for one reason or another, there is no role I can cast them in that will fulfill their stated wishes. Sometimes it’s that there simply is no role that will work for them in the game, sometimes it’s that that they’re mutually uncastable with everyone else. Either way, again, the principle is to trust your players, so I like to call them on the phone and talk through the issues with them, and ask them what they’d like to do. In my experience, people really appreciate being asked!

    • Chad Bergeron says:

      I still fall a little more towards Guidance Counselor. I want to give the players what they ask for, but -not- at the expense of other players. And part of that cost analysis is whether or not the castee can succeed at the casting, not only on their terms, but on the terms of what other players need from them.

    • Brian R. says:

      I totally agree. In the post I was mostly trying to point out some underlying differences in how GMs look at casting their games, so I was trying to avoid putting too many of my own arguments in there. I actually identify with the Travel Agent style very strongly, and the myriad reasons why could probably fill their own separate post.

  4. I hope I am the Travel Agent – but probably a bit of a mix. There are roles that need filling and sometimes I need to put the least square peg in the round hole. Having said that, I am not beyond rewriting a role or plot to suit the player base and their answers.

    As a player, I will often ask for a character that will stretch my abilities or comfort zones. I would be annoyed if I found out I didn’t get that because of a previous successful performance. Sometimes, you have to allow players to make their own mistakes and learn.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I really admire a GM who is willing to adjust a role to suit their player base- it’s tough to do and can be a lot of extra last minute work.

      It’s true some people get typecast, and that can be really frustrating. I think it can be an unfortunate truth that it ends up on the players to make it explicitly clear that they don’t want the role most GMs consider them successful at.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    I try to be a travel agent, though sometimes it’s hard when the player apps are not exactly in line with what the roles are. Sometimes I have three players who’d be good at two roles, and then I have to figure out which one doesn’t get the role and gets a role they would like less. That’s when I start asking followup questions to make sure people who don’t get their perfect role would still get a decent character to play; in the Festival run of Dance I took like two weeks to cast because of this, and there are players who still got less than ideal characters.

    Re typecasting, I just ask straight out in casting forms: do I know you from other LARPs, and if I do, should I give you a character similar to the one I saw you play? Someone who has a type can tell me “Yes, I want something similar to X and Y” or “no, that was a miscast” or “no, I play one of several types and X and Y were type A but I can also play type B” or even “no, I want to play a different type.”

  6. Warren Tusk says:

    Like every GM, I hit different points on this spectrum under different circumstances — balancing the game needs and the social needs of the moment will always have to happen on a case-by-case basis. But I’m probably closest to the “Director,” and it’s a philosophy that I’m willing to defend on its own merits.

    As the GM, you have all the information concerning your particular game, and your players have basically none. They don’t know what the relevant traits of the characters are, and if they go by broad stereotypes that they’ve acquired from previous games, they’re liable to fall afoul of important nuances. A player who “likes straightforward good guys” may be sad when he learns that, in your game, the straightforward-good-guy’s job is incredibly taxing and difficult and lonely. A player who “wants romantic drama” may feel very differently once he learns what sort of romances your game has in store. A player who’s enjoyed “villain roles” that involve a lot of deception and secrecy, and therefore requests further “villain roles,” may not at all enjoy the sort of “villain role” that involves being widely distrusted and feared. And so on. Sometimes you can respond to survey answers with “does that hold true even under THESE circumstances?”…but often the truth of things hinges on information that is a game secret or that arises from complex in-world situations. It’s not that players can’t be trusted, it’s that they don’t know what you know, and it’s your job as the GM to use your informational advantage to their benefit.

    (This is leaving aside all the many ways in which players indeed can’t be trusted. There are certain errors that people reliably make about themselves and their play preferences. To cite one obvious example that I’m sure a lot of GMs know well — un-confident new players often request minor/supporting roles without much direct influence or plot centrality, on the grounds that they’re afraid of the spotlight and they’re afraid of “screwing up” somehow. This is a truly terrible plan, for non-obvious reasons. Minor/supporting roles are easy places to get overlooked, and often require players to be proactive and make their own fun. As a rule, I’ve found that scared new players thrive best in very central roles with lots and lots of power, so that everyone pays attention to them and they get swept up in interesting plot goings-on even if they don’t really know what they’re doing. And thus I tend to steamroll requests like that.)

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think that’s a really excellent point- there’s a common misconception that newbies need the “minor” roles because that way if they get flustered or don’t know what to do, it won’t stall the action. But putting them in a central role means people will really care what they do and hopefully push them to act in the way they want, which can really help someone get started.

    • Brian R. says:

      I don’t think what you’re describing quite fits what I had in mind for the Director GM style. I intended the Director/Travel Agent distinction to be between “casting where someone will most improve the game” vs. “casting someone where they say they’d like to be cast”. What you’re describing is more the tension between “casting someone where they say they’d like to be cast” vs. “casting someone where the GM thinks they’d like to be cast”, which is its own can of worms.

      I think pretty much all the examples you used can be asked about directly on a casting form. You can ask “do you want to be a straightforward good-guy” and also “are you OK being a loner” and “do you want taxing, difficult goals”. And of course you can decouple them on the questionnaire to avoid giving away that your loner is a good guy. Despite writing some pretty heavily secret-laden games, I’ve yet to come across something I felt I needed to ask but couldn’t.

      • Warren Tusk says:

        I have definitely had that issue…although I’m not providing examples here, because that would involve describing important and spoilery aspects of my games. But for those of you who (e.g.) know Ex Ignorantia, you can see why this would be a huge problem.

        • Alon Levy says:

          On the other hand, in the email I sent you regarding my Ex Ignorantia casting, I explicitly said what unconfident new players say (and what I still sometimes say, for other reasons): don’t cast me in a way that the entire plot revolves around my being able to figure something out. And the character I did get was indeed was not plot-central, but still had a lot to do, and did not get ignored or overlooked at all. So this is possibly more about a tip for writing than for casting, about how to write characters that have sufficient plot but are still flexible enough in case the player can’t figure something out or if the other PC who the character’s trying to wrangle secrets out of refuses to divulge them.

  7. Pingback: Guest Post: Priorities in Larping | FairEscape

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