I’ve been thinking a lot about, for lack of a better word, priorities in larping. I started my larping career with theater-style larping, and later came to enjoy “boffer” (live combat) games as well. One thing I noticed was that players of the two different styles would often criticize game design decisions made by games in the other style as though they were self-evidently terrible.
I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the differences between these different styles of larp stem from different priorities. I think we tend to assume that these differences come from different styles of larp having completely different goals or different values, and sometimes this is true. More often though, it comes from people desiring similar things, but prioritizing their desires differently.
What follows is a discussion of four goals that I think a majority of larps work towards to some extent, but on which different styles of larps tend to place different levels of priority. They are accessibility, safety, immersion and the freedom to play any character you desire. Most of us would like to maximize all four and avoid sacrificing any, but one often comes at the expense of another. The question becomes one of tradeoffs; how much accessibility are you willing to sacrifice for how much immersion? How much immersion are you willing to sacrifice for how much safety? The level of priority you place on these four aspects, and the tradeoffs you’re willing to make, define a lot about the style of your larp.
Accessibility is simply how easy it is for someone to participate in your larp. The more accessible your larp is, the fewer barriers to participation there are, and consequently, the more people can participate in it.
What factors affect the accessibility of your larp? A big one is cost. The more your larp costs, the less accessible it is. This is reflected not just in entrance fees, but also things like costuming requirements; a larp that requires a substantial “kit” is less accessible than one that doesn’t. Another big factor is physical requirement; larps that take place in the woods using live combat are going to have greater physical requirements than ones that don’t. Of course, there’s accessibility as it relates to specific disabilities or physical constraints; could your game be enjoyed by a blind person? Someone with limited mobility? A person with severe allergies?
Age-appropriateness is an aspect of accessibility that often gets overlooked. Can your game be enjoyed by a minor? How accessible a style of larp is for a GM or writer matters too – a larp where the expectation is that everything will be realistically propped has a much greater barrier to entry for budding larp writers or organizers than one where it’s expected that items in game will be represented by printed index cards.
We often make the mistake of thinking of safety as a binary: something is either safe or it isn’t. In reality, like everything else on this list, it’s a spectrum. The more risk of harm and the more severe those harms are, the less safe a larp is. When people say something “is safe” what they really mean is that they are comfortable with where it is on the spectrum of safety. When they say it is “unsafe”, they mean they are not comfortable with where it is on that spectrum.
Most larps in the US tend to be, broadly speaking, pretty far towards the “safe” side of the spectrum. Usually, they fall anywhere from “as safe as a day at home” to “as safe as your average outdoor sport”. That doesn’t mean that people don’t care where on that spectrum they fall, however, and people absolutely do make tradeoffs between safety and the other three priorities in this post. Safety is also the priority that may be most out of the event organizers’ hands. Though the litigious nature of the US is perhaps overemphasized, it is very likely that a live-combat game here will either want insurance, or be required to obtain it by their venue. The requirements of your insurance may include safety-based restrictions on what you can and cannot do, requiring you to make trade-offs even if you normally wouldn’t be inclined to.
Immersion means many different things to different people, and what causes someone to feel “immersed” in a game varies tremendously from person to person. As discussing them all is a tall order for an already probably-too-long post, here I’ll concentrate on Physical Immersion, stemming from how WYSIWYG your game is. For our purposes, let’s say the closer objects and actions in the fiction resemble the real actions and objects in the game space, the more physically immersive it is.
Larp organizers can choose to emphasize this kind of physical immersion in any number of ways. They might choose to spend money on elaborate sets and costumes, or they might rent a site appropriate to the genre of larp they are playing. They might choose to emphasize “hard” skills, and have players try to do what their characters are doing as much as possible (i.e. actually picking a lock instead of some abstraction of picking a lock). Or they might focus on a larp ruleset that minimizes out-of-game action or communication.
This one was impossible to sum up in a nice, single-word title, so bear with me here. What I’m talking about is the freedom to step into any sort of imagined character you like, regardless of who you are in real life. Many players want the opportunity to play their choice of any sort of character they want: perhaps a master swordsman, a nimble rogue, or a charismatic politician – even if they are none of these things in real life. This priority is often emphasized by focusing on “soft skills”, which is to say abstracting each character’s abilities so that they are separated in some way from the player’s real life skill (for example, sword duels fought by comparing combat scores rather than actual fencing).
It’s easy to see how this can come into conflict with immersion, and it often does. Having players physically perform the actions their characters are undertaking can add a powerful sense of immersion, but the more you do so, the more a player’s roleplay is limited by their real-life physical limitations as well.
These are far from the only priorities out there (I doubt it would be possible to enumerate them all, even if I wanted to), but they demonstrate the general concept. There are two takeaways here:
The first, is to stop seeing these priorities as absolutes, which can free you to see all the opportunities where you might be able to trade a little bit of one of them for a lot of something else. None of these priorities is a binary (“you either have it or you don’t”); rather each is a spectrum. When you think “I can’t do this, it’s not immersive” you shut yourself off from a lot of potential cool design decisions where the loss of a small bit of immersion might ultimately be worth it because of the large benefit it might have somewhere else. It’s far more useful to think of them as tradeoffs, and think about how much of one thing you’re willing to trade for how much of another.
The second is to realize that larp communities other than your own often prioritize different goals differently, which is often the reason for design decisions that may seem perplexing at first. When approaching another community’s larp, never assume that design decisions you disagree with or don’t understand are made out of blind adherence to tradition, or because the community simply doesn’t know a better way. More often than not, these are conscious decisions made by a community with many of the same goals, but whose priorities may differ markedly from your own.
For example, in New England, theater-style larps of the type that run at Intercon and other area conventions often heavily prioritize accessibility and the freedom to play whatever character you like. The fact that these games are run in classrooms or conference rooms with no scenery, and most props are represented by index cards, may seem odd to many boffer players. But the decision to do things this way stems from a prioritization of accessibility over immersion. It allows event organizers to constantly try new ideas and settings, without the barriers of cost and logistics that would otherwise make that impossible – and that pays dividends in the level of creativity and variety you see in these conventions’ schedules. Similarly, a player used to Intercon style games may at first balk at the “to do something, you need to actually be able to do it” mentality of many area boffer games. But this stems from a conscious decision to give up a little freedom to play who you want (you’ll never be able to play a superlative fighter, unless you’re actually decent at boffer combat), and trade that for a level of immersion that can be very powerful.
For many people, it can take playing several events in an unfamiliar style before they stop seeing the things they are giving up, and start to see the other advantages those things were traded for. But in my experience it’s almost always worth the effort to push through that initial reaction. Larp is experiential, and it’s almost impossible to understand the cool things that can be accomplished by trying on a different set of priorities until you experience them for yourself.
Brian R. has been theater LARPing for about seven years and boffer LARPing for about four 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.