NELCO 2018: Climaxes in LARP

As the end of the year approaches, and I look back on my post count for 2018 and compare it to 2017 (and previous years)… I realize it’s highly unlikely I’ll meet one of my New Years resolutions — to beat my previous year’s post count. I had another goal to actually write about the topics covered at NELCO, and similar events LARP theory discussion events. And while I did cover TheoryCon this year, I failed to cover most of NELCO, and entirely missed covering Living Games Conference and PreCon.

In effort to address this in some small way, however inadequate, I’ve decided to write about one of the topics we covered at NELCO 2018. One of my topics got added to the schedule to replace some last minute cancellations. I wish we could have recorded all of the great conversation we had — but it’s been long enough, that all I have is my own thoughts.

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The topic was Climaxes in LARP.

Get your giggles out now.

Here is the description I wrote for the NELCO website:

“It’s hour three of a four hour LARP (or Sunday morning of a weekend long LARP), and the time for the death moratorium has run out! It’s time to finally take down the Big Bad Villain, appoint a priest to marry you to your sweetheart, and find out who is getting crowned! …This should be exciting, but you’re stuck in a time bubble, your ceremony has become a mass wedding, and people are too busy for the coronation. Why does this distinctly feel like an anti-climax?

LARP is a unique medium, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but we seem to want to recreate the sense of climax one sees in other media, like books and movies. Is it possible? Let’s discuss how to create a satisfying climax for individual players and a LARP as a whole, and ways to avoid the common pitfalls that create unsatisfying climaxes in LARP.”

As you can see, for this topic, I was primarily focused on one-shot theater LARPs. (I think the climaxes of campaigns and/or boffer LARPs is its own important, fascinating, and complex topic — some of which overlaps with the stuff we talked about it. But such LARPs also have their own unique sets of needs, advantages, and disadvantages, and I wanted to be able to narrow down the focus a bit for the hour and fifteen minutes at NELCO.) We also mostly discussed it from the point of view of a LARP with (fully or mostly) pre-written characters (I think we’re starting to call this “litform”?), though a lot also applies to LARPs with player-generated characters.

Before I begin, I should note that I don’t believe every LARP needs a climax, and in fact, in many cases, might be better off without one.

When preparing notes for this topic, first I listed all of the common forms of climaxes in LARP, based on my personal experiences. At the discussion, I solicited additional items for the list.

Here’s the list I came up with:

  • combat (usually a “mass combat bubble” — all of the players involved in a single fight, possibly against one another, possibly against NPCs)
  • weddings, coronations, and other ceremonies that mark/create status changes
  • escapes
  • rituals
  • transformations
  • decisions
  • announcements of decisions/results (eg votes/elections, contests/competitions)
  • death

Then I thought about the factors that can make for a satisfying climax, and ones that don’t.

Ones that do include:

  • success at in-game goals
  • It feels relevant to your character
  • It feels personalized/specific to you/your character
  • Reflection of your efforts during the LARP
  • Whatever the “big” thing is (whether for an individual or a crowd) it has proper focus/spotlight
  • Something significant is accomplished (including the prevention/erasure of a threat. Often a wrong has been righted, or prevented.)
  • Transformation was achieved (either personally, or within the setting — it can be that your character increased in power, or the style of government has changed)
  • immersion is maintainted
  • a sense of choreography (see below for an explanation)

Ones that don’t include:

  • failure (especially failing with a whimper, rather than a bang)
  • redundancy/repetition (multiple characters with the same climax)
  • lack of agency/control during the climax, or over the factors that lead up to it
  • lack of spotlight/attention on you as an individual, or on PCs as a whole (e.g. it is on NPCs)
  • spotlight is too divided, either in terms of subject (on multiple targets at once) or timing (spotlight moves too quickly from subject to subject)
  • lack of significance
  • status quo is maintained
  • mood whiplash (eg sources of great happiness and great sorrow are happening at once)
  • lack of immersion (e.g. standing around waiting while mechanics are resolved, or people dropping out of character to argue about how the mechanics should go)
  • awkwardness/lack of choreography

By choreography, I mean elements of a LARP coming together in an aesthetically pleasing fashion in a way that enhances drama, or the tone of the LARP. It can be deliberate, or merely feel deliberate.

Compare this with a movie, where the drama and excitement (or comedy, or tragedy, or whatever the intended tone is) is enhanced via pre-scripted lines, music, lightning, cinematography, etc., many of which are elements that are extremely difficult, or else impossible, to reproduce in a LARP. The divided agency over a LARP among the staff and players and improve nature of the medium provides a unique, challenge to creating a sense of choreography, and its lack is probably why LARPers often like to say that “LARP doesn’t film well.”

Direction (as in, manipulated by a director) might be another word for it, but I felt “direction” was more likely to sound ambiguous in some contexts.

Interestingly, a climax can feel satisfying in the moment, but then get retroactively damaged, e.g. someone negating some element of it during the denouement (a word I definitely didn’t look up how to pronounce right before running this discussion), or even through a poorly handled post-game events. Conversely, experiences during a denouement and a well handled post-game event can retroactively enhance a climax, (though I personally find this to be less common.)

We can illustrate some of these traits of satisfaction/disatisfaction by relating them to the list of forms that climaxes often take. For example, take combat bubbles. Lots of theater LARPs use combat for a climax, especially mass combat, where a large number of PCs (possibly most or even all) are involved. But many theater LARPs employ abstract mechanics for combat that quickly get bogged down when lots of people are involved, creating the phenomenon of “combat bubbles” — where time suddenly slows way down (in-game time no longer runs 1:1 with real time) for everyone involved in the combat, and every one not involved in the combat (or “outside the bubble”) mill about, waiting for it to end.

I’ve seen some theater combat rules that are designed to be fun games/experiences in and of themselves, and that can sometimes be ok for a climax. But many of them aren’t, and while a giant combat involving everyone sounds exciting on its face, standing around in a combat bubble, waiting your turn to attack or defend while a GM sorts through all of the many actions everyone is taking… can be really dull and make a climax unsatisfying.

I’d like to mention one of my favorite forms of theater combat here — systems that determine the outcome  quickly and privately, the enable the players to physically play out the combat, with foam swords or cap guns or whatever is appropriate. This is usually a lot more entertaining to watch and participate in than forms such as Rock, Paper, Scissors.

We can also look at the example of weddings. I’ve been in a number of theater LARPs with multiple romances going on, and other characters, often clergymen, with the power to officiate at a wedding. Suddenly, just before the close of the LARP, five or six different couples want to be married, and the clergymen go through them rapid-fire. None of the ceremonies feel special, not to people watching, not even to the brides and grooms. This might be alright in a silly LARP, but in a more serious LARP, it can suck the romance out of the situation. (After one such LARP where a bunch of couple got married in a rush, one right after the other, I made a personal to decision to avoid marrying in any LARP with multiple romance plots running through it. Private declarations of love and/or betrothals will do.)

The repetitiveness of the situation (and often the ceremony itself) lends itself to multiple weddings feeling anti-climatic, but it need not be characters all going through an identical process. When multiple such announcements and ceremonies go off one after the other, they can step on one another, so to speak. It can be really exciting to hear that you won an election, but if mere moments after your victory is announced, someone else is granted the Nobel prize, and then right after that, someone declares they’ve retrieved the Holy Grail… each one can feel like it’s diminishing the other, almost how much time and attention each is given creates a zero sum game of significance.

This diminishing effect can stem from the nature of the plots and mechanics that tie into the climax — if you’re writing the sort of climactic scenes that typically have an audience, or else the significance of the scene is in how it affects large populations/the setting as a whole, it’s natural for LARPers to expect that to be part of the experience. Of course, the diminishing effect can also come out of a LARPer’s personal play style. For many LARPers, the significance of any given accomplishments or change or decisions is directly measured, in full or in part, by the attention it receives (hence the presence, lack, and/or division of spotlight appearing on the lists above. Trees falling in the woods and all that.)

However, some players can be really into internal roleplay, and find a lot of satisfaction in their characters’ various accomplishments and changes and decisions that come to a head at the end of the LARP, regardless of whether or not others know of it or acknowledge it. Still others may not be able to find satisfaction in the climax if no one else knows about it, but so long as least one or two other people know, that can suffice. And of course many LARPers vary, sometimes wanting lots of attention, sometimes needing none, or very little, depending on the context of the LARP, and the context of whatever is going on in their lives outside of the particular LARP they’re in (including, for example, other LARPs recently played.)

So now that we’ve looked at what climaxes often look like in LARP, and elements that contribute to their success and failure, we can think about how to create/encourage the successful ones, and avoid the failure ones.

Some of the items on the list have more to do with overall writing of a LARP than designing for the climax in particular, so I’m not sure I have any good thoughts on this other than “keep them in mind from the start when plotting/writing your LARP”. Namely, things like “players should feel like the climax reflect their actions/efforts” and “the climax should feel relevant to all players”.

Items like significant accomplishments or transformations being satisfying, and maintaining the status-quo often being unsatisfying, are a little tricky. Unless the LARP is designed to be on rails (and advertised as such), or even designed with a finger on the scales in favor of change, it can be very difficult to both encourage the more satisfying result without reducing the important element of player effort mattering. In fact, I’d argue that so many LARPs are designed to favor the Good Guys succeeding in their Important Task, that it’s usually better to write and give the Good Guys a decent chance at failure and the Bad Guys (especially if they’re equal or near equal in number to the Good Guys) a decent chance at success.

While the Bad Guys winning can be a downer sort of climax, players can be both rather perceptive about picking up on cues that the Good Guys were likely to win anyway (and rather skeptical about their own efforts making a huge difference in the outcome even if there weren’t any specific cues.) While this is particularly true of players who have been LARPing for a long time, this can also still be true of newbies, who often come in with assumptions based on other forms of media, especially roleplay forms of media, that they’ve already consumed.

Spotlight is also a very tricky thing to manage when it comes to climaxes in LARP. There are some adages regarding writing these styles of LARPs, “every character should feel like a star from their own point of view”. The larger the LARP, the more difficult this becomes; in weekend long theater litform LARPs with 60+ players, there are often multiple large plots coming to a head towards the end of the weekend, each relevant to different (often overlapping) subsections of the players. In fact, I think most of the weekend long, litform theater LARPs I’ve played had a bit of a rush on Sunday, with large moments (coronations, elections, duels to the death, competitions, weddings, deaths) competing for spotlight, and some amount of emotional whiplash as well (several wedding announcements and deaths coming in rapid succession).

In some cases, I’ve seen enforced separation of the climaxes of various plots, e.g. the results of the election are to be announced at 11:00am, the ceremony for installing the religious relic in the church will be at 11:30, and the wedding will be at 12:00. This has the benefits of ensuring players who want to bask a little in the moments that are important to them, won’t find attention suddenly rushing away from them on to the next thing. (Which can have more of a negative effect on satisfaction with a climax than not having had much of the attention to begin.) This rushing can also decrease the realism of the moment — in real life, no one sprints away from a one minute coronation to observe a duel.

The downside is that whatever is scheduled last tends to seem like it is the “biggest” of the plots, and plots that wrap up too early can leave players feeling adrift for longer periods of time until the LARP ends, especially if no thought in terms of LARP design was given to their experience of the denouement.

Speaking of denouement, providing options for what players might be doing after their biggest plots wrap up can not only avoid the feeling of “now what? I’m just sitting around waiting until they call game off” but importantly, provides something to do in case the various forms of climaxes don’t interest the players. Sometimes players just don’t want to attend the ceremonies and duels and announcements, perhaps because they lost the competitions or failed at their goals, perhaps because they don’t feel they’re relevant to their characters either way, or they had a particularly emotional moment, such as the death of another character, and prefer to focus on the roleplay of grief rather than, say, attend celebrations. Maybe the mechanics of the big battle just don’t interest them.

Providing alternatives can be a difficult thing to do, especially in LARPs that take place in a single room, but in larger LARPs, this can be as simple as providing a comfortable, immersive space, possibly with some immersive activity to engage it. (For example, on Sunday of Shogun, with so many deaths going on around me, I withdrew to one of the very well dressed rooms upstairs and tried some meditation and origami, rather than remaining overwhelmed by the chaos in the main room.)

Creating alternatives to attending the big climactic moments in the LARP might raise the concern of reducing the audience and thus the spotlight that these moments might need to feel properly momentous. In a LARP with a large enough player base, this might not be an issue, so long as some percentage of LARPers want to attend, but if GMs are concerned, maybe that’s a moment for GMs to temporarily take on NPC roles that are somehow meaningful as witnesses?

Working on choreography is another way to increase the weight of the dramatic moments of a LARP climax, even if the audience is small (or non-existent). Lighting and music cues can go a long way, though obtaining equipment, dedicating staff to it, and getting the timing right may not be worth it. Props, set dressing, and costuming for NPCs, brought out for the first time during the climax can be impactful (but it does mean budgeting time, money, and effort towards items that will only be out for a short part of a LARP.) An example might be creating royal banners for the various potential new monarchs, and hanging the ones bearing the new king’s coat of arms for the conclusion of the LARP.

The trickiest form of creating a satisfying climax might be encouraging players to engage in internal roleplay, or highly personal interpersonal roleplay with one or two other LARPers, and feel that it makes for a satisfying climax. Plenty of players are inclined to do so on their own, but how does a GM contribute to its likelihood? Or increase the level of satisfaction with it?

One method I’ve seen pop up a few times is to introduce some sort of prompt for a highly personal decision just before the end of the LARP. This might be some sort of questions like, “will you go into exile or stay here? You may only take one person and one item with you”.

Here I want to mention The Wonder Walk of Musica Universalis. Musica Universalis was a weekend long one shot LARP, with pre-written characters and boffer mechanics for combat, though combat was a much smaller part of the experience than it is for most weekend long boffer events, with many players never engaging in combat if they preferred not to. On Saturday night, the staff went out into a wooded area, and created lots of winding paths with glow sticks and string lights. There were stops along the paths, with random little interactive encounters, some simply meant to be surreal, or whimsical, others designed to evoke internal roleplay. Players went through the Walk one at a time, for a quite, introspective experience. I thought it was tremendously cool, and would love to see more like it in LARPs. It might also make a good template for a nice send-off for a LARP, with the end of such a path corresponding to the end of a LARP — with players choosing the path out of the labyrinth when they’re ready to step out of character. (You can see photos and read more details here.)

While many weekend boffer events hold their climax Saturday night, and the Wonder Walk could have served as a climax of sorts, the actual climax of Musica Universalis was the final ritual, in which all of the PCs and NPCs came together to sing one of the songs that had been sent out in advance for everyone to learn. With all of the voices joining in almost a spontaneous fashion, this finale both felt like it had a high level of choreography, and also enabled everyone to contribute their voices and join in equally. (Another musical LARP, ‘Tis No Deceit, and its sequel, Interesting Times, also make good use of music and have closing songs to create a nicely choreographed finale.) A good example to follow.

If you have thoughts on what makes for a good climax for one-shot LARPs, please do share in the comments below! What makes them satisfying or unsatisfying for you? In what ways do you think some of the common forms could be improved?

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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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