It occurs to me that the most useful part of my recent post, “LARPing in the Age of Quarantine” was probably the bits where I talked about the structures and experiences of the various online LARPing formats (also sometimes called “virtual LARP” or “digital LARPing”.) I went for brevity there, and buried the whole thing at the bottom of the post.
So I’m writing a follow-up post, of sorts, this one focusing and expanding on that last section.
First, to expand a bit on the definitions involved, (because I’ve encountered the argument that “roleplaying online can’t be LARPing, it’s tabletop.”) In an older post, I wrote about a PreCon discussion that explored the definition of the word LARP. The definition I came away with is, “a medium, an interactive and collaborative form of storytelling in which participants take on personas other than themselves and physically interact as those personas in a shared, imagined diegesis, under the guidance of a set of rules or mechanics governing those interactions. (Said set of rules can be the null set.)”
(…This definition might well undergo a bit of revision. or at least exploration when I get around to playing Twain, the one-person LARP, and consider the implications for “interactive”, “collaborative”, and “shared”.)
The key phrase here separating LARP from tabletop RPGs is “physically interact”. That is, if you’re primarily describing what your character is doing (especially outside of speech), you’re probably playing a tabletop RPG, and not LARPing. If you’re primarily acting out what your character is doing, you’re probably LARPing.* (I’m uncertain at this point if a roleplaying game focused entirely around characters discussing something around a table, without overt mechanics such as dice rolling, qualifies as both a LARP and a tabletop game. These are nebulous terms; do they exist on a spectrum, or are they a binary?
Other elements that frequently differentiate LARPs and tabletop RPGs: simultaneity of action (or the possibility thereof) and the GM as a funnel for reality. In most tabletop games (certainly all of the ones I’ve played), the vast majority of actions taken in game had to happen (or be processed) one player at a time, even if characters were acting simultaneously. And the structure of the game requires the GM to be aware of what’s going on — if you decide your character does something during a typical game of Dungeons and Dragons and the GM never knows about it… like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, one has to ask, did your character actually do it? (Exceptions exist, of course, but this seems to be the norm.)
By contrast, while there are LARPs where there’s only a single point of focus (as in the example above of the superhero board meeting), LARPs can easily and often do also allow simultaneous action, and as many LARP GMs will tell you, there’s often a lot going on that they never learn about.
As mentioned above, some might argue that if players are using video chat, but their characters are not (i.e. the communication via video chat represents in-person communication), then that isn’t LARPing. While in a practical sense, the technology may make itself noticed (lags in audio, screens freezing, etc.), to me, “I’m looking at an image of your face on a screen to represent me looking at your actual face” makes something no less of a LARP than “I’m swinging a foam sword at you, not a metal sword” does.
To give a little context for my thoughts on online LARPs, here is a short list of summaries of the LARPs I’ve played/am still playing in Quarantine:
1. Evil Henchmen, Report!. A lit-form** LARP based on Carmen Sandiego, using zoom video chat, and its breakout room feature. The players play high ranking members of an evil organization having a board meeting. The video chat was diegetic, and players made good use of the virtual background feature.
2. touch_myelf chatroom. A light-hearted lit-form LARP about people in an online chat room for elf fetishists. Uses Discord text channels, including one group chat and private channels for one-on-one chatting, all of which is diegetic.
3. As We Know It. A freeform LARP about a group of strangers connecting via text during an ongoing alien invasion apocalypse. It’s written to be run via texting over smart phones, but our run used Discord channels. The texting is diegetic. There was also a brief workshop over voice chat.
4. Miss Coocooniverse. A pervasive freeform LARP about moths, beauty contests, and the biases of popular conservationism, played out over Facebook. The Facebook posting is diegetic. (Though it wasn’t required, my character and another one decided we are co-creators of a blog and threw one together.) This LARP is still ongoing.
5. Welcome Guests. A freeform LARP about guests at a household of cannibals. This one was held over zoom chat and used breakout rooms, but the video was not diegetic — the characters were all together in the same dining room. (The breakout room represented the kitchen.) Slain characters could interact as ghosts via texting.
6. A Squadron Story. A lit-form LARP about a squadron of space fighters on a mission that has just gone horribly wrong. The characters are communicating over live video from their ships, so the video chat is diegetic. The text chat feature of Zoom was used too, mostly for private chat. Also used virtual backgrounds, to great effect.
7. After Dark: Family Ties. A freeform LARP about members of a family reaching out to one another during a plague that is wiping out humanity, possibly spread via sound. This LARP has a workshop conducted over video chat with normal speaking, then played out with the video on, but communication is solely done silently over text chat (which also features a non-diegetic chat mechanic with emojis.) The video and chat is diegetic.
8. Vectors. A lit-form LARP featuring themes of contagion horror and emotional intimacy, run over Zoom. This LARP uses Zoom video chat and breakout rooms, which is all diegetic.
9. This Discord Has Ghosts In It. This game is possibly actually a tabletop, the jury’s still out. (I noticed the creator didn’t label it as either a tabeltop RPG or a LARP.) In this game, half of the players are investigators exploring a haunted house, while the other half of players are the ghosts, creating environments to spook the investigators and provide mysteries to solve. The investigators talk over voice chat and read content in text channels (all talking, no typing) while ghosts listen in and add content to the text channels (all typing, no talking.) The investigator characters are speaking over walkie talkies, so the remote communication is (mostly) diegetic, but the texting is not. It’s a really unexpected way to utilize and combine forms of online communication.
I also want to mention a couple of LARPs I have played online in the past, (which was done to enable LARPers who live far apart to play together.)
10. Council of Oramvand. Designed to run in person, this is a four person council meeting style lit-form LARP. Representatives of four fantasy races discuss what to do with their vanquished enemy in the aftermath of a war. Played over Skype, the online communication was not diegetic. (Blog post here.) The GMs have mentioned feeling it runs better in person.
11. AURs (or Alternate Universe Refugees). Also a council meeting style lit-form LARP, about modern politicians deciding which refugees from alternate universes to allow into their universe. Run over google hangouts. Online communication was not meant to be diegetic (but I imagine with very little tweaking to the introduction, the online communication could be diegetic.) Writer mentioned other than minor technical difficulties, no significant difference in the online runs vs. the in-person runs.
While I do have a few different online LARPs scheduled for May, I do want to mention one in particular, titled Debrief, which is about a medium summoning the ghost of their best friend, who has died just prior to the start of the LARP. While the online communication isn’t diegetic (and this could easily be played in person), the nature of the online communication has the potential to enhance the atmosphere of the LARP. Namely, it enables different lighting to reflect the characters’ status as alive or dead, reflects the “present but cannot be touched/truly reached” nature of the encounter, and enables a sudden cut off from one another conclusion to the LARP (players are instructed not to contact on another for five minutes, which I suspect is harder to do/enforce in person). I’m really looking forward to see how these elements impact gameplay.
Looking over this list, there’s a lot more variety in structure, both in broad stripes and subtle differences, in online LARPing than I originally expected. When the first online LARPs were announced, I assumed they would pretty much all be over video chat, and people wouldn’t bother with features like the text chat or breaking rooms, because of the awkwardness of switching back and forth from speech to text, and switching from one video to another. (This assumption probably was influenced by the fact that the two online LARPs I’d played so far both used a single video chat.)
Some observations I’ve made and impressions I’ve formed from my experiences LARPing online:
1. The use of video chat for LARP scenarios where the characters are not using video chat is not nearly as immersion-breaking as one might expect. What is and isn’t immersive/immersion-breaking varies a great deal from LARPer to LARPer, and isn’t necessarily intuitive. But I find that if the conversation is flowing (and the tech isn’t having any major issues), I find I can still feel fully immersed, as in Council of Oramvand and Welcome Guests.
2. The most immersion breaking element of video chatting can be the issue of participants speaking over one another, which is usually followed by a long pause and a sort of mini game of chicken where everyone waits for someone else to speak first, perhaps until someone says, “go ahead”. There are various factors making this more likely (people less able to notice one another preparing to speak, lack of directional information in where the sound is coming from, lower volume and clarity making it take an extra second to realize someone else is also speaking, etc.)
It’s fine in some scenarios, such as casual gatherings online, or perhaps even where a little awkwardness is appropriate. For example, I found it did not detract from immersion at all in Welcome Guests, even though the video was non-diegetic, because the scenario is an awkward situation with a strong undercurrent of something being off. Conversely, even though the video chat was diegetic in Evil Henchmen, Report!, I found the issue of people speaking over one another and then pausing awkwardly a little more jarring, because it didn’t suit the atmosphere of cartoonish villainy (unless its timing is comedic.)
3. Number of participants matters a lot in video chat. In person, I would say the difference between a board meeting of five people versus six people is not terribly significant, but in video chat, one more person does have a noticeable impact. If you’re having a purely video chat LARP, fewer is better. Larger numbers can work, but it’s worth considering the cost of each additional character. (Unless you’re trying to go for a bit of discombobulation and chaos, in which case, consider adding more characters just increase the confusion.)
4. Virtual backgrounds and costuming have an impact. This one is not surprising to me, but digging up a flavorful virtual background really added to Evil Henchmen, Report! and A Squadron Story. I found it also worth the time to costume a bit, even if just from the waist up. Bold statement pieces that can be read easily on low quality video help a lot. I find it also to be worth the time to set up a blank sheet behind me to enable virtual backgrounds on Zoom.
Relatedly, if you’re using primarily text on a platform that allows nicknames and/or avatar images, swapping them around to suit your character (or some facet of the LARP) also has an impact. For As We Know It, we changed our names to fake phone numbers, but I realized I could tell who some of the PCs were based on their avatars. (And not knowing who was a PC and who was an NPC is relevant in this LARP.) I also wish I’d thought to change my avatar for touch_myelf chatroom. (It goes without saying, but profile names in both text chats and over video chat screens are like nametags but better — they’re always perfectly visible!)
5. Your own environment can affect your immersion. I figured if I would be staring at the screen the whole time, my own environment wouldn’t really matter much, but I found that it did. I wished I had thought to sit in a gamer chair, or better used, moved one into a closet or other tight space with dim lights. Next time, I’ll put a little more thought into where I’m sitting, if relevant.
6. The logistics of individual players’ environment matters. Instead of a single environment that a GM can control, as in in-person LARPing, in online LARPing, each player is in their own environment. It’s a good idea to be clear and upfront about all elements of the LARP so players can plan accordingly, especially if they’re sharing their living space with others. It helps players to know in advance if they will need a very quiet environment, one they can be loud in, a very dark environment, or a well lit one. Don’t forget to include any pre-game and post-game activities, such as workshops and game wraps, in this consideration.
7. Texting is a really relaxed way to LARP. In LARPing, there’s often a little bit of awkwardness, because there’s an extra cognitive step between processing our environment and producing a response, in which we’re figuring out how our character would interpret their environment and how they would respond. Sometimes it can result in somewhat stilted speech. However in text, conversation is naturally slowed down, with longer pauses between reading a text and responding to it. Additionally, long pauses aren’t unexpected, and thus a lot less awkward, whether it’s in group chat, or one-on-one. I found I quite enjoyed the structure of touch_myelf chatroom, and that it suited the lighthearted feel of the LARP. But also, that extra time to process what others were saying and to think of a response also enhanced the serious, emotional roleplay of After Dark.
8. Message alert method matters. If you’re likely to miss a little visual indicator of a new message while playing a text LARP (say, over multiple Discord channels), turning on the sound alerts might be a good idea. Or if you’re playing in a video chat LARP and the text chat is relevant, making sure something noticeable pops up when people chat is helpful. (An alert sound might also help, but might also be an issue if the sound is carrying over to the video chat, especially if the text chat is meant to be private.)
I did notice, in both touch_myelf chatroom and As We Know It, that it was easy to get absorbed a single, one-on-one conversation and accidentally neglect the group chat and/or other one-on-one conversations. (Including OOC communications from the GM.) And if players don’t notice the little alert letting them know there’s a message waiting for them, it’s really difficult to get their attention. (And it’s hard to know if they’ve gotten a message but haven’t responded yet, or if they simply haven’t gotten it.)
9. There are a lot of ways to interact over the internet (and many ways to combine them). After Dark in particular combined video with chat in an unexpected away (and also combined diegetic with non-diegetic chat.) I’m looking forward to seeing more experiments with them!
10. Video chat etiquette reminders are helpful. A lot of etiquette involves avoiding temptations and distractions. For one of my upcoming online LARPs, the GM sent out a short list of requests, which I thought were useful to pass on. (Plus one of my own.)
a) Close non-LARP related tabs and programs on your computer. It’s a little easier to get tempted into little side activities when the GM and/or your fellow players are not right in front of you, so it’s a good idea to close unrelated browser tabs and programs before the LARP begins, and keep them closed.
b) Let your housemates know you’ll be busy, given them the hours of the LARP, and ask them not to interrupt or walk behind the camera, if possible.
c) Avoid eating during a video chat LARP — it’s more distracting to listen to and/or look at than during in an person LARP, because people can’t really choose to look away or not hear (unless you can mute your mic)
d) Try out the platform before the LARP — get familiar with functions like how to enter and leave side rooms, how to tag people in chat, how to use push-to-talk, etc. Make sure it’s working smoothly on your computer. (I’ve discovered the hard way that if I don’t enter a chat with video on, Zoom may not let me use video unless I exit and re-enter the video call.)
So what’s potentially in the future for this LARP form?
I think it’s pretty amazing how the current situation and its limitations have pushed forward development and creativity in online LARPing, and I think we’re going to see more of that, more innovation and experiments, as social distancing restrictions drag on. There’s some push-back against it (“is this really LARP?” “it’s not immersive”) but we’re also simultaneously seeing people who have never tried it before giving a chance, and I think when this pandemic is finally over, it’s not just going to fade away. (I believe that it won’t, but I also really hope that it won’t!)
As I’ve mentioned before, more opportunities to LARP with communities all over the world has been the highlight of the surge in online LARPing for me. Maybe a new, annual online event will come out of this? Online LARPing — and letter writing — might also become more integrated into more common forms of LARP, such as more fantasy campaigns hosting optional online content. I’ve been seeing players of local boffer campaigns sending one another letters in-character, which is pretty cool. I do hope I’ll get a chance to explore some letter LARPing soon.
*”Primarily” here is an important word — lots of LARPs have tabletop-like mechanics, but they tend not to be intended as the focus of the experience, but rather exist to support roleplay. It was suggested to me that one can ask, “absent of context, if someone says something that is ambiguous as to whether they are speaking as their character or if they are speaking as themselves, which is the default assumption? And which requires some sign?” I.e. if I have to preface my statement with, “my character says…” to indicate something is IC because the default is OOC, I’m probably playing a tabletop. If I have to put my hand on my head or over my character badge to indicate I’m speaking OOC because the default is IC, I’m probably LARPing.
**Lit-form is a relatively recent term that describes a genre of LARP in which the content is primarily or exclusively pre-written, i.e. it has character sheets pre-written by staff, along with other documents such as setting descriptions. (Unlike LARPs where characters are created by the players, on their own or through workshops.)