A fascinating aspect of roleplaying is the motion of going from real-world social context into the space of the game. There’s always a transit or liminal space at the beginning and end of a game, but sometimes there’s need for one or more during the game as well.
Larp is interesting compared to other many other media, because the change-over is not automatically apparent. When you open a book and start reading or plop down in the theatre seat, the media is apparent and distinct from the world around you. But larp (and roleplaying in general) is more blurry around the edges.
Being in-game is a change of both sensory input and output, you comprehend the world around you based on the shared fiction and you act according to that fiction and your character in it. This needs to happen clearly for all participants or the game suffers from disconnect and the players in the in-game stance have to work extra hard on their suspension of disbelief to remain in the fiction.
Most larps have a period before the game starts where the players prepare and start moving towards the ingame stance, changing costumes, adapting body language, etc. This often coincides with planning out the game and establishing a common trust in the player troupe. The time this process takes varies greatly from player to player and game to game, therefore a clear line is often needed to mark the change from outside the game, to inside. Even though the actual process goes on before and after the changeover. Many larps have a slow start as the participants adjust to the shared fiction and their position in it, before playing full tilt.
In general my experience in larps seem to follow the same basic structure:
The movement is slow at first, a gradual climb into the fiction, with a boost from a strong crossover. An easy break out of the fiction does little damage, and a lot of the character remains after having exited the game. The details and tempo change depending on how you work the liminal spaces, which is a powerful game design tool.
A good way of looking at the change is as a form of ritual, that moves one from one realm to another.* A clear communal action that everyone takes part in, either collectively or in their own time. I’ll look at the different rituals I’ve experienced and the form they take.
Most often games are simply kicked off by the organizers with a clear signal, such as a shouted command to play or a change in lighting or sound. A lot of games use a particular song or similar to signal the change, which sets the mood and perhaps message of the game.
Crossing a boundary
Some games have a physical limit that the players cross which signifies going ingame, it may be as simple as walking into a room or it may consist of a longer passage that contain elements to take the players into the setting.
Another classic way is to subject the players to some form of dream-journey or guided meditation, maybe along music or ambient sounds. It is a way to provide last-minute instructions or to align the emotional states of the players.
Games can have a series of excercises that prepare the players for the game to come, taking them deeper into the characters and the situation, using tools and techniques to do so.
A parallel to crossing a physical distance is to have the place of the game change as the state moves from offgame to ingame around the players. Sounds, lighting and such may be employed to do so.
A weak border, which I have none the less often encountered, is simply to be shocked ingame by meeting someone who is acting their character. This is often the case when the game is happening in a more informal way, such as an ongoing pervasive game.
Of course all of the above can be combined in various ways and there are undoubtedly many more ways of doing it, that I have yet to try.
During most games there’s a need for participants of the game to leave the fiction to act as themselves for various reasons. Either the mechanics of the game have to be dealt with player to player rather than as character, an organizer needs to be involved, two or more players need to discuss the play itself or one just wants to take a break. Leaving the game while it is running requires a clear signal to others that what you are doing and saying is not part of the fiction, while at the same time not disturbing those who are still playing. It also goes for non-participants entering the game are.
Games often have clearly defined playspaces that players can leave at any time. Being outside the boundary, the players can act as themselves for a while before possibly returning. In some games a specific area has been set aside for such, as an offgame room or a blackbox. This can sometimes be problematic if the a character is prevented from leaving in the fiction, but the player still needs to be offgame.
There are several classical ways of using non-intrusive signals to fellow players that you are now speaking as yourself. I have seen and used such techniques as putting your hand on your head, making a T with your hands or just saying “offgame”. These signals are often meant to make the character invisible and silent to the rest of the game, but it is not always clearly so. Less distracting forms of communication may also be employed to send signals outside of the fiction to other players.
A continually problematic way of doing it is by having words that immediately break with the fiction and takes everyone hearing it out of character. There’s still quite a taboo in some circles regarding it’s use, and if the word is not carefully chosen to be clearly out of place in the fictional setting it may become unclear whether it was used or not.
Without clear signals, it may happen that players with ingame and offgame stance collide which is almost always a bad experience. Signals can be either one-time or
continual, with one-time signals it is often impossible to realize that players are offgame if one happens upon them while they are so.
At the end of the game, there’s also a a boundary to cross, from the fiction to the real world. At this point most players are deeply and self-sustainingly into the game world, so the change needs to be clear and safe for all. Often the exit is not preempted by the players like the start and there’s usually a need to wind down slowly after the exit, with aftercare and mutual recognition. And the signal needs to cut through the fictional reading of the world performed by the players, the message has to be incongruous with the fictional world in such a degree that the players are not confused.
As with the game starting signal, this may take many forms. Not all games clearly outline the signal and what it means beforehand, which may lead to some confusion and bad exits. Mixing the emotions of player and character in negative ways.
Altering the setting can be a clear signal as well, like turning up the lights on the audience in a theatre or at a concert. It can be sudden or gradual, may apply to all or individuals.
Exit meditations or excercises
Ending a game may also include elements that direct the players to reflect on the experience or take certain actions to move them back into themselves. It can also be used to affirm the trust between the players and break up any negative emotions bleeding out of the game.
Leaving the fiction behind
Some games end by players being removed from the game. The actual process of leaving can be initiated by fictional systems or by player motivation depending on design. The exit can be staged in many ways and it often allows the players to make an exit scene on their own terms and possibly timing.
The ending of a game is often a precarious deal, emotions are strong and the story may still be ongoing, a wrong cut can lead to players feeling abused or deprived. Immediately afterwards most players are in a vulnerable state and often need confirmation and security from their surroundings, as well as time to collect the experience into a personal narrative. Good time for aftercare is never a wrong choice here.
Games can leave room for a denouement as part of the exit. Players often have varying degrees of need to continue telling their story or leave it open ended. Having some way of dealing with this in the exit, either giving the players opportunities to play out extra scenes or just telling the story onwards may be useful. Some may prefer to just get back to themselves as soon as possible though.
Hard or soft boundaries
Most of the changes can be seen as either hard or soft, depending on how sharp a divide they set up and how rigidly they define the states on either side. How you do it can set much of the tone of the game and the level of immersion expected of the participants.
Going softly into and out of a game will anchor it more with the world around, leaving a clear line between player and character. It allows the players to change their emotional states gradually and to adjust better to the next state of being.
A hard change will serve as a stronger kick-off of the game, sparking the play and the players into action. At the end of a game a hard exit allows for the emotions to move directly onto the players themselves, to be treated personally.
Personal or collective
Some rituals affect the entire group of participants simultaneously, while others provide an individual entry/exit. Both have strengths and weaknesses. A collective approach is often more clear and sets the game off in a stronger way, while a personal touch is perhaps more gentle and allows for extra preparation on the players behalf.
Both starts and endings of games can have scripted elements, in which the characters perform planned events. A game may start with a pre-planned event in the fiction, that gives the participants something to start playing on, rather than having to find that thing by themselves. A game may contain a signal that sets the characters on a preplotted course out of the game, with opportunities to wind their relationships down or up, make their goodbyes or create a shared ending to the story.
The liminal spaces themselves
What goes on during a transit ritual happens in a strange neither/nor state of both ingame and offgame at the same time, providing unique opportunities to impact both player and character, possibly depending on the choice of the participant. In the case of entering the game, there’s opportunities to align the feeling of the player with the desired emotions of the character and to give the players a chance to prepare for the game to come. During the game it allows the players to remain in character, but recieve external information or direction. And afterwards it is a way to communicate the message of the larp clearly and/or pull the players into themselves gradually. A couple of examples:
The death lottery
At the end of each act of Just A Little Lovin’ there was a sort of meta-scene where players took part in a drawing of names of those who were infected with HIV or died of it, followed by a funerary ritual. The thing was not part of the main fictional setting of the game, but players remained in character through it, but mostly reacting to the process around them instead of active participation. It heightened the emotional content of the game just before giving the exit signal, sending the players offgame with a strong emotional impact.
The propaganda video
System Danmarc ended by all characters being herded into a large hall, where a documentary-style video showed the real-world parallels to the game the players had just been through. With their personal experiences so close the (political) message of the video hit very hard. After the video the game was officially declared over.
The tunnel and the interrogations
KAPO utilized interesting intro and outro elements, as players entered and left continuously during the game. The intro was an inexorable trip through a sensory tunnel into the roles of prisoner, taken individually but leading to a collective ingame ritual of entry into the camp. The exits consisted of characters being called individually to a final interrogation and torture before being told that the game was over and being taken to an aftercare facility.
How the game starts and ends should be an important focus of game design, as it brackets the whole experience and leaves many opportunities for the clever organizer. It is also important to the players, to have a safe way to cross between states. A lot of game experiences can be made or broken in how they handle this. Players who feel unsafe at either end will either not contribute or have issues afterwards. So do it well and in the way that is right for your particular game.
* I’m not going into the anthropological analogies and such here, I leave that to the academics.