The skills of a larper

To follow up my angry statement (and to get away from the bleed-bashing) here’s a starting list of skills I think it’s worth persuing as a larper. Some of them might seem like common sense social skills, but not everyone starts off with those and even if you have some, you can always improve on them.

Awareness

Being aware of the other players, what they are experiencing and where they are going.

It’s both a matter of reading the subtler clues while ingame, but also having the courage to ask up front. And vice versa being comfortable speaking your mind.

It is a must-train skill for us socially awkward nerds.

Emoting

The ability to show emotions in a nuanced and clear way. Society usually wants us to hide them away, but they are essential to good larp. There’s a wide range of emotions to try out and many ways to show them.

Dramatic sense

Knowing how to structure the flow of play. Both in regards to the overall structure of the game and matching it to those around you for great synergy.

When to start with a bang and when to do a slow build. When to let others shine and when to throw yourself onto the spotlight.

Over and under-acting

Being able to portray emotions and knowing dramatic flow also important in regards to the “volume” of play. The ability to reach melodramatic heights and to subtly show the nuances.

Endowment

The ability to bring the traits of other characters actively into play. Knowing how to adjust your own status so that others feel their own more clearly, reacting to what they are playing rather than who they are.

Improvisation

Knowing how to come up with new stuff on the fly, but also knowing what is appropriate to make up and what not to do, in a accordance with the game style and setting.

The art of conflict

Learning how to fight for your goals in a non destructive way. It’s never good enough just to be a passive party, learn how to bring about a conflict that makes sense and fun for everyone.

Winning and losing

The ability to both win and lose with panache and having it improve the game. Winning and still leaving your opposition with opportunities to play on, losing and giving them the satisfaction of having beat you.

Knowing yourself

Getting a feel for your own strengths and limitations, as well as your own play preferences and how those work with others’. Knowing your borders and how to safely cross them. How to work with changing your offgame persona into another for the game.

Setting expectations

Getting to understand what is expected of you in a game and being able to communicate what you want out of a game. It’s a matter of knowing your own limitations and being able to understand what others are trying to tell you.

Focusing play

Playing towards the themes and subjects of a game. Adjusting your actions and choices to the ideas behind the game. Realizing you have a choice in what the game is about.

Directing play

Being able to take charge of a play situation, to lead it forward. Not merely imposing your own will or playing onwards, but to feel when others need you to make a move.

Reading characters

Knowing how to read a character is about both taking it literally, but also being able to read between the lines. Finding which parts are fixed and which are flexible, what you need to know and what is merely colour.

Creating characters

When faced with making up your own character, knowing what parts are going to be important to you and what parts are important to communicate to others. How to make that role fit into the vision of the game.

Getting into and out of character

Cultivating strong and safe entry and exit methods for the game. Getting quickly into character to start the game and landing back in yourself afterwards. Being able to step outside the game while it is going on and still make it back fully immersed afterwards.

I’ll do follow up post exploring each in turn, but the list is far from complete and there’s things hiding between the elements.

So, what’s missing? What else do we do that we don’t think about? What is the most basic thing you can think of as an element of roleplaying?

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Learn to larp!

We need to talk about playing. We need to stop assuming and, to quote Lizzie Stark, write a damn rulebook.

We spend an enormous amount of time, word and effort on game design, story creation, effect, logistics and studying which philosopher best describes what we do in our pasttime. We spend more time navelgazing over our offgame feelings than on the root of the matter.

We dance around the hot potato of playing roles. What the fuck are we doing? And I don’t mean philosophically or sociologically, but actual, practical discussions of the act of playing a role.

We might have a ton of tools and techniques. Jeepform and Playing With Intent have long lists of them. But all that builds on a slippery foundation of assumptions and what seems like common sense. It’s all second order tricks resting on a morass of pretending.

 

When I started larping, that common sense was that good larping came from either raw talent or years of experience from playing many, many games.

It was only much later, after meeting a ton of different playing styles, trying weird game formats and reading up on improv theater, that I was able to look on larping as a skillset where I could willfully improve myself.

I may have been slow to discover this, but noone ever expressed it to me and I still don’t hear anyone really working on it.

 

We still start out from “everyone plays pretend as kids, this is just the same.” Despite all our advances in form and content material, we’re still stuck figuring it out on our own as players.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s gotten worse. The Jeep and similar agendas of bleed, close to home imperatives and paper-thin characters is doing away with the art of playing a character and leaving us poorer for it.

It may be emotionally filling, but it leaves me creatively and expressively empty.

 

To me, roleplaying means being able to perform a wide variety of roles in any sort of context. It means being able to use your imagination and suspend disbelief. It means keeping the other participants in mind and knowing how to structure our personal stories. And a lot more.

If we don’t start taking larping as that sort of skillset seriously, we’ll end up as a poor hobby of emotion junkies typecasting each other to play ourselves in dramatized everyday events. Or are we already there?

We won’t have the same chances to change our perspectives and grow as larpers. We’ll stay unsatisfied with our fellow players and worst of all, we’ll lose the chances to bring in new players and teach them to play on our level.

 

2027

I attended the larp 2027 in Nyköping, Sweden. It was a very intense experience, because of the special relationship play I had, so this is not an objective view at the game, but more of a personal debrief.

Pre-game

I was really excited about this project from an early point, but life got in the way of me going so I didn’t think I was able to go. Until I found myself drunk as a skunk at an auction of larpy stuff, three weeks before the game, and in my stupor bought a ticket anyway.

The next couple of weeks were full of catching up and research. I don’t think I’ve ever read as much for a game as for this one: Three novels, a dozen longer or shorter articles, a couple of documentaries and of course all the game materials. I found that my swedish friend Elli was also going, with whom I had had a brutally awesome time with at Kapo. So of course we immediately got together to plot out how we could play together again in the worst way.

Even with all the reading and materials, it was still hard to figure out what the game was actually going to be like, besides two days of blackbox larping followed by two more of 1:1 360-degree playing in utopia. So we focused on our relationship as the central element of play. We built characters around a couple who can’t live with or without each other, three keywords for the play: Trust, Transition and Hope, a theme song and the goal of a happy ending in Relationship Anarchy.

Teater K: 2012 – 2026

For us the game started at Teater K in Katrineholm. A nice little blackbox theatre space where we began by developing our characters and playing scenes. There was a high number of participants who had not tried larp before, so it was a slow start. I could have wished that there’d been set half a day off to teach them the ropes, the dos and don’ts of our hobby. I think everyone would have benefitted from that. The first part of the play was gathering the groups of survivors in the southern Sweden and Denmark and taking us through the first six years of fictional time in the rise of hunger and fascism.

In the evening we were shipped off by busses to an actual farm where armed guards “kept us safe from terrorists” while we dug for portatoes in the soaking clay. It was a miserable experience, until some of us were lucky enough to go for kitchen duty inside.

Day two consisted of us trying to either start a resistance against the fascism or escaping to a better place. During the day, a group came from Mälardalen and told of their rebuilt society of sharing and participatory democracy. We all ended up with a party and shortly afterwards began the trip up to utopia.

My story with Elli started with some awkward courting, but as the situation got worse we were driven apart by her will to fight and my growing pacifism. At the party we ended up together again, having ars amandi while crying in a corner.

The play at Teater K gave some powerful experiences of the horrors in a failing society and built a special sense of community among us who had taken part of it.

Magasinet: 2027

In the evening we started the drive down to the community centre Magasinet in Nyköping, where the main larp was held. We were ingame in the cars and talked of our hopes and dreams as we came closer to finally being safe.

The arrival to the learning unit was overwhelming and scary. So many new, happy faces. A complete contrast to what we’d just been through. Too much of a contrast for some of us, but we were saved by some earlier arrivals who sneaked us away from the crowds and helped us make a safe nest, where we snuggled up the first night.

The next day we all fast forwarded 3 months, to where ever our stories would reach dramatic high points: For Elli and me that meant that she had taken two trips down south and bad stuff had happened. We’d both been with others and had drifted quite far apart.

We took this to the blackbox, where we first talked about the infidelity being a non-issue in the face of bigger stories. Especially that Elli’s character had possibly killed someone. We had a nasty fight in the box, using lines from our song and then headed back into the game.

We had some false starts, beautiful words turning ugly and trouble making it back together after that. Failing to talk until we sat in a support group, where all the emotions came out and the communication started again, amids many tears. And later that night we had very emotional make-up ars amandi.

The next day we once again fast forwarded, this time a full year and with the instruction to get our characters to their happy utopias. For us that meant accepting the weaknesses of the other, lending strength no matter what. And living on an anarchist farm slash recycling centre with other refugees from the south. The last couple of hours of play was a happy time, ending with walking in silence up the hill where we listening to songs and stories. And lighting paper lanterns that flew away in the starry night sky.

Themes

The main explorations of the game was to create a utopian society based on permaculture and participatory economics. To have a game where conflicts were resolved in positive and peaceful ways. It was very hard to get into that mental space after the first two days being so full of suffering and disagreements, coming to a place of happy ignorance as refugees and veterans of horrible resistance fighting. It was hard to bridge relationships to the characters already established at the place, it became very us-and-them despite trying to take part.

It did give me some interesting new perspectives on how it could be like for real life refugees, how hard it can be to accept other people being happy and why integration seems impossible to achieve.

I felt that the game lacked a concrete presence of the participatory, other than as pure culture. I’d have loved if there were practical elements that showed off the nature of a parecon and a direct need to utilize sustainable designs, but unfortunately it was kept purely theoretical.

Our initial conflict over turning a monogamous relationship into a polyamorous one sort of drifted into obscurity, neither of us really felt the conflict was appropriate to bring in at Teater K and when we got to Magasinet, we just discovered it to be a non-issue compared to bigger differences.

And I should also mention Elli and I having larphacked in a ton of our own relationship drama play, which took up most of our attention with powerful emotions and conflicts. Not trusting the one you truly love is a consuming situation.

Game design

I was excited to try how the game would work out in regards to starting off with two days of fast-forward blackbox play before going into the main fiction. In previous games with pre-game workshops, it always felt too rushed to create concrete background scenes. Here there was almost time enough to make the past a real thing. Playing out the scenes created some very lasting bonds and memories with the other characters. I remember sitting at the support group and thinking that these aren’t people pretending to be traumatized. It felt more like talking of actual traumatic events, even if we made them up together.

Elli and I used the blackbox time to explore the limits of our relationship and create baggage that we brought with us into the main game. We saved the heavy conflicts for when we had time to play on them, and made an effort to build them up before that instead.

Two players, one character

During the game we came to realize how our characters were intertwined, it was obvious that they primarily existed as their relationship. Drama, differences and conflicts were only really there if it was between them, rather than internal to one or external to both. We went back and forth between very close and distanced a couple of times during play, as we drove each other away and found our ways back.

Our theme song, Schism by Tool, has some powerful lyrics about breakups and the emotions you go through. We used them extensively in the blackbox and in the game itself. It brought a special weight to the words that made fights uglier, but also gave us something special together.

We were also quite physical, lots of holding hands and sitting close when together, we made a lot of use of ars amandi and an analogous technique of touching the other’s cheek to symbolize kissing. It was an intense experience to be that close.

It seemed that others also related to us in that way, those that knew us seemed much more at ease if we were happily together. And if we were alone and looking uncomfortable, the first concern from friends was always for the other. It was very much like being a couple.

I didn’t really feel that I got to the core of 2027 as intended, but the game provided a frame for one of the most intense experiences I have had as a larper. It was something I couldn’t have done without full trust of my co-player and the techniques of play. I absolutely love the swedish meta-techniques we used and it gives a very strong edge to any game, designed for it or not. Larp lets me break my heart and have it feel awesome.

I’m not entirely sure where this is going, so bear with me. Inspired by the american presence at Solmukohta, some thoughts have been brewing:

I have two great loves in roleplay, one is dramatic nordic larp (which should be obvious from this blog), the other is story games. Story games are compact, focused tabletop rpgs that frame collaborative storytelling grown in indie game community in the eastern US. It is also here, that roleplaying theory as we know it started. The community of indie game creators made the original threeway model and many other observations on our hobby. Since then, the studies have diverged and met other intersecting areas of study.

Larp theory has taken a decidedly academic and phenomenological route. We’ve had a great crowd from nearly all fields of the humanities to study us and what we do. We’ve gotten very good at the personal experience.

The indie gamers have likewise been shaped by their form, they strive to perfect the art of the collaborative story. Using traditional roleplaying forms such as dice, cards, pen and paper, expressed mainly through mechanics, they have made some wonderful, sharp games and even sharper observations on the nature of emergent stories and the play that shapes them.

The two traditions have both shaped the nordic freeform traditionas, like Fastaval. Games at Fastaval contain elements of both the collaborative storygaming mechanics and the personal experiences of larp. It has become a very refined hybrid form of roleplaying that yield powerful experiences. Lately, it has also served as a wonderful meeting point for the two traditions, we’ve managed to lure several american guests in and getting them to Knudepunkt, alongside the nordic larpers.

I’m pretty stoked about this cross-polination, I believe we as norpers have much to teach other roleplaying traditions and that we can learn even more from them. But there are some issues with culture that are in the way. The way we play is based on a lot of unexpressed assumptions and expectations. These are nearly impossible to convey outside of actual play and the way we design our games always build on top of them. It’s become very clear to me, through my collection of storygames. I have nearly a hundred of them, but I only had three of them run smoothly as intended, with very open-minded, but danish roleplayers. The rest either fail as games or require active change in the mindset of the players.

We should be mindful of the differences, so we can learn both to design for different audiences and be able to play outside of our home turf. I believe the way we play our games says a lot of how we are as people, both individually and collectively. Once we get past the little stumbling blocks, we can find out just how much we share and reap the benefits from the other traditions.

I’m going to contrast and compare the design and play of nordic larp and american storygames, with the ultimate goal of bringing some of the story magic to larp and perhaps build on the bridge we’re establishing.

Comparisons

I will look at the differences between two kinds of roleplaying: Nordic freeform and american tabletop indie games.

It might seem odd, to compare two such different strains of gaming. But:

1. They are the two most extensively theorized styles of roleplay.

2. I have personal experience with both styles, both first and second hand.

3. The US visitors to Fastaval and Solmukohta come in part from the indie game community.

And a lot of it is not really that different, roleplaying in all forms have several elements in common across the globe.

Be warned: I’m going to make some broad, sweeping assumptions and leave out nuances to clear the picture.

Nordic freeform

Nordic freeform is a tricky thing to pin down exactly, it’s a many-headed crossbreed of roleplaying forms that have evolved quite a bit over time, incorporating many elements from other gaming and media.

The freeform games straddle both tabletop and larp, many games are playable as both.

The tradition has a minimalist approach to many things, as few interruptions as possible to the flow of the game. Game mechanics are very light if they are even used and the structures of play are mostly in regards to framing scenes. Many games try to remove as much of the character-player barrier as possible. The gamemaster is often given very few extra powers over the game, serving more as a keeper of process and director for the players. Every game is played as a single instance, between two and six hours of play.

A central pillar is immersion into character, which also leads to a penchant for realism and “close to home” subject matter. An interesting contrast is that it also has a very literary angle, stories with deep meaning and poetic tones. This also appears through pre-written characters and the fact that games are usually written down as instructions to be run by others. Play is almost always in the first-person perspective, stepping outside of character to narrate is used as little as possible.

Most of the content of games are expressed through direct social interactions of characters, with action or setting as a backdrop to drive the character interactions.

The goal of the games are to experience a moving story through collaborative play. Personal tragedy is a common trait in the games, dealing with and experiencing deep issues is popular among the players. Collaboration is a key element, winning a game is nearly unheard of and losing conflicts is often a more desirable outcome for the players. Characters are almost never directly opposed either, their interactions that fuelt the game are based on self-interest and drama.

Many decisions in game are made by consensus, the best idea for an outcome is carried forward. Or it is pre-established in the game materials what the outcome will be and the players perform it to conclusion. Play is for the experience of the story, not the making of it. It is telling that the creators of the games are attributed as “authors.”

Indie games

Indie gaming comes from a desire to fix the broken parts of traditional table top gaming. Removing or changing counter-productive elements of game design, but not going completely over to rules-free play. It lead to a serious study of our creative agendas when we play games, and how to work that in the design of the games.

A large swath of indie games spring from one creative agenda, the desire to be part of creating an emergent story. Narrativism, as it is called, is about establishing an initial situation and characters, then letting a satisfying narrative emerge naturally from that starting point.

The subject matter of indie games span a wide region of genres and inspirations, from comedy to serious issues. Media-wise, a lot of the games draw from film and television, either as direct subject matter or through tropes and formats. Each game has a narrowly defined focus, the setting and subject matter is outlined beforehand, but the details and story are emergent in play itself.

Indie games are written to be replayable. While tightly focused, they allow for variety in characters, details, content of story and outcomes. The games usually contain procedures for creating your own characters, rather than use prewritten ones. Characters consist of mechanics, personal issues and motivations that put them at odds with each other or the world around them. Some games are written for a single run, while others are made for shorter or longer term campaign play.

They work as procedures of play, a tightly designed set of instructions for interactions at the table and how game mechanics influence the construction of fiction. Games are usually very well worked out, with several playtests leading to a finished product being sold to gamers.

They rely on random elements (such as dice or playing cards) to help shape the stories, so that no two runs are alike. Many games use the random elements to add unexpected or complicating factors to the narration.

The random mechanics have final authority over the direction of the narrative. Either dictating an outcome or deciding between alternatives proposed beforehand by the players.

Play supports both the first and third person perspectives, but is heavy in narration of events so outside perspective is common in either case.

Play requires proactive participants, the players are expected to drive their characters both in the fiction and in engaging the mechanics. The two are seen as equally necessary elements of roleplaying games.

Likewise the fictions and mechanics are geared towards direct action. Games tend to either only have mechanical contributions to physical actions or transform arguments and social conflicts to a mechanical process.

The games are driven by conflict, either between players or players versus the game. Most rely on having a gamemaster creating opposition to the players or creating characters in direct opposition.

Commonalities

What we have are two traditions of gaming that have both grown as a subset of a larger gaming community. Both come from a time when neither traditional rules-heavy or system-free games scratched the itch, so in both cases a minimalist creative agenda surfaced. The games are limited in scope and length, each is a focused portrayal of situation. Any superfluous elements have been cut away, to give as clear an experience as possible.

In both areas the games are meant for adults, they can and do deal with serious issues, they aren’t just for a fun adventurous romp any longer. (But in both cases there’s room for that sort of story as well.) Characters are usually flawed and human.

Differences

Part of the difference is the focus of game developments. Both sides work with strongly structured styles, but freeform is more about structured play, where indie is about structuring the game. The performance aspects has lead to freeform creating a wealth of tools about directing players and layering interactions. Indie games on the other hand have perfected creating balanced and constructive game mechanics for creating action. While the designed structures of freeform games may seem looser than the hard mechanical imperatives of indie, they are in many ways more overt. Player input in freeform is usually limited to character play and possibly scene setting, while indie games allow players to create setting, situation, characters and story to a very wide extent.

A lot of the variations in the two gaming traditions are expressions of some fundamental differences in the way the players act in the game:

The nordics have a basic approach to gaming that is very democratic and inclusive. The game becomes a collective endeavour, we play it together, Even when we are playing against each other, I oppose you in order for you to have a good experience, not because I wish to win or even have a conflict.

The very core experience of nordic roleplaying is to be part of an emotional experience.

In contrast the american way is far more proactive and individualistic. You play the game to win at all times, even when you know it’s impossible to do so.* We may play a friendly game together, but I’m going into it for my own character first. And it’s not a win unless losing means something to someone.

The heart of the games is to create a moving story of actions and consequences.

Consequences 

Due to these differences it can be anywhere from challenging to downright impossible to take a game from one tradition and play it in the other. While the subject matter may be of exactly the same interest to players from both groups and the instructions perfectly understandable, it still leads to a failure of the game due to the default stance of each group. A nordic group may have a swell time of playing an indie game, but leave out the mechanics, since they don’t seem to contribute. Or americans may enjoy playing a freeform but never feel the story move anywhere since the game doesn’t contain a system for bringing it forwared.

The parts that each group finds interesting and / or challenging is also an area where the games differ, a game may simply not satisfy the other group. A few games have managed to bridge the gap and appeal to both groups, but that is mainly the result of very simple designs that can engage either style, but probably not at the same time.

Having strong traditions that independently search out the potentials of roleplaying gives us several very well developed ways of gaming, that satisfy various tastes and creative agendas. Having broad creative millieus let’s us see past the details of single games and say something meaningful on the players and creators.

I think we need to become more conscious of the things we assume implicitly about roleplaying, things that are such deep social structures that we don’t see them. Atleast not until they crash into another set of structural assumptions. It’s good to discover what and how other gaming cultures play, what entertains them and how they go about it. It makes us better at looking at ourselves and gives us a chance to find and possibly work with some of the unconscious assumptions in gaming and other parts of life. If we do so, we might be able to create games that bridge cultures and lets us play with people we wouldn’t otherwise be able to relate to.

Thanks to Emily Care Boss and Epidiah Ravachol for looking at this from the other side of the pond and sharing it with me.

* An interesting sidenote is that I have observed plenty of danish roleplayers take this exact stance when playing boardgames. But it seems to dissappear as soon as play changes to roleplaying.