Fictional Positioning and larp

Warning: This post is heavy on tabletop theory, read at your own peril.

Vincent Baker is running a series of posts on fictional positioning. This is an interesting term to explore, to take from a tabletop perspective to that of larp. What does it mean though? Vincent has this definition:

“A player’s position is the total set of all of the legitimate gameplay options available to her at this moment of play. Positioning refers to the various factors and processes, including in-fiction, cue-mediated, and interpersonal, that determine a player’s position.

[…] if you consider only GMed, one-player-one-character, mechanically-representing games.

Position is where you are right now in the game fiction and thus where you are able to go from there. What makes it a lot more interesting than comparative real world position is that the fiction is never completely defined and thus part of your potential moves are also the options of adding new details to the world.

Positioning is all the factors and processes that determine position as stated above, which also includes what you are reasonably able to add to or determine in the fiction. Now here’s where it starts to break off for larp. In his clauses, Vincent has left out some of the main differences between tabletop and larp: In tabletop you have one coherent fiction maintained by all participants simultaneously, under the auspices of a gamemaster.* And you are allowed to break that shared fiction to object to new content, much of tabletop gaming happens as offgame negotiation. In larp you lack the centralized fiction, you start out with a single set of instructions, but as soon as, if not before, the game starts it splinters out into a field of individual experiences. And there’s a much stronger imperative to stay ingame, thus removing the easy objection option as a player.

Another good point Vincent makes is about the legitimacy of any act of positioning, that it has to become accepted by all participants in the game to be actualized. Which again becomes a problem in regards to larp, as it is impossible to check if any individual positioning is accepted by all. Instead it is only those exposed to the new position that have any say in the matter.

Still, larp works and we usually end up with a coherent end result, even though all players have their own personal fictional spaces, that might even be contradictory at points. So how does that come about?

It’s a matter of social cues and feedback that define it, communicated inside the game but with offgame intent. The players responding to a change in position are doing so based on their own percieved position and their judgement on the authority of the one making the statement, each new positioning and response to that is part of an ongoing negotiation on the shaped of the fictions of all involved players.

Authority

The degree of change in position a player will allow another to define is based on several factors, most of them analogous to how we judge any statement made by others. Ie. How respected is this person’s statements in general to me and others and do I trust them?

It also includes whether or not the character of the player has sufficient knowledge to make such statements. Does the statement fall into an area of expertise or power that the character would reasonably be expected to have? Does this player follow the established conventions of the game?

And finally, does this statement improve my own fiction or detract from it? Is this something I would want to play on from here, or is it either destructive to my play or just uninteresting?

Response

For me the real meat of the matter is how we respond to new positions, the responses in the ongoing dialogue of how the fiction is. It goes on two axes:  Affirmation and integration

Affirmation is about how much the responding party confirms the original idea, it is very similar to the way responses in improvisational theatre works. The big difference being that in improv the ideal is to always aim high on the affirmation end, while in larp protecting the fiction becomes the endgoal. So to use the language of improv:

* Yes, and… is a high level of agreement, plus the responding party building further on the idea.

* Yes, but… is an agreement with an option to renegotiate the postion.

* No, but… is a denial, but again with a chance to renegotiate.

* No, and… is making an entirely new suggestion to replace the original.

Ignoring the suggestion outright is most like a worst case scenario, in which the responding player simply cannot find a way to integrate the new fictional elements into their own landscape and prefers not to go any further in that direction.

In general, players will usually agree more, since denying a new position hurts the fiction right here, right now. If the consequence of letting a new position slip is less than that of invoking a denial, it usually gets to stand.

Integration is how much other players bring the elements of the new position further. Again ignoring the suggestion is bad, downplaying it is slightly better, using it in the current exchange is good, carrying it onwards for their own play is better still and finally spreading it so others will also integrate it is the best result. Not all new positions are interesting to all players, so it’s also about how much of an impact the new position has. Small or personal changes just don’t spread as far as world shattering revelations.

The two axis are usually aligned, but still independent. I can attempt to deny or ignore a position, but end up integrating it anyway, if it turns out to be consensus. Likewise, I can agree to and build upon an idea, without really integrating it. But most often the two are aligned.

Fictional cover

All this of course goes on under the surface of the actual play, further complicating matters. How my character responds to a new thing is not always the same as how I, the player, responds. My character might loathe the idea of there being secret nude photos of him, but I love the new twist on the story. Or my character would love that there was an army poised to take over the kingdom, but as a player it sounds completely wrong to me. Add to that characters deliberately misrepresenting or lying and you have a complete mess of it.

It takes some learning to decode the nuances here, which can be confusing to new or insecure players. This is why games that utilize structured offgame areas or times often end up with a stronger, more coherent fiction, because it allows players to affirm each other and their positions directly. And create opportunities to lay out the legal positions of future play.

Conflicting fictions

A problem unique to larp is the fact that the fiction may diverge into two or more equally valid evolutions if players are isolated from each other. If for some reason you have no interactions, then you do not have a chance to confirm your position. The problems occur when the differing fictions have to re-integrate. This does not occur in all such situations, most of the time each party has been creating new elements that are outside the definitions of the other and can be seemlessly added back and forth, but sometimes differences occur. It can also happen if part of a game develop consensus to rewrite established facts. (Larphacking)

The same sort of negoation as above has to happen in any case, but on a much larger scale with much larger consquences, sometimes the new fiction has to replace established and played upon fiction. Here authority is which fiction has the larger consequences and spread in the pool of players, more than the personal authority of the person delivering it. Often you end up with hybrid compromise solutions that can sometimes take on a life of their own.

For example at a scifi larp, a player gleefully regaled our spaceship crew with how all of his bones had been replaced with metal in just half an hour. Our doctor, who had our authority over medical facts, had set a much grittier standard was then forced to conclude that it could only have happened if they instead moved his brain to a whole new vat-grown body. This put a slight horror-tinge to our further interactions, that was not part of either original fiction.

It may also not be a case of actual facts differing, as much as the tone of play. If one part of a fantasy larp is mostly playing on their fear of the monsters in the night, while another just sees the night as a chance to party, you will have to find solutions to reconcile the difference. These differences can be insidious, because they are hard to pin down and change, but cause a lot of cognitive dissonance.

In the end though, larp works surprisingly well. Most games have a clear set of expectations and cover the basic facts of the fiction well enough to allow coherent extrapolation during play. The individual fictions of the players are malleable enough to allow for a high degree of interference from others without breaking and a big part of what makes larp such an interesting experience are the surprises coming from the positioning of others. This is for me what is analogous to the mechanical random elements of tabletop, the thing that pushes play into the unknown and unexpected.

* Yes, it works without one as well, but then we move into a grey zone that muddles the picture.

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