All for One: A game using moment-based Design

Design, Essay

Author: Ian Thomas

Originally posted on Medium.com on June 26, 2019. Reproduced with permission of the author. For more of Ian’s writing on LARP and games design, go to https://medium.com/@wildwinter

Back in late 2017, Harry Harrold asked Rachel and me to help him put together the Musketeers game he’d been bullied into running. He also enlisted Bill and Kiera – who’ve always done our stunts, props, and ridiculous over-the-top moments – and we roped Dan and Damian in to help out as well. So, suddenly All for One was a Crooked House event, in association with Harry. And, as it was only just over a year away, we needed to start the design process. We like to get a head start on these things.

The design unfolded over the next year, mostly in conversations between Harry, Rachel, and myself, with occasional calls with the others. It changed direction a lot, and frankly it’s hard to remember all the variants, but here are some of the major decisions and the thinking behind them.

A List of Moments

We started with our standard approach to this sort of event: brainstorming a long list of ‘moments’ that we want the players to experience. I’ve written elsewhere about this design method; effectively we started by saying “what moments would make the players feel like they were in a Three Musketeers movie?” and writing down a long list. Things like: being in the fight in the laundry, swinging from a chandelier, brawling in the tavern, having breakfast between the lines at the siege of La Rochelle. By the time we’d finished, we’d listed several hundred of these moments, drawing from the 1970s movies and similar material in the same genre. We had a first pass to figure out what might be practical. Then we took a step back and considered the overall shape of the event.

Broad Strokes

Harry had started with an initial idea, which was to structure the event as if it were Hogwarts for Musketeers; you would start as a cadet, have lessons in swordplay and politics and etiquette, and then finally at the end you would stand before the King and take your oath as a full Musketeer at a graduation ceremony. Roughly following D’artagnan’s path – earning your place amongst the Musketeers.

This was a great starting point; it told us what the main physical setting would be (we hadn’t picked a site at this point), told us that we’d be breaking the event up into blocks of time (‘lessons’), and even better told us that we’d be breaking the cadets up into small squads – a bit like Hogwarts houses – which was interesting for a bunch of reasons.

Teaming Up

Splitting the cadets into squads would potentially give us rivalry and a sense of identity, as with the Hogwarts houses – but more importantly it gave us a small, bonded group. Which, given the movies are all about a small, bonded group, is perfect. Your best friends by your side, willing to clash swords and shout “All for One!” in unison.

This became the key decision for the game, and drastically affected how we’d design and plot out the game’s events. It was no longer a game focusing on an amorphous group of between 30 and 50 players; it was a game focusing on several small, tight-knit groups.

We decided each group of cadets should have a servant, to fill the place of Planchet from the movies. And that a group of cadets should be called a cadre. We settled on five cadres consisting of six cadets and one servant each, making thirty-five players in total; primarily because that fit with the numbers we were allowed to have at the venue we’d now settled on – a 17th Century house near Monmouth.

To Adventure!

So, an academy full of cadres of cadets, learning lessons and having rivalries. But surely that was Hogwarts, not Three Musketeers? How could we add in those elements from the movies that were on our wishlist of moments – chasing enemies across France, gambling and drinking in taverns, visiting the Queen at Versailles?

The cadets must be allowed to go and have adventures! In their separate cadres, as we wanted the cadets in those groups to have shared adventures that would strengthen their bond. We came up with two ways for this to happen:

The High Road

The first, and most obvious, answer was to adopt what we in the UK think of as ‘old-school linears’.

These were typical of University LRP club systems where so many of us started; a path through a wooded area, where a group of players would set out and have ‘encounters’ every so often along that linear path. At the start of the adventure they would typically be given a mission. Then they’d come across various groups of enemies or NPCs to talk to, some directly related to the mission, some just filler. Then eventually they’d reach the goal of the mission and achieve it (or die trying!).

Happily, our intended site had just such a wooded area within easy walking distance.

This would fit the shape of the event very well and would give us many more of our wishlist of moments – being able to send a cadre out to travel the Paris high road to intercept a message, or to pursue an enemy while fighting off the Cardinal’s Guards. It would also bring in plenty of nostalgia for the older British players, which was a nice bonus. Tom and Woody were ‘volunteered’ by Harry to run this for us.

However, it wouldn’t adequately answer our other aim – letting the cadres visit the Queen at Versailles, or wander the streets of Paris.

The Sound Stage

Since not long after we ran Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph back in 2006, I’d wanted to set up something I called a sound stage. I’d thought about it for Dick Britton 2, but we put that event on hold. The idea was that we’d take a large empty space, set up a projector as a backdrop, and then add lighting, sound, other effects, and some very simple props, allowing the players to improvise wildly with a minimalist set – something they’d done spontaneously at the first Dick Britton and something we loved.

This was an ideal fit for the Musketeers event. With a sound stage, we could transport them to the rooftops of Paris; to the middle of the English Channel in a boat; to a far-flung chapel in Scotland; to an Alpine mountain pass; to the Vatican itself!

We had several false starts on the design (I wanted to overcomplicate it with multiple projectors at one point) and several false starts on where to put the thing (“Will it fit in the garage? Could we put it in a tent?”) We eventually decided to give up a major room in our chosen venue, because we lost one room and gained (potentially) a whole universe!

Avec Fromage et Jambon

It’s probably worth pointing out here that we’d already come to the conclusion that we wouldn’t be trying to be deeply immersive with much of the event – we would deliberately be making use of the players’ suspension of disbelief, their inventiveness, and their ability to not take things too seriously and to create play for others. The setting would be cheesy, with large slices of hamminess. That didn’t mean the roles wouldn’t be taken seriously – after all, in the 70s movies, everyone is taking their roles seriously. It just meant that we would emphasise the fun to be found in being deliberately collaborative with other players. This would be play to lift rather than play to win.

It’s About Time

With the High Road established as the place for Fighting Adventures (as we couldn’t really have fighting on the sound stage) and with the Sound Stage established as the place for Exotic Adventures (on sets we couldn’t build elsewhere), the shape of the event had evolved again.

We had lessons, and amongst them we had adventures; we also had, from the very beginning, a siege sequence, and a tavern brawl. Harry was most insistent on those. So how could we make it all fit together? It made very little sense that you could spend three days at a training school and in the middle of it pop off to Paris or the Vatican and come back an hour or so later.

We started to think about time.

In Dick Britton, we adopted a framework which we called Cinedrama. The conceit was that the whole event was actually a movie, which meant we could frame it like a movie and use movie concepts and ideas. We would call “Cut!” between scenes, as (for example) the players flew from Bavaria to the Arabian Desert, and “Action” when we’d walked them over to the desert set; we asked them to ignore the brown-coated stage-hands who were shifting scenery; we would get them to trace a dotted red line across a map while travelling; and everyone played everything through the lens of over-dramatic, hammed-up acting. Which fitted our cheese and ham approach perfectly.

And All for One was intentionally trying to recreate the feel of the 1970s musketeers movies. So – Cinedrama!

(You can learn a lot more about Cinedrama here.)

This meant that we could conceivably have cuts between scenes where large time spans took place. You wouldn’t join a musketeer academy on Friday and graduate on the following Sunday – surely it would take at least a year? And that journey to Paris would take a week, at least; not to mention the journey to far-flung Scotland!

We divided play into distinct acts. During an act, time would be linear. At the end of an act, we’d call “Cut”, and update people with how much time had passed and any major events they’d know about. Then we’d start play again, with a call of “Action!” Suddenly, months had passed.

A small complication here is that we couldn’t have all the cadres having their adventures ‘between acts’ – it would have made sense from a game point of view, but logistically the scheduling for us was impossible.

A schedule that Doesn’t Work

But this is Cinedrama! Things don’t need to be filmed in order! Therefore, we fitted the ‘adventures’ into the normal academy timetable, disguising them as ‘Latrine Duty’ and ‘Guard Duty’. From the point of view of everyone in the academy, those cadres would be off on very unexciting duties for an hour. From the point of view of the cadres on the adventures, they’d be travelling hundreds of miles, perhaps over the course of several months. The gimmick was that, on returning to the academy, they couldn’t tell anyone else what had happened – because it hadn’t happened yet! After the next Act break, they’d be able to talk about it. Slightly convoluted, but worked surprisingly well in practice.

A schedule which Does Work. With some suspension of disbelief.

The Cinedrama framework was hugely helpful for both the High Road and Sound Stage as well. Being able to transport them huge distances or time spans with a simple ‘Cut’ meant the adventures became snappier, more focused, and more globe-trotting. For the sound stage in particular, we were even able to play with split-screen (simultaneous action happening on two separate bits of the stage), montages, and fast cuts back and forward between bits of action.

This cinematic conceit also meant we could put in music and sound effects and everybody would be happy to play along.

The Siege

Going back to our initial moments list, what about this siege? In the early parts of the design, we’d looked at transporting all the players off-site to an entirely separate venue where our stunt and props team had arranged a battle. In the end, we managed to fit it on to our existing site, with some clever work by the battle team, led by Kiera, Bill, and Chris.

Conceptually, the thing we wanted to nail for the siege design was for it to feel like a small group of musketeers – one cadre – was taking on hordes of enemies. But where would we get that horde of enemies? Well – how about the rest of the cadres?

So Cinedrama came to the rescue again. We would use the same piece of physical ground, but in the fiction of the game we were shooting five different parts of the siege scene from ‘different angles’. Between takes we would rearrange the battlefield. Each cadre would have their own take; their own mini-story and mission objective. And then, as they went on to the battlefield, they’d be faced by the players of the other cadres along with our supporting cast, all costumed up to be the enemy forces. Seven against fifty! After that attack was over, we’d call “Cut”, rearrange the field, and then it was time for the next cadre.

The siege became its own act within the overall story – taking back the Academy from Spanish forces!

Having a Ball

Another set-piece moment we had to have was a masked ball. Partly we wanted to watch our cadets navigate their way through a situation requiring etiquette and politics; partly we wanted to give them a chance to rub shoulders with all the major figures of the court; and partly we wanted to steal the humour and confusion from the scenes in Casanova and Shakespeare where there are multiple cases of mistaken identity. To do this we introduced a new cinematic rule. First we provided all the masks, making sure many were identical; then we introduced the rule that it was impossible for anyone to tell two people wearing the same mask apart, no matter how else they were dressed. We’ve all seen movies where the identity of the masked figure is utterly obvious, yet the rest of the cast just can’t seem to figure it out.

Faith in Cheeses

The set-piece moment that Harry had dreamed of was the tavern brawl. A scene in which each cadre would enter a tavern, have to fight with everybody inside, and during the confusion steal their dinner. We turned this over to our stunt and props team – they created foam chairs, tables, benches, and barrels for our cast to hit each other with. Their masterpiece was a foam chandelier that could be dropped on people’s heads. To all those, we added sugar-glass bottles and wine glasses, which could be smashed over combatants. Again, as with the siege, this scene would run five different times, once for each cadre; everyone having the opportunity to get stuck in! To minimise potential physical danger, we worked brawling into the lesson plan, so that by the time the cadets got to this scene they would already have had a chance to become familiar with a bit of stage fighting.

Building Story Threads

Having decided the shape of our game – the academy as a ‘hub’ with adventures taking place elsewhere; time broken down into acts; major set pieces such as the siege, the ball, the tavern, and the graduation ceremony, we now needed to look at how we would structure the story itself.

We had many, many different ideas for plots, inspired by the Musketeers movies and similar sources. We couldn’t run them all. But one single plot didn’t make much sense, as the cadres would effectively be sharing that plot between them and there wouldn’t be enough to do. It just didn’t fit our structure. But we had five cadres, so why not have five plots?

This was a fairly major turn in our design thinking. Instead of making one movie for a cast of thirty-five, we’d be making five movies, intertwined with each other, each for a cast of seven. This gave us a solid framework for how we’d try and make each cadre’s experience feel coherent and focused.

We decided to hang each story off a particular major figure from the movies. We’d already come to the conclusion that we’d set the story twenty years later, so that D’artagnan and his companions had moved on, giving the cadets a chance to be the new Musketeers. So we thought about what would have happened to the major characters in twenty years; where the interesting stories and conflicts might be. And we tried to mix things around, so that the Cardinal wasn’t necessarily the antagonist, and that the Queen wasn’t necessarily the damsel in distress.

As a result each cadre had a story focused around their interactions with one or two major supporting cast members, who represented a faction of the court; the Queen, the King, the Cardinal, the Captain of the Cardinal’s Guard, Lady De Winter and so on. While the stories did overlap, the main thrust and goal of each story was particular to a cadre. It also tied in ideas that the players had sent in about their particular cadre’s background and their individual character connections.

Juggling and Plate-Spinning

One of our hardest – and most-often revisited – tasks was to juggle the event timetable. We kept having discussions like: “Cadre Verte needs to be at the Soundstage at 2pm, but they can’t go to Paris at that point, because they have to learn about the current political climate during their 3pm lesson with Aramis! And we need Aramis on the High Road earlier in the day, so he can’t tell them then.” It was mind-numbing, and kept changing and changing again. We had the whole event timetabled before we realised that having horses and black powder weapons together at the same time would not be a good idea and had to change it. Again! Before the event Rachel painstakingly extracted all the information into sorted spreadsheets and printed them out. We never thought it’d survive contact with the event itself. And were astounded when almost everything ran exactly to schedule.

Character Generation

To create the characters – and to see what stories our players might be interested in us writing – we used our Tag System, which I’ve written about over here. Rather than submitting full characters, players submit a set of tags describing their character, which the writers then work from.

The Rules

We created a bespoke rules system based on moments from our moments list – to help us provoke the scenes we wanted to happen between the players. You can find the rules here.

For example, we wanted the cadre to have a motto, so that they would clash blades and shout their equivalent of ‘All for One!’. We worked that in as a healing mechanic – if your cadets and servants were all wounded and tired, they could clash swords, shout their motto, and be healed.

We introduced and systemised the idea of ‘Heroic Moments’ so that each player could have a moment in the limelight where they had the advantage over the opposition.

We turned the servants into the ‘healing batteries’ of the cadre, so that the cadre were utterly dependent on their servants (and would protect them). When a cadet was injured, the servant could pour them a tankard of wine and give them a good talking to, and they’d soon be on their feet again.

We added back in our language rules from Dick Britton, so that people could have the opportunity for a moment where everyone knew perfectly well what was said, but their characters didn’t.

We introduced duelling rules, so that people who were not great at sword fighting in reality could still feel like a true musketeer and win duels. And we made fighting very, very simple.

In general we tried to get the rules as out of the way as possible, with very little to remember; tried to make them so that there was plenty of room for individual improvisation; and above all tried to make them create opportunities to have those moments from our list.

Into The Pot

Into all this, we also threw:

  • Messengers turning up on horseback. Real horses in a larp game was something we’d wanted to do for years. Happily, Rachel is a vet, and trained to run a riding stable.
  • Real black-powder firing muskets, so players could actually be musketeers! Tim and Jon, who provided the muskets, also fired cannon for us across the battlefield.
  • Pyrotechnics, including hand grenades and a bomb to breach a wall, by David.
  • A superb supporting cast, some of whom taught lessons on politics, herbalism, brawling, swordplay, and dancing, and some of whom switched characters twenty times in the course of an hour.
  • A catering team, cooking banquets and buffets for all and sundry, and for one evening an improvised seven-course gourmet dinner for a small number of cast and players.
  • Background music for the high road and the sound stage, and music for the grand ball, provided (and in some cases created) by Panda, our dance instructor.
  • A working alchemical experiment to prove that one key plot item was real, and another faked.
  • Opening titles with a text-crawl, and closing titles listing the cast and crew.
  • An Iron Mask; a Holy Relic; the Stone of Scone (and the fake Stone of Scone); a Templar altar; a gravestone with a coffin buried beneath it, complete with a nun’s corpse; the Fallen Madonna avec Les Grands Melons by Van Clomp (and a forgery of same); a mortar you could hammer a spike into; a flat-pack boat; six nun’s outfits; a set of false moustaches… and all manner of other props and effects and costumes and ridiculousness.

And Finally

Like all our productions, everything here was tailored as much as possible to help us deliver those moments from our initial list. Either actual set pieces, or situations or rules which would give the players the opportunity to create or experience one of those moments. We wanted to make them feel like they were part of a Three Musketeers movie. That’s really our philosophy for all this sort of design: start with what you want the players to feel, and work back from that.

The Graduation Ceremony — Photo courtesy of Tom Garnett

Photos courtesy of Tom Garnett.

Over here, you can find Harry talking about the bits he was happiest with, including some scenes I’d forgotten about.

We couldn’t have done this without the help of a huge number of skilled and creative individuals. I’ve named some. You can find the other names in the end credits:


If you’re interested in more of this sort of thing, here’s a complete contrast — my write-up of some of the design aspects of Wing and a Prayer, a larp/simulation of the duties of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War 2. Or there’s an entire website over here about our 1950s ghost story, God Rest Ye Merry.

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Announcement

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The Death of the Auteur

academic, Essay, Opinion

 Jamie Hall is a larp designer, based in the UK. He has been writing and refereeing larp campaigns since the early 2000’s: NEXUS, Carum Live Roleplay, and more recently, Strange LRP.  He likes simple systems that generate complex outcomes.


“An auteur is a director who is considered the most important figure in the art of filmmaking, a creative person equivalent to an author of a novel or a play…[They control] all aspects of filmmaking. [The term] originated in France in the early 1950s”.

Constantine Santas (2002, p18) “Responding to Film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art” Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-8304-1580-9

The idea of the auteur is an easy one to grasp. The director of a film is usually the most important credit. The author of a novel is assumed to have created the story entirely from their own imagination. The designer of a computer game decides what can happen, and what can’t. As consumers of stories in various media, we are conditioned to accept the idea of an authority figure (often male), who has the vision and ambition to create.

In some circumstances, the creator is a true auteur: a novel without an editor or proof-reader; a play that is written, directed and performed by a single person; a film in which every process is overseen by the director. In most cases, the reality is more collaborative. For example, editors can have a significant influence on a novel, and cinematographers and sound engineers have their own artistic intuitions.

Larp is a new medium which is interactive, and collaborative. It has similarities with oral storytelling, theatre, tabletop games, computer games, and sports. All of these have uncertain outcomes, and might develop each time they are performed. This is in contrast to a novel, or a film, which has been finished, and is experienced passively.

Instead, the particpants at a larp are actively engaged in a process of self-organisation or ‘spontaneous order’, in which they simultaneously create and respond to interaction, typically acting within the parameters estalished by the organisers (eg. ‘this is a 1920’s larp’, or, ‘you are a shamanic ritualist’), but ultimately making their own decisions about where, when, and why they interact.

The larp itself is process of self-organisation, and each moment of the larp is a process of self-organisation, allowing the particants to look back on the progress of their narratives, and create or modify their plots in response.

A larp organiser might consider themselves to be an auteur, and control every aspect of the logistics, but by the nature of larp, they are not the only participant; they cannot control the actions of the players, and in particular, the memories of the players. Once the larp begins, the players will respond to what is happening around them, regardless of the intentions of the organiser.

The larp system also has a memory, albeit an unreliable one. After each event and after each interaction information is encoded; primarily in the minds of the participants, who can refer back to their previous interactions and the actions of other participants. It is unreliable because the players experience subjective narratives, and while the organiser may have a better grasp of the story it is hard or impossible to make an objective record of everything that has taken place (instead, organisers typically collect some data, eg. who has died, which rituals have been cast, whether the statue has been stolen from the temple).

No two larps are ever the same. Even if the larp is composed of the same places, people, objects, and ideas, a second run will deliver a different outcome to the first. This is because the story is not a component of the system, but an emergent property of it – something that does not exist within the design of the larp system, or the minds of the participants, and instead develops as the larp is played.

Terms such as “non-linear”, “player-led”, and “character-driven” are often used interchangeably to describe an “emergent” story, but it should be noted that the story is always emergent, even if the larp has a linear structure, if crew characters are running the show, or if the organiser plot is paramount. Each term is useful, and all of them point to a need for freedom – the end result of any larp is the combined effort of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of participants, who (consciously or unconsciously) engage in the process of self-organisation.

Stories and narratives are, by nature, retrospective. If a participant thinks about them or describes them, they are describing what has happened in the past. At a larp interactions are hard to predict, therefore, the outcomes of stories and narratives are hard to predict. The story is objective, in that things either happened or did not happen, but neither players, crew, or organisers have a truly objective view of it. Instead, they understand it subjectively, through individual narratives.

When a participant is thinking about the future, it is not story or narrative, but plot. ‘Plot’ is often discussed as if it is a voyage being marked onto a map, but in this context, it really refers to “plotting and scheming”. Organisers and players must be able to plot. That is, they must be able to conceive plans for future action, based on information about the system (ie. the setting, the rules, things that have already happened). Organisers have a rich array of tools to plot with – they can create and destroy characters, objects, and locations. Players are only able to plan for their own actions, and rely on agency to affect the actions of others.

Agency is integral to larp. It is the “self” in “self-organising”. A participant without agency is unable to affect change, and therefore cannot contribute to the emergent story. Their individual narrative is likely to consist of numerous interruptions, which will occur every time their attempted changes are ignored or over-ruled by the organisers. The larp is not judged by how ‘good’ the story is, but how many individuals ‘enjoyed’ their experience, and give a positive review. Therefore, the role of the organiser is not to create a ‘good’ story, but to facilitate ‘enjoyable’ experiences among the other participants.

To understand agency, consider a larp without it. The characters would be scripted, the outcomes would be decided by the organisers, and in-character decisions would be ignored or redacted. The players would be actors in a play – or if they were only allowed to observe the roleplay of others, then they would be the audience at a play.

Most larps have some limits on agency. By the time the larp begins, the participants will have an idea of what the larp is about, based on information provided by the organisers. This is subjective, and will vary between participants without causing problems. A participant with strongly divergent ideas can cause a crisis of agency for themselves, or others.

When designing a larp, the organisers should attempt to describe their ideas as clearly as possible, with an emphasis on the iconic aspects of the larp. For example, “Tudor nobles gather for a meeting of their secret cult”. Beyond that point, they should concede that the players have a natural agency, and further, they should make efforts to enhance that natural agency. For example, granting social status or abilities to particular characters, and validating them (“The bailiffs follow the instructions of the nobles, even if the nobles have committed a crime”, or “The cultists perform the ritual, and a demon does appear”).

The organisers do not need to validate every interaction. Instead they should concentrate on validating the areas of enhanced agency that they have described during the design phase. In this way, the players know the limits and scope of their natural agency (and receive minimal interruption from the organisers), and can rely on the organisers to support the iconic aspects of the larp, which would otherwise be beyond the grasp of the players.

As the organisers have a limited awareness of what the players are doing, they must be careful not to undermine the agency of the players by accident. That is not to say that the organisers should have no influence. Instead, it is a matter of scale. Once the larp is in progress, they should respond to the data they collect, but the response should be on the scale of the players, using characters, objects and ideas.

This can involve subverting the player’s assumptions, but it should not override their efforts. This is the critical point when considering agency – an interaction is best understood by those who participated in it, and invalidating that interaction (intentionally or accidentally) is an attack on the agency of the players.


Designing a larp is designing a system. It is not a hard system, but a soft system – one in which the active components are human participants. As explained above, it is difficult or impossible to establish centralised control of interactions within the system. A larp system does not provide reliable outcomes, and the thoughts, words, and movements of the participants are usually beyond the control of the organisers.

A larp is nonetheless a cluster of control subsystems, which define the norms and meanings of various other components. For example, a 1920’s historal setting defines the norms for costume. Rules for a fantasy larp could describe a system of elemental magic, thereby defining the meanings of certain symbols and colours.

The participants rely on this common set of norms and meanings, which are foundational, but need minimal enforcement – typically, a participant will come to a 1920’s larp because the era and the costumes appeal to them. Likewise, they will learn the magical lore because they want to play as a magician, and know the things that magicians know.

This foundation exists before the larp takes place, and serves a dual purpose, which is to provide common norms and meanings, as well as appealling to potential participants, who must be convinced to attend, and spend their money. The iconic aspects of the larp provide a ‘unique selling point’, as well as encouraging particular styles of play, and types of interaction.

The foundation could be minimal, or extensive, but it must be reliable in any case, as the participants will plan their initial interactions based on the information provided. Their initial sense of agency will be driven by their ability to assess the larp, and make plans for the future.

This initial sense of agency is important, and the start of a larp can be a moment of crisis – “I want to be a charismatic politician, but I don’t actually know who I should talk to”. Various methods are used to avoid a negative outcome, as this can persist throughout the larp. For example, written or verbal briefings, pre-larp workshops, or a planned set piece.

Once the initial crisis is over, what then? Pressure can be applied by the organisers – more briefings, more workshops, more set pieces. This is the agency of the organiser, which can be used to great effect. For the other participants, this external influence can be jarring, either interrupting their experience, or bypassing their own agency.

If autocratic control is removed, how can the initial momentum of the players develop into an emergent story? The social behaviour of humans can be relied upon to provide some interaction, even in the absence of the organisers. This social behaviour is the engine that drives all the interaction that takes place within the larp, and initial momentum (eg. “I have lots of money”, or “My wife has just been murdered”) is met with a range of responses from the other participants, whether they are moral, logical, or emotional.

In addition, the norms and meanings provided by the organiser can enhance and amplify the interaction of the participants on an ongoing basis. In the UK, this is what we usually call “setting” and “rules”, which must be designed to generate interesting roleplay, or risk hindering it instead.

For example, a positive effect might be one that encourages a strong bond between two characters, or encourages more people to debate and trade together, or encourages the resolution of a conflict, while a negative effect might come from enforced social isolation (diminished social stature, hours of solitary meditation, or feuds that never end).

Each character has a series of meanings attached to them (eg. Police officer, magician, grieving widow), and will tend to gravitate towards participants with resonant or dissonant meanings attached (eg. the police will tend to work together but oppose the mobsters, the magicians will covet each other’s grimoires, grief-stricken characters will console one another).

No two participants are ever really the same, and as the number of participants increases, the range of meanings will tend to expand. If there are two police officers, perhaps one will be honest, and one will be corrupt. If there are numerous police officers, then the meanings can exhibit greater variety (“She is taking bribes to pay for medical treatment for her dying mother, but he does it to pay off gambling debts”, or “He is a hard-working honest cop, waiting for retirement, but she is focused on promotion, and rooting out corruption).

The attempt to resolve these resonant and dissonant meanings – against a complex backdrop provided by the other participants – encourages interactions that involve morality, sacrifice, desire and all sorts of drama.

Meanings can also be attached to props (eg. an ancient ritual dagger), furniture (“Only the Queen may sit upon the throne”), and the site itself (“This room is the bar”, or “All rituals must be performed in that glade”). These inanimate entities cannot process meanings themselves, but the participants can make use of them to achieve resolution (“Priests search the woodland, and interrupt the ritual”, or “My ancestral sword has been stolen!”). Documents are a particularly effective tool, as they can provide detailed meanings, and encourage discussion and argument. For example, a scroll that describes a demonic ritual will offend some by its mere existence, some will wish to study it, while others will desire to perform the ritual. As it explicitly invokes a specific control sub-system, it can encourage and validate interaction at the same time, with minimal interruption by the organisers.

Ideas are the intangible cousins of inanimate objects. They only exist in the minds of the participants, but they are nonetheless a powerful force. A rumour, whether introduced by the organisers or the other participants, can spread like a virus. If a secret exists, then there is roleplay to be had from learning it, keeping it, sharing it, or being oblivious to it.

Though ideas are intangible, they are the driving force that binds the participants, props, and site together. The setting of a larp might be epic (“Vast empires wage war with dragons”), or intimate (“The family have dinner together, and discuss whether to move house”), but it will in any case be a tangle of resonant and dissonant meanings.

The resulting stories are complex, and collaborative, but they happen at a very human scale, utilising bodies and minds, objects and places, They are stories that evolve, just as the history of the world evolves – as an emergent property of countless simple actions, and without the controlling hand of a single creator.

Larp is uniquely able to tell these kinds of complex and collaborative stories as the product of diverse participants, creating a story through action and reaction, instead of intention. As creative agents (whether organisers, crew, or players) we should abandon our preconceptions of control, embrace the emergent story, and celebrate the death of the auteur.

Is LARP culture? Seeing LARP as Cultural Capital

academic, Community, Essay

by Dr Jenny Barrett

Jenny has played and volunteered in three roleplay systems since 2001, from a cop to a queen to a goblin. She regularly admits that it’s the dressing-up that she loves and always manages to forget the rules.

Who am I to talk about LARP and Cultural Capital?

My personal perspective on LARP as a cultural experience is informed both by my professional background (I am an academic working in the humanities), and my own background. To give you a picture, I finished my PhD around 17 years ago, and I’m now a Reader in Film and Popular Culture. Before I entered academic life, I worked mainly in the charitable sector. I enjoy working with ideas as well as people, I’m a creative writer myself, and I love stories both personally and professionally. I also come from what I suppose would be described as a religious background, growing up in a close spiritual community, and although my worldview has changed substantially since my childhood, I continue to hold certain values dear, particularly about accepting others, encouraging fairness and equal participation. So, adding to this my professional perspective, I’m convinced that LARP is another close community where we can find elements that could be described as ‘cultural capital.’

I got into LARPing many years ago with my partner, and as soon as I heard about the way LARP works, that it engages this passion for stories, I was hooked.  The idea that you can not only read, but be another character and wear different costumes to be who you are not, or perhaps who you could be – that just drew me in. 

I’ve found many LARPers, like me, are great lovers of stories. Stories can tell us something about the lives we are living, no matter how fantastical or implausible the tale. Quite often the truth in those stories, however, is biased towards a particular ideology or worldview. As LARP is another way of engaging with stories and storytelling, I think we can learn a lot by applying some critical distance to these stories we live out in LARP events.

What is Cultural Capital?

Anyone else out there with a humanities background will know that many of our perspectives on how societies work has a debt to the writings of Karl Marx. Marx wrote about and encouraged us to become aware of ‘capital’ as a concept representing (economic) assets in private ownership and a means of exchange. This concept offers a way of understanding our social structure and highlights there are a set of relations between ownership, power and control in the production of goods and wealth. Cultural Capital, an extension of Marx’s idea, is a concept attributed to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who extended this idea to consider things that were not material assets. Instead social and cultural capital are noneconomic characteristics. They are symbolic or embodied assets that someone may benefit from ‘owning’. Cultural capital may include things like our language or power over language, our education, lifestyle or habits; to name only a few. It includes the type of art, music or pastimes we enjoy and, importantly, how those things are regarded by others. And this capital is produced and reproduced socially within groups of people who tend to identify together – a family, a community, a nation and so forth.

Economic and cultural capital are often related. Those who have a lot of economic capital (mainly in the form of wealth), often also have certain cultural activities that they value or hold dear. These ‘tastes’ are often dictated by the social ‘class’ with the most advantage, identifying what is deemed to be valuable in the arts or culture. This creates divisions between ‘high’ arts and ‘low’ arts, or ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture.

This hierarchy occurs across a society, but cultural capital is also distinct and identifiable within social sub-groups, such as the Punk movement in the 1970s or other underground music scenes that have helped to define a generation’s identity in contrast to the mainstream. These groups can resist the dictation of ‘tasteful’ art from the majority by performance and display of radically different forms of ‘taste’. In doing so, these displays emphasise a shared identity and shared values, establishing a shared community. 

Economic, social and cultural capital intersect, so people can climb the social ladder more quickly if they have economic capital. They can buy tickets to exclusive events for celebrities, for example. But cultural capital can also affect social position, where performers in the arts or highly educated individuals might also gain prestige and invitations to such events without having the wealth to access them otherwise. 

Is LARP ‘tasteful’ art or culture?

So, in the UK context, in the context of my experience, LARP is often regarded as ‘low’ culture or even a counterculture. In some ways it also resembles popular culture in recent years, as it increasingly draws on movies, books and other cultural influences which, along with other ‘geek’ material, have become more mainstream. Many of us will be aware that J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels have influenced fantasy genre LARPs, but the release of The Lord of the Rings movies and associated paraphernalia have made it even more broadly popular. Likewise, the Harry Potter movies introduced an entire generation to the ‘glamour’ of being witches and wizards. Nonetheless, in the cultural hierarchy of UK arts, LARP would be rated quite low.

For those of us for whom this is our favourite hobby, perhaps as players, perhaps as volunteers, writers, referees, caterers and more, LARP is our cultural capital along with its multifarious cultural and literary influences. We accept each other’s passion for LARP whereas others, those who don’t value it culturally, would not admire it.

“Yes, I’m a nerd. I do live-action roleplay and I don’t care who knows it!”

There is a common identity people claim in UK LARP culture, many openly putting up their hands and proudly admitting to be nerds. This acknowledgement challenges social norms and highlights the position of LARP at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy. 

As a ‘low’ form of culture or art, UK LARP does not fit the category of ‘tasteful’ leisure or valuable cultural activity. But it’s interesting to explore how this might be changing and how. Developments of closely related cultural leisure activities in popular culture which focus on experiential products (such as escape rooms, Secret Cinema and the like) show an increasing monetisation of similar cultural products. This bringing together of economic and cultural capital may impact UK LARP and ensure it remains ‘poor taste’, or in contrast, the merging of new virtual games with professional theatrical experiences enjoyed by ‘the great and the good’ may elevate the hobby.

How does this concept help us think about how we LARP?

Imagine a new player, one who has enjoyed fantasy computer games and stories for years. Their first experience of LARP may be when they arrive and discover that the other people involved are familiar with and value the same stories and have the same cultural touchstones as they do. This gives a sudden feeling of acceptance, especially where these stories and activities have been devalued or disrespected by others.

Over time, you play the game, you come along, you get to know people. As you do, symbols and different elements of the game become apparent as they learn the things that are held in higher esteem than others. This manifests in a valuing of different ‘play styles’, such as a character-orientation or a gamist-orientation. Even within the LARP community, then, there are different kinds of cultural capital, and that capital is incredibly varied.

Examples of the type of cultural capital LARPers might utilise in the field include; knowledge of folklore or historical storytelling traditions, storytelling skills such as imagination or public speaking, theatrical skills in delivery and performance, ecological knowledge or outdoor skills, imagination and creativity – as well as experience and skills in costuming, prop-making, bodypainting, combat or martial arts, to name only a few. 

Now LARP is not a cheap hobby. You could get by with one sword, a good pair of boots and something waterproof which could be enough for years of play. But there is a culture of wanting more that it’s easy to get caught up in, and this requires economic capital to spend. So you end up with a new social hierarchy, where some people have incredible costumes, custom-made masks and armour costing hundreds of pounds which is valued highly. And it’s a challenge to be critical or wary of this, which mirrors an almost ‘pay to win’ ethical concern about the status these players are given. One way of being wary of this is by instead valuing the use of personal creativity in costuming and doing more to recognise the makers of costumes than their wearers. To have a cool costume is great, but to make a cool costume is also impressive.

In the LARP field there are many social hierarchies. In bald terms, I suppose, we can see these as chains of popularity and they may be linked to the display of economic capital as much as being charismatic or having an intricate understanding of the rules. None of these are inherently bad of course but, I confess, I often find myself gravitating to the newer players, where the thrill of entering such an exciting world is still vivid and the social hierarchies are yet to impact on their game. LARP forms an amazing community, because we come together with a shared passion for storytelling, playing and enjoying those stories for lots of different personal reasons. But I feel it’s good to acknowledge that it’s not always the perfect inclusive community we might imagine or remember it to be. There is a need to work hard to ensure the welcome often expressed to new players is continued and extended to fellow participants throughout their experience. None of us want to re-live the experience of being the child who doesn’t get chosen to join in team sports – whether that is through skill, popularity, or having the ‘right’ equipment. Roleplaying is a community game and maybe we will all find it enriching to recognise that we have a shared responsibility to make sure that game can involve everyone who wants to play.

Photo credit: Kren Cooper

William Monkey LARP

Design, Essay

Harry Harold

This article first appeared on larpx.com on January 24th 2019. Republished with permission from the author.

The first run of Wing And A Prayer was 21-23 September 2018. 30 WAAF characters ran a Sector Control room: handling incoming radar and observations, and ordering RAF squadrons out to intercept enemy raids. The job was theirs, the responsibility was theirs, the decisions were theirs. 15 RAF players represented the pilots of those squadrons, and roleplayed out the actions they were placed in by those decisions, our simulation software and a random element.

It was held at Stow Maries aerodrome. Historically, Stow Maries saw action in WW1, not WW2. Our alternate story saw it pressed into service as a temporary Sector Control and home for a rag-tag and bob-tail of aircraft escaped from a set of German raids which the real RAF of the time saw off and survived.

“William Monkey” was the name of the grid square which contained the station. The WAAF players who worked the Ops table won’t forget that name.

Image Tom Garnett and used with permission

A Nordic LARP

We aimed to make Wing And A Prayer an immersive experience. We weren’t entirely concerned with historical accuracy; our costume requirements put some players off, but I’m pretty confident chair-bound players would have got as much from the event as any other. However, the RAF Station we wanted was represented by a genuine aerodrome, the temporary Sector Control room was represented by temporary use of a period building. We did OK.

The writing process and playing style of Wing and a Prayer was collaborative. I’ll talk about how we did it in more detail later, but character creation was very much led by the players, whose choices defined the story elements we introduced. I’m not going to spoil in this post, but… Once player wished to “explore the careless attitude some men have to women”. We were lucky enough to be able to ask a friend with a four month old baby to represent the impact of such an attitude, and to call it out. It was quite a scene. 

Wing And A Prayer was designed to make a statement. Not simply by its explicit focus on the experiences of women in wartime – but also by recognising during and after the game the human impact of the war on people of both sides. 

Wing and a Prayer was – essentially – a Nordic larp.

The most emotionally involving game I have ever played.

MATHIEU HEDLEY-KAYE, PUBLIC WITH PERMISSION

Image Tom Garnett and used with permission: Some observations on the image here.

A UK lrp

That said – Wing and a Prayer was held together by a structure imposed on the characters. Players could and did leave to take a breath in an OOC space where we cared for them, and the pressure they were under, but this didn’t stop us from putting their characters under intense stress all day.

Wing And A Prayer was backed by a simulation. (Written by a nice man called Thorsten, as it happens.) An implacable foe, who could not be bargained with, or reasoned with, in game, who simply responded coldly to player action. We changed the plan we had coded before the day on only one occasion, when we realised we had the difficulty level inaccurately placed at one specific time to reflect our desire for the day to have dramatic ebbs and flows.

Wing and a Prayer was – essentially – a UK lrp.

Scary – because I’ve never played UK style before and there was so much to keep track of

Exhausting – because UK style keeps you on your toes. It is expected of you, that you actually work and try to be tactical 

EVA HELENE ANTONSEN, PUBLIC WITH PERMISSION

Image Tom Garnett and used with permission

An ambitious larp…

What Wing and a Prayer was, in actuality, was a hybrid of the two traditions. Most of the team had recently been to continental lrp events and conferences, essentially going through their pockets and nicking their meta-techniques.

Unquestionably, I experienced Wing And A Prayer on deeply emotional level. I specifically recall looking at the first outline characters we received, and thinking “These are wonderful women. They are intelligent, strong, and determined to do their bit. And we are going to do our level best to break them.” 

It’s the first larp event which I can remember making me cry. On three occasions, one of which was before the actual event. (No, no details. No spoilers.) 

I am immeasurably proud of it.

“Basically, we hooked a Nordic-style angst generator up to a UK-style simulation engine, and fired it up to see what’d happen. And what happened was – people cried.”

NICK BRADBEER, PUBLIC WITH PERMISSION

Image Tom Garnett and used with permission

Like any larp, Wing And A Prayer was the sum of the efforts and creativity of all of its players, crew and organisers. Those organisers were Nick Bradbeer, Lauren Owen, Liss Macklin, Thorsten Schillo, Ian Thomas and myself. The original concept was Lauren’s. For Wing And A Prayer, we called ourselves Allied Games, and you can expect more from us to come.

How we did it.

We certainly felt Wing and a Prayer was an ambitious larp. There was a chunk of tech in play, and despite the testing and dummy runs we didn’t *know* it would work. It did. 

A bit of writing process now. This was not as much “standing on the shoulders of giants” as explicitly using a development of the techniques Ian Thomas – now of Talespinners and Crooked House has been developing for years.

Character generation

Character generation started with a form players filled in. For exach of their characters, we wanted to know:

  • Name
  • Role on Base
  • Character Concept
  • What three words describe your character?
  • What is your character’s greatest regret?
  • What is your character’s greatest fear?
  • What is your character’s greatest ambition?

(NB: Improvements to remember: 

“Role on Base” – use actual roles. We know them now. 

“Character Concept” – give a word length, and some guidance as to what’s useful to us at this stage. 

“What three words describe your character?” unsurprisingly got descriptions of the character; what we were aiming for was something like “How will your character become a cause of drama?” That’s not right, but it’s probably closer.)

Writing

Writing started with Moments and Tags

The team watched a lot of films and TV shows, and read a lot of Wikipedia pages and came up with a list of moments we’d liked to have seen happen in the game. Our “plot document” was called “Moments” right the way through writing.

We distilled a list of Tags to describe plotlines from the “three words” we’d received, and the fears/regrets/ambitions players had had their characters confess to. 

Then we started to write plotlines, using a structure “borrowed” from Tom Owen:

  • Name
  • Overview
  • Tags
  • Conflict
  • Stakes
  • Delivery mechanism – how does the plotline get to the players: letter, NPC appearance, etc.?
  • Schedule – how does delivery split down into elements we can schedule?
  • Props – do any props need making/scrounging and have they been recorded on the props list?

Then we recorded all these plotines as cards on a realtimeboard each linked to their plot documents, so we could visualise all our plots on story team calls. Every Monday from March to September, we had a weekly call to assess progress, and talk over difficult tasks. They all ended up tagged with the relevant moments and tags. That helped us to check nothing went unrepresented without good reason.

Then the scheduled beats of each plot was, well, plotted, on a plan of the day to represent what’d happen if nothing changed. Then we moved those beats around until it all sorta made sense. We had to respect our NPC availability – the same crew also played the voices from other stations, etc. We wanted the pacing of the event to have light and shade, and time for characters to contemplate what was happening. And we wanted to have lunch at lunchtime etc.

And then we called “Time in”….

And then, of course, we ripped up the plan, and not all the plotlines went out at all, and the ones that did, didn’t go unchanged…

But that’s why I love this medium.

Playing WAAP has however done wonders with said larp confidence. It was a fantastic game in so many ways

FIA IDEGARD, PUBLIC WITH PERMISSION

Theorising LARP using symbolic interactionism

academic, Design, Essay

TL;DR Goffman provides a framework useful for analysing the social interactions of LARP. We can apply his three assumptions; life as theatrical performance, that the alignment of performance requires work, and that individuals are motivated to save face and uphold the group by ensuring consistency. This gives us a new perspective on the IC/OOC divide, roleplay for self-development, preferred play styles and LARP culture that can usefully learn from other academic studies of culture and the arts.

This post is based on a talk I gave at Camelot – UK larp conference in Birmingham in November 2019.

There are lots of existing concepts out there for theorising larp and larp design. Yet many attempt to do so from the ground up without considering the rich resources available to us elsewhere, such as sociological writing on small group behaviour[1]. If we think about how we use our existing social knowledge to enact our characters in roleplaying games, this can help us take discussions on playing outside of our own cultural norms further, and enhance the potential of larp for self-development.

In order to do so, in this article I propose we break down the distinction between the dramatic performance we call ‘roleplaying’, and that of everyday social life. An historic advocate of such ‘dramaturgical’ methods was Erving Goffman, famous as the author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Yet Goffman also wrote on games, and his style of analysis greatly informs Gary Alan Fine’s 1983 study of tabletop roleplaying Shared Fantasy: Roleplaying Games as Social Worlds. Goffman’s work developed and expanded the interactionist perspective on ‘role theory’ outlined as part of social development by G.H.Mead around 100 years ago. Despite their age, these texts have been foundational in studies of social interaction in sociology, and provide an excellent way to approach the study of live-action gaming.

In this article, I outline several of Goffman’s key concepts from Interaction Ritual and suggest how these map onto equivalent roleplay behaviours.

Basic assumptions from Interaction Ritual

Assumption 1 – What is going on here?

When we interact socially with other people or objects, we assume that our attitudes and behaviours are informed by the meanings we attribute to them. We develop those meanings (norms) through previous socialisation and try to identify which applies in a given situation. In our interactions, we use our lexicon of language or symbols to negotiate the meaning that applies to this context. In doing so, we collectively define the situation. If we feel we are unsuccessful at this we review our symbols and situation, proposing alternative understandings using our imagination and taking different points of view to those we hold.

In this assumption, ‘here’ relies on interactions happening in the same physical space. However, mediated interactions (such as video conferences or online spaces) can also be explored using these assumptions. One of the ways in which we often try to control interactions so the meaning is less variable is by limiting the scope of interaction, or establishing explicit symbolic codes which will formally apply to a given social space (a dress code in an office during work hours is one example of this). When Goffman was writing in 1950s America, these norms were perhaps less flexible than today, with social groups being more fixed. Yet the framework still holds for contemporary social groups.

Assumption 2 – Keeping everyone in line

Keeping our meanings in order requires work by all involved to ensure alignment between actions and interpretations. And this alignment work is hidden [1]. In order to resolve the ambiguity of multiple possible interaction scenarios, we tend to adopt a type of ‘policing’ of the storyline. This assumption relies upon everyone in the social performance accepting a specific ritual boundary such as that of a ‘game’. Within this frame of activity, everyone must undertake to perform an assigned role related to the game such as ‘player’, ‘combatant’ or ‘storyteller’.

A failure to demonstrate competence in line with the specifically chosen, claimed or attributed social role which maintains alignment with “what is going on here”, endangers the frame with collapse. Other participants will question the validity of ‘what is going on’, or may impose an alternative ‘frame’ to explain the behaviour. An example of this is when players in a game revert to their social roles, e.g as friends, family members and are no longer only ‘players’ but instead are ‘daughter’, ‘father’, ‘best friend’. This frame shifting is very common when playing some games such as family board games!

Assumption 3 – Doing ‘face work’

Individuals need to demonstrate role competence to maintain their ‘face’; their presentation of a coherent self-image in which the expectations of their social circle are in alignment with their own behaviour. In order to maintain their own ‘face’ and that of others, individuals will do ‘face work’. Face work relies upon a range of social procedures which are learned from the social exchange and etiquette of everyday life. These procedures may include engaging tact to avoid conflict with clear rules of alignment (such as behaviour in designated game spaces or engaging in non-game behaviour), policing a corrective process, or engaging in competitive point-scoring against other participants.

Employing tact is often an example of cooperation with the face work of others. A group may collectively ignore a slip in the social performance of another member in order to maintain their face and uphold the ‘line’ regarding what is going on. This avoidance of calling someone to account for incorrect behaviour is only one form of tactful face work, another might be to offer an adjustment to the line, or to the expectations regarding the individual’s behaviour.

When an individual makes a mistake in their performance, they may also engage in a corrective process to admit their error and restore the ‘line’. Apologies are the most common example of a corrective process, following a clear pattern; from the challenge to the behaviour, to offerring atonement, to acceptance or forgiveness by the group, and expressing gratitude. The agreement of the social group to uphold a corrective process are key to this variety of face work.

Sometimes individuals engage in competitive face work through challenging others’ behaviours as out of line, or by emphasising their own successful performances at the expense of others. Such competitive point-scoring is risky, however, as the individual is intentionally exposing their competence to challenge.

LARP Interactions

In roleplaying games, we rely on the assumption that interactions involve multiple sets of meanings. One meaning is clearly “I am a participant in the roleplaying event (player/NPC/monster/referee)”, while another is “I am a part of this narrative (character)”. Additional meanings may be “I am a game-player enacting the rules” or “I am a crew member directing the players“. We have established a wide lexicon of symbols, language and gestures in order to convey these meanings, though these are most clear in reference to play actions outside of the narrative. The meanings of character’s performance in the narrative are more ambiguous.

For most players, the answer to ‘what is going on here’ is, quite obviously, “this is a LARP event”. Yet a huge amount of work goes into establishing that ‘reality’, from booking a venue for hire, through to advertising, and even establishing norms about what an ‘event’ is. Downtime, for example, is commonly ‘not an event’, even though players may narrate or spend time with each other as their characters acting out interactions that will have an effect in game.

The complexity of explaining “what is going on here” is clearly evident when unsuspecting members of the public accidentally enter a game space and have to be advised against its hazards. But even players moving between different systems or communities may struggle to learn the different expectations, and are likely to bring their knowledge or experience from other activities. For example, does the event require a ‘sign in’ before it begins? Tickets like a theatre show? Is there a clear space for the event or is it pervasive across physical and virtual space – even the bathrooms? Is there a guide or clues like an escape room experience? Are players customers of a game experience or contributors to a performance?

Between ourselves, we generally refer to alignment challenges as those of managing the boundary between in-play and out-of play action space. LARP games occur within a designated play area, in which certain rules of behaviour are set out in advance using play culture and codes of practice. In the conventions of UK LARP culture this usually includes the advertising, rulebook and pre-game materials as well as the in person pre-game briefing. The rules of behaviour set out in these materials serve to specify the ‘line’ of acceptable versus unacceptable conduct when engaging in LARP play. A wide range of these techniques fall into the category outlined by Goffman as ‘face-work’; keeping up appearances as a competent player. Face-work relies upon the alignment between the way the player sees themself and the way others see them, so in LARPing this includes (diegetic) narrative and non-diegetic actions in the flow of events.

Between ourselves, we generally refer to alignment challenges as those of managing the boundary between in-play and out-of play action space. LARP games occur within a designated play area, in which certain rules of behaviour are set out in advance using play culture and codes of practice. In the conventions of UK LARP culture this usually includes the advertising, rulebook and pre-game materials as well as the in person pre-game briefing. The rules of behaviour set out in these materials serve to specify the ‘line’ of acceptable versus unacceptable conduct when engaging in LARP play. 

The techniques which establish what is or is not ‘acceptable conduct’ are outlined by Goffman as ‘face-work’; keeping up appearances as a competent player. Face-work relies upon the alignment between the way the player sees themself and the way others see them, so in LARPing this is made more complex by the need to do so simultaneously in reference to the (diegetic) narrative and non-diegetic aspects of events (e.g ludic rules of play, social norms of the wider community culture). Attempts to embed rules in the game narrative through euphemisms of performance are common ways in which LARPers conceal inconsistent game behaviours. For example, in fantasy tales, you rarely hear of warrior heroes stopping to visit the bathroom, or to have their spellcards issued by the game organisers. But they might ‘pray’ at a shrine, or seek to ‘restore their power’. Players also may engage in competitive face work as their characters (within the diegetic reality or through the ludic rules) in ways that they would find too risky in their out-of-game social roles, directly or subtly using narrative tropes or knowledge of the game system to call out other characters or players as ‘doing it wrong’ in order to boost their own standing. 

So why are these theoretical ideas useful for LARPers, LARP theory and design?

First, the LARP community is not different to other subcultures, and faces many of the same challenges in how it is represented. Looking at how behavioural norms cross between the larger community and the hobby subculture can offer a way to understand how to maintain community safety and manage recruitment of new players. Exploring differences between different LARP groups regarding what is considered part of ‘what is going on here’ shows how different communities evolve different play styles, and provides insight into the differences between LARP events or systems. Finally, looking specifically at how individuals try to engage in competitive face-work within games compared with outside them provides a way to understand the underlying social mechanisms of LARP, and open the medium more thoroughly to design for training or self-development.

Footnotes

  1. Scholarly articles on LARP can be found in a range of specialist journals on culture, ethnography, computer science as well as specific journals such as Analog Game Studies, with a long history of work emerging from the Nordic Knutepunkt/Knudepunkt/Solmukohta conferences
  2. Harold Garfinkel’s work, and particularly his breaching experiments, highlight this. Applied mainly to textual analysis of (spoken) interaction, this area of sociology emphasises ‘glossing practices’ as part of a requirement for individual acknowledgement as members of a shared community.

Immersive, interactive, in-character: larp edges into mainstream entertainment

Community, Essay

Harry Harold

This article first appeared on larpx.com on March 17th 2018. Republished with permission from the author.

The Peckforten Papers is a collection of writing about UK larp published by the Wychwood Press. You can buy it on Lulu should you wish, or get the pdf here.

I wrote a bit for it in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, and it’s down here so I don’t lose it…

I am sat where it all began. For values of “it” and “all” that are arguable, for sure, but they’re certainly true for me. The entire family tree of Treasure Traps; Durham, Cambridge and late-lamented Birmingham (in no particular order), of Labyrinth, of fests and of Fools and Heroes, maybe. Of a small Norfolk system called Overkill where I first ran linears, absolutely. Of the live-combat side of larp in the UK, probably.

Peckforton_Castle_1

(Image credit: Stephen Charles licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

I’m leaching Peckforton Castle’s wifi with a pint of Estrella and a laptop, sat in what was the “smoke room” in the original Treasure Trap’s “basic” adventure. Back in the day, monster weapons were coated with paint, and a ref checked if you’d been hit with red for a small amount of damage, black for a lot more or even green for poison. The staff blame the paint that still marks the walls in “off limits” areas on “an American paintball company.” I am unconvinced, but better an unnamed company than an entire hobby which happened to be born here. Right now it’s a luxury wedding venue. It would make an excellent phys-rep for a College of Wizardry, but would need a ticket price to match and I’m sure it’d be worth that.

Next year, I hope to be sitting in a hotel in Walt Disney World, just starting out on an experience where I’m in character for a couple of days, immersed in a Star Wars themed environment, interacting with Star Wars universe characters, and inspired to change my own and others’ narratives with my actions. The kind of thing their 2013 patent and the news stories since then have fanned as rumour, delivering storytelling through emerging technology, I think they call it these days.

In the 35 years since I started larp, the mainstream has been embracing bits and pieces of the hobby. I didn’t notice for years, but now it’s hard not to. “Immersive”, and “interactive” appear with increasing regularity in advertisements for various types of live entertainment. I’ve seen them used to describe theatre, cinema, music from classical to art-rock, newer forms such as Escape Rooms, Zombie Runs and what we’d once have simply called Haunted Houses. The words “immersive” and “interactive” mean more to more people.

There’s a bit of the mainstreaming of parts of geek culture that can be traced from Harry Potter, bless’im, the cinematic release of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the re-birth of Star Wars. There’s something in individualised or even mass-customised experiences vs. commodified digital delivery of the same entertainment to everyone.

In this article, I’ll place larp in a landscape of other events I’ve been to that are a little bit “larpy”: immersive, interactive, and maybe even a little bit in-character…

Immersive

By this term, the mainstream tends to mean an activity happening in an environment which is authentic to a setting, with people who are dressed and act authentically to the setting. Note, “a” setting – Plunkett and Maclean is my favourite example – it’s lousy at being authentic to Regency Britain, but it’s fabulously authentic to “Plunkett and Macleany Britain,” an altogether better place in which to play. They don’t mean mentally immersed, or at least I don’t think they do, with a very few exceptions I’ve come across, they also don’t mean “in character” – more on that later.

Punchdrunk is a well-funded theatre company with a magnificently executed schtick; the audience moves. Not merely in the sense that a promenade performance moves; where the audience move at the prompting, urging or instruction of ushers. Punchdrunk audiences simply wander about. Punchdrunk shows are unique to their environments, which are simply stunning. I’ve been to two of their shows for adults. The “Masque of the Red Death” took elements from Edgar Allan Poe stories, and wove them round Battersea Arts centre. “The Drowned Man” created a Hollywood cinema studio with accompanying trailer park and town in the shell of a disused Royal Mail sorting office.The attention to detail in the set dressing in particular verged on the obsessive; with documents, letters, and props all forming part of the story.

As a member of the audience at a Punchdrunk event you’re immersed in the story, in that you have a physical presence where you wish to be. You are certainly in a place which is itself part of the action. You’re all given white masks, so you were all blank faces staring at the action. At “Masque of the Red Death”, you were given black robes if you weren’t dressed for the time, so many of you were raven-like, flocking round points of interest. What you experience is (probably) unique because you move at your whim.

Secret Cinema create immersive experiences based on films. You show up, you’re in a space appropriate to the film, then you watch the film. Some actors do some stuff appropriate to the film. Back in the day, you never knew what the film was. You showed up, not knowing what to expect, they took you somewhere, you watched something.

Now, that’s pretty cool, but what I think they realised is that an immersive experience needs the people as well as the environment to be dressed right, and act right. So nowadays their blockbuster shows tell you what you’re going to see, how to look, and there are crew about to give you something to interact with before the film. I’ve only been to a couple: “Empire Strikes Back,” and “Moulin Rouge”.

The immersive element before “Empire Strikes Back” was the setting of the original “Star Wars” story: Tatooine, a couple of shuttle runs, and the Death Star. The set was simply stunning, and it turned out there were enough geek-sci-fi-fans around for the audience to look good too. When we landed in Mos Eisley, my inner seven year old just stumbled about open-mouthed, when we walked into the cantina with the diddly diddly music playing, he was slack-jawed, when we got to use Jedi mindtricks on a stormtrooper, he was in seventh heaven, when the Death Star pulled us in a tractor beam, he was punch-drunk with experience-shock, and when a life-size x-wing executed an attack run over our heads, he actually exploded. It was pretty awesome.

“Moulin Rouge” was a film-set street in Mountmatre: a couple of bars, a stage and a dancehall with double level seating they managed to hide until we entered the “Moulin Rouge” itself. It was a beautifully effective use of space, and we were moved round impeccably, to the extent that I only really noticed what they were doing on my third run, when I went with a more analytical frame of mind, and a more analytical companion. It wasn’t – to look back critically – as immersive as the set for “Empire Strikes Back”. What I think made it, were the other people. Everyone I noticed had gone to town on costume, in a setting where, unlike “Empire Strikes Back,” there are some easily accessible tropes: “posh” or “performer” are pretty easy to do, steampunk fits, if you feel the need, and low status male at least is a charity shop standard. The audience got (physically) immersed amongst a whole pack of other folk who’d also gone to town on their look.

That physical immersion is one of the elements I prize in larp. Yes, you can patch anything with imagination, and yes, in most games I run you need to. But I think imagination is overrated in larp. What sets larp apart from tabletop roleplaying is physical presence, and there are stories to be told where tabletop is simply a better vehicle. Let it have them, and reserve larp for the stories it tells best, the ones where participants can be physically immersed in an environment and where physicality plays its own part in how the story unfolds. Like a Punchdrunk show, in fact, where the experience is unique precisely because participants define it by exactly where they move to and when.

Like my first linear way back in the day at Peckforton, where I arrived at the main gate of an actual castle to go on my first adventure…

Interactive

I’ve moved castles. I’m now in the chapel at St Briavels, a former royal hunting lodge turned youth hostel. I ran an event here once; a parliament I helped organise for the faction I led as an NPC for the Lorien Trust. I can’t remember the plot too well, actually I’m not even sure we had any beyond some meetings and decision-making, maybe a haunt or two. I distinctly recall not letting the orcs in the poshest meeting room, on account of their OOC (out of character) facepaint and that becoming a bone of contention IC (in character). Nice place, anyway. Decent venue for the right sort of larp, but as so often these days I’d look at it first, then design the game around the location. Anyway. There was interaction, but the focus would have been the IC business of running the kind of political organisation that that needed doing for a faction called the Vipers.

The Punchdrunk events I have been to are only modestly interactive. As a member of the audience you’re not in control of the interaction: they are. There’s the edge case of the serial Punchdrunkgoer who knows not only where to stand to see what, but even where and when to stand to get what for the rest of us is the rarest of the rare, a one-to-one interaction with a Punchdrunk performer.

Back at Secret Cinema’s “Empire Strikes Back,” cutting deals with Jawa or using Jedi tricks to break rebels out of jail were ace, but also pretty structured. Interactions at their “Moulin Rouge” were more like larp, in my experience anyway. While I wasn’t and couldn’t be in charge of the big arc, the event did respond to my actions. There were more small goals and more I could interact with. As well as the signposted interactive elements, the “quest NPCs” if you like, there was reason enough to interact with the majority of the other people there. If participants signed up for it, they got a character name with an objective, and something of a lever on the world which involved other archetypes. More of the interaction could be, should be, would be with the other punters. So when I signed up and was given “Impressario” as an archetype – well, then, best to turn up with a show to put on, and find performers to perform.

These interactions seemed to make the immersion more, well, immersive. Notably, I experienced the film as part of an *us* rather than a member of an *audience*. The film at “Empire Strikes Back” was an irrelevance: we just watched. The film at “Moulin Rouge” carried on the immersive, interactive, inspirational, communal experience. More of the action in the film was conducive to this approach; and we were expertly orchestrated by Satine’s conducting. We were dancing when there was dancing on screen, we were singing (badly, and off-key, but singing) whenever there was singing on screen. We were making the experience together. Was that “interaction”? No, not really. But I absolutely, totally loved it. Essentially, I think it’s a fest larp done brilliantly. There’s enough for people to watch if they simply want to be immersed in an environment. There’s interaction if participants choose to chase it. If they don’t, some other player like me might invite them along anyway and there’s enough inspiration in the background to give those players the tools they need.

My enthusiasm for Secret Cinema isn’t universal. According to some other folk who’ve gone, the reality of the more signposted stuff involving crew characters – the “plot”, I guess – didn’t match the promise. I tend to approach my larp-event-fun pretty defensively – I bring my own fun every time – so this didn’t hit me. Because not *everyone* learns their “character brief”, those sorts of interactions never worked out for me. I don’t think I asked anyone their name, so that passed me by. One person described it as a club night with a film in the middle. They go to better clubs than I do.

Interactive is possibly even more of a trend within popular culture than immersive right now, with a number of sub-genres and related styles I have little or no experience of. I’ve been to one “pervasive game”, an event set in the real streets of London. Their main mistake to my mind was setting an event with a espionage theme in a triangle of London bordered by Westminister Barracks, the Ministry of Justice and New Scotland Yard. My experience was dampened by an initial brief, delivered in-character, which demanded I “Trust no-one”. I managed that so successfully that I avoided the whole rest of the game. One encounter with a “security guard” I heard of second-hand felt a little too immersive for my tastes, helping support my contention that the boundaries of the sandbox are best described out-of-game, not in-game. Another, differencEngine & Dean Rodgers’ “Heist,” was more successful for me. They did well enough at the interactive and immersive element that I forgave them not allowing us to use the props and plans we’d brought with us in favour of operating within the parameters they set us. Then there’s the Crystal Maze experience based on the 80s TV show opened in London in 2016, with another slated to launch in Manchester. Murder mystery evenings, with a longer heritage, and escape rooms, where participants have to solve puzzles in a set time-frame to emerge successful, a more modern invention.

Interaction is where larp can genuinely stand out amongst other media, and good larp does. I’ve heard, and now tend to use, words like “lever” to encapsulate this kind of thing, the idea that the world is a system a player can bend to their will somehow. If a decision does not have consequences that are reflected by the world, it’s not as meaningful. There is some interaction on offer in the more mainstream immersive experiences. I’ve seen immersive and interactive events that said participants would be shaping an actual narrative. I’ve often been disappointed. Possibly because to my mind, if a story cannot be influenced, it is not interactive, it’s a show. Maybe a good show, but a show nonetheless. I’ve been to larp events which did the same, either by accident or sometimes by design, railroading the action so I felt like a spectator.

“You must be able to make a difference and you must want to make a difference,” is something I think Matt Pennington said about good larp once. Part of this is inherent in consequences, if the world recognises and reflects your actions positively, you’ll be more likely to actually do things. Big things. Impactful things. I don’t mean to suggest an action should only have a positive effect. An action should not produce a positive effect simply because a player took it. Heroism cannot be granted, it can only be earned. However, to my mind the world should try damned hard to say, “that was a good thing to have done”, as well as, “You did that thing. Here are the consequences”. “That was a good thing to have done”, as opposed to “That was the Best Thing!” I think I am saying that every defeat should be a Dunkirk. I find this extraordinarily hard to manage myself.

Part of it is leaving sufficient space for the players to make an event their own, so they bring their imagination to the party, so they bring their things to do. Small things, maybe, but personal things perhaps, relationships that mean a lot to their characters or stunts that bring others into the action.

This is a right pig sometimes, because some of the immersioning I want to do requires set dressing ahead of time, groups of non-player characters to be moved to somewhere specific at just the right moment, things to go bang at the right moment, and not some other moment, that kind of thing. And the sign-posting to these scenes kinda stands against interactivity in the active sense I want it, the sense where every interaction has an effect. What of that effect is to kill one of the scenes I want to bring a really cool moment to life? Heigh-ho. No-one ever said this was easy.

In-character

This is where we depart from the mainstream.

Secret Cinema kinda do this, I’m pretty confident no-one else does, really. After “Empire Strikes Back,” I said I’d not bother with multiplexes so much, I’d just save up until Secret Cinema did something else in a genre I liked. “Moulin Rouge” It wasn’t *exactly* a larp, in that there was precious little characterisation or *emotional* immersion going on. However, I’d be happy going to one fewer larp a year, and blowing the cash on another night out in Mountmatre. It was kinda like a gateway drug to larp. To me, it’s weakness in that was it’s “character generation” system; only luck gave me a role that I was comfortable with, which led me to the kind of experience I delight in.

Other “immersive” pieces have said something like, “It is the future. You’re a citizen.” or “You’re a spy”, but put nothing into the experience except that assertion to make attendees think or behave differently. Sometimes, less forgivably for me, they’ve gone so far as to reject my efforts to behave as someone in that environment might behave in favour of only recognising conformity to the narrow behaviours expected of audience members, as opposed to participants. I think I’ve learned to set my expectations as I’ve gone to more “interactive” events. It’s a matter of identifying the power I, as a member of the audience, has, and pushing those limits so they bend but not break. Just as I’d do in a larp, in fact. There’s social contracts everywhere after all, even if they aren’t always as clear as you’d like.

As pointed out by one of the wise at the time, an earlier “immersive and interactive” piece I wrote didn’t explicitly require “participants to be playing a character rather than being themselves” at all, which was a bit revealing to me in retrospect. I think there’s something in the sort of “my body is a puppet” roleplaying I do, and the “I become my character” roleplay which others do. Something to ponder anyway. It’s quite something of a volte face to move from not even mentioning “in-character” to the realisation that it is the uniqueness of larp as a hobby, but there it is.

This is what we do that no-one else concentrates on yet. That Disney resort? They might. We’ll see.

References

College of Wizardry

The 2013 Disney patent

An example story concerning the Disney resort

Punchdrunk

Punchdrunk: Masque of the Read Death

Punchdrunk: Crash of the Elysium

Punchdrunk: The Drowned Man

Secret Cinema

Heist

http://www.sixtostart.com/onetoread/2008/everything-you-know-about-args-is-wrong/