Ninja trick: fate envelopes (and a word on secrecy vs. transparency)

Ninja Trick (by Plushplex, Creative Commons 2.0 by-nc-nd)
Introducing: the irregular column “Ninja Trick”, presenting clever little larpwriting ideas that are easy to share.

So there’s this group in Elverum in Norway, called “De Krakilske Papegøyer” (DKP), which no-one in the Oslo scene had heard about until they’d already organised five larps. And to the sixth one, Marthe, a larper from Oslo went and returned reporting (no) what she had experienced. Turns out they were using a novel incentive they called “sekundærrolle”, meaning secondary character description: little envelopes that you opened at particular times during the larp.

So an envelope, to borrow DKPs example, might have the text “open if you meet your wife”, given to a character whose wife disappeared years ago. And when at the larp the wife actually appears, the envelope reveals that “you really can’t stand her – she’s ugly and annoying. How can you get rid of her?” This, in turn, might set off further events in the wife’s story.

A similar kind of incentive was used by Mike Youngs classic comedy larp Snugglebunny Ringwraiths, about the Dark Lord Sauron being expelled to the land of the Snugglebunnies, a parody of childrens TV shows populated by near-identical cute, cuddly things who hug rather than fight. When reaching a sufficient threshold of unwanted snugglebunny hugs, the player of Sauron opens envelopes, each one instructing him to mellow out a bit, until the final envelope instructs him that he is no longer a Dark Lord but rather the Sauron Snugglebunny.

The technique, especially as used by DKP, is highly reminiscent of fate-play, so I’ll call it the Fate Envelope. In dramaturgical terms, it consists of an instruction where the condition is printed on the outside of an envelope and the effector is contained on the inside. (more on triggers, effectors and the like in a future blog post and this old article). DKP’s technique could even be expanded into a more fateweb-like structure, by hiding envelopes inside envelopes, or letting the player start with several fate envelopes to be opened at different times.

As with most permutations of the fate system (and there are many) I would guess that the tricky part is to get them to work together, so that all players involved in a fate-point (e.g. the husband and wife) get it to work, and so that the chain of events set off by the first instruction actually behaves like a chain of events rather than isolated incidents or orders impossible to carry out. If you manage that, the results can be astounding.

Transparency vs. surprise
There’s a big and never-ending debate between proponents of larpwright secrecy (surprising players) and the proponents of transparency (preparing players). I’ll limit myself to discussing it here as it relates to fate and fate-like techniques such as the fate envelopes.

In its original incarnation, fates were meant to produce a mix of preparation and surprise: you might know your part of the fate-web, but carrying out the fate would trigger the unexpected response. Already in our early experimentation (with Moirais Vev and Afasias Barn), we abandoned the insistence on surprise – and let players decide whether they wanted to see the whole fate-web or not. Most felt that seeing the whole web helped them enjoy the larp better, and improvise more appropriate arcs for their characters.

The advantages of transparency were amply demonstrated by Swedish theatrical larp “En Stilla Middag Med Familien”, where theatre scripts were read by the players pre-larp and then dissected into fate-like structures. At that larp, players had collective advance knowledge of the story-arcs in full detail, including things like dialogue and character motivation that in traditional fate-play are left to player improvisation. Even though most of the dialogue and many of the core events of the actual larp were improvised, the transparency of script gave us a solid basis for improvisation. If you know what will happen to your character, you can prepare for it.

It depends on the genre
What is gained, then, by secrecy – by hiding the instruction in an envelope? Certainly a little more surprise, on the part of the player. This works well for Snugglebunny Ring-wraiths, where Sauron’s transformation to a Snugglebunny becomes funnier when it is unexpected. Comedy relies largely on the unexpected. For the other snugglebunnies, of course, it doesn’t really matter whether Sauron’s player has advance knowledge of his characters fate or not, but the envelopes allow him to be an equal victim of the joke.

Another use of secrecy might be the thriller or horror larp. As Lovecraft put it, “Of all emotions, fear is the most ancient, and fear of the unknown the most profound.” A larpwright might plan a thriller larp driven by players fear of sounds in the dark rather than actual monsters. But isn’t it more effective if players do not know whether there are monsters in the dark or not? The fate envelope can be used similarly to build suspense, or trigger sudden horror.

This suggests a guideline for when to use secrecy as part of dramaturgy: when the revelation of the secret is likely to produce a sought-after emotion in the player. And it also suggests an appropriate ethical boundary: that the emotion is, in fact, sought after. It’s still a bad idea to let brain-eating zombies run loose at the larp you announced as “a strict reenactment of everyday life in the 1820’s”.

(plush ninja by plushplex, on flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

5 thoughts on “Ninja trick: fate envelopes (and a word on secrecy vs. transparency)

  1. Snuggle Bunny Ring Wraiths? Really? A classic? I’m honored.

    I’m curious, though. How heavily would you say LARPs are GMed in runtime in Norway? My impression is that they are very lightly GMed or run without GM intervention at all.

    In the USA, we still have a very heavy GM presence. But I use the envelopes you mention for two purposes. First to elicit emotions as you have said. But also to give information. This way, the player does not have to run to the GM to ask questions because I have anticipated them and they have the information they need. I work harder before the event so I can work less during the event.

    Sure, this would all be solved if the players knew everything about the event ahead of time. And I give my players that option in the current event I’m running. I would say that out of the 75 or so people attending the event, fewer than 10 have really taken that option. The rest prefer being surprised.

    I don’t know if it is a cultural thing, or if people around here are just used to not being able to know everything and thus it is a familiar experience, but in the USA players generally seem to want to not have “spoilers” when participating in LARPs.

  2. Hi, Mike, and thanks for commenting!

    Yes, I think your impression is right – that there is little runtime GMing in Norway.

    Depends a bit on what you mean by “runtime GMing”, though. It’s pretty common for organisers to be somewhat active during the larp, for example by playing or instructing NPCs, but rare for them to be continuously answering player questions, filling out background details, or adjudicating rules. In the larps I attend, at least, it’s seen as bad form to contact an organiser out-of-character for anything other than an emergency. So most “GMing” occurs pre-larp.

    Norwegian players can in general be relied upon to read their own character text thoroughly, and often elaborate on it. Extra material (world info, rules etc.) is remembered only to the extent that its well presented and brief.

    All of which makes it a bit strange that we’re only becoming aware of “Open when-” envelopes and the like now, since it fits in pretty well with the local larp style.

  3. Well, contingency envelopes (as they are called here) are adiagetic, so I can see where they might not have seen much use out there.

    Thanks for the info.

  4. Despite any Nordic brags you might have read, we’re not actually that fanatical when it comes to “the 360 degree illusion” thingy. The larps with strong narrative emphasis can have stuff like “invisible” organisers whispering in peoples ears. Even Dragonbane had a pyrotechnics crew walking around in modern overalls. Even “1942”, the larp with authentic toilet paper, required the players to treat non-larpers walking through the area as invisible. I think covertly opening an envelope would be considered acceptable at the vast majority of Nordic larps.

    But I’m curious: how do you do runtime GMing in the US? Is there an article or blog post somewhere I can read to get a better idea of how it works?

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