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”.