I first started writing about “fateplay” in 1996, the stone age of role-playing theory. This was before John Kim’s “Threefold Model FAQ” (1998), when “dramatism” was identified as a possible player agenda, before the birth of the online indie-rpgs community at “the Forge” (2001), before the first Knutepunkt conference (1997) where Nordic arthaus larpers would begin formalizing their ideas.
During the 90s, both in Scandinavia and the English-speaking world, the claim was commonly put forth that role-playing was somehow about “storytelling”. White Wolf, producers of the most influential larp & tabletop games of the day, even called their game mechanics for the “Storyteller System”, while local larpers often used the phrase “experiencing a story together” as a way to explain the point of it all.
My key insight was they they were lying. Most larps and tabletop games of the 90s were designed in such a way that they encouraged players to compete in solving puzzles, winning conflicts, and making their characters more powerful. The designs presupposed that players would behave strategically rather than dramatically: keeping secrets where revelation would be more interesting, maximizing benefit to the character rather than portraying real, irrational, humans. These were competitive games, not storytelling vehicles.
There was one exception, seen in the design of Scandinavian larps at the time: organizers would structure their “plots” (puzzles and conflicts) in a sequence, and by resolving puzzles and winning conflicts sequentially player groups would inadvertently enact the story envisioned by the larpwright. At key points of the sequence, organizers would play out prepared scenes (“stagings”) or send in their own agents (“NPCs”) to add extra drama to the larp. When players departed from the sequence, organizers would push them back on track. This practice was known as “rail-roading”, and universally frowned upon.
Enter The Play of Fate: a notion that rail-roading would be OK, if only it was done transparently, with each player being told exactly what her character was supposed to do during the larp. If you know your character’s arc, you can prepare yourself for playing that beautiful tragedy, or rabid comedy.
While history has largely validated the idea that larps can indeed be dramatic, story-oriented and experiential, the fate-play proposal remains controversial. It certainly does not appeal to everyone, not even everyone who identify as story-oriented designers. The number of pure fate-plays (that I know of) can be counted on a single hand, none held after 2001. Some of these were highly successful, some less so. All of them were fiendishly difficult to write.
The enduring legacy of this work seems to be instead the techniques of “mixed fateplay”, “suggestions”, and “meta-techniques” that have become far more common than pure fate-plays. In a mixed fateplay larp, some things are fated to happen for some characters, but most are left to free improvisation – for example by having a fated beginning, but an open conclusion. “Suggestions” are fateplay light, with players free to depart from them to pursue a more interesting path should one arise. Our experiments with “staging techniques”, things such as leaps in time and space and the Greek chorus from Moriais Vev, can be seen as precursors to contemporary jeepform and the “meta-techniques” used in contemporary larp. As such, the method described in this article serves as a platonic ideal: useful to think about, but observable mostly through the shadows it casts.
A second legacy is the way our work with fateplay encouraged us (myself and Lars Wingård especially) to think about larp dramaturgy in a structured way, to name and describe the components that drive characters through a larp. Lars carried our thinking further in a long paper and bachelor-level thesis published only in Norwegian. I have continued this work in later articles, published in Knutepunkt books, and on my blog – larpwright.efatland.com.
This the English text of my preface to the Italian translation of The Play of Fates (or: how to make rail-roading legal) an article that was originally published online in 1998. The Italian translation was published in Larp Graffiti, 2010, edited by Andrea Castellani – online edition
Two notes: a) I edited one sentence, slightly, as it could be read to imply we invented the term “meta-techniques”. We didn’t. The term “meta-technique” entered the discourse with En Stilla Middag Med Familien in 2006, though the jury is still out on whether our “new staging techniques” and current “meta-techniques” represent something substantially different from classical “game mechanics”.
b) In the last paragraph, I really ought to have passed on credit to Erlend Eidsem Hansen, who did the ground-work by writing about “plot theory” in the mid-90s.
Coming up next, with juicier revelations: Preface to Dogma 99.