Compound and holistic

At this years larpwriter summer school, I had the chance to playtest an insanely cool larp with the working title The Bank Robbery. As a preparation for the larp, players stand around a table, using a schematic – the floorplan of a bank – to plan the great heist our characters will attempt.

The actual roleplaying begins with characters returning to their hideout after the heist has failed. The schematic is still there, on the table, helping us to remember the back story, and improvise coherently. But now it is also scenography : turning whatever room we are in into the secret meeting-place of gangsters.

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Players prepare for In Fair Verona by participating in an intensive tango course.
Not only will their characters dance tango in the larp, but the characters establish and change their relationships by dancing. More than that: the choice of tango communicates the gender roles and prospects of romance in the fictive society. And it functions as a warm-up. When the larp begins, you’re already running.

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Inside:outside begins and ends with a meditative session where you listen as a voice counts from 1 to 10 (beginning) or 10 to 1 (ending). The meditative session functions as a buffer between you and the character, in-game and off. It is an emotional safety technique. It is also there because the larp begins with the characters waking up, so it is appropriate to start it laying on the floor, eyes closed. The ending provides symmetry, the possibility of characters falling asleep again. And it is in harmony with the style of the larp – an introspective one, where the most important conflict is played between your mind and a disembodied voice.

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In Marcello’s Kjeller, if you play Russian Roulette, you point the gun towards your temple but you don’t pull the trigger. Instead, Dirigenten (a character who may or may not be the devil) looks into your eyes, rolls a die, glances at the die (which you can’t see), and smiles.

The lights go off.

In the darkness, you may hear nothing. Or you may hear a gunshot. If you heard the gunshot: When the lights come back on again your character is dead.

For this mechanic to work, Dirigenten needs to signal the sound-guy before the lights are switched off. She does so after reading the die, by raising her hand slowly and dramatically and extending either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, like a Cæsar judging a gladiator. In this way, players don’t actually risk death (live rounds) or deafening (blank shots). But also: the tension of Russian Roulette lasts far longer than it takes to pull a trigger. And the characters symbolically place their lives in the hands of the devil.

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These design decisions are compound: they serve more than one function, have more than one reason to exist. By being compound they reduce the amount of information you need to give to the players, the amount of stuff they need to remember.

They are also holistic. The technique, or its execution, fits into the broader themes and aesthetics of the larp, the whole.

When repurposing the inside:outside meditative sessions for PanoptiCorp, a hyperactive larp about an ad agency, I had players sit or stand, not lie down. And the count-up was not from one to ten, but 1 – 2- 3 – action!

You can play In Fair Verona in a classroom or a ballroom, with 30’s costumes or without. But you can’t play it by dancing swing, or waltz. That would be another larp.

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I believe most good larp design is characterized by the clever use of compound elements.

I believe all good larp design is holistic.

2 thoughts on “Compound and holistic

  1. I have used the term ‘packages’ for elements that shape big parts of the game. The idea is, that you always have a challenge communicating enough to the players if you want to foster interaction codes that differ much from well-known genres or types of games. Too much communication also creates the problem that players can know different amounts of background material – and that some players can be factually mistaken (which can lead to all kinds of conflicts between participants and/or organizers). Therefore you should instead design ‘packages’ that twist the kinds of interaction that players can have during a game, and thereby shaping the game a lot more, that you could if you tried to micromanage everything.

    Perhaps the simplest and most widespread example (in Denmark at least) is boffer- or latexswords. The inclusion of medieval weapons in a larp is a surefire way to not only communicate, what kind of game you get, but also shapes a lot of player interaction.

  2. These all sound like very cool, very atmospheric mechanics and effects. I’ve heard of In Fair Verona; it never occurred to me that the LARP might be recreated to use other styles of dance, which would have a very interesting effect on the genre.

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