The Frame and the Canvas

Every larp design, and the activity of designing larps itself, can be divided into two inseperable halves: (1) the system or procedure, which I’ll call “frame”, and (2) the components or unique elements inside the system, which I’ll call “canvas”.

The frame is general to all participants. It includes the game rules, the procedures for signing up and co-creating or interpreting the content, the spatial design of the larp, the format – duration and it’s segmentation or lack of segmentation into distinct units such as acts, chapters. It includes the manner of beginning and ending the larp. And it includes the world their characters inhabit – the fiction, or diegesis – with all its hidden suggestions (Interaction Codes – see article in Role, Play, Art ) about play style and possible stories and appropriate things to do and experience.

The canvas contains the individually specific aspects of the larp design. Character texts or personal costume, the conflicts or relationships or goals and motivations of individuals and groups.

The canvas is never fully painted. It’s larp – improvised, co-created. Players take the starting points provided by the larpwright and continue painting. Only in retrospect, as players talk and recall and describe and compare notes, does the metaphor of a larp as a painting begin to make sense.

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Some larp traditions design larps mostly inside very similar, or identical frames. Quite a lot of fantasy boffer traditions work this way: three randomly selected larps will have the same game rules, the same general playing field, the same duration and segmentation of time, the same way of beginning, and of ending, and of creating characters. They vary mostly in the spread of characters and the activities they engage in.

Som larp designs, especially in the small format ( < 15 players), are primarily concerned with the canvas : relying on carefully crafted characters and conflicts. The Norwegian fantasy larp tradition I was raised in readily furnished a hundred players with inidivudally written 1-3 page characters containing goals and personalities and relations and conflicts. Taken together, these highly variable canvases made each larp unique - with different genres, intensities, stories, activities and people - even if the framework of scout cabins, medievalish costume, 5-days duration, genericish fantasy worlds, and light mechanics remained largely unchanged from summer to summer. Some larp designs, the ones I've sometimes called "systemic", use the frame to paint the canvas. The larpwrights say almost nothing about individual characters, relationships, or plot drivers and instead instruct players on how to create characters, form relationships, and drive plot. Often indirectly, through describing the fiction, or through nonverbal workshops, or through a process for players to create their own characters. PanoptiCorp and Totem are examples of this approach, and I’d recommend the Totem design manual if you want a look at how this kind of design actually works. Tabeltop RPGs, both old-school and indie (but not, usually, freeform), as well as derivative larps such as Vampire : the Masquerade, are generally systemic in their design. So we find systemic, or frame-only, designs on both ends of the traditionalist <-> avantgardist spectrum.

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As a larpwright, you face the choice of whether to design the frame, or the canvas, or both. I don’t think there is any “right choice”. Systemic design allows for scalability and rerunnability. But there are certain design spaces that become unavailable, especially the spaces of individual psychology, morals and perceptions that are often explored by theatre and literature. Systemic design excels on exploring the actions of groups – the mechanics of societies, or conflicts.

Canvas-dominant designs (should we call them “tailored”?), on the other hand, are less suitable for exploring group action but open up a design space of strong and distinct individuals, private interactions. They scale poorly, but can re-run easily.

My goal in proposing this (unpolished, unfinished) model is not to be prescriptive, but descriptive. At the very least, I find it helps me understand differences in larp and roleplaying traditions.

And I find it a useful question to ponder at the early stages of a design process: do we want to achieve this by working with the frame, the canvas, or both?

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3 Comments »

 
  • Matthijs Holter says:

    I love reading your stuff, Eirik, and I’ll always try to find things to disagree with! 🙂

    Here, I’m not sure I understand why you say that systemic/”frame” design is not good for psychology, morals, perception. There are plenty of tabletop RPG designs that have hardly any canvas, but are explicitly designed for play which is all about addressing character issues, choices, showing personal morals through actions etc. Sorcerer, in particular, comes to mind. Am I reading you wrong, though?

  • efatland says:

    You’re reading me right. And: point taken. I was thinking about how it can be very hard to achieve something like an Ibsen drama using frame tools only. Stories about different people struggling with moral and personal choices, in colission with other people whose way of being human differs from theirs. Canvas tools suggest an easy solution to how to larp “a dolls house”: write Nora and Helmer as characters with distinct world-views and behaviours that both complement each other and are bound to crash. I guess the systemic way to deal with this would be to make a game where everyone plays Nora, struggling with their own Helmer. So not impossible. But different. And less obvious.

  • Morgan March says:

    I love your work, and this is another piece that is invaluable to teach about larp and design.

    To follow up on Matthijs’ comment: Systemic larps could definatly be designed to create a doll’s house. Your own sugestion where the frame ask the players to look for that exact “problem” – the danish tango larp comes to mind where everyone had a beginning lover, and found a new lover and then had to decid what they where going to do with the conflict.

    The structure of the acts and what happens in them can also create very personal psychological dramas – JaLL is a good example.

    An instruction in a pre-game workshop can also get folks to focus on particular themes or stories, making the frame the tool to create it.

    But I think I agree with you that it is a lot easier to do by writing characters. Or at leased what we are use to do.

 

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