The player’s journey and the character’s journey

I don’t remember where this model comes from. My fuzzy memories tell me that it’s a Swedish idea, from the age before good larp models got talked about at knutepunkts and gathered in knutebooks, but I might be wrong.

The model simply states that during a larp, there are two kinds of personal journeys undertaken: the journey of the player, and the journey of the character. Both might have their high points, their turnarounds, their narrative structure. They might intersect to a great degree – the most important moment of the characters life might also be – to the player – the most important moment of the larp. But then again, it might not.

journeys1
fig. 1 : the player's journey and the character's journey

The character’s journey, being the path of a fictive person, consists entirely of events – things that happen, are said, are done, are described. The player’s journey, the path of the real human, is one of experience – of saying, doing, feeling, thinking, imagining.  The two are obviously not independent of each other. The player’s journey is influenced by what happens to the character, and the player – in turn – decides what the character does.

fig. 2 : the player enacts the character, and the character's journey influences the player's journey
fig. 2 : the player enacts the character, and the character's journey influences the player's journey

In additon, the player experiences the actions of other characters, the progress of the larp itself. These may be interpreted differently from how the character interprets them. I might recognize great role-playing in the player of my characters mortal enemy. But my character, his journey, is the key to unlocking that experience.

The interesting implications of the model begin when you look beyond the larp itself. When does the player’s journey start? That is: when does the player begin forming an experience of the larp? It’s certainly before the larp begins, as players begin building a mental image of what the larp will be like. We might place the beginning of the player’s journey as early as the first time the player hears about the larp, when she first begins imagining what might happen at the larp and who she might play. Or it might be even before that, when the player comes across a costume or a character idea, thinking: at what kind of larp can I play this?

fig. 3 : the player's journey begins by thinking about the larp
fig. 3 : the player's journey begins by thinking about the larp

And when does the players journey end? That is, when does the player’s interpretation of the larp stop evolving? Dare I suggest: never? I still have situations where I re-evaluate larp experiences from 10 years ago in light of life, or re-evaluate life in light of larps played a decade ago. In a sense, this is the mark of truly great larps: they maintain a constant presence in your life.

fig. 4 : interpretation continues post-larp
fig. 4 : interpretation continues post-larp

You might notice I’m speaking here about “interpretation” rather than “action”. Obviously, the player and character’s journeys are only enacted when they intersect: at the larp itself. But that activity is constantly informed by the players interpretations – of the character, the play world, the larp’s style and purpose, the co-players and characters and the events that have already occured.

What then of the characters journey? Does it fit neatly inside the boundaries of the larp? Perhaps not. Its highest density is when it is played, inside the larp-frame, when most of the player’s conscious moments are devoted to exploring the character’s journey. But few characters start out as empty slates – the player, or larpwright, define key points in the characters back-story. And so we can visualize it as a path extending backwards in time from the larp.

But wait! At the onset of the larp, we do not know all there is to know about the character’s past life. Much is added through improvisation. As a player, I might invent a childhood anecdote to tell. Or simply refine my idea of who the character is and was in the past.

fig. 5 : the characters story begins before the character is played
fig. 5 : the characters story begins before the character is played

And furthermore, unless the character dies at the larp, we can imagine its story – its journey – stretching forward into an unknown future.

I remember a player who complained about the dramatic ending of the larp Kybergenesis, a nitty-gritty dystopia where most of the characters died towards the end. The player insisted his experience would have been stronger if he had left the larp knowing that his character’s life would have continued unchanged – in other words, if he had felt certain that he knew the characters journey would continue, and had an idea of how it would continue. This became the effect I designed for in Europa and PanoptiCorp, by trying to give players a clear idea of the characters’ daily life and ending the larps at a point where it seemed the daily life would continue. Alternately, of course, one can try to reach the climactic conclusion to the character’s journey at the larp, which was the effect we designed for at Moirais Vev and Mytteriet.

fig. 6 : provided the character survives the larp, her story continues into the unknown future
fig. 6 : provided the character survives the larp, her story continues into the unknown future

What is the value of this model? Partially, I find it a useful reminder of what a larp looks like to the player – and of how a larpwrights work will ultimately be evaluated. Not by the elegance of plot charts, or the literary value of written texts, nor by the beauty of the scenography. But by the story that can be told of the character’s journey, by the evolving interpretations and reinterpretations in the player’s mind. I have been to larps that seemed like failures, but that grew and grew as players continued reflected on their experiences. Conversely, I have been to larps that received extatic reviews immediately after their conclusion, but that were forgotten not long after.

Were we to compare ourselves to painters, our canvas would be the player’s journey. Our brush is the character’s journey. Plot, character, scenography, drama – these are simply daubs of paint.

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