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LARP Experiments #1 - Plotless LARP Print
Written by Nick Huggins   
Jun 12, 2009 at 06:06 PM

This is the first in a series of articles describing the way that I've written some games which are different to what I've written before, why I wrote them and why they were different. This is adapted from an article I originally wrote for the now-defunct LARPing fanzine "Time In."

"I don't really believe in characters in LARP. Take the characters away and there's still a plot. Take the plot away and the game doesn't exist."

That's the opinion that got me thinking about plotless LARPs. A friend of mine was expounding his ideas over an e-mail list. Before this, I'd always written the "political closed-environment game" that is still most popular here in Ireland, developed for the most part from the highly political Vampire LARPs of the mid-90s. There's character interaction, but it often gets lost in some goal the character has to "rule the world" or "assassinate X." I've always been an advocate of the character interaction part, and I decided that an entire game based on character interaction without a plot would be fun to put together.

So I did it, and developed what was for me a totally different style, more similar to that of the Scandinavian LARPers (though I didn't know it at the time.)

How does it work? Let's take for an example "The Elevator", the first game I wrote that works this way. I wanted a closed environment for ease of control over the game once it started running. I wanted to write a small game – This was an experiment after all. So I settled on the idea of six people stuck in a lift. The game starts when the lift gets jammed between floors during a power outage, and ends when the power comes back. No character linkage – they're all strangers to each other. Furthermore the characters need to be the focus of the game, because there's no plot.

I got pretty nervous straight away. I'm planning running a game for three hours at least where six people might just stare at each other and say nothing, having nothing to do. Then I realized that the GM role is useless in this environment, too. What am I going to do? Sit there and just look at these six people for the duration? Won’t work.

After some thought I decided that the GM should act only in an emergency as a GM. Maybe some character goes crazy and tries to kill people in the Elevator (unlikely.) The GM should also play a character, to better steer conversation and save the game if it begins to flounder. It was a difficult decision to make – Most GMs will admit to being control freaks, and the ones that don't are lying. Could the GM let the game run in such an "out of control" way? I promised to get a grip over my controlling tendencies and try.

So the idea was set. All I needed was six characters. Which is when I started thinking about these characters. They had to be special – Characters which the players of the game could really get their teeth into. I thought about how I'd write them and how I'd get the players to buy into the illusion of being someone else a little more than they normally would in a LARP.

I settled on this – The character is presented firstly as a short story - a little vignette about the character, and some event in their lives. Then comes the "role-playing hints" section, about how the character acts, and generally what they like and dislike. Lastly, I pulled a leaf from such tabletop role-playing games as Phage Press' "Amber" and gave the players a character questionnaire. Twenty questions to be answered in character – "Describe your first kiss", "What do you typically drink in a bar?" The idea was to start the players thinking in character before the game began.

The characters I wrote were all very troubled and confused, and I got worried again. What if the game was too much for someone? What if a shouting match began and couldn't be stopped? So I did something I've laughed at other people for doing. I introduced a Safe Word – A word that would stop the game no matter what was happening.

And then the game ran – In an 8 foot square room (actually a disabled bathroom) in a hotel - with the door closed and the only illumination provided by the strip light above the mirror. The world outside faded away, and the four walls of the bathroom and the cardboard lift control panel I'd hastily constructed and blu-tacked to the wall became the only reality for around four hours.

Why did it work? Because the players really became the characters they were given. Sure, there were silences and pregnant pauses, but while those happened the game's "action" continued in the minds of the players, thinking about the situation they were in and the people they were around. The surroundings helped – It's difficult to be in a small room, cramped up with six other people with no fresh air. It really added to the experience. But the game was about being a disturbing character and thinking as that character, rather than superficially adding a limp and a Russian accent to a set of goals and interactions.

I've run another such game since, and it also worked. Small numbers again, closed-environment as well, and with serious intensity in the characters. I'm currently writing another, and I know of another two games using the same approach being developed at the moment. The next step, of course, is to keep the character intensity whilst bringing back the plot…

User Comments

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