Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Evolving Narrative of LARP

Love reading stories that transport you to a different world? LARP provides you with an interactive experience where you can create and star in your own fictional narrative.  ♦ 
"Bam-Bam!” a burly voice rang through the woods. It was odd how my body responded as though it was my real name. I turned to find a tall man stomping in my direction. I could tell by the stickman painted on his face that he was a part of my tribe. Although I didn’t know who he was, he sure knew me.

By participating in live action role play, or LARP, players can enter into another world’s narrative by assuming the role of a character that could exist there. The players and the game masters work together to create a story within their respective games. Being very similar to improv, the stories that are created for and through these games tend to evolve greatly over time, sometimes even during gameplay.

In this case, it was my first large-scale game, with roughly fifty players present. I went to this game with a relatively new friend in the middle of winter and was going to be there all weekend. The game I chose to play was Dystopia Rising, a full-immersion, post-apocalyptic game in which I would be in character for almost the entire time I was there. (Of course, the game stopped for a few hours for sleep, and gameplay was off limits in the restrooms.)

Despite having done online role-play for years, I was completely out of my comfort zone. The one advantage I had was that my character was supposed to be antisocial, which made it a lot easier for me to role-play through my own anxieties. In reality, most of it was a lot easier than I’d led myself to believe it would be. Although I spent the entire weekend surrounded by mostly strangers, I never once felt like I didn’t belong. Everyone welcomed me with open arms and helped me learn the ropes. I thought I wouldn’t enjoy myself if I didn’t have a few close friends play with me, but I had a blast walking through the snow by myself and meeting new people.

The most enjoyable part of the game was being an NPC, or a non-player character. In Dystopia Rising, each player has to work a shift as an NPC before “graduating” to a full character with a personal plot of one’s own. Sometimes being an NPC involves some level of role-play within another player’s personal plot. Sometimes it would merely be taking on combat roles, a facet of LARP that isn’t a part of every game. Doing the NPC shift, I saw more of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into these larger games, including a glimpse into the world of the game’s writers.

Because there are a multitude of different types of games, Game Masters (the people crafting these stories, also known as storytellers) have to come up with various ways to tackle their narratives. Some will begin planning their next story immediately after completing a game while others will roll with the punches and think on their feet during gameplay, or some combination of the two styles. No matter the direction they take when creating their stories, storytellers can experience a change in plans as early as the first minute into a LARP game.

Maria Cambone, who has been LARPing for 10 years and writing for LARPs periodically throughout, explains that your plans for a game narrative can easily be completely derailed. For example, if you plan a game for fifty people and, upon getting to the game, realize that only half that number shows up—and most of them are from out of town—you would recognize the narrative needs you had originally anticipated are now different. Occasionally, the storyteller may want to talk with new players prior to gameplay to see what they are hoping to get out of the game. Sometimes the players know, and other times they figure it out together during the game.

Photo credit: Dystopia Rising Colorado

Naturally, being a writer, I am deeply interested in this aspect of LARP, even trying my hand at creating LARP narratives a few times in some of my classes. But these narratives are harder to craft than they might appear. As James Mateika, a LARPer of 11 years, says, “The hardest part is recognizing if the players are frustrated or still having fun.” And I found this to be the case when writing my own: what I thought would be fun on paper didn’t always translate in person, especially in the early stages of designing a game. Other obstacles also arose, such as players being hard to read and things not always going the way you anticipated, much like Mateika experienced in one of his games that involved fighting with foam weapons known as boffers.

“In one game we completely missed that we were in the wrong area and killed what was supposed to be the end boss of a weekend-long game,” Mateika says. Since this occurred within the first few hours, the storytellers found that they needed to revisit the drawing board, and fast. Other times, players can think of things in ways the storyteller hadn’t considered, going in a completely different direction than initially intended.

Having role-played many times prior to trying Dystopia Rising, I already noticed how easy it was for me to assume the roles of my characters in stories I was working on. I have learned that this comes in handy when writing dialogue and creating well thought-out characters. Noticing these benefits to LARPing, I started to wonder more about storytelling in LARP games and how it could affect my writing in forms other than LARP writing.

This led me to understand that my involvement in role-play could actually have something to do with why I struggle to come up with a structured story. Though there are many things that can be learned from a LARP game’s narrative, Cambone believes that it’s not a skill that easily translates to other mediums. You can learn skills that will help greatly when building a good setting, or even help in understanding how different characters can realistically interact with one another. However, when it comes to creating plot, it’s rather difficult to master if you focus all your creative energy on LARPing. I’ve noticed that if I spend a lot of time role-playing and go to write immediately afterwards, I struggle to create without another person’s energy to feed off of. However, as Cambone has expressed, the more you work on maintaining your craft, the easier it will be for you to create narratives on your own. It’s an activity that forces you to think on your feet and put yourself in another pair of shoes . . . and it also allows you to encounter a roller coaster of emotions, make new friends, and experience things that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Cambone puts it best when she says, “LARP is an experience I live.” While you can watch a movie with another person or share your thoughts about a book with others, the story remains something that you both were told. With LARP, the story is an interactive experience with another human being, something that you’ve both lived through together. You, as your character, could feel one way towards another player’s character while feeling completely different outside of the game. While LARP isn’t an activity for everyone, it allows anyone to create their own unique experience. LARP is its own kind of medium in which the list of authors is endless and the price of entry can be as low as finding a group of friends.

  • About the Author
    Rebecca Helton is a fifth-year at Miami University majoring in Interactive Media Studies with a focus on game design and minoring in Creative Writing. Rebecca is hoping to combine her two areas of study to prepare for her future as a graduate student working toward a career in Student Affairs.

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