Raking the sandbox

What larp has which other live games tend not to is characterisation. Larp is perhaps well described as a consensual halluncination, participants jointly existing as characters in a world as well as a players in a game. Maintaining that hallucination is problematic even for small events with players selected for the ability to ingest and portray deep background information. In fest larp it’s doubly difficult, where players number in the hundreds and somehow all those player characters must live in the _same_ world.

As fest larp games are born, worlds are created. Some have started with very broad strokes, some with more a finer brush. Some are open – in that characters from other worlds can step in, some are closed. All develop from the moment of inception. Player characters’ backgrounds and play, and the game organiser’s continuing creativity in plot/story/narrative fill out the detail. This growing consensus presents its own challenge in documenting of what it is to live in a game-world in a way which is intelligible to the newcomer. I’m far from qualified in how to approach world-creation as an exercise in creative writing. What I do find interesting is the role that conscious game design might play in that process.

All fest larps are a sandbox. Hundreds of players can’t be kept busy with organiser-generated activity. The vast majority of interactions will be between player character and player character. Clearly, there’s a major role for continuing plot/story/narrative to spark interactions, and a major role for the kind of structured gamish activity on which Odyssey prides itself. I’ve thought about the second a lot, and I’ve been involved in the first, and watched others better than I do marvellous things. But before my (small) role in the Empire creative process, I’d never really considered the ways in which the pre-written history of a world, the background material that gets written before the game even starts might help answer the eternal question of fest larp organisers: what will all these people do all weekend?

There’s a fine balance to be walked between providing background that inspires meaningful interactions between players, and inflicting duties on them. Pretty much every player wants to be busy at their larp events; certainly we’re all quick to comment if there’s not enough to do. However, what’s not so generally well received is imposed activity. Either because of a shared quirk of psychology or just because larp is meant, after all, to be fun. Some is fine; perhaps it’s the meat of the game, and you’d not be there if you didn’t enjoy it.

Some of that imposed activity is the result of game design. Guard duty, for example. Can be fun, if you choose to do it, or for those who simply enjoy it. But it’s not invariably enjoyable. Even in a fest game, there doesn’t have to be a need for it, and game design can avoid it, or at least minimise the need for it.

Some of it an implication of writing, perhaps not even a conscious implication. I remember a particulary poor choice of character background – the necessity of saying “yes” to an offer of a drink – causing untold pain to a non-player role inflicted on one poor unfortunate.

It’s particularly good, I believe, when the ideas for meaningful interaction come from players, inspired by the world background as written. Say, Dan Williams and the Flembic players at Maelstrom making the idea of wedding challenges such a great inspiration for epic stories. That’s player choice, and I don’t for one moment think that it would have been as effective if imposed by game organsiers.

I’d got further – I don’t believe we can impose duties that eat time. When we _do_ include a tradition that takes time, we should allow do it when they want to, and be able to postpone or gloss over it when they don’t. What I think we can do is inspire players to come up with their own that are in tune with the nation backgrounds we write. We can drop in skills that imply a sort of activity, but not provide detail. (Such as the “Open Gate of Ivory” skill in Odyssey, which says “You may perform a rite over the body of a dead member of your nation and send their soul through a Gate of Ivory to the afterlife.” but doesn’t give precise details of what the rite is, or say it is required for every death…) We can salt our background material with examples where a named group, an archetypal group, “does things this way”. We can list themes for a nation, themes that bound the sorts of traditions groups in a nation might impose on themselves.

There’s a world of difference between a duty imposed, and a possibility presented. Conscious game design should present more of the later, and less of the former. Duties are a burden. Possibilities are an inspiration.

One thought on “Raking the sandbox

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  1. Time based activities. Yeah. At Carum, everything which usually takes an amount of time has been set to 10 minutes – arguably a long time in larp, but it covers all item creation, rituals, even learning skills. It’s simple, and it sort of says “you have to settle down somewhere to do this”, but it doesn’t ruin your entire afternoon.

    I’ll not bore you to tears with the details, but all of these 10 minute activities are set up with inputs and outputs, each one of which is a meaningful interaction, so each time you want to do something, it has a place in a large network of interactions.

    There were issues with the pacing of the first event, which had some linear elements, and some non-linear, and a bit of a gap between them, which emerged at lunchtime on Saturday, but by the evening, the players were literally sending our NPCs away because they were too busy working with each other.

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