I’ll preface this post by saying I am not omnipotent. I haven’t been involved in the American freeform scene near as long as many well-known names (Lizzie Stark, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Jacqueline Bryk, and Shoshana Kessock are some of the first that come to mind) but I sure as hell am dedicated to this new era of merging Nordic-style LARP with wide-spread American LARP culture. Everything this post is written from my experiences in the trenches of LARP as both player and designer. Your experiences may vary. I completely welcome you to add your thoughts in the comments because every experience grows our house of knowledge.
Edit/Update Comment: There has been, recently, a big debate/strong push back against using the term ‘Nordic’ around this sort of LARP design. I won’t edit the post just to make it look better, but agree that I wasn’t all that comfortable with such things to begin with, which is why I put definitions at the top of this post for the purposes of this post. Those definitions stay, even if they are pale and too small to actually encompass the history of all LARP traditions or the politics we are facing nowdays. With that preface, let’s get started…
The face of the American LARP scene is changing at an incredibly rapid pace and it’s exciting. While there are still many boffer and stats-oriented campaigns out there, even some of those campaigns are incorporating what we would consider Nordic (or ‘freeform’) style elements of negotiation, player emotional safety, and narrative building. But there is a new style of LARP spearheaded by a few companies in the US who are specifically trying to combine the long standing style of Nordic LARPing with American minded gaming. Learn LARP’s New World Magischola was one of the first major blockbusters to pave this road. Then Peculiar Crossroad Productions’ Armistice Arcane did it in January, Sinking Ship Creations’ Project Ascension did it in May, and Hanging Lantern’s Real Royalty did it in June. I’m also looking forward to the launch of the Lost Colonies LARP, who are combining these principles into a long-form campaign. I’ve touched on all of these projects in some form and I want to share some of the lessons we learned for people looking to run these style games in the future. Most of my discussion will relate to Project Ascension, as I was the Head Storyteller and tasked with specifically teaching Nordic-style mechanics to American LARPers.
Some quick and dirty definitions for MY purposes of this article (your agreement mileage may vary):
“Nordic-Style” LARP: Games written without many (if any) stats-based mechanics and often played with the strict purpose of evoking strong emotions, deep player connections, simulation/recreation experiences, and collective narrative story. The mechanics in these games usually revolve around scene building, consenting to character experiences, emotional safety checks, and safe but simulated violence. This has, up until recently, been slang in American LARP culture for such freeform games. We are working on moving away from this slang slowly but surely.
American LARP: While a widely varied history, much American LARP has revolved around long-run, points/stats based campaigns where growing a character is as much based on point expenditures as it is story development. This style of LARPing encompasses both the “boffer” style (where combat is live with safety-padded weapons) and the parlor rock-scissors-paper or cards style (where combat is resolved through some random chance number pull.) There has absolutely been a lively American freeform scene, but it was contained in small pockets of the country and has not much infiltrated the “Average Middle America LARPer” awareness until the last few years.
Here are a few of the most difficult challenges I’ve seen across all these games where it comes to teaching your average, stats-based American LARPer how to play more Nordic/Freeform type of games. These are the most prominent things to keep in mind while designing your LARP:
- Play-to-Win Culture: The drive to compete and win is built deep inside the American psyche (see: competitive sports, poker tournaments, or the amount of funding we give to football vs debate teams in schools, etc.) For many Americans, it’s cultural upbringing that if we are playing a game, we should do everything in our power to win that game. When stats are put on a LARP, the need to be the best at a certain type of skill, to be the strongest combatant, or the greatest researcher, is often an automatic drive in American gamer minds. It’s not that we are bad players, it’s just that we grew up being told the point of games is to win. Without this ‘win’ condition, some players feel quite lost. Without stats to back up their words of ‘I’m the best driver in New York City’, they feel like they cannot actually bring that into play.
- Plot Comes to You, Not Vice-Versa: Creating one’s own plot and taking agency was never a thing that I was taught growing up in the North American LARP scene. A good player prepared, talked to their allies, listened to the clues the storyteller dropped, and got ready for the monster of the night. Bothering the storytellers was often looked down upon and got someone whispered about as a ‘problem’ player. Therefore, many American players have been trained out of taking any personal agency, which is a vital component to the Nordic style of LARPing.
- Secret-Keepers: American LARP does not promote the sharing of secret information in the least. Keeping your dark history away from the ears of ANYONE that would use it against you is often a driving goal for ‘play-to-win’ oriented gamers. In Nordic-style games, a secret kept is an opportunity missed. The only good secret is one that comes out in game. This is a near impossible habit to break every player from doing and a consistent challenge.
- Doing it Wrong: I believe this is a deep-rooted fear of gamers across the world: doing something ‘wrong’ that will be looked down upon by your fellow teammates or storytellers. It often scares players out of taking chances. This is a huge challenge when teaching them an entirely new gaming form because people are nervous to get it wrong, look stupid, or break the game. Therefore, just when we need players to take MORE risks in trying this new gaming style, many shy or less experienced players will take LESS risks in the fear of getting it wrong. This fear has been ingrained even more in people’s minds with current American trends disparaging “Play-to-lose” or “Doing the stupid.” You need to design to encourage people to take risks and embrace failure.
Lessons for the Future
I like to start with what we can do better in the future and then end with our successes. So, these are the places where it didn’t go perfect and recommendations for future game runners:
- In Workshop, Give Players Starting Points: When you are coaching them to do new
activities in the workshops, give the players something concrete to start with. Be it an opening line, physical motion, or exact description of a scene. When players are new to these types of workshops, no matter how well you explain the practice activity, shy players and people who don’t take agency will have issues starting the activity quickly as they grasp for the way to ‘do it right.’ This delay eats into the precious time they could be spending on character and mechanics building activities. If you give them springboard, they can dive into the exercise much easier.
- PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: Any new mechanics you are teaching the players you should have them collectively practice at least once. We did this with everything except for the ‘combat’ mechanics in Project Ascension, and we could see the players struggling to use them on stage. Practiced mechanics all got used far easier by players.
- Cue-to-Cue: Any theatrical production needs a cue-to-cue so everyone knows how the light, sound effects, props and staging will go. You will always discover things that are broken, don’t mesh well, or if a built piece isn’t working the way you imagined. If you do a cue-to-cue before the game, these discoveries happen off camera and not in the middle of action!
- Encourage Secret Sharing: No matter how many times you tell players that a kept secret is no good to anyone, they are going to hoard secrets. This might be personal backstory or it might be plot. Many American players have been taught there is not enough plot to go around, so they hold it close to the chest in efforts to make their game better. Remind players throughout the game (if possible) that divulging secrets creates better story. Build rewards or mechanical encouragements into your system for people to prompt other players to open up and share.
- Reinforce Safety and Staff Contact Mechanics: People are shy, do not wish to disturb the game, or get so caught up in the action they forget to break character. Sometimes, it’s important they go off game and take care of a problem mid action, so it doesn’t grow to become a bigger issue. If there is some way to remind players of these mechanics in the middle of the game, it is worth doing. I’ll be writing a longer post sometime soon about how players need to be willing to step forward and use their staff and safety mechanics, because no staff can help fix a problem they don’t know exists.
- Workshop: Other than the notes above, I was incredibly proud of our workshop for Project Ascension. If you want to see my outling of the whole thing, you can find it here. It was a good mix of off-game mechanics, in-game character building, activities that kept the people moving, and important information. My goals were:
- Have the players moving their bodies at least once every 10 minutes (or doing something interactive instead of just listening to me)
- Have 2/3rds of the time in the workshop spent on active character building between player character ties and factions
- Clearly explain each mechanic used and practice them at least once
- Leave room for a break halfway through
- Break the players into their factions for at least a third of the workshop and let them build the deepest in and out of character support in their groups
- Do the spectrum exercise without moving around the room — Having players raise their hands for how their character identified instead of moving from one end to the other of the morality/character type ‘spectrums’ let the whole game still see where characters lay without the chaos of people fighting to be the very ends of each spectrum
- Bespoke Characters: This is all Ryan Hart and Sinking Ship Creations’ huge idea. While I’ve been at a lot of games that have written very detailed characters for players and said if you have big problems, we can fix it, Ryan took it a step forward. He offered Project Ascension players a literally tailored character. He wrote them each to the players’ surveys and then sent them to players asking for ANY alterations they wanted. Not just if there were issues. He wanted to design these characters to fit like a bespoke suit, and that worked really well for the entire game.
- Staff Plot “Monster of the Night” AND Player Agency Plot: I saw this first with Magischola in small ways, then HUGELY with Armistice Arcane and Project Ascension. Those games melded staff run plot including climax the last night of game, various ‘away’ missions’, and faction tailored plot in addition to whatever plot the players wanted to create themselves. While we did our best to give the players as much agency as possible and let them create their own little plots in the world, having assigned, staff-run plot really helped the less agency-oriented players at least get a foot into the game.
- Trained NPCs/Facilitators: Ryan ran a beautiful workshop for our NPCs (we called them facilitators) and I think a lot of games could benefit greatly from this workshop. It included things like the ability to recognize players who are bored, how to pull players out of their shells, how to interact with scenes more openly, how to spread plot around even if players are hoarding it, and selling the plot skills. Figure out what is important to your game and your design then take the time to TRAIN all of your staff in those important things, so they can help sell your design to all the players present.
- “Yes, but…”: When players want to take agency above and beyond the scope of the game, we trained our staff and our NPCs on how to help players sculpt their ideas to remain in genre without breaking the story. Never let anyone turn a player down who is trying to take agency. If your NPC staff is trained about your game’s design and goals, they should be able to work with that player to help them better drive their idea in a direction that will help the game but also keep their passion for the kind of story they want to tell.
- Physical Contact Telegraphing: (This is another, longer blog post coming) While people should absolutely, always have control of their own physical space, it’s hard to break a scene to negotiate permission just to shake someone’s hand or hug them. We trained our players how to telegraph that they want physical contact before going in for a touch, so minor physical interactions could be taken without breaking scene to ask. As ever, any DRAMATIC physical contact should always be pre-negotiated no matter what.
- Training Players to Negotiate in Character: Project Ascension really worked to make certain people broke character as little as possible despite having a lot of negotiation mechanics to make the game as safe as possible. We taught our players how to approach a negotiation with an in character style, instead of breaking to talk out the scene. A good example would be one character needing to lock up another character for being dangerous. Instead of breaking game and asking the other player how they’d like to be captured, the player could say angrily in character: “You KNOW I should arrest you right now. You have thirty seconds to give me a damn good reason not to lock you up!” And so the negotiation starts in character without any actual in character violence being taken up front.
There is so much more to be said here and there may be a follow up blog one of these days, but this one has gone on long enough. I cannot wait to see more of these style games built in the future and a huge thank you to all the above gaming companies for helping lead this revolution.