The Downside of Between Game Plot and Roleplay

For as long as I have been LARPing, there have been game actions, downtimes, text roleplay, chat rooms, and other forms of ‘LARP’ which don’t actually take place at the LARP. Some might say they are the glue that holds strong campaign storylines together. For one-shot games, many people take this pre-game downtime to build strong character ties or factions. However, I am going to put forward a controversial opinion, one that I only learned when I first started roleplaying with Dystopia Rising (and I’m open to civil debate and feedback in the comments): I don’t think any sort of staff-facilitated between game roleplay is healthy for LARP. Game is at game. In fact, I don’t think off-game roleplay is healthy for most LARP in general (as ever, please take this opinion with a grain of salt, your mileage may vary, and there are always situations which lay outside the norm). I see between-game plot and roleplay doing far more harm than good, and here’s my reasoning:

It Promotes Negative Bleed/Obsession: In our technological day and age, between Discord, Facebook, forums, email, and people living on their phones, having active between game roleplay access means that if someone never wants to disconnect from the game, they don’t have to. They can stay up to all hours of the night roleplaying with friends and then expect answers from their GMs during the days or evening hours after work. They have no reason to break out of the game world (especially if life is going rather hard), and so they remain tightly tied to the characters, game brain-space, and emotions from the game as a way to escape from real life. Promoting such between game roleplay not only encourages this, it rewards it over people who don’t have the time to do so, leading to my second point…

It Punishes Busy Players: I’ve seen the pattern with myself and dozens of other friends — in our late teens and early 20s, we had hours and days to game. If we were lucky, we had nothing to do but go to school and then could spend all our other time immersed in our pretend world, a world which was far more enticing than the reality of our lives. As we got busier — jobs searches, jobs, careers, families, lovers, etc — that time cut down. We still love gaming and NEED those precious few weekends away at a LARP to remember what it’s like to play and relax. But we don’t have hours to spend on the computer doing proxies, in-between game actions, email thread scenes, or planning massive battles. In certain LARPs, this means the busy are left behind. They have no chance to hold important positions or get involved in high level plot. And, frankly? It sucks. I’d much prefer all players who actually are attending events have the same level access to storytellers and plot as people who are highly active between events.

It Exhausts Your Staff: Maybe this should be at the top of the list, because it’s one of the biggest issues I see: Writing plot for a LARP is exhausting if we’re JUST looking at running a long weekend. While players get time off between games, most of us staff members immediately start working on the next big event just a few spare days after our last one closed. If I had to facilitate between-game roleplay or actions as WELL as plan the plot for the entire next event? I’d burn out in a year. I see a lot of staff in burn out already. I see people struggling to write plot responses, which takes time away from the actual planning of the game itself. I’d much rather see staff members put extra energy to planning things to happen on the ground of the game and not writing things in a technological space.

It Creates Artificial Connections: For as many lovely stories, bonding, and personal plots I’ve seen come out of between game roleplay, I’ve also seen things that have been built up to be huge things fall flat on their face. It creates expectations of plot (sometimes between players, sometimes players and staff) that often don’t pan out once they are in live spaces. The chemistry between actual players in physical space is so different than the fantasies we build on the internet and it can create huge disappointment when the things you worked so hard on through between game roleplay fall flat in person. I have seen this the MOST in planning pre-game character ties (and doing pre-game RP) for one-shot, free form games. It can incredibly suck to go into a game and have your biggest relationships fall flat. Maybe it’s simply wiser to see with whom you click in the workshop?

It’s Called LARP: (Here’s where I’m going to get some hate, but please, hold onto the end.) LARP. Live Action Role Play. To me, this implies actually living in the space, acting out the characters, and being face-to-face in some fashion. Making plot for your game happen in spaces that are not live inherently takes away from a lot of the magic that LARPing is. Yes, I know there are simply things that CANNOT happen in a live play space — massive space battles (though we know people who run it, looking at you, Nerdy City), crazy away missions, something totally outside of your game space — but maybe this should be more responsive plot design to what you DO have instead of designing outside of those bounds. Inside Hamlet does this excellently with their warboard.cropped-criminals-poker.jpg

Now, this isn’t a black and white issue. Traditional LARPing is immensely ableist and it’s been very difficult to get away from ableist spaces in the weekend-long camp renting community. In addition, there are many people in my life (and myself at one point in time) who are in LARP-deserts and have no access to the kind of gaming that they love. Some players need to do between game roleplay to help with their bleed issues, as it helps them come out of game more than leaving things on cliffhangers. And yes, as mentioned above, sometimes there are things you just WANT or NEED to do in a plot which cannot happen in live game spaces (at least, not in the fully immersive, what-you-see-is-what-you-get LARPing that tends to be the trend these days.) I believe our wonderful technologies can help with this without forcing players and staff to spend more time LARP-Plotting on the internet than they do in live spaces.

Downtimes: This was old Mind’s Eye Society tradition from the very first days I started gaming. We’d have game once or twice a month and a general, in-person downtime to handle between game plotting or actions. The story staff would be present, players would be able to have face-to-face scenes, and people weren’t stuck on their email or IRC for hours at a time trying to handle plot responses. For games that require some sort of plot or facilitated communication between games, I absolutely think scheduled downtimes at certain hours are a good middle ground. They help manage player expectations for themselves and for staff time; don’t put your staff into burn out; and still keep some live in LARPing. Nowadays, downtimes could be run through Discord or Google Hangouts so people don’t even need to leave their homes while still having a more live experience.

Digital LARPing: Just because it takes place on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s not a LARP. From the old days of mIRC based ‘games’ where you could log in at set hours, there were storytellers, and they would run plot for us remote players for those few hours of a ‘game,’ to the modern day era of LARPs combining live, in-person play with remote play options, there is a way for live action to remain in the digital space. Some current games doing this are Emergent, Diablerie LARP, Doomsday, Event Horizon and several games from The Geek Initiative. While there is still a ways to go to include differing timezones and other challenges, it’s been exciting to see LARP transformed by the digital playspace.

On-Site Blackbox Areas: Abigail Corfman was the first person to take me into a black box, imaginary place at a what-you-see-is-what-you-get game, when she took us all to the Iron run village during a Dystopia Rising game, many years ago. We sat in a dark shed, eyes mostly closed, being talked through a far-away place in our imaginations. We still listened to each other’s breaths. At one point, I still held someone’s hand. A vivid, live experience occured in a way that could never have in our direct game space. While this is a method that shouldn’t be leaned on OFTEN, the old tradition of actually playing pretend could still be used in certain sections of more immersive games. Nerdy City’s X-Wing space battles is another excellent example of this sort of play. Let your players have access to bigger, off-site plot but still keep it during game time. The challenge here is doing it sparingly, so it has more power, instead of half the game being off in side rooms that aren’t actually present on site.

I’m immensely curious to hear people’s thoughts on this. Whether you have better suggestions as to how to fight the challenges that game-only-at-game presents, if you have other reasons you think between game LARPing is a poor idea, or if you think I’m totally wrong, please let me know in a constructive fashion. As ever, this is just the start of the discussion.

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8 thoughts on “The Downside of Between Game Plot and Roleplay

  1. Sharon Underberg says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. In particular, I have found pre-larp player initiated text based RP to be super helpful in developing characters and relationships for one shot freeform larps (NWM, CoW in particular)–ESPECIALLY as a new player. Once you know others it’s easy to shorthand some relationships, but I am immensely grateful to experienced larpers who reached out to a newbie and included me in plot before the larp and helped me deepen my sense of my character.. That said, I’m also one of those people you mentioned without a lot of spare time, so it’s crazy making trying to fit in text RP while prepping for a larp that involves costumes and travel. In addition, I’m aware of the possibility that people who didn’t have time to do this might feel less deeply involved.

    As far as text RP after the larp–I have done it and it helped me deal with bleed and ease out of the experience more gently.

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  2. Andy Sirkin (Dragontologist) says:

    I am a fan of limited RP between players that doesn’t involve the GMs/Storytellers, because it can keep up my interest in the game (and I’m speaking of both GM and player for that!). And it gives a good opportunity to explain IC what you’re doing between events. But I agree, people can take anything to extremes, and anything more than a scene or two (like, one post per player per day) definitely makes for some of the problems you’re talking about.

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  3. Tara M. Clapper says:

    If you treat digital and remote larp components as an add-on instead of an integral part of the gaming experience, that’s how it’s going to feel. If you don’t have conversations about bleed, safety and consent negotiation, and workshopping in digital larp, it’s going to contribute problems instead of ease them.

    Karin Edman refers to the “physicality of larp” as the differentiating factor between in-persona nd remote larping, and I agree. But people also use that as an excuse to make a digital component more like an extra than part of the game. That’ll serve to alienate players and avoid immersion.

    Sometimes I work on digital components for others’ IP. One of these larps has a player who cannot attend in-person games for several reasons, including distance. This player is also one of the most loyal participants and appears to be one of the most engaged.

    The problematic nature of in-between gaming is more related to a wider issue of campaign larps, and is it a good idea to run campaign-style games? Are they accessible to new players? (I am not sure about the answer, and I make/play both!)

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  4. Alexandre Foisy-Geoffroy says:

    I get your point, and I mostly agree, but some of us have a harder time making connections with other human beings, and one game is too short for some of us.

    I’ll speak purely for myself here: I am autistic, and I cannot read people very well. I’ve gotten a *lot* better at it in the last decade, but reading the fake emotions an actor portrays while he is experiencing other emotions him or herself is extremely difficult for me. It’s also difficult for me to guess what emotional impact my words and my actions will have on other people.

    Finally, I tend to be off in whatever I do (by not looking people in the eye, and not following social norms, etc.).

    Since I have to sorta guess what the other people’s characters think of mine to build those relationships, I tend to end up alone in a corner within two hours of the beginning of the game, feeling rejected, if I did not have ic relationships established beforehand. This rejection feeling might just be in my head: it’s very difficult for me to know, and that’s a huge part of the problem.

    It’s way, way easier for me if we agreed on a simple: “we have worked together on Mission X before and you saved me from that threat, and I feel indebted to you since then” beforehand. It reduces the amount of guessing I have to make with at least that person, which creates a safer space for me in the LARP.

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  5. Samara says:

    (x-posted from Patreon upon request)

    I’m of two very conflicted minds on this. As a staff member, I was always firmly on the side of “this world exists outside the two days a month we spend playing in it, we put a lot of work into building it, please interact with it”. It always irked me that the entire world basically shut down for 28 days out of the month, and I welcomed players who wanted to build complete day-to-day lives for their characters. It thrilled me to know people cared about the story we were telling. Additionally, as a player I very much enjoy the occasional RP with my friends to flesh out the story we’re telling onstage. It’s been particularly nice as a supplement to my current D&D game, especially when we end session on an emotional cliffhanger.

    That said.

    On the staff side, I was the person in charge of plot responses and it was an utterly exhausting amount of work. There were some events where I had so many responses to write, I simply couldn’t contribute to the event itself beyond tying in elements of the responses. No matter how hard we tried to put limits on what people could do in their In-Between Game Actions, people still overstepped the bounds on a regular basis and tried to do things that really should have been done onstage. In the latter years of the campaign we moved to a more Plot Request type model (requesting something happen or an NPC appear at the next event), which helped, but we still had many players who wanted to tabletop their characters.

    On the player side, I very much agree with your post. I’m 30, I’ve been LARPing for over a decade and I have a full-time job and other hobbies; I simply don’t have the time to dedicate to living in my characters’ worlds. I keenly understand that feeling of being punished for not having said time — I came in on the ground floor of a brand new game over the past year and I already feel like I’ve missed my chance to be a fully integrated character because I can’t be ever present for online plot, ARG and RP. I watch intense personalities and friendships develop that don’t read nearly the same at an actual event, because moving in a physical space is so different than typing at a keyboard, no matter how genuine you try to be with your online presence. It breeds frustration and even resentment as the FOMO intensifies, which is not a great headspace to be in at any time, but especially when walking into an event.

    I have no idea what my conclusion is, but I deeply appreciate you writing this.

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  6. Michelle Stagnitta says:

    I feel this on so many levels.

    As someone who has a high level, high-ranking noble PC in one game, I often felt like I had to be super involved between games and coordinate actions to make sure my character was managing her (Imaginary) lands and holdings. I sometimes put so much work into it, it felt like a second job. And that’s for just one of the games I play.

    The flipside of that, as staff, responding to between-game-actions was kind of a two-edged sword. On the one hand it was always encouraging to get a slew of responses because “oh awesome, the players are into it!” On the other hand, they are absolutely exhausting to write, and every moment I spend writing those is a moment spent NOT writing the next event.

    I’ve reached the point where I’ll chatter with people OOC when I have the time, and make a more concerted effort to do so right before an event if we’re trying to coordinate a scene or logistics like sleeping arrangements or food. But I no longer have the time to be glued to my screen all day JUST IN CASE a game message comes across.

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  7. bamfshee says:

    I am a fan of between game communication, though I like to leave the RP mostly for actually being in the game space.
    I use Facebook, emails, and chats to coordinate plans between other PCs and to share information. Things that I don’t necessarily want to spend my whole game time doing when often there are other things going on. I get that some people need that extra RP bit to get in character. Though I have never expected staff to keep track of or respond to anything between game unless it was for out of game concerns like schedule conflicts or something.
    So I guess I’m for limited/ non-plot involved between game communication. And I think limited RP is ok as long as the PCs understand that it isn’t on staff to know or respond to things that happen between games. The games I play do Post Event Letters where PCs can write out what they want to do and what is going on with their characters to let staff know.

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