(Featured Photo by Javier Cañada on Unsplash.) Larp, at least as I play it, is inherently a storytelling medium. Even in the most simulationist games, or events where combat plot tends to be the focus, there is a story which forms out of the events on the ground. When people go to afters, they sit around telling “war stories” and the ones that we remember for years after are the ones with the highest drama. Now, sometimes that means it was the biggest fight you won, or the coolest piece of treasure you ever found, but there is always a sense of something epic to the “war stories” that last through the ages. Elements of classic literary storytelling tend to naturally exist in our playspaces, whether we planned for them or not. I’d like to talk about one particular element in this blog: Themes.
One of the first things students are taught in grade school literature is how to pick themes out of a story. We are coached in the basics of story analysis that paragraphs, chapters, and entire stories always have themes. Some themes are taught as foundations of entire types of literature (See: The Heroic Arc, or Revenge Tragedies, etc.) Others grow naturally out of stories and don’t quite seem to fit into easily defined boxes. I argue that every good story has a theme and the story of your larp character is no different. Identifying the theme of your story can do a lot to support better roleplay. In fact, playing to theme and pursuing roleplay along those lines is a way of getting to tell more of those epic “war stories” at the end of the day. A story with a clear narrative is more captivating being told around a fire! Even if you’re in a strongly gameist or simulationist campaign, acknowledging the theme of your story helps to make better sense of a lot of disparate plot and your character’s personal direction.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. It might be hard to figure out how you’d focus a character’s story around an overarching theme if you’ve never seen it in action. In my personal experience, my character’s themes seem to come out as they are being played. They rarely end up being the ones I go into the campaign expecting. Let’s take Moira as an example. When I first built her, I was expecting her themes to be close to that of the Wizard of Oz: A con-artist who gets in over her head: Deception. But the very first game changed that dramatically as her deceptions quickly were revealed and people pushed to see the true woman behind the show. From then on, her story quickly turned into one of flawed human struggling to be the good person others see in her. Most of her stories over the years fell into that arc: Her repeated attempts of recovery from addiction, her struggle to not tell the habitual lies, her confusion at life after illness, even her relationship with her now husband. Still, as I examined it, that initial theme is a little too complicated. If I put that on an English paper, I’d be scolded and told to trim it down, find the real MEAT of the story. Focusing in further, a single word surfaces in her story: Recovery. The struggle to start a new life after a long sickness, addiction, bad habits, or worse. There is a reason it’s called ‘recovery’ and not being cured — She’ll never be a fully healthy person. She’ll never be free of her flaws, but every year she gets a bit better. It gets a little easier.
Now that I have that theme in mind, it’s easier to steer into roleplay that better compliments that story. I acknowledge that the struggles she faces aren’t because she’s failing as a character, or because Ericka enjoys being a drama queen, but because that’s the basic theme of her entire narrative. Without the struggle, the occasional failure, and the SUCCESSES, she’s not the character I grew to love playing. Once upon a time, I made a choice to try and take her off that set theme. That she’d grown or changed enough she was done with fighting against her past. Within a few months, I was growing restless and bored. I didn’t understand at the time that trying to change her story so dramatically altered who she was on a basic level. When she finally failed at trying to be that completely ‘cured’ person, even if the struggle grew harder, she became more genuine as a character to me again. Now, I understand it was because I tried to change her narrative in a way that didn’t fit the themes she was built to embrace.
Sometimes, a character’s theme surprises you. At Eshkaton this past weekend, I had firmly planned on going into the larp playing someone with the theme of life. She was a mother, a life druid, a lover, and I thought life would be a fascinating theme to explore at a larp driven by the end of the world. How very wrong I was! As the play continued, it became startlingly clear that my character’s theme was that of hubris (a classic theme for any mage.) Every mistake she made, choice she selected, and all the damage she did was out of the horrible sense of pride. It wasn’t until the very end of the larp when she looked back at all her foolish mistakes that she could bend a knee and ask someone else for teaching, as she now understood how little she knew. I was able to find a beautifully satisfying ending in a way I wouldn’t have if neither my character, nor I, hadn’t looked back and realized the real theme of the story all along.
Now that you hopefully understand how to pick out a character’s themes (whether they are planned in advance or they develop naturally in a story), what do you DO with them? Sometimes, it’s nothing! Sometimes, just having those themes lets you tell better “war stories” at parties when you’re remembering retired characters. But sometimes, they can help you direct towards better story. The most pivotal time themes come into my game play is when I’m not certain what to do with a character. Sometimes it’s a desperately important in character decision where there is no clear ‘winning’ side (storytellers do love to set up impossible moral dilemmas for their players.) When I’m faced with a decision my character (and normally myself) is truly wringing their hands over, having a solid theme to help direct that choice helps incredibly. Often, the theme won’t point towards the right CHOICE, but if you play out ‘what might happen’ depending on which choice you make, one of those possible timelines will play better into the theme than the other. Then you have guidance to keep your character going along the basic path of their story.
A clear theme can also help you create plot. As I delve into more freeform, self-directed gaming, I’ve spoken with many players who still aren’t certain how to take agency in their own stories. We’ve trained so much of the North American gaming audience to sit and wait for plot to come to them from the storytellers. Therefore, as we explore new avenues of larping where the players are the ones who create the story, people who aren’t used to having to create on their own are left at a loss. Having a character theme is a valuable tool in figuring out how to build your own plot. If nothing is happening and your character is bored, figure out something to do which falls into that theme. For my life mage, if I’d been bored at that game, I would have tried to conduct some unwise magic out of her own boredom and hubris, because CLEARLY nothing could go wrong if she just experimented with some life for no good reason, right? For Moira, if she’s on an upswing, I’d have her hit a stumbling block in recovery and need to go find someone to help keep her from falling off the wagon. Not only does that choice deepen my character, but it forces her to interact with others and draw people into story instead of sitting around bored.
If you find yourself growing bored with a character, identifying and changing their basic theme is a great way to shake up the roleplay. If you cannot find a clear theme, that might be why you find yourself at odds with what to do — your character has no clear narrative drive so it’s hard to make choices as a player that steer into plot. However, maybe that story is over played for you. At that point, make a conscious decision to steer into a new theme. It will take some big character leaps and might change along the way, but picking a new type of story to be following can shake up your game just enough to make it interesting again.
Lastly, I find character themes also lend themselves to motifs that weave through the character’s story. In larping, a motif can be imagery, prop elements, colors, or fictional beats which keep surfacing through a character’s life. For Moira, her motifs are poppy flowers and dreams. The poppy flower lends itself to red elements in all of her clothing, decorative style, and even the blanket on her bed. Having a motif for a character can make them immediately recognizable across a room and more memorable in people’s minds. “That’s the woman in red…” or “That is the man always humming something by Bach…” As audiences, our minds are trained to recognize and enjoy motifs. It’s why they are used in musicals and opera to hint at characters on stage — so the audience will think of that character every time the motif comes up even if the character isn’t present. If you pick 1-2 clear motifs for your character which support their basic theme, you’d be surprised how much easier people remember you in game. Every time someone looks at a red dress in Dead Legends, Moira comes to many people’s minds. It’s a tricky way to make certain your story is remembered and told, but also a time honored way by artists for centuries.
What themes have you enjoyed playing in characters in the past? Have any surprised you? Have you managed to deliberately build character themes and have them stick as intended? I’m incredibly curious to hear other people’s stories using these techniques. Please, leave them in the comments and share with the world! After all, we really are here just to create some good stories together.