(A guest post by the ever brilliant Lyn Hilton about something I have had lots of thoughts about, but couldn’t figure out how to put into words. She does an excellent job of summing up a few important scene techniques in easy examples. Featured Photo by Bret Lehne, from Velvet Noir, and a good example of looking at a photo and being able almost immediately to tell what exactly is happening in that scene.)
At this point, we’ve all gotten used to certain phrases that get bounced around the community and eventually become common parlance. Some of them are words we adopt to describe aspects of our hobby that are otherwise difficult to explain (the concept of bleed, for example). But there’s a second grouping that’s somewhat more contentious, which is how we talk about playstyle.
Play to lose. Play to lift. We’re awash in mantras and buzzwords, many of which go back to theatrical roots. Theater has been a constant source of insight for LARP. But there’s one place we don’t often look during these about LARP, and it’s one I’m always surprised to see overlooked: writing. Specifically, the nitty-gritty of how writing unfolds, and how stories are meant to be structured.
Before we begin, I readily admit that this is a distinctly narrativist approach that may not be applicable to every playstyle. If you’re playing a heavily competitive game that prizes points over story (and we collectively need to stop pretending that those games are less valid), you may struggle to make it work for you or your game, but it’s still worth giving a read for simple scene awareness. So, let’s talk story structure and narrative awareness.
Story Structure: The Literal Tale as Old as Time
If you’re familiar with stories and the methods in which we tell them (or you attended an English class in high school), you’re probably familiar with the three-act structure.
There have been countless hot takes on this type of arc structure, but the basic principle is one that can be used from massive spanning LARP arcs to small-scale scenes between groups or even one-on-one.
As a LARP writer or gamerunner — especially at an American campaign game where staff is often expected to write very extensive plot — understanding story structure is crucial. However, since the reasons for that are obvious and the majority of players are not gamerunners, I want to focus on the smaller scale of interactions between player characters.
That’s because as a player, understanding arc structure can help develop the kind of instincts that make someone a joy to engage with. It’s a method of taking your own agency by not only being your character, but being a personal narrator for the scenes around you to strengthen everyone’s story. This takes some practice, but far from being a mysterious force, storytelling is a secret language that most people are already fluent in without even knowing it. The language of narrative is even more ingrained in LARPers, who rely on a series of cues in order to tell stories on the fly. What I’m saying is, the learning curve is much less steep than you probably think it is.
This cognizance of the language’s quirks, of one’s place in the structure and the scene — this narrative awareness — can be the difference between compelling scenes and ones that are mistimed, or worst of all, ruin a scene for someone else. Let’s take an example.
Practicing Narrative Awareness
This is probably the most important step to narrative awareness: timing. If I come into a room with Player A in conversation with another character or involved with a group, odds are good that they’re already in the midst of their own scene, which means an entire other arc to be taken into consideration. I’m looking to have a scene with Player A, but I need to pause and take a moment to decide if this is the time to do it.
When you see someone already engaged, the narratively aware question to ask is: What do I bring to this scene and where is best to bring it in?
Are you bringing news? Is someone looking for one of the characters? Is your character just the kind of person who lurks around conversations to watch things unfold, being a witness to what could be a key dramatic moment? If you find that the answer is nothing (and it is absolutely okay if it’s nothing — not every character can bring everything to every scene!), go ahead and wait. Let them play out their own small arc before beginning your own, so that the answer doesn’t need to be anything except some roleplay with your character.
So, once I find Player A between narrative moments, I can step in. A scene, just like a story, begins with an inciting incident, a sort of greeting in the language of storytelling. This doesn’t have to be large. The inciting incident could be asking a question. It could be pointing something out about the plot, or bringing up something Player A said before and offering some insight on it. Whatever gets the scene rolling.
Then, let the scene build. I can tell you now that not every scene will come to a dramatic climax — nor should it! But the arc of a scene doesn’t need to involve tears and screaming to be poignant or memorable (quiet intensity, and the unsung wonder of LARPers who can pull it off, is a blog post for another day). The scene may culminate in new insight gained, or a revelation of something about one of our characters. Or, hey, maybe you do devolve into a screaming argument. It’s your scene. I’m not here to judge. But letting a scene come to a logical conclusion is important and giving the other player time to move onto other scenes means they aren’t monopolized by your need to draw out a scene longer than the story.
No matter how the scene progresses, remember some key pitfalls to avoid.
Direct Scene Awareness: Bad Habits and the Cardinal Rule
Bad LARP habits are common for a reason, and most of the time the reason is that people just aren’t taught any better. A lot of these common mistakes really do boil down to a lack of narrative awareness.
The cardinal rule comes down to this: Don’t Be Boring.
To be clear, there is an element of compatibility with roleplay, just like any other type of interaction. You will always be boring to someone. Having said that, there are certainly mistakes that regularly lead to it that can be avoided.
Let’s say that in the course of the scene with Player A, there’s a bit of a lull. Oh god, I think to myself, they think I’m boring! They aren’t having fun! I need to do something! And in that panic, I do something that completely derails the scene. Maybe I make a confession that has no narrative weight because it wasn’t given the proper timing. Maybe I start yelling angrily with no provocation. Maybe I suddenly drop an in-game hallucinogen and make the rest of the scene about the unicorns I see leading me around town (or worse, hit Player A with something mechanical that forces them to do something similarly silly).
When a player does something completely out of left field, it takes the arc they’re building with other players and throws it away; in the language of storytelling, it shouts something in gibberish and those around the shouter are obligated to either exit the conversation (leave the scene) or attempt to make sense of the random words. That latter option requires a lot of narrative work, and while it might be an adventure in the moment, the payoff in the story is only rarely worth the effort.
One way to counter this is by mirroring. Anyone familiar with body language or active listening already knows a version of this; in the case of narrative awareness, we’re just pulling our perspective out a little further. Pay attention to the tone of the surroundings, not just the person. Are you in a crowded room? A quiet place before a battle? Among the injured, after the fight? The placement of the scene within the larger arc can help you gauge what kind of scene someone might be looking for and mirror your own play to that style. You can mirror the person across from you or the greater theme of the scene in general, but you will have a better narrative arc for having done so.
Look at the player. What is this person trying to get across? Placement is a good hint. Are they sitting alone? Are they in a crowd? Do they look overwhelmed, bored, sad, excited? Mirror your entrance to their tone and you’ll already be a step up for telling a better narrative.
Once the scene begins, turn your attention to tone. This can include literal vocal tone and body language, but it also means the tone of the interaction. Is this scene tense, or a break from tension? Detect the level of urgency, and match it; perhaps the scene is very urgent, and there’s a plot need to be focused on and filled — or perhaps a stress cycle has been fulfilled and you’re on a downswing, allowing for a looser and more character-focused interaction. Each of these situations opens up a new and unique dynamic to be explored, but first it helps to be aware of the type of conversation you’re having in the narrative language.
Always remember: don’t be boring is not the same as don’t be quiet. Some of the most boring roleplayers are also the loudest, since so much brilliant character nuance can be lost if they get drowned out in constant big, bombastic scenes. Let yourself fall into the little moments. Laugh at someone, and a rivalry can kindle. Quietly mourn with them, and a bond can start to build. A good roleplayer can say as much with a glance as with a scream, because the language of storytelling isn’t one that requires noise.
Don’t be boring is also different from make a scene as long as possible. Some scenes can last hours, but others last minutes, because that’s all the time you need. As you pay attention and gain awareness, you’ll start being able to judge how much narrative “gas” any given scene has; once it’s out of gas, feel free to wrap it up or move together into a new scene (as mentioned above.) Don’t feel pressured to drag it out if the arc is solid. (For a real tirade, ask me about my thoughts on mandatory minimum times in boffer campaign LARPs for things like teaching and rituals.)
Sometimes you’ll find that the spotlight is on you in a given scene. In that case, be reflective and spread it around — Ericka has an amazing post about sharing those moments and making them engaging for everyone around you. But in the event where the scene is focused on someone else, do what you can to allow them to shine. In LARP everyone is a protagonist, but narrative awareness means stepping back and allowing yourself to be a part of an ensemble of fascinating characters. It also heightens all the scenes around you, making you a joy to roleplay with and getting you more engagement in the long run.
Social Cues versus Narrative Cues
But Lyn, I hear you wail in the distance, these all sound like social cues! We’re nerds, and rubbish at those! What if we can’t read well enough, or read too much?
Easy, there. I hear you. Especially for people who are neurodivergent (myself included), reading scenes in this way may seem daunting. My social anxiety means that often I get stuck questioning whether it’s the right time to get involved in a scene; I’m more than sure I’ve cheated myself out of incredible roleplay by erring too much on the side of caution.
The fact is that LARP is a social activity, and on some level, there will always be a social element that’s difficult to parse. I can only speak to what helps me in this case, and it’s knowing that social cues are not the same as narrative cues. The former are extremely variable and take a lot of study to master; the latter, however, are a language that can absolutely be learned.
For instance, someone sitting alone in the corner of a party in real life is giving a social cue: I am not comfortable, and probably don’t want to be bothered. But in most cases, someone sitting alone in the corner of a LARP space is giving a completely different narrative cue: I am unoccupied and open to be engaged in roleplay.
If someone has a scar in real life, it’s usually not polite to stare or ask about it. But if someone has done extensive latex scar makeup, that is a character choice — and by extension, an open narrative invitation to do both!
If I tell someone angrily not to ask about something again in real life, my message there is clear. But in the language of storytelling, doing that is more than foreshadowing; it’s the implication of a narrative reward behind violating that boundary, whether that reward is a secret or just a new conflict to be explored. It’s a clear opening and a cue that something lies beyond.
As I mentioned, this is not a perfect system. There are instances where you will misjudge, or where someone else will misjudge you. But narrative awareness, the understanding of the layers of story that underpin our interactions in LARP, is an excellent tool for a roleplayer to keep in their belt. Once you can identify the elements that make up a great scene, you can start to combine them in ways that are new and exciting for both you and the people you engage. I hope this little guide helps you get started.
Happy LARPing, y’all.