(Featured Image by Erin Pierce taken at Dammerung Larp Summer Siege.) If you’ve been paying attention to my larp work lately at all, the term ‘Emergent Larp’ has crossed your feed. After several months of trial and error, it’s the best name we could come up with for the style of larping Entropic Endeavors, Dammerung, and a few other larps are actively creating. (Thank you to Stuart Amir-Lin for helping us coin the term after weeks of shaking our brains.) If you’re a visual learner, there are videos which sum it up well here: my interview with Shiv Larps on Emergent Larping and Darker Larper’s vlog about Velvet Noir, which describes the set up of an actively played Emergent Larp well. However, many people like to read and having a reference guide is often helpful. So, over the next blog, I’m going to try to define exactly what we mean when we say Emergent Larp.
Emergent Larping is an inherently American style because, while it’s mostly narrative/consent negotiations driven, it’s also born out of the play-to-win culture that birthed most American gamers. We tried to create a style with elements of competition, simulationism, and freeform play that all worked together to support each other instead of having these styles of gaming inherently work against each other in the same space. Nothing in Emergent Larping is new, we’ve taken inspiration from dozens of game styles before us and learned from their successes/failures, but the way we put it together seems quite new in the American scene. So, here’s the ingredient list to make an Emergent Larp:
The Sandbox: Probably the most important component of Emergent Larp is your game world. You can’t set up anything else until you’ve written a clear, accessible, and interesting sandbox in which to play. This world should be defined enough that players aren’t confused about costuming, themes, or setting because they need to feel empowered to create themselves within that world without constantly checking in if they are getting it right. The world should have good reasons for people to gather and several clearly established factions within the greater setting. None of these factions are NPCs, they all can/should be player driven.
Faction Play: Factions are essential to creating the drama of Emergent Larp. By putting the players in several different, clearly outlined factions, the players become NPCs to each other while creating drama within their own mini-sandbox. We have joked that Dammerung is “Five larps in a trenchcoat,” but it’s often true. The factions within Dammerung are so dramatically different, it feels like playing a different setting depending on where you walk on the campsite. Each of those factions appeals to different styles of players and then, when factions conflict, deep character drama (or fights, or forbidden romance, or mystery…) blossoms up without the staff having to write ANY plot ourselves.
Player Agency Driven: For the first event of Velvet Noir, I wrote a total of five sentences of plot. It seemed mind-blogging compared to the 30-40 page plot bibles I’m used to using for traditional campaign larp weekends. But Emergent Larp is not staff-plot driven, it’s player agency driven. The staff and leads (see below) put a few light quests out into the world or ideas for players to spin drama upon, but over all they are there to support whatever ideas the PLAYERS have for their plot. So, players work with each other to create the kind of story they want. Sometimes they request NPCs from staff or friends, usually they make character ties to organically build the story they want to tell with other players, or sometimes they come up with ideas on the fly that their leads help bring to life. It’s vital that the sandbox is clear so the players know what kinds of stories they are telling, but once they understand your setting, it’s incredibly empowering to see how creative players are when given the command over their own narratives.
Writers/Cultural Lead Cast: Of course, keeping everyone in the sandbox isn’t always easy. Emergent Larp relies upon a cast of writers, cultural leads, and organizers whose entire jobs are to help create the world, support the stories that players want to tell in that setting (or get them on track if they are suggesting things too out-of-the-box), and play out personal drama themselves to help fuel story for everyone else. While some people might call these ‘Face NPCs,’ this style larp actually functions on the firm idea that these people are PLAYERS as well. They aren’t controlled by some greater organizer story. They have their own motivations, drama, and are allowed to step into the spotlight as needed. A good example of how leads work can be read in my blog here about taking the spotlight responsibly. Because the characters in each faction end up tied so deeply to the faction leaders/writers, any narratives they end up telling with their characters ripples out through the greater game world and drives plot for hours to come. It takes a special kind of gamer to play one of these characters but, if you find them, they drive the heart of this style of larp.
Competitive World Game: Emergent larps have a competitive, non-negotiated side game which more win-driven players can indulge in mechanically to create greater story in the world around the game/outside of the play space. For Dammerung, this is a food/treasure/map control game where people look at a map of the greater world and fight for power while resources grow scarce. For Velvet Noir, it’s a gangland territories game in the City where the various factions fight against the police/morality movement/civil unrest for control of their home neighborhoods. These gameist style meta-games directly influence the narrative of the factions and therefore the ways players interact in the game space. The morning newspaper for Velvet Noir is nearly entirely full of ‘Mishaps’ that come out of the City territory game, and all the factions emotionally react to the way their holdings have been attacked the night before. Even if a player isn’t interested in the crunchy mechanics, these meta-games emotionally affect everyone’s story and driven emergent play between the factions.
Quests/Rumors: Just in case people are bored, or don’t know how to take their own agency, the leads/writers often come up with little missions for characters to go on. They could be as small as “Rumor has it, the Jarl’s wife likes her hair being braided. If you offer to do so, you will be rewarded with treasure,” or as big as “There is something in the City’s sewers killing and eating people. Surely the alligator isn’t real?” They aren’t long prompts. They are simple suggestions that drive players into action when otherwise they’d feel paralyzed as to how to make their own plot. Some of them can even turn into season long plots in the hands of driven players!
Workshops: Most American campaign larps do NOT workshop. However, workshops are essential to this style. In the workshops, players are taught the safety mechanics, how to negotiate for interesting story, the rules of the universe, practice whatever light combat rules there are, and (probably most importantly) build character ties according to what kinds of stories they want. I’ve been adding more cross-faction ties sections to my workshops as of late. An example from the upcoming Velvet Noir game is this: “Everyone in this world is affected by money. Separate into corners according to these categories and take 5 minutes to make a story tie with someone next to you about the theme: 1. People who are wealthy 2. People who live off other people’s money 3. People who are struggling to survive 4. Socialists who don’t believe in money and go to socialism rallies.” Then players also separate into faction-based workshops to build deeper backstory ties, learn about each other’s safe-play zones, and build faction goals for the weekend.
Consent Negotiations: Outside of the meta-games, most plot in Emergent Larp is all consent negotiation based. Giving the players multiple levels that they can negotiate both long term plots and quick scenes is vital to this style’s success. People communicate quick scene negotiations on the fly through various diegetic phrases, brief pauses, or whispered asides while also planning longer, more epic narratives together between games or during the workshops.
Heavy Safety Mechanics: Emergent Larp can get very emotionally intense. Because of the deeply narrative driven base (though I think this is important in all larps) and the competitive non-negotiated side game, it’s important to teach a heavy amount of safety mechanics for these larps. This includes a clear code of conduct as well as in scene tools for your players to use. You can read far more about how to teach them and what I recommend in last week’s safety blog.
Skills/Stats Light (Or Non-Existent): Emergent larp is not limited by skills or stats written in a book. It has been birthed out of the great frustration we’ve all had in the past of ‘Oh, I want my character to do a thing but I don’t have an applicable skill to do that.’ For Dammerung, the rule book is about 20 pages and the skills are very light, mostly meant to drive plot or help organize combat. For Velvet Noir, we have no skills book whatsoever. The only ‘character sheets’ we have are three soul cards which describe emotional elements of a character’s history. Otherwise, if your character has some reason to know how to do a thing, you can simply do the thing. It’s about collective creation, narrative storytelling, and the “rule of cool.” It turns out when you trust players to create and define their character in interesting ways based on story, they do exactly that!
WYSIWYG: While there are black box scenes in Emergent Larp, everything in the play space is very much driven by ‘What you see is what you get.’ For Dammerung, this means that magic effects involve smoke bombs, bang snaps, elaborate gestures, rituals, or something to build up the power and make it look cool as you sell the spell before casting it. There are no fireballs in Dammerung unless you figure out a way to rep a fireball believably in the space (please don’t do this, we don’t have a pyrotechnics license.) For Velvet Noir, it means the infirmary space is full of fake blood, antique medical tools, old medicine bottles, and stitching up a bullet wound often involves an intensely roleplayed surgery. Stage combat is taught to make fights look semi-realistic and die cast metal cap guns are used instead of bulky nerf guns. The sandbox is in play 24/7 and we try for as close to a 360 degree design as possible. When you raise the level of immersion for the game, the players step up to it and generally even help other players who are struggling.
There you have it. Those are the magic ingredients to making an Emergent Larp. As mentioned above, none of them are new, but putting them together like this works for us as a beautiful formula to support a wide variety of play styles while helping them all serve the greater story. I can’t wait to try a few other settings in this game style and I truly think I’ve found how I plan to run most larps for the rest of my design future.