Larp Tabletop role-playing

Playing story games with intent

A few days ago I went for the first time to the Storygasm group, a London-based bunch of role-players who specialize in story games.

This particular get-together was called with the plan of exploring the Play with Intent guidebook, written by Emily Care Boss and Matthijs Holter. This document contains a set of methods and techniques for creating on-the-fly games of the type that in Europe and the US are called freeforms (which are rather different to what the UK calls freeforms: I have a post brewing on this). They’re in the space inbetween tabletop and larp. The games are GMless, created mutually by the players as they go. Planning, decisions about the game, character establishment and so on happen around the table: scenes are played out in live-action.

Anyway, so of particular interest for this session were a set of techniques included in Play with Intent for shaping narration during live scenes. Because the improvised nature of such scenes might tend towards aimlessness or stuckness, it’s important that there be ways for players to guide plot, tone, narrative structure (and so on) without breaking the scene for a GMing conference. So, for example, if a player feels a flashback might be useful at a particular point in a scene’s development, they can narrate accordingly and the other players will seamlessly (ideally…) move into playing the flashback scene. Or if a player thinks it would be good to intensify, or de-intensify, the emotional level of an exchange, they can signal for that. If you have a look at the document (download here), you’ll see there’s loads of different such stuff.

Play with Intent suggests three mode-related toolkits of techniques: ‘Surreal’, ‘Low Key and Personal’, or ‘Action! Drama!’ We wanted to try out something of each, so we played out three mini-games, each about three quarters of an hour I guess. In each case I was with two other players (there were about eleven people in total, divided into three or four groups, reshuffling between games).

I’m now going to describe the games a little, to show how it all works and what a variety of ideas can be generated. Do skip to the chase though if you find that sort of thing tedious 🙂

The first game we picked Action! Drama!, in a film-noir setting, featuring an elderly roulette addict, her sponging and dissipated nephew; and the manipulative casino manager who kept her hooked. We played just two scenes: an initial establishing scene where the nephew, desperate for money to pay off debts incurred back East, tracked down his aunt to the casino where she was being ‘well looked-after’ by the sinister manager. (Here we used the ‘Spew questions like bullets from a gun’ technique to fill in other establishing material and advance the scene towards a clear imminent crisis.) Then we cut right to the closing scene wherein confrontation, learning and reconciliation took place, using the ‘Whispered’ technique to between us move everything towards satisfactory resolutions for each character.

The second game was Surreal, themed around immgration tension. An alien family moves into a quiet neighbourhood in Milton Keynes. The first scene (the next-door-neighbours pop round to say hello) we used ‘Unreliable narrator’ to portray the distorted view of the exchange that the terrified alien character perceived. The second scene was the same encounter played again (‘Replay scenes’ technique), but this time the humans were nervous and the alien sinister and threatening. Finally the third scene (residents’ committee meeting to discuss the alien family) was played as a rapid-fire farce with the players exchanging character identities, wearing a variety of masks to show emotions, and treating metaphors as real (all these are techniques from the document).

Then the third game was a Low Key and Personal one to do with the recent disappearance of a family member. Here we used ‘Normal life setting’, ‘Hotseat’ and ‘Locked eyes’ to develop material and to intensify the emotional content. This felt the closest to a standard play session, in that we fell into the characters and the plotlines pretty easily and it all flowed freely. The hotseat worked well to inject ideas into the game: both from the hotseated player, and from the other players asking leading questions.

So, overall, it was quite a mixture of stuff, as you see, but the Play with Intent framework held up really well: all three games ran smoothly and achieved good story. Almost all the players were very experienced role-players, and I think you’d definitely need at least a majority to be so: a group of just newer players could easily get bogged down in uncertainty. I had a lot of fun, and the others seemed to as well. It was also a strong demonstration of how even the minimal framing of games like FIASCO aren’t really necessary: you can create just as much, and just as good, story starting from only an agreed theme and tone.I shall look for more opportunities to pick up this sort of thing, I think. It’s a good way of filling a gap when no-one’s had time to prepare or read up on anything. And a good way of practicing different modes of play, styles of narration, and variety of characters.

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