Some thoughts about story, and about Story

Different people will have different expectations about what Story there will be in their larp experience, and how much, and where it will come from — and this is one of those things where a mismatch of expectation versus actuality can lead to misery.

So in a larp context, I’m using ‘story’ here to basically mean ‘what happens during the larp’ — the events and incidents that take place — from Simon Brind’s useful set of working definitions.((Brind, S. ‘Narrative Design’, in Koljonen, J et al, Larp Design, 2019 p.110))

And what then is Story-with-a-capital-S? It’s those elements of the overall story that are of particular interest and value to an individual participant’s larp experience. So, story as a whole includes a load of mundane and repetitive and perhaps boring and perhaps irrelevant-to-you stuff that happens. But Story is the good stuff — the events and incidents that heighten tension or pressure, that generate drama or drive resolutions, that spark meaningful interactions with other participants, and so on.

And I wanted to look at that a bit. Because different people will have different expectations about what Story there will be in their larp experience, and how much, and where it will come from — and this is one of those things where a mismatch of expectation versus actuality can lead to misery.

Sources of Story

First of all let’s look at where Story comes from. I’m going to pull out three sources:

Designed Story — it’s been written in by the designer, in advance, as part of the design of the larp. Perhaps it’s intended to evolve out of the interacting motivations of predesigned characters (or of predesigned elements of characters); perhaps it’s a bunch of events to be injected during run-time by GMs; perhaps it emerges inevitably from the general background. But anyway the point is that it comes from the designer: and it is part of the larp design that this content should be in the larp.

GMed Story — in larps with hands-on GMing, the GMs may have freedom during run-time to create Story and add it into the larp. This includes, for example, the use of NPCs having the agenda of making particular things happen, or targeting particular characters, etc. Or it might be the declaration of events that have taken place in the reality of the larp but outside its boundaries (“The enemy have just invaded and are sacking a nearby town.”) GMs will manage this in response to their measurement of the ‘temperature’ of the larp, adding more or less as they feel is required for the desired intensity. Most likely the range of possibilities for this activity is part of the design: but its use is in the hands of the GMs, so I’m considering it separately from the designed Story discussed above.

Participant-created Story — events and incidents that are generated by the participants themselves, with their own creativity: not just emerging from what may have been included in their characters by the designer (if it’s the kind of larp with predesigned characters). Participants may get story from their own creation, and also from that of others. They may have planned it in advance, or come up with it spontaneously during play, or hatched it together. They may have had to run it past the GMs for approval. But basically it comes from the participants themselves.

So for example in a tightly predesigned and plot-driven larp, all the Story may come from the designer, with no GM intervention needed, and participants actively discouraged from creating extra stuff that isn’t in their background info (because this might ‘break’ the designer’s plans).

Or in a very sandboxy larp, there may be no designer Story at all, and even GM activity may be only there in response to participant request, with everything else that happens coming directly from the participants — so the effect is of participants being responsible for creating their own and each other’s drama, as required.

Potential mismatch problems

One problem that I’ve seen is in a larp that’s intended to be low-key. The designer may have deliberately kept the volume of Story low, so that participants focus more on mundane and even boring happenings. A realistic slice-of-life larp conveys a different kind of experience to one where all the drama is happening.

And then, if participants do create their own Story, that may ‘break’ the planned tone. And erven if it doesn’t, it may still dominate the proceedings to an unhealthy extent — drawing the attention of other participants and taking them out of that slice-of-life experience.

I’m thinking of, for example, a larp which is focused on low-level dissatisfaction and small-scale drifting of relationships. If one participant chooses to generate Story by deciding for their character to physically attack another, then that may suck all the attention away from the material that was intended as the focus of play, as everyone gets drawn into dealing with the consequences of the attack and of its rights and wrongs. Yet there may have have been no explicit indication to participants that ‘this is not that type of larp’.

(And also, I think there is legitimately something very interesting, even exciting, about testing the dramatic boundaries in low-key larping. This is maybe because it keys into something we experience in real life: the pressures of behavioural norms, and the consequences of transgressing them, are fundamental to being social animals. What can servants get up to, while their employers are not present? What do the employers do, when there are no servants around? Is a cold look across the table at one’s partner harsh enough, or would striking them make more of an impression? And so on. In a larp that isn’t ‘anything goes’, then testing out exactly what does and doesn’t go is fascinating. And it’s not surprising if people sometimes might misjudge it. But this is a bit of a side issue.)

Rerun drama-creep

A maybe related phenomenon is what I think of as ‘rerun drama-creep’. This can happen when a standalone larp runs multiple times — there can be a tendency for each successive run to escalate in drama. I think the reason is that people go to the first run, have a good time, tell their friends about all the fun and exciting things that happened — and then on the second run, the friends sign up, and they feel that what’s been told to them about the first run is a kind of baseline that they should then build upon — and so on.

An example might be, in a larp where people create their own characters, someone has the idea of making theirs ‘special’ in some way: and it turns out that they get a lot of enjoyment out of the larp as a result. People hear about this, and at the next run, it might be that half the characters are designed to be ‘special’. And this results in a load of crazy drama and shenanigans. And then at the third run, it kind of goes to pieces because every character is a half-fae-half-demon-half-merfolk((yes, and?)) bard/cyberninja secret-princess, and everything’s happening at once all the time, and the larp reaches the paradoxical place where if it’s all high-drama then perhaps none of it really is.

That’s a kind of extreme case perhaps, but I think even in larps with predesigned characters, it can be the case that successive runs of participants may tend to push them a bit further. I think that, especially in larps where participant-created Story is a significant component, this might be a tricky tendency to keep a lid on. (Although of course perhaps the designers and organizers are fine to have this kind of escalation, as long as participants are happy.)


So yeah I’m not really going anywhere with this, it’s just a rambling bunch of thoughts.

But maybe it is edging towards a kind of Mixing Desk of Story idea,((by analogy with the Mixing Desk of Larp that designers and organizers can use to communicate to prospective participants what are the expectations for level of Story, and where it will come from?

Anyway, if you’ve made it down this far, I’d be very glad to hear your thoughts!

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