When is a LARP not a LARP? Performance and Immersion

Posted: July 31, 2014 in System Design
Tags: , , , , , ,

Some semi-formed ideas have been bubbling around my head recently, about the boundary between a LARP and a tabletop roleplaying game. What differentiates the two? My friend Mo posted this write-up of a game I played in the other day – an absolutely fantastic game called When The Dark Is Gone – in which he suggested that despite its tabletop appearance, “When the Dark is Gone pretty much is a larp, apart from the fact that you’re sitting down”.

I can see where he’s coming from. The premise of When the Dark is Gone is a group therapy session, exploring the childhood memories of the (now adult) player characters, assisted by a game facilitator in the form of the group’s therapist. This premise allows play to remain completely in character at all times – players negotiate discrepancies between their memories by disagreeing in character rather than by appealing to an external arbitrator; the game’s pacing and direction is managed through the mask of the therapist; even the “I need a break” emotional safety mechanism can (very deliberately) be interpreted in-character even though it’s used for out-of-character reasons. So yes, I can see why it could be called a LARP. (Typically the players are sitting down, though, it’s true.)

The thing is, I don’t actually think the LARP / tabletop distinction is all that useful. After the setup phase, play in When the Dark is Gone is entirely in-character – in other words, the players develop the situation solely through improvised acting. But it wouldn’t be true to say that 100% acting is a characteristic of LARPs. Many LARPs require players to appeal to some kind of system in order to resolve certain things that simply can’t be acted out – combat being the obvious example, but there are plenty of others, varying by game. Even the highly-immersive Nordic school of LARPing frequently uses “metatechniques” like drawing a window to introduce an internal monologue – clearly not a direct  “in character” performance, but rather a theatrical technique to allow the player to portray a perspective that simply can’t be acted out directly. To my mind this isn’t so different from a tabletop player rolling a die to get their character to climb a wall – both are character-breaking mechanical techniques that allow players to introduce particular types of content that they can’t introduce while staying in character. The types of content differ between the two styles of play, sure, but the principle of breaking character to do it applies to both.

Describing a game as LARP or tabletop doesn’t really tell me very much about it. I’d rather simply know what proportion of the game time you expect players to spend acting in character. At one end this covers games like Microscope, another brilliant game but which tells the story of a world or a setting rather than a specific set of characters, and so most of it is developed through narration rather than in-character scenes. (In fact to my mind the acted-out scene mechanics are the weakest part of the game.) At the other end of the spectrum are games like When the Dark is Gone that aim to be 100% in-character once play starts – actually a very difficult goal to achieve outside of very specific game scenarios.

And once I know how much acting I’ll be doing, the next and more important question is: What will I be doing the rest of the time? Most roleplaying games include at least some time spent acting. What the designer chooses to include for the other, character-breaking, parts of the game is possibly the clearest indication of what they intend the game to really be about. Do they include rolling dice for physical actions I can’t directly perform? Must be an action-heavy game, then. Or are they including hand gestures to indicate internal monologues? Seems like that game will be psychological and introspective. If I’m considering playing your game, I don’t care if you call it a LARP or a tabletop game – I just want to know what the gameplay is about. (And, of course, whether I’ll be sitting down.)

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Comments
  1. Mo says:

    Interesting thoughts! I tend to agree that the distinction isn’t always as helpful as one might wish. I feel it does still have some illustrative value, though, so I’ll probably carry on using it while it says something to people whose preferences or experience are strongly at one end or the other of your spectrum.
    This might make an interesting extra slider for The Mixing Desk of Larp http://blog.ukg.co.uk/mixing-desk-larp/ if one seeks to generalize that model across tabletop games as well. B

    • Blackrat says:

      Like all terminology, it’s useful as long as you know whoever you’re talking to understands the terms the same way you do. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m never confident of that :-)

      I definitely agree it’d be interesting to put this on The Mixing Desk!

  2. James Graham says:

    It’s a lot like the “trad” vs ” indie” distinction: not actually that meaningful at the end of the day since a lot of indie techniques could be ported directly into a trad game, a lot of indie games are pretty “trad” and a lot of indie mechanics are showing up in trad games. As a distinction it probably says more about the individual and their personal tastes and background than anything else.

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