Thursday, June 21, 2007

LARP: Mixing and Matching

One of the basic methods of keeping players entertained in a LARP is to have them "switch off" their friends and partners: spend half an hour with the elf king, spend an hour with the space robot. Switch it up!

This has two results. First, it allows each character to have less plot, since they're only going to be exposing it to any other given character for a few minutes. Second, it allows the various plots and themes to be mixed together as the players problem-solve across a dozen meetings with half a dozen people. "The space robot needs a power source... and the elf king has that magic stone of power..."

Every LARP leans heavily on this "automixing" system, because it (A) feels efficient and (B) means you don't have to get your players to memorize a book before starting.

But there are downsides to this method.

First, it's not really very intuitive. Experienced LARPers know to talk to someone new every time they run out of things to do, but first-time (and even third-time) players tend to stand around looking flummoxed. While this can be reduced by pointing specific people to specific people at specific times, that makes the game feel less like a game and more like a play.

Second, it's extremely hard to predict. Who a player decides to get involved with next depends on proximity, charisma, energy, and whether a given player is busy. As far as I can tell, if you give them specific people to talk to, the game can be modeled to some extent... but the moment you rely on them going out and finding something to do on their own, CRASH.

Lastly, some people work really well together - they have a kind of chemistry.

If you're not forcing mixing, then these two or three players will bond together like glue, totally throwing off the factioning of your game. "Why the hell are the psi-cops working with the rangers?"

If you're forcing mixing, then you're going to lose out on their potential - players with chemistry can produce more immersive content (primarily for themselves) than any writer.

I've run a lot of "strong-story" games to explore this topic, and I don't think I've ever really gone into any detail on them before. So, this weekend: "players are better at playing your game than you, so shut up and let them."

But this post was to highlight a basic (but usually overlooked) component of LARP design. If you've ever played, designed, or run a LARP, take a look: did you see what I described?

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