Monday, April 07, 2008

LARP Writing, Basics

Hey there!

So you have a great idea for a LARP. But you can't seem to get it to work out as well as you like. What's wrong?

Writing LARPs is a skill, just as complicated as building a boat or painting a portrait. Sure, it's not exactly a respected skill, but just like boat-building and portrait-painting, you will do significantly better if you learn the basics before trying to do it for real.

The basic, fundamental truth of LARPing is that you are not telling a story. You are not building a world. You are not creating beautiful experiences. You are entertaining players.

Imagery, story, worlds, and all the other cool things in your head are methods to entertain, but they are not the foundation. No matter what you're building, you'll want a foundation to build on. So forget the cool ideas you have for a minute and think about players being entertained.

LARPing is an interactive experience, more for some than others. You, as the designer of the LARP, need to give the players ways and reasons to interact. Moreover, you have to give them ways and reasons that will keep them interested over the whole of the game: too many games have "second-string" characters that don't have enough of interest to fill a thimble.

There are two basic "kinds" of ways to put interesting things into the game. The first is called "preloading": this is the character sheets, rules, and so forth. Essentially, you tell the players some things and let them get on with trying to figure out what it all means.

The other method is to introduce content over the course of the game. This is fairly effective because it allows you to pace the game: in theory, you could include everything right at the beginning, and rely on players' natural prevarication to prevent it from spreading and getting solved. In practice, it works better to keep it off the board entirely until a given time or event.

Most games take a solid middle ground, but some games go to extremes.

A short dramatic game often has very little "late content" - many drama games focus on letting the players clash without any kind of significant interference. Note that, while the rules for a drama game might be simple, the game is still very complex due to the personalities and situation involved.

On the other hand, a humorous horde game will usually have a very simple mechanics and content, but spice it up by rapidly swapping out simple content for new simple content, often at random.

No matter whether you write the complexity into your world, your characters, or your timeline, you need to remember that all the players are going to have to interact for as many hours as you run your game. This means that every player is going to need quite a lot of stuff to do and feel.

Generally, if I'm working on a more moderate game with a balanced amount of complexity in character, world, and timeline, I follow this rule:

Every character needs to have at least four connections - people who he has interesting relationships with, plots he needs to accomplish, doohickeys he needs to obtain, things other people want from him, aspects of his personality that give him a reason to feel strongly about in-game events... Usually, I try for five or six.

Not all of them are listed on the character sheet. Usually, only two or three are explicitly listed. The rest are hidden in his character background, his personality, his pockets, his contingency cards, or on the character sheets, backgrounds, personalities, pockets, and contingencies of other characters. If it's a small game, I generally stick to 2-3 to start with, and introduce most of them later. If it's a large game, I generally show most of them up front and have very few late releases.

This level of complexity allows for a player to always have something to do, which is especially important in the early game.

It's not really this straight forward: depending on how things go, you may find that something you thought was going to take a player two hours takes them thirty seconds, or visa-versa. It's also likely that certain players will prefer certain kinds of cues while ignoring others. So it's important to make your game robust, whether you write that robustness into the game or whether it's a GM tweaking on the fly. There are upsides and downsides to both.

Maybe I'll talk about that next.

But, remember: every character, every single character, needs to be connected to a lot of interesting things. Every player must be entertained.

Failure check: If you can separate your characters into main characters and secondary characters, you have failed this module.

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