When I design scenarios, I try to use the terminology from the Nordic larp discourse. But many of thes styles “available” confuse me and my players instead of clarifying what the larps are actually about.
One of the problems is that many styles are defined by what they are not, instead of what they are. Because of this, I would like to introduce a new way of thinking about larp terminology. The hope is to make my design choices clearer and open my mind to new ways of designing larp.
I chose terminology from visual art, since that’s (also) about taking something intangible and turning it into something concrete.
First we need to unmuddle the picture as we know it today. This means that I will try to use only only the necessary terminology that we know from roleplaying today.
In art we talk about form, media, style and genre to define the work of art. These are the definitions I will go through and try to convert into terminologies that can be used for larp (and roleplaying in general).
Form and Media
An artform is defined by its shape or artistic expression, which often is defined by its media.
Examples of different kinds of shapes in visual art: painting, sculptures, crafts, photography, film and architecture.
Roleplaying doesn’t have shapes, but is defined by its artistic expressions of interaction. At one end of the spectrum, we find tabletop RPGs, and at the other we find larp. In the middle we find a lot of more or less recognized bastard children; freeform, semi-larp, etc.
The style of art depending on the artform. As mentioned before, I will refer to visual art, but to make it even more concrete, I’m referring to styles of paintings in this and the subsequent section.
The style is a way to frame the art. For an artform as roleplaying the style makes the expression more understandable. To exemplify I’ll go through some painting styles.
Naturalism and realism seem similar to many, but have their differences. Where realism tries to capture the reality as it is, naturalism beautifies reality. It’s legal to remove or add something from a naturalist picture. This would be prohibited in realism. Also, realism usually focuses on the harsher aspects of life.
Realism in roleplaying consists of simulations of reality. An example on a scenario which tried to achieve this is the danish larp U-359 from 2004. The larp took place in an actual (decommisioned) submarine. Not only were historical reproduction uniforms included in the participants package, the organizers also clearly stated that the larp would be more simulation than drama.
Naturalism in roleplaying focuses on the good experience instead of the authenticity.
A naturalist larp might be a historical depiction of a rural medieval village (like the larp Brakowitz from 1998 did); but one where everyone cared a bit more and where everything was a bit more rosy (unlike in Brakowitz, where things were horrible).
Impressionism in roleplaying is where the simulation is comprised to make the important part of the game stand clear.
An example is the danish larp Uden guds nåde from 2009. The important elements were lighted with stage lighting and the rest of the game area was darkened when not in focus.
In cubism the artist describes an object or scene from multiple perspective at once.
Cubism roleplaying uses different perspectives simultaneously that are later combined so that each player gets an experience of several viewpoints.
An example is be the Danish freeform game Circus Without Boundaries from 2013. Here, the main mechanic is that each scene has one or more main characer(s) and several supporting players. The main character(s) can only talk, and must be moved around by the supporting players as lifesize dolls.
The physical position shows the thoughts of the main characters where the dialog is what the characters actually are doing. A scene could be that the main characters are doing the dishes, and the supporting players change their positions so that one of the main characters tries to strangle the other one.
Expressionism is about recognizable feelings, and not reality.
The larp White Death from 2012 was designed for Black Box play. In the game the players are pioneers climbing a mountain, but the climb is too harsh, and they die one after each another until nobody is left. The players can only make special mechanic movements that make it hard to move. They can only speak incomprehensible sounds, but when a character dies, the player shifts to playing the soul of the pioneer, and can now move freely and help the pioneers left to die. Since there is no dialogue, the experience and context is constructed in the heads of the players; in a very personal way.
There are many styles of art out there, and it’s not like I have definite answers. Some art styles can be compared with roleplaying and can be useful to us – others can’t.
Hopefully some of these art styles will inspire us to make new kinds of larps, just like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque invented Cubism.
To round off, a few words on genre. In paintings the genre defines the theme of the picture. It can be landscapes, portraits etc.
These are unaffiliated of the style or form. In roleplaying we normally use literary genres to describe the game. These are normally fine to use, but can give problems regarding sandbox-games. The genre is often confused with style because its rarely these are split in literature. In art we have seen both naturalist and cubist landscape in a painting, but what about a cubist fantasy larp in roleplaying?
What can you imagine?
This article was initially published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.
Cover photo: “Museum of Modern Art” by Ingfbruno is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.