“I’ll never larp again.”
You feel like there’s an invisible wall between you and everyone else. The others are laughing, joking and talking enthusiastically. But you’re not. Couldn’t things just have been different? After all that you invested, nothing has been returned to you; empty heart, empty wallet and lots of time that could have been better spent.
Most times I leave a larp with a light heart. Even games that weren’t quite that good usually gives me back more than I invest in them. But not all. A few times a larp has left me feeling just as robbed as the previous paragraph indicates.
At those moments its easy to get angry. At the organizers. At the co-players who didn’t preform as you had expected. At yourself for having invested in a game that you (you tell yourself afterwards) knew wouldn’t be that great.
There are a lot of similarities between a larp and a relationship. In the best of times, you are both rewarded by your mutual interaction. In the worst of times, you end up rejected and all the energy, time and money you’ve spent is lost forever. As such, here are my basic premises for dealing with a really bad larp experience:
- Accept that there is no way the organizers can give you back what you’ve invested into the game. Regardless of how angry or critical you are, they can’t remedy this, no matter how much they wish they could.
- Remember that the organizers and co-players are also very sad that you had a bad experience, in the same way that it feels really awful to end a relationship and inflict pain on someone you like.
- Sometimes it just doesn’t work and it’s nobody’s fault; in a voluntary and creative activity, you can’t force things to work just the way you wish them to.
If you are unable to take these facts to heart, you are likely to feel bad about the larp even after posting a giant wall-of-text with feedback to the organizers.
But since game design is also a factor, let’s look at some things that can really ruin a larp, and some suggestions on what the organizer and player respectively can do:
Lack of Agency
Have you ever been to a larp where it felt like no matter what you did or how you acted, it didn’t matter? Like you were just an extra on a movie set and not important enough to get casted on one of the lead roles?
Larp is a co-creative activity. While it is a well known fact that different roles may provide a player with more or less agency in the game, feeling that you have no agency to shape the story or the situation of your character is frustrating. Players are also highly unalike in this respect: Some are comfortable have little agency and mostly being “along for the ride”, while others highly appreciate being an active part of the story telling.
- The under stimulated player. “Boooring!” This player needs something to do that is worthwhile and will be meaningful to the game as a whole – often this is more important than personal story satisfaction. Under stimulated players can, for example, spend a lot of time in the off game area or resting/sleeping instead of playing (while not sick or very tired for other reasons).
- The decontextualized player. This player feels like she just lost her footing due to swift plot turns or too much stuff going on. This player needs to know what the greater picture is and what direction to move in. Remember that even if the game itself isn’t transparent in its design, some players might be better off if you give them a few hints on where to go next.
- The supressed player. The supressed player is often very passive and can even behave passive-aggressive, both in and off game. The player has ended up in a group or situation where her character lacks in game affordances needed to make her story move forward. This player needs to get more agency, either by changing things in the in-game world or by talking to other players off-game. Simply asking the supressed player to “toughen up” won’t help, since in most cases the power structure is already established, both in and off game. The players who have the agency must be made to share it somehow, because larp is a co-creative activity and nobody should feel like an extra.
And as a player, tell the organizer or game master how you feel, as they likely will have a hard time seeing your needs otherwise. If you don’t tell them during the game, be aware after the game that you never really gave them a chance to help you – no matter how disappointed you are about the game design as a whole.
Also, consider if your interpretation of the game world might be too rigid; remaining overly faithful to your character although it ruins your experiences isn’t that great; you should consider adjusting it.
Have you ever gone to a game expecting really great play from the relationships and stories you have prepared with other players, only to find out that they are too busy with other people to have the time to play with you?
As a player you’re not just denied the experience of the story you had hoped for, but you are also rejected on a personal level. Remember that this rejection might not have anything to do with you personally; larp is a rather chaotic medium and it is not always possible for everyone to live up to their pre-game commitments. Try to find new paths in the game and ask the organizers for help.
As an organizer, you might be struggling to just make the larp follow the game design and have very little time and focus for individual player needs. Having a designated player host and being mindful of your casting method might help. As mentioned, in voluntary activities such as larp it’s impossible to force things to work. It’s often better to find a different group or pairing for a lonely player than to force the original plan to work.
Be prepared that rejected players can feel hurt and sad even if they don’t express it. Having a designated player host or co-organizer with energy and time to talk to and help lonely players can be very helpful.
Have you ever gone to a larp that initially promised to be the most glorious experience ever, but turned out merely mediocre? Or lacked some of the features that you felt were absolutely essential for your experience?
Organizers: Remember that players will start imagining what the larp will be like at a very early stage. If you as an organizer pull back features that you have promised early on, there will be a cost. Depending on what features, it might be insignificant or staggeringly high. It’s better to be absolutely honest from the beginning with your players about what you are 100% sure you can deliver, and what you hope to deliver. Often players will be just as happy with what you can deliver, but dismally unhappy if disappointed.
As a player, try to be generous. Consider the level of importance of the withdrawn game feature: Perhaps it didn’t really affect your experience that much?
Have you ever been to a game that felt completely solid, or at least acceptable, until the end scene? And the ending was SO bad for you that it – at least temporarily – contaminated your memory of the entire rest of the game? Like your every in game action, every moment of invested effort, was suddenly made pointless?
For many the greatest disappointment of a larp is a bad ending. Player preferences can vary enormously, and it’s very difficult to make everyone happy. And an ending that looks great on paper might get a terrible execution and fall completely flat. But if you as an organizer choose an ending that is either (or a combination of):
- Predetermined with no transparency: You have already decided how the game will end and haven’t told the players about your choice. (For example: Everyone will die in the end, but they will only know this once it happens.)
- Binary: You are forcing the all or a select few of the players to make a choice between two or a limited number of optional endings. (For example: Allowing the players who play the captain and quartermaster to decide if the ship will sink or not; a binary choice which is affecting the fate of all characters in the game.)
- Absolute: There is little room for individual player interpretation. (For example: Ending the game by telling the players what happened in the story after the end of the larp.)
…the odds are that you’ll have one or a few players who are unhappy. That doesn’t mean it’s always a bad idea, but it comes with certain risks; a larp has as many storylines as there are players, and either of these choices are highly likely to collide with at least one of these storylines.
Expectations are often the key here: Even if a player might not get the favoured ending, at least having some idea of what is going to happen makes it easier to play the offered ending in a way that is satisfactory. If you are for example using a binary ending, be super-duper-clear with the players about what conditions apply, who makes the decision and when it is made. If you have a predetermined ending and don’t want to spoil a plot turn, give information about the general mood and direction at the end of the game, as “the game will end with a victory” or “the game will end with a reconciliation” or “the game will end in horror and misery; expect bad things to happen”.
I have no solid advice for the player here. A bad ending is a bad ending, after all. But try to remember that while it was awful for you, it might have been perfect for others. Also, the ending you imagined as the perfect one for you is not wrong or less valid just because that wasn’t the choice of the organizers or lead players in this particular instance: You are the author of your own story, and nothing can take this away from you. If you want, you can even put the ending in writing as a short story to share this idea of an outcome with others who were at the same game. They might appreciate it more than you think!
This article was written based on my experience both as a player and organizer, with a high dosage of self critique and ‘wish I’d thought of this’ in the backpack.
I hope this text has given some hope, sympathy and comfort to anyone out there still struggling with ‘getting over’ a really bad larp experience, and that organizers might have received some ideas for design choices that might help them get a higher percentage of happy players.Thank you Tor-Kjetil Edland and Anna-Karin Linder Krauklis for proof reading and feedback.