I Will Never Larp Again

I Will Never Larp Again

“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:

Agency

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.

Rejection

Rejection

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.

Disappointment

Disappointment

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?

The Ending

The Ending

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!

Final Thoughts

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.

Authors

Carolina Dahlberg
Carolina Dahlberg is a larp writer from Sweden. She has a professional career in information design and educational games.
  • Cpt_Justice

    Too much “blame the victim” here. I’ve had plenty of games where I’ve told the GMs what was going on & either they didn’t bother to fix them, or the problem was unfixable. I’ve been in gm,es where entire factions were hosed from the start due to an unannounced bias on the part of the writers. had to leave a campaign game when it became evident that the GMs were giving better parts/abilities/play-time to those within their poly circles than anyone else. In NONE of these situations could anything that I have done remedied any of these situations.

    • Carolina Dahlberg

      That sounds terrible. I really hope you stopped going to those games. It sounds like design choices were perhaps not the main problem, though:
      I consciously choose not to include the “people just being stupid and mean”, since that is so often the first thought that comes to mind when one has had a bad larp experience. And very very often, it is not at all the case.
      That doesn’t mean it never happens, however. Organizers who behave the way you describe them certainly exist (i know of a few), and if there is no sincere wish to listen and improve, there is very little any player or can do.

      My wish was to write something that could offer some reconciliation in the multitude of different scenarios where everyone, both organizers and players, have just had the best of intentions, even though it didn’t turn out that good in the end for the player.

      • Cpt_Justice

        I did, for a long time, examine my behavior. I even asked “more successful players” what they were doing differently. One player gave me a very well-intentioned lecture – that rebounded on him when we found ourselves in a neutral environment not predisposed toward him, and he had a horrible time & I had a great time. He then had the grace to look again at the campaign we were both in, & concede that things were skewed.

        I missed the part where you already ruled out malice or poorly constructed games; I apologize.

        • Carolina Dahlberg

          Well, I didn’t actually rule it out explicitly, but I chose not to include it either. But yes, I’m mainly focusing on the specific design choices that – in my experience – can really ruin your game, although the organizer’s intentions might be as good as they come.

          It sounds like what you experienced was a combination of both poor design choices and *really* problematic player/organizer culture! And good that you finally had an experience that confirmed that you weren’t just making things up.

          I guess all player/larp communities have what could be called “more successful players” – people who just seem to be at the right place in the right time, who gets all the cool characters, and whom everyone wants to play with.
          I think this is an important issue and also something worth writing more about, since in many cultures, people tend to ignore the player’s off game persona as a factor in play. I know that some people had a workshop about this at Prolog, Sweden. 2014 I think it was.

    • Andrew Rawlings

      Yes. I feel all LARP groups (and all RPG groups actually) should have written into their bi-laws that people should not be able to GM for themselves or their SOs. I’m not saying that there aren’t people mature enough to do so without it affecting the game, just that most cases of a game being ruined for me it was either because the GM decided his PC or his SO’s should be the primary protagonist and the rest of the PCs his sidekicks/audience.

      • Dan Gerszewskiq

        Problem there is there’s always too many people wanting to play not enough willing to ST and the community is really tight-knit. I feel like a better solution is to have concrete and transparent rules. No one can argue there’s a bias if everyone follows the same rules for character creation and everyone has the same chance of being allowed *insert cool thing here*.

      • Cpt_Justice

        That, too. The games i am talking about where GMs planned that their SOs characters would be the most powerful & have the most plots directed at them.

      • Tynam

        I can improve on this rule, actually: GMs should not be allowed to know in advance which characters will belong to their SOs / partners / metamours.

        If GMs are forced to write neutrally, because they don’t know who will be cast until *afterwards*, most of these issues go away.

        • Cpt_Justice

          So you’re saying that the writers & the GMs should not be the same people? Not arguing, just clarifying; that sounds like a very plausible, interesting idea. The ONLY problem is that there usually are not enough writers AND GMs for any given came/campaign the duties to be split.

          • Tynam

            They don’t need to be different people – all that matters to avoid the writing problem is that the writers don’t know which characters belong to their SOs *at the time of writing*. That at least means they write the characters evenly.

            Most of my LARPs are one-off or short campaign, however, so that biases my approach. It’s not a viable solution in a long-term campaign.

          • Cpt_Justice

            But how can you keep the writers from knowing unless the writers are *not* the GMs. If they are the GMs as well as the writers, they will know what they want to do with the game – which definitely includes who is going to play which character. The time of when they write it has no bearing on that!

          • Tynam

            It can have a huge bearing on that. I normally write convention and weekend games, which means I write *before I know who will be playing*.

            I sometimes have players in mind that I *hope* will play, and that I *want* to play a particular role – but I never know if I’ll get my wish. This is important.

        • Andrew Rawlings

          While the Writer giving their SO/Partner/metamour the ‘best’ character is a problem having a GMSO’s character, even if it is random, suddenly become the focus of the game isn’t solved by this. Even if different people write scenarios and GM games the GM can still focus all their attention/xp/rewards on their SO/Partner/metamour.

          I’m actually more against GMs having the power than writers since the GM has the power on the day (days if it is an ongoing game) to alter the story to fit their needs claiming they were ‘winging it based on the player’s actions’ while the writer doesn’t have that power (or justification).

  • Squirrel

    The line “You feel like there’s an invisible wall between you and everyone else.” amuses me, since I once ‘played’ in a game where this was literally true.

    I arrived at the game to find that I shouldn’t have bothered costuming since I wasn’t going to be allowed into the main game space at all. Without being told in advance, I found my game was to be sitting in a corner playing a war game, as antagonist for the PCs, while everyone else got to play a freeform. Some other PCs could interact with my pseudo PC but only when they specifically put in the effort to do so. Other than that I was sat there twiddling my thumbs, wondering when the next call might happen.

    Unwilling to be cut off from every other player in the game, I worked my ass off, made connections and friends through the people who were able to come and visit me, and eventually persuaded my greatest detractor to agree to a meeting.

    Finally I was in the main game space, but what happened next shocked me. I was a few words into the most significant interaction of my game, one that I had been working towards all evening when NPCs showed up and killed me. That’s right, the GM killed my character for having the temerity break out of the agency stifling little box I’d been put in.

    When I asked how this could possibly be justified, the GM said “well no-one stepped in to save you”. Of course not, I had only just managed to persuade them not to kill me on sight themselves, why would they step in to save me when I hadn’t even been given the chance to speak?

    The words “you can’t force things to work just the way you wish them to” from the article apply just as much to people running games as to those playing them. We all know that no plot survives contact with the players, so why would you destroy what little agency you have granted a character by summarily killing them?

    As you might expect, I will never play in another game by this GM. The bond of trust has been broken, as has the unwritten rule that if you sign up to play a game then you will actually get to play a game.

  • Dan Gerszewskiq

    I’ve run my share of games, small and large, and I boil it down to ONE very simple rule.

    Players are like big, active dogs. If they have nothing to do they start to act destructively. Just like a big great dane kept in a small house all day long, they start chewing on your “furniture” in this case the furniture is your plot, your setting and your NPCs.

    Continuing the metaphor, players learn well, sometimes TOO well. It’s very easy to scare players off plot interaction forever if each interaction ‘punishes’ them. If they are told off trying to act too many times, they will stop trying, and feel the game is futile. Then because they feel it’s pointless trying to act they get bored, and it’s back to point #1 up there.

    All of the points above point to one of two things. Either players have nothing to do, or when they try to act they get their wrist slapped.

    So, boredom is the enemy and having your hand slapped too many times leads to learned inaction that leads to boredom.

    What is a player to do? This is where some introspection and being honest comes in. I’ve seen too many people complain they feel stifled or constantly hemmed in, but it’s because what they want to do is antisocial, against the purpose of the game or overly self-aggrandizing. Make sure your storylines can co-exist with the rest of the game, and be active as the STs let you, and if they WON’T let you, well consider if it’s a game you want to be in, after having a long think about why they won’t let you.

  • Ilina ‘Hellen’ Konakchieva

    Hello, my name is Ilina “Hellen” Konakchieva, I am a LARP organizer from Bulgaria. I have found this article most interesting and useful for our community to read; I have already linked it; however I hope you would mind if I translate it and publish the translation with the original link in our community forums?

    • Carolina Dahlberg

      Hello!
      I’d be delighted if you did! Just attribute me as the author, and link back to the original post at Nordiclarp.org. 🙂

  • Al McConnell

    Very nicely written, thanks for the insight!

  • Well now that is something to ponder in the future. I have had similar experiences in LARP and it can be a struggle to get back into it.
    Thanks for the write up.

  • Carole Richard

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been larping for over 20 years in the same community, and I’ve reached I point where I couldn’t take it anymore. Your article gave me the words I needed to express myself. Again, thank you.

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