Ask not what you can do for your character, ask what your character can do for you?
I have worked with character creation for many years and making characters fit both the larp and the players at the same time has always been a struggle. The player of the character might change, new ideas for relations pop up down the road, how the player understands the character might be completely different than what you had thought. The larp is most likely going to develop in a direction you were not able to predict, because that is what larps do. They do not follow a script, they adapt, they bend, twist and turn. Some smaller, heavily scripted larps, might have a certain amount of control over the characters and players, but the bigger the larp, the less you can predict or control the course of the action. So instead of insisting to try and keep tabs on everything, work with the character as a starting point, not a script for a character you need to play out like in a theatre. It is your character and your experience that matters.
Some larps introduce workshop-created characters to get the player involved at an early stage in and allow designers and players to collaborate to create a shared vision of the character and that solves many problems. I think an easier solution is a change in player mentality. With both College of Wizardry (Nielsen, Dembinski and Raasted, 2014-) and Fairweather Manor (Boruta, Raasted and Nielsen et al., 2015) we tried to communicate that characters were meant to serve as inspiration for the players, not a chain around their necks. We told players explicitly that they were free to change what needed to be changed so the character could fit the experience they as players sought from the larp. Obviously while still being mindful of others and communicating with their co-players. But the idea to take a character sheet and change as much of it as you want is alien to many larpers and it requires a shift in both player mentality, and in larp design. In this article, I’ve outlined my thoughts on how you as a player should approach your characters, not to tell the story the organisers envisaged, but to make the characters your own and through that create the most amount of game.
You Are Not an Actor
Larp is not acting, there is not a tightly written script you have to read out aloud where every part of your character’s journey is dependent on you staying entirely true to your character. Larps are (mostly) dynamic and flexible, stories and actions are (mostly) improvised. For your character to always function in this exercise of mass improvisation, your character needs to be flexible as well.
We Wrote the Character for You!
Now, when I advise you to only stick to the character for as long as it works, it is not because I want you to disregard the tireless work of character writers, but because the designers wrote the character for you to have a good experience. Be aware of when it stops working, when you start crying not due to: “talking about your sister’s suicide while peeling potatoes in the mud”Knudepunkt TV video (Thank you Karolina and Stina): A journey in to Swedish larping”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyrLndFJBfs but because you as a player feel stuck. You have very likely been there yourself; the character just did not make sense, either for you or with the direction that the larp had taken your character. Realise and adapt.
When I sat in the organiser room of CoW and Fairweather Manor, I met players crying their eyes out because they didn’t know what to do, they were simply unable to act out their character and have a good experience at the same time. This is a moment to “CUT,” “BRAKE,” and “STOP.” Take a deep breath and sit down, and ask yourself: “What do I as a player want to experience at this larp, why did I come here in the first place?” When you have figured that out, try figuring out how to get there.
My advice is always to consider this before going to a larp. Spend time acknowledging why you want to play a specific larp and a specific type of character, to adapt your expectations to when you meet the larp. If you do not know what you want, then try something you would find enjoyable in other larps—being it eating cakes or drowning people in a lake (I’m not here to judge). Do it. Just do it. After you have done it as your character, try and rationalise why: “I just did this, what the fuck just happened?.” This also happens in the real world, sometimes we just do something stupid we never wanted to do, and then afterwards we try to rationalise it. It works perfectly fine in real life, so it can in larp too. Real people don’t consider everything they do: they do stuff. Often it takes a while before they realise why they did it. This is a perfect excuse to change directions for your character at a larp. Use it.
Contradictions Are Interesting
You see it all the time in real life, and in fiction. When someone contradicts their own beliefs or actions, it can make for interesting storytelling. So whenever you ask yourself: “What would my character do?,” also ask: “What would my character never do?” Then ask yourself as a player, what would be the most interesting story? The protective knight that lost his temper and beat up the beggar on the street, the thief that returned the stolen goods, the doctor who ended up killing his patient, the enemies who suddenly became best friends? Sometimes playing against stereotypes can provide better stories and more intense experiences than playing a character as written.
Just like Falling in Love
Think of it as falling in love. Sometimes we just do stupid shit for love. That is your motivation. Now ask yourself, what or who is it that your character loves? Then do that stupid unthinkable thing to get closer to it. “My character do not fall in love,” well maybe you just did anyway? Or maybe you did something stupid to protect someone? Love is the perfect illogical explanation for lots of potential play. Again, obviously be mindful of your co-players, never use spontaneous love as an excuse to stalk someone you as a player like out-of-character. Use it to start new interaction and if you feel stuck with no direction for your character.
“I Suddenly Remember All about This Trauma from My Past?”
Remember your 1-10 pages of character is not a full life story. People who have written diaries as teenagers has hundreds of pages of dribble and if you read it all, there would still be more teenage angst to go. Maybe there was something that wasn’t mentioned in your character? Like in real life, you also suddenly remember something from your past, that gets triggered. This could also happen to your character. Be creative and don’t panic, there is almost always a way to get a back into a larp and mold a poor experience into a great experience. I have dozens of boring or just poor larp experiences, where I went out-of-character and went for a walk to reconsider my options, sometimes asking real life friends at the larp for help. If they are your friends, they would prefer you tell them of your struggles, than just try and brush it off, even if you interrupt five minutes of their weekend larp. Who knows, maybe they are also confused and together you can solve each other’s lackluster experience.
Sharing Is Caring
This brings us to yet another approach. Instead of thinking about what you as a player want, think about what you could do to enhance the experience of others. If someone else looks bored, try to play with them. It might so happen that they then do the same for you when you get bored. Maybe someone is trying to keep a secret? Expose it to everyone, see what happens. Maybe someone else wants to be beaten or wants to win, let them, others will mimic your collaborative play. Look outwards and become a playmaker for others. The best stories are created together and sometimes you can get a great experience yourself by delivering one for someone else. Maybe you can deliver someone’s poems or collect their taxes, maybe someone is sitting with to much to do and you can lift part of that burden. You might break ranks a bit or upset norms in the setting, but if someone is struggling with their position anyway, their experience might already suck, so breaking a bit of the immersion of hierarchy is often the lesser of two evils.
Reinventing the Wheel
I am not trying to reinvent the wheel, steering was a term introduced a few years ago at Knudepunkt. I strongly recommend you read: The Art of Steering by Markus Montola, Eleanor Saitta and Jaakko Stenros (2015). What I advocate is to actively steer your character. Take charge of your experience. It is even more important today, where you have likely gone to a larp in a foreign country that cost a fortune. Try one or more of the techniques I suggested above and if you’re in doubt, always come and ask the organisers, they might not know everything, but they could have a good idea on how you could adapt your character.
There is a lot of debate about whether or not it is okay to leave character. In the 90s’, it was clearly considered the biggest achievement to stay in character as long as humanly possible. Today, things are changing, while immersion is still an important goal, we want to be more aware about consent and opting in / opting out. For you to be able to play with informed consent and be able to opt out, you need to on some level to feel comfortable with stepping out-of-character and asking your co-players “is this okay?” as well as saying: “NO!” (or “Yellow Penguin,” if that is the agreed safeword).
Nordic larps often have safewords as a default, and creating comfortable off-game awareness can be done in different ways, which I am not going to go into in this article. What I can say is that when it works, it is usually quite easy to fall back into character, surprisingly easy in fact, at least in my experience, whenever someone takes you off-game. We always think that immersion is slowly being built up. I would argue it can be kickstarted. Think of when you watch a powerful movie, some movies take you right into the action with a single chord or one camera shot. I have experienced the same in larp. If you have doubts, go off-game and ask, and then agree on a way to reboot the scene and do it.
There are many techniques you can use to kickstart immersion, most of which are inspired by methods from theatre and may require a bit of practice. At Fairweather Manor, playing the role of the butler required the player—Daniel Sundström— to go into the off-game room to get updates about the programme for the larp. Each time Sundström entered, he would do a specific modern hand gesture (Going out-of-character) and when stepping back into the larp he would stand up straight and take a deep breath as if he was about to jump into a swimming pool (Going into character.) What he did was giving physical signals to his body, when going from off to in-game. I recommend you find a distinct physical trait for your character, which you stop doing if you go out-of-character and restart doing as you try to immerse yourself. It can be a specific voice, a way to fold your hands, a tipping with your fingers, favouring one leg—you see it in movies all the time, the really immersive character have these physical traits that completely changes the actor.
The Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for the way he changes his physicality. If you watch a few of his movies in a row, you will notice that he almost always changes his jaw position when he acts to helps with accents and changing his facial structure. I’m not saying you need to be an Oscar level performer to larp, but let yourself be inspired by it.
Generally what you want is very clear physical behaviour transformation and have some odd physical action while going out-of-character, making it clear for your mind and body, that you are leaving the magic circle.
Another approach is setting a scene. Every player involved should agree, off-game, on who starts the conversation and then you jump in. It is best to pick a scene that is powerful and can get your adrenaline going, like a fight, running or going onto stage to perform. Demanding immediate action from your character turns the focus away from your “off-game self,” you focus on the task instead of your own thoughts. Basically, you want to distract your mind, it is a bit like trying to fall asleep, if you think too much about it, it only becomes harder.
Lastly, music. If you are running a black box larp I strongly recommend using music or lights to signal immersion. Just like in a movie, using our senses can trigger us to get into character, out-of-character, or evoke emotional responses which are often a great distraction from off-game thoughts. This is also why black box larps can be so powerful in just one hour of play. It can get as intense in one hour as a weekend in a castle. Because just like a castle evokes emotional responses by having the smell, the feel and the look right—a well designed black box larp can play with your senses to empower immersion.
We Can Negotiate Violence, Why Not Characters?
At the Swedish boarding school larp about bullying, Lindängen (Elofsson and Lundkvist, 2016), my biggest regret was the scene I did not cut. It was a scene where one character was group pressured into slapping another character. It was a powerful scene, but the player doing the slapping was only giving “fake slaps” as the crowd shouted: “Hit harder,” “hit harder.” I could see the group pressure bleeding over from the character to the player as well. Fortunately, the player stood firm and did not escalate, but after the scene ended I realised that I should have said cut, stopped the scene and let us find a way to play up the intensity of the fake beating rather than playing it down.
We make these realisations when it comes to scenes being too violent or intimate, and we agree to change them without blinking. We should give our characters the same courtesy. If something isn’t working, go off and agree with your co-players or organisers how to improve it. Worst case, you ruin one good scene but you save an entire larp experience.
You can read a response to this text by Martine Svanevik here:
You can read a reply from Charles Bo Nielsen to the reply here:
- Montola, Markus, Eleanor Saitta and Jaakko Stenros, The Art of Steering—Bringing the Player and the Character Back Together. In The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. Edited by Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted,. Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespilsakademiet, 2015.
- Nielsen, Charles Bo, Dracan Dembinski and Claus Raasted et al. College of Wizardry. Poland: Liveform (PL) and Rollespilsfabrikken (DK), 2014-.
- Boruta, Szymon, Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted et. al., Fairweather Manor. Mozna, Poland: Dziobak Studios, Rollespilsfabrikken (DK) and Liveform (PL), 2015.
- Elofsson, Alma and Mimmi Lundkvist. Lindängen International Boarding School. Organised by Alma Elofsson and Mimmi Lundkvist. Malmköping, Sweden: 2016.
This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.