First thing I will address is the point of freedom for a murder mystery larp.
First of all I would look at the design and see how I could work around it. I would argue it is to fragile a larp design if it can fall about from characters making change. The best mystery larp I ever played was “Sankt Elisabeth,” which was a haunted hospital, where we had to explore the rooms for clues and hints. The main antagonist of the larp was revealed through the larp and not through the background story of the characters. The stuff you shouldn’t change was the actual clues in the hospital. The characters all had relations to people who had died at the haunted hospital, but these relations was build up through play with NPC ghosts of former patients. The true brilliance came from the design being so steady, I and another player was 45 minutes late to the larp and got a shorter briefing and got introduced later to the larp, but it didn’t effect the experience that much, because we still got to explore through the hospital to find clues and meet up old patients.
Had we had super tightly written characters, with a near scripts like part of story bits we needed to reveal from our backstory to the other characters, all sorts of things could have gone wrong and often does in horror/psychological thriller larps.
Long answer short: Challenge yourself as a designer and work around it. Make a horror larp, not horror movie.
Martine Svanevik points out there are two solutions if there are not carefully crafted character plots. Either independent plots with no direct ties to characters or a transparent design, so everyone can share and follow the changes they do. I had a great conversation about the claiming that transparent design leaves no room for surprise in the larp with a Russian larp designer Di Villiers about this at GNiales. It is all about getting that “aha! moment”—which for Svanevik and Di Villiers is when a intricate string of neatly folded surprises are revealed. But the “aha! moment” also happens in a very open transparent larp. In a open design larp you put out lots of ideas and plan with your co-players, when suddenly you create the great larp moments, you only put out as dreams, not by a well planned and playout script, but by everyone coming together and playing each other up to reach those strong immersive moments we all play larp for. The payoff for feeling that you as a player achieved greatness is just as rewarding if not more as getting it served on a silver platter.
“Reacting dynamically to unexpected events” I would say is quite an romanticisation of railroaded larps. While I will acknowledge that it is a goal that is often achieved, I also often end up in a situation where it feels to be constructed or that I can see it coming before it happens. With a more natural story developed through play during the larp, you actually have no idea where the larp will take you. But with a railroaded experience—and especially if you know the creators—you start to realise the patterns, even more so if you are also a designer yourself.
Then Svanevik brings up: “players have a tendency to repeat the same tropes.” This I believe to be a very valid critique. Because it is very true that with little external control, we will end up falling back to default ideas and positions, pursue the story we think we want, rather than the story someone else might have in store for us. So if you design your larp with much player freedom in mind or you play a larp like this, be aware of the tropes and challenge yourself to rethink your ideas and not go with the first and the best thing that pops into mind. And as organisers help player creativity along, through workshops, preparing for the larp, teach them something new about society, culture or play styles, so they get new impressions they can get inspired by.
As a larp designer you should help your players see the potential of your larp and together go beyond and above, what would be possible if only one part did all the creative work.
- Kaoskompaniet., Sankt Elisabeth. Kaoskompaniet. Denmark: 2013.
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.