I agree with many of the suggestions Charles B. Nielsen makes in Loyalty to Character. It is true that larps do not follow a script, that even if you write a character for a certain player, that player may pull out at the last minute. What sounds like fun play for a character writer may not be fun for the person playing the part, and any game may take an unexpected turn. As a larp designer, it is therefore tempting to go down Nielsen’s route, to say: “your character is your own, make of it what you will.” But does this approach make for a better larp? Or a better experience for the players?
From a designer’s perspective, this open approach to character writing seems to work best for loosely designed, sandbox style games. When you have a specific story in mind, with a set of characters and relations, every player cannot change as much of their character as they want. Take a murder mystery, for example. In order for the drama to be intense, each character must have a connection to the victim and a reason to want them dead. The players may not know who the victim will be before the game starts, so if you allow each of them to change whichever part of their character they want, the mystery may fall to pieces on day one.
There is beauty in a carefully crafted plot where snippets from a character description comes into play during a game, where each character plays a small part in a larger story. Although most larps do not—and arguably should not—run on rails, there is a particular joy in being surprised at a twist in a story you did not know you were an integral part of. Giving players complete control over the characters requires game designers to either craft plots that are independent from characters—which is a great loss, if you ask me—or to design games that are played with open cards so that every player knows the ramifications of any change they make. This second approach removes the opportunity to surprise players by in-game turns of events. By releasing control of character creation, the designers leave it to players to build their own stories, plots and relation networks to a much larger degree than in a more tightly designed game. This will naturally favour those players who enjoy and are adept at building and sustaining such networks and who enjoy building their own stories, rather than reacting dynamically to unexpected events.
In addition, it is a known truth that left to our own devices, players have a tendency to repeat the same tropes. A player with a penchant for drama will almost always end up bleeding, broken and crying alone in the dark. A player who loves experiencing the rise to power might turn even a mild-mannered romantic into a power-hungry, machiavellian mastermind. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen when players are asked to play parts as written, or even that changing characters is a bad thing, but complete freedom means that there’s no external push to try something new. Larping offers such opportunities to try on new roles and experiences, but sometimes you need to be offered a part you did not know you would enjoy playing in order to experience it.
If you always get to build your character, you might subconsciously end up playing the same game over and over.
I’m not against character steering. Sometimes it is necessary to step out of a game and change direction. The shortfalls in Nielsen’s approach is that it limits the types of stories game designers can tell, and that it removes the external push for players to try something new. In Nielsen’s games, I suspect many of the players will end up telling the same story over and over and, more importantly, that the stories they tell will be player-written and player-controlled.
Nielsen is right when he writes that “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.” I am just not sure if this shift is the right choice for every player and every game. Any larp designer wanting to employ Nielsen’s character design needs to be aware of the knock on limitations in terms of the game they can write, and any player going to such a game needs to be aware that by owning their character’s past, they also need to own that character’s future.
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.