Should I reveal the secret now, or wait? Should I say something, or stay silent? Should I go somewhere, or stay where I am?
Questions like these are running through the heads and guts of players all the time when larping. Often, players don’t even think of them actively as questions, but are subconsciously making choices nevertheless. The actions of a player during runtime are consequences of a series of decisions. In this article, we will outline a framework for analyzing how the players decide on their actions moment to moment, as well as on longer time scales throughout the larp. To help understand how these choices are arrived at and structured, we will introduce the concepts map and loop.
The map is the structure in the players’ minds of the current status of the fictional reality and their place inside itWhile we are speaking about something larp-specific, humans use these types of structures all the time; for more information, look up cognitive maps or mental maps (Cognitive Map, Wikipedia, 2020).. The map’s content can be spatial information, character relationships, the characters’ understanding of past events, and the kinds of actions the player sees as possible in the larp. The map also stores projections of event outcomes, and the schedule of acts, known predetermined events, and the end of play.
Players often start to sketch their map before playing begins, for example gathering information in a pre-larp workshop or reading written materials. At the start of play, players are focused on coloring inThe initial printing of this essay used “warming up” as the metaphor here; on reflection, “coloring in” was clearly the better terminology choice. their maps and filling in enough detail that play flows easily and actions become self-sustaining.
The other concept we will work with in this piece is the action loop. During a larp, participants are running at least one action loop — often a few, at different time scales. An action loop moves the participant through four steps: observing and understanding the situation, planning and assessing the possible actions they could take, deciding on a course of action, and performance. We call the process of repeatedly cycling through this set of steps as you make decisions and take actions “running a loop.” The loop is a metaphor for the player’s decision processLoops are a common conceptual and practical tool in systems thinking and computer science. Credit for the decision loop metaphor goes originally to Col. John Boyd’s “OODA” loop (OODA Loop, Wikipedia, 2020.
A player might be running one loop as their character talks to another, interpreting the other character’s responses, seeing the conversational openings, and steering their responses toward the direction they find interesting for the scene. In another, higher-level loop they might be looking at how the scene is evolving, seeing the possibilities it opens up for future scenes, evaluating them with respect to their goals, and then changing the steering input in the shorter-term loop. The player might also have a much longer-term loop, where they reflect upon the arc of their experience thus far, and set strategic goals for how to shape that arc going forward. Especially on this level, they might also be thinking about their own life and how it is mirrored in the themes of the larp, and using that as input for their loop. This is called metareflection, and as you can read more about it in Hilda Levin’s chapter Metareflection elsewhere in this book, we will not go into it in depth here.
As a player runs their loops, they refer to their mental map to interpret and understand what is happening in the larp. The players continuously update their maps, connecting new observations to existing information. Those connections are where players find possibilities for action, and provide the field for player creativity.
Agency Regulation and Motivation
To understand player decisions, we need to look at the concepts of player and character agency, and player motivations. Agency measures how much or little a person can affect a specific situation, how they can act, and whether they can change outcomes.
The player’s agency is separate from the character’s agency. It is restricted by aspects such as what information the larp has given the players, which skills you have, legal restrictions, and play culture. Furthermore, agency is subject to social factors, such as body shape, performance skills, or status among your co-players. Aspects of the world that regulate player actions are constraints. To be specific, the constraint is not the aspect of the world itself — rather, the constraint is the relationship of the group of players with that aspect.
Hard constraints cannot be changed by participants and are shared by all of them. For example, even if you play a character that can fly, humans cannot fly, so you are not able to represent the action directly. Hard constraints can be set by laws and common sense (not killing your co-players in combat), or by choices made by the designer and expressed through rules (“this is a non-verbal larp”). In the latter case the constraint is hard if the consequence of breaking the rule is that others will not view the action as part of the fiction (for example, talking when the fiction says you cannot talk).
Soft constraints are different from player to player — for example, if your character wants to take off their clothes, but you hold back because you are afraid of others’ reactions or because you will feel ashamed. A constraint like this can limit your agency just as powerfully as a hard constraint. It can, however, be addressed in different ways both through the design of the event (for instance, of the player culture or the rules of the fiction), through adjustments during play (like changing the lighting in the space) or internally by the player (for instance, if your fears diminish as the co-players earn your trust).
The constraints limit the affordances of the situation — what you as a player can do. However, within the constraints there are usually many options. While different players may see the same options as possible, there will not necessarily be the same cost or risk involved for all players. Agency-regulating constraints determine the perceived cost or risk of taking an action.
Player motivations are the goals that direct player actions and shape which of the available options the player will view as most interesting.
Motivations can be individual or communal, and have to do with either the larp experience itself or with factors outside the larp. Examples of individual motivations can be experiencing powerful emotions, wanting to win, or temporarily escaping into another world. Motivations outside of the play situation could be increasing one’s social status, understanding something better, or making new friends. Communal goals could be making experiences better for others, helping to build a community with certain values, or exploring and developing a genre or fiction together. Characters will also have goals for their actions, but player and character goals will not always coincide. It can, however, be a player goal to stay loyal to their character.
The constraints regulate the agency of the player and the character. The actions that exist inside the constraints are — for you — the possible actions. Actions that are constrained are impossible, either literally, or because the player currently perceives them as such.
The player’s decision of which action to pick among those that seem to be available is based on a cost/benefit analysis, taking into consideration motivation and constraints. We will examine this analysis below, as we explore different stages of the loop.
Stages of the Loop
Keeping the affordances determined by agency and motivations in mind, it is now time to describe the steps of the loop in more detail. The processes described are mostly automatic, which is to say you might be only vaguely aware of them as you larp (just as you are almost never aware of similar processes occurring continuously as you move through your daily life). Even at your first larp, you will perform the steps of the loop successfully, and as you larp more, you will become more skilled at different aspects of the process, such as identifying play opportunities or reading the emotional states of other players.
Let’s go over the four stages of the loop in more detail.
Observation and Understanding
Your loop starts by observing yourself and the world around you (using all of your senses, not just vision), attempting to understand what you’re seeing in view of your map, and comparing what you see to the information in your map of the larp — and then possibly updating your map.
In this phase, you’ll note things like your own emotional and physical state, where players are and what actions their characters are taking, the reactions of other players and characters to what you did in the previous loop, the emotional state of other players and/or the emotional state their characters are projecting, etc. You’ll evaluate these observations for offered play opportunities, power structures, the emotional reaction they bring up in you, their significance in the fiction, their resonance with the larp’s themes, the metatechnical meaning of actions (if metatechniques are used in the larp), etc. Drawing understanding out of what you observe in a larp is what we call literacy — things like your ability to recognize play offers from others, or check in with yourself to understand your own emotional state separate from the state you’re portraying with your character.
Planning and Assessment
Planning and assessing actions is a process where the player has to take into account what kind of agency they have, what motivation they have, how the rest of the larp will react, how much time is available, what restrictions are placed on the player by their own physical and mental state, and what the likely outcomes of the actions will be. The player will evaluate what actions are possible, desired, acceptable, and achievable.
Possible actions: In theory, the list of possible actions is more or less endless. In practice, the player does not think about most of these — only a small number of possible actions will come to mind. The list of actions is composed based on the situation the player is already in. Often, a player will navigate the larp in order to get into a situation where more actions are possible. For example, if you are alone and want to interact with others, you first need to take actions to get together with other people.
Because players aren’t just recording raw data about the world, but are actively reading the environment, the planning and assessment process in practice often occurs at least in part contemporaneously with observation and understanding. In particular, players will often not even consider actions they know aren’t possible, like flying down from a building. This is efficient, as considering those options would be a waste of time.
Social rules can be internalised to a degree that the player might also not consider actions that are literally possible — these are what we refer to as soft constraints. Most players will, for example, rule out actually injuring another player as an action that is not possible; this is a soft constraint that is helpful. Unfortunately, social rules can also make a player see an action as impossible even when it is something that the larp offers, or even encourages. For example, if they have learned in the outside world that the kind of person they are perceived as, or perceive themselves as, will be socially or physically punished for some actions, the player may view those actions as impossible — for more on this, see Kemper, Saitta, and Koljonen’s Steering for Survival elsewhere in this book.
In short, an action is possible if the player is conscious of it and feels able to pursue it.
Desired actions: From the list of possible actions that the player is conscious of, they will identify which ones are desirable. In the previous step, we only took into account the agency regulating constraints. In this step, as well as the subsequent ones, the constraints still matter, but we also take motivation into account. Whether the action is desirable is dependent on player motivation as well as on soft constraints. Based on the player’s motivation, they will filter out actions that they deem will not support their goals. For example, a player wanting to be loyal to their character will not act in a way that goes against the character motivation — unless other player goals overshadow the desire to be loyal to the character. This leaves the player with a selection of actions that are both possible and desirable.
Acceptable actions: The other players (and the organizers) of the larp will expect actions that maintain the coherence of the fiction and support content, events, and actions that are in line with what they want to experience or create. Usually, co-players will expect everybody to avoid actions that ruin the play for others, and to play their character as intended by the designers. In many play cultures it is also considered poor form to choose actions that significantly limit the agency of other players. Which kinds of actions have that effect varies between different kinds of larps and play cultures, making this a common cause of friction at international events.
While players differ in how much they care about the acceptance of their co-players, all players take these norms of acceptable play into account. The play culture’s influence on which actions are acceptable shapes how a player’s agency is regulated by constraints, as does the player’s knowledge and understanding of this culture. The player’s motivation will affect the degree to which a player cares about how their choices are received by others. A player who is indifferent to how others view them will have a wider range of options at the planning and assessment stage, although social consequences are then likely to limit their possible actions later, for example if they become isolated in play.
At this stage, the character’s agency becomes part of the decision even if the player isn’t motivated by being loyal to their character. If you are supposed to play an old and weak character, it doesn’t make sense to lift a heavy table above your head, even if you as a player are strong enough to do so and doing so could help take your larp where you want to go. The choice could be ruled out by your personal adherence to the coherence of the overall fiction, or by an understanding that breaking it is not socially acceptable.
Achievable actions: Most actions will cost the player time and energy. As these are limited resources, it’s necessary to take them into account. Some actions (for example resting) may give you more energy for later play. When deciding between a couple of actions that are all possible, desirable, and acceptable, a player will take time and energy into account. Doing something always means you are not doing something else. For example, staging a big scene in front of everybody might drain your energy, and joining a group that will go away for a few hours means you will miss a lot of other play while being away. Sometimes you have to select an action which by itself is not the most desirable, in order to save time and energy, or because you do not have the capacity to carry out another behaviour right now.
Outcome evaluation: Once you’ve got a set of possible, desirable, acceptable actions that you have the bandwidth to perform, you need to project forward to understand their likely outcomes. An action that may be desirable in the moment may not look desirable when you consider how it may shape player actions over time, or you may realize that it doesn’t make sense in the context of your goals in an action loop running on a longer timescale — for instance that it would make a great scene, but not support a good character arc.
In practice, the planning and assessment phase will be compressed, and it’s rare that you’ll do all of these steps explicitly or even consciously. However, we believe that all of these factors are evaluated at some level in this phase, unless a heuristic — a mental rule — is used to skip over assessment and planning entirely. For more on this, see Magnar Grønvik Müller’s Introduction to Heuristics elsewhere in this book.
Once you have one or more viable plans, you need to decide between them, or commit to the one you have. At this point, you’ve likely already thought through the possible outcomes and their likelihoods for the plans, especially if you have more than one. The decision point is often subconscious or very fast, particularly if you’ve identified one obvious plan. In the case of multiple plans with significant consequences for your experience, you may spend some time in deliberation.
Some players use heuristics to skip from observation to decision. They will have learned from experience that some situations lead to play they do or don’t want, and have established an internal rule that they will always take a specific type of action in a certain type of situation.
The choices might have high stakes, or there may be too many viable options without a way to decide between them — or seem to be no options at all — or you may realize that you’re uncomfortable with what looks like the obvious choice on the basis of how it feels when it comes time to commit to it. In these situations, you might experience choice paralysis, and decide instead to to go back and replan, to take some time out of character to figure out what decision to make, or just make up your mind to passively follow some random external impulse (like listening to another character’s suggested course of action).
This is the phase where you act out whatever plan you’ve decided on. Some of your actions can be fully internal and visible only to yourself, but generally as you perform your actions, you will be observed by others. The other players will read you based on their maps, and update them. As you play out your plan, you’ll be noting their reactions and observing your own performance and evaluating whether your actions have interesting or meaningful consequences. This will lead you into the next iteration of the loop.
A single loop is fairly straightforward. However, players run several loops simultaneously, which makes the concept a bit more complex.
Multiple Loops: Working Across Timescales
In any given larp, you will be running simultaneous action loops at different timescales.
At the finest time scale, you run a loop that lets you manage your performance inside a scene; this is the performative loop. Here, you are for instance deciding what you’ll say next, or how long you should drag out these death groans, or how much of your character’s feelings you will allow your facial expressions and body language to reflect.
If it’s useful, you can think of every scene as being composed of a series of phrases for each character, with each phrase corresponding to one iteration — repetition — of the loop, whether they’re verbal phrases, physical movements, etc. This is the loop where you evaluate situations and emotional reactions in the highest detail, and is generally what will take up most of your focus in a larp. If you are a player who prioritises character immersion, the mental state where you (pretend to) feel, act, and be as your character, this is the level where you will perform the emotion-following part of immersion.
The next timescale is the inter-scene scale, where you think about the scene that you want to play next and how the scenes will stitch together. This is the tactical loop. In a very short larp, like some blackbox larps, this will be the highest timescale, since you can plan for the whole duration of the larp on this level. This is often the level where steering choices are made.
Iterations of this loop are scenes. Depending on your play style, you may engage this loop more or less consciously. The evaluation process can be just as fast as in the mostly subconscious performative loop, but this level is more likely to slow down to a reflection you can become aware of. In the tactical loop, you will often focus on your intention as a player and your intention as a character for a given scene; these become the goals that you evaluate actions against in the faster performative loop.
The largest timescale is the whole-larp, or strategic loop timescale; iterations of this loop are acts. Here, you evaluate your goals as a player for the entire larp (or the series of larps, if you’re playing a campaign), the dramatic arc of your character, etc. Having decided on the direction you want your arc to take, you are likely to stay on that course, but you might be sensitive to new input that would trigger reevaluation of that direction — like a better opportunity or a sign your chosen path might not work. While you may think about your arc frequently, consciously changing course is a less common occurrence.
Different players have different strategies for playing larps, which may shape how they use their strategic loop. Some players will optimize for emotional intensity, some for narrative coherence, or some (in competitive play cultures) for winning the larp. If you are an immersionist player, this is the level where you make strategic choices to enable immersive play.
If the larp you are playing is split up into acts by the designer, you will run at least one iteration of this loop per act, although if acts are long, you might step out of play mid-act (either internally or physically) to re-evaluate. Like the other loops, the strategic loop runs throughout the larp. But as this loop is more symbolic and goal-centric, and requires zooming out of the immediate situation, it can be useful to reserve dedicated time in the design of the larp itself for out-of-character strategic reflection.
In this model, bandwidth is the term for how many things a player can think about, decide on, remember, and do at the same time — their capacity to process information and make decisions, or in other words, to work with their map and loops.Simon Brind, in his piece Blue Valkyrie Needs Food, Badly! elsewhere in this book, talks about the various kinds of energy we use in play. Bandwidth here corresponds roughly to the categories of “social energy” he describes. As we’re primarily concerned with information processing here, we use a metaphor from that space, in part because we believe it makes clear the ways different activities can trade of a shared resource. When you are feeling overwhelmed during play, that is often the experience of being low on bandwidth.
As players become more experienced, they build more efficient cognitive skills for managing information in their maps, and more efficient ways of processing their loops, including heuristics. They will also develop more fluency at jumping between the diegetic, real-world, and metareflective frames, and between different time-scales in the larp, meaning they spend less time on context switches. All this increasing efficiency adds up to more bandwidth to process nuanced information. Consciously developing your map or assessing your decision loops early in a larp may take up a bit of your bandwidth, but can be an investment that pays back in terms of more bandwidth later.
Bandwidth is a resource that players can spend in different ways, and different actions are more or less costly for different players. Bandwidth also affects things like recall of less-salient parts of a player’s map, or cross-referencing between pieces of information, noticing available play opportunities, portraying emotional nuance when playing close to another character, maintaining an accent or physical habits, or language or physical skills. Better larp literacy skills also improve bandwidth, as relevant information will jump out at the player without time-consuming introspection or analysis.
While experience can grant additional bandwidth, any number of things can reduce it. Players who are stressed or otherwise in vulnerable emotional states, cold, hungry, tired, handling social oppression, or dealing with disabilities often experience reduced bandwidth. Players who are not playing in their first language or their own play culture often become more fluent as play progresses, but still tire faster as they keep having to spend extra bandwidth on the effort of translation.
Bandwidth limitations can have different effects: passive and reactive play, disconnecting from the fiction or the social dynamics of play for a while, or even needing to step out of or leave play entirely. Design choices can require more or less bandwidth, and cost or provide different amounts of energy. Designers should consider how their decisions will impact the available energy and bandwidth of different players through the larp. A design that inflicts player fatigue, for example through lack of sleep or food, might leave players more open to emotional impact — but it will also reduce their bandwidth. On the other hand, offering physical comfort even though the fiction is stressful, for example by providing an offgame space with coffee and sweets, may help players regenerate their energy and free up bandwidth.
Your available bandwidth affects the choices you make during play. You might abstain from a desired action to save energy for complex play later, or rule out actions as impossible due to lack of bandwidth.
Steering and Collective Decision-Making
In The Art of Steering (Montola, Stenros, and Saitta 2015), steering is defined as “the process in which a player influences the behavior of her character for non-diegetic reasons”. In the context of action loops, steering can be viewed as a process of deciding which goals to bring into play — evaluating possible actions on the basis of which ones are desirable with respect to your personal goals.
Steering is defined as something players do alone, on the basis of their own goals. Steering is both the act of identifying a goal (often on the whole-larp or inter-scene level) and the successive loops that the player performs to attempt to satisfy those goals (often on the scene level). It is possible for two players to agree that they both have goals that align, and for the two players to then steer their play in a coordinated fashion. However, the communication and collective decision-making whereby the players discover they have aligned goals and decide to act on them are just that — collaboration in their action loops, not steering.
Players rarely execute their action loops alone. While solipsistically we may all be alone in our heads, each thinking in isolation, in practical terms larp is defined by collaboration at an extradiegeticCommunication that’s within the collective set of social norms that exists during runtime, but which is outside the diegesis, or shared fiction. level — the players are always collaborating, at minimum to maintain the fiction, regardless of what happens inside it. Explicit collaboration between the players may be done via some combination of body language and speech intended to carry meaning at both the diegetic and metadiegetic levels; via specific metatechniques; or even stepping out of play to negotiate or plan together. These collaborations often shape each player’s action loops at the strategic level, as they verbally negotiate the broad arcs they’re interested in playing out and loosely coordinate some of their goals.
Often, the players informally calibrate how their desired paths of action are compatible at the tactical or inter-scene level to shape those loops. In some play cultures, this goes even further, with explicit extradiegetic planning overriding player and character improvisation down to the scene level. For instance, two players might decide not just that their characters will both vie for the favour of the prince, but that one character will call the other’s mother a hamster, leading to a duel that they will lose. As this playing style transfers creativity from the play situation to out-of-character coordination between players, it allows the players to shortcut decision loops on what to do, and significantly reduce the need for a map. It leaves the player to only make runtime decisions on details regarding how to enact the scene. This approach saves the player a lot of bandwidth, and may allow players to play many more dramatic scenes than without pre-planning. However, critics of this playing style would argue that one also risks undermining the emotional connection between player and character, and that it makes the player unreceptive to alternative play bids, which from another co-player’s point of view may be experienced as blocking play.
Character Immersion as a Tactic Versus a Strategy
This new model for looking at what kinds of decisions are made at what kinds of timescales in play can help provide a more nuanced understanding of immersion.
When players talk about preferring to be immersed, they’re often talking about an experience that happens at the scene level, of emotional flow and an absence of thoughts readily identifiable as coming from the player. Intentionally achieving this state requires either luck or, often, conscious acts at the strategic level to set themselves up for immersive play. For some players, these choices will happen as a set of heuristics that they’ve learned over time. While a heuristic may allow them to shortcut the strategic loop evaluation, the loop does still occur.
Even though immersion at the tactical level — within each scene — is desirable for many players, an overemphasis on it can cause problems. In the steering paper (Montola, Stenros, and Saitta 2015), it was raised that playing a larp often requires a certain amount of steering work from each player as they bring the experience into a coherent whole with a collectively desired arc. A player who only steers for immersion requires other players to do the work of steering for the good of the overall larp. That is, the player makes choices in their strategic loop to enable immersion, and then acts in their inter-scene and tactical loops to maintain flow above all else.
Loop Failure Modes
Thinking about how a player’s execution of steps in the loop can lead to unexpected or undesirable experiences helps us understand some of those experiences more clearly.
The first set of failure modes in the loop is in the observation and understanding phase. There are any number of reading errors that can occur. The risk of reading errors depends on the player’s larp literacy. Issues here can include failures to recognize play opportunities being given to you, misreading the emotions of others, etc. Observation or literacy failures around misunderstanding are often sorted out in play, (or at least after the larp), but the failure to realize there was something to see at all is more likely to just lead to missed play opportunities. Players misreading the larp can lead to equifinalityOften, players have different understandings of parts of the diegesis. Two perspectives (or here, maps) are said to be equifinal if the consequences of players acting on them are indistinguishable enough that material conflicts in their interpretations do not derail play. (Montola, 2012) problems (more on this below), and in some cases conflict between players.
A number of failures come up during the planning and assessment phase of the loop, commonly either cost or risk estimation failures, where a player embarks on play that will either be too expensive (in terms of e.g. their available bandwidth or emotional energy) for them to follow through with, or that may fall flat with other players, not be seen as acceptable play (e.g. they have failed at assessing acceptable options), or not lead to the experience they were hoping for, or that they projected would evolve from their action. Risk estimation failures can go both ways, of course, as players can also avoid actions they would have been able to accomplish, or not do things from fear of social censure or out of a misreading of the social contract of the larp.
Another failure mode, at the decision point of the loop, is choice paralysis, where a player has either too many possibilities to choose from or a small number of high-stakes options with uncertain outcomes and insufficient information to decide with.
Most of the remaining failure modes are performance failures, which encompass most of what we traditionally think of as failures in play.
Maps have a life-cycle that mirrors that of the larp, from sketching before the larp begins to coloring in the map as the game starts, through flow during the bulk of play, and then narrativization after the larp ends.
Sketching your map might mean reading background material from the organizers, getting a sense of the world you’ll be playing in and of the logic of that world — of how to think of and within the fiction. It might mean doing non-diegetic research, like watching documentaries about the history of AIDS before playing Just a Little Lovin’, or engaging with source documents, like reading a novel or playing a computer game before playing Witcher School. Such preparation can give you emotional touchstones to shape how you read events during play, or to fill in gaps in your understanding of relevant history that you can draw on in play.
Genre and references to existing works are a fast way to sketch in the rough outlines of a map. “This game is Donna Tartt plus Dead Poets’ Society plus Cruel Intentions” provides a huge amount of information to a player who understands the references. So does “This is a satirical post-apocalyptic larp with 70’s leather gay aesthetics”. Being familiar with the design tradition the larp builds on can also provide such outlines, for example if you have played larps by the same designers before. This information provides starting points for the map, but is less likely to be relevant during play — and indeed, players who hold too tightly to their interpretation of genre and source material may find their maps in conflict with the larp as actually played.
For many players, the process of sketching starts for real when you get (or create, depending on the design) your character. If you talk to your co-players before the larp, you may start layering in some initial information about your chemistry with that player and their play style, and also start collaborative decision-making around your intent for how to play your character relationship.
During pre-larp workshops, the players are mapping the larp under the facilitation of the organizers. Often, this is when the possibilities for play become clear. Particularly if the larp content hasn’t been well-communicated beforehand, seeing what’s talked about in workshops, which mechanics are practiced, and what safety lines are drawn helps you evaluate what actions will be possible and desirable in play.
Much map data is sensory — recognizing a person, knowing how characters move, knowing the layout of the play space, or building associations between colors and factions — and it’s hard to put this data into your map until you’re on site.
When play begins, your map is alive; now things can actually happen. This is the map proper — reactive terrain, not a static store of information and instead something you can use. During the coloring period, several things are happening — usually subconsciously. First, you’re getting comfortable with the rhythm of play and finding your character. Second, you’re figuring out which of the information you sketched into your map matters, what is irrelevant, and what is now incorrect for the larp-as-played. Third, you’re starting to try out play offers and see what is actually possible, what gets a response from your co-players, and what is interesting to you. Some things introduced in the pre-larp workshop or reading material before the larp may stand out as important, while others prove less viable. Fourth, you’re looking for, evaluating, responding to, and building up a library of social bids, or play offers from other players. As the map is colored in, you also start running one or more loops, making decisions and updating the map based on the new information you gather.
Much of the awkwardness many players feel at the beginning of a larp comes from everyone coloring in their maps at the same time. Every action taken by each participant is a test: is this a reasonable action in this situation, culture, world? If it is, which players around me might be interested in the directions I’m suggesting, and for which characters would the actions be relevant? After playing a while, you will increasingly both offer and receive social bids that you can actually act on (see Edman 2019; Westborg and Nordblom 2017 for more on this). When you have enough character-specific possibilities that are established as playable for play to flow smoothly, your map is functional. With a functional map, it’s easier to play, and should you need to step out of character for a bit, it’s then easier to get back in compared to when you had to color in the map initially.
Flow and Communication
During play, players are constantly sharing parts of their maps with each other. This can be explicit, such as when characters tell each other things that they’ve seen happen, describe where to find things or people, or talk about things they might do together. This is only a small part of the sharing that goes on. While there are many other layers to the interaction, every time you see a character react to something you’ve done, that player is also (intentionally or not) sharing data about their map. When you do work to shape the emotional reaction you want to present to others, especially when you’re regulating player emotions to be able to portray character emotions, this is also intentional sharing of information.
Conflicts between players driven by different understandings of the shared world (i.e. equifinality conflicts) are map conflicts. Two maps of a larp are equifinal if the players working from those maps can agree on the shape of the world where it matters to their choices. During map conflicts, player communication about their maps is likely to become more competitive, as each player tries to push the version of diegetic reality that they prefer. Charismatic players sometimes do this accidentally, shaping the diegetic world around them. This isn’t always bad, but can cause problems if they haven’t thought about how their map may affect the experiences of other players. Serious map conflicts can be hard for players to resolve at runtime. Stepping out of play to negotiate is sometimes the answer, but especially if players are low on bandwidth and the play style allows for less narrative coherency the players might also just split into groups, each with their own understanding.
When the runtime ends, the map changes again. A lot of what was being kept in the map — the emotional state of your and other characters, predictions about things that might happen, an understanding of the options for what you can do — becomes irrelevant, as you are no longer making choices about what to do. For some players, this shift in information processing can be disorienting. It can also happen simultaneously with an emotional reaction (often grief) to no longer having access to the social world where their performances as their characters are reflected back to them, and to the other characters they cared about. Depending on the larp and the player, all of this can be overshadowed by post-game celebrations and collective congratulations among the ensemble, but some players will still feel both grief and disorientation intensely.
Once the map is no longer living, you can’t act upon it, but the meaning of what happened can still change. The process of turning a live map where stories exist as collections of events and action-possibilities into chronologies that have a specific meaning and interpretation is narrativization.
Narrativization is a collective process. For a player’s narrative to have social meaning, it needs to be shared and reflected back to them by the other players who are part of it; this too is a kind of negotiation. In this stage, players are still sharing information from their maps, sometimes with the goal of persuading each other that their version of the map is the most correct; often to provide more high-resolution nuance for each other. Some players prefer to reflect on the meaning and experience of their larps in private, and some types of larps, like very abstract or poetic ones, generate maps that differ so significantly from each other that a collective narrativization process has no relevance for the experience of the piece (although comparing experiences might still be interesting).
Epilogues, or short stories that some players write about what happened to their characters after the game ended, occupy an interesting place in narrativization. This contested practiceThere are both larp cultures and individuals that consider epilogue-writing a forced imposition of one set of outcomes and meanings upon one’s co-players; the epilogue writers would argue no one is forced to read them. provides players with one last chance to exercise agency within the game world, often as a way to find emotional closure for where the game ended, or to resolve emotional complexity that springs from the way narrativization shifted the meaning of their individual story. Epilogues are sometimes shared as an explicit part of the collective process by players who engage in this practice; some of their co-players will engage with their epilogues, while others will not.
Things to Put in Your Map
Every player will focus on different things in their maps, but some things are likely to be in the maps of most players. The categories are a rough guide, as many larps will sequence things differently.
Before a larp, you might think about the following:
- Pre-larp motivations: Why am I at this larp, what kind of play experiences am I looking for?
- Information about players: What are their names? How do they play, if you’ve played with them before? Do you like them, want to get to know them better, or want to avoid them?
- Information about characters: What are their names, their group allegiances (if relevant) or general dispositions? How can you recognize this character if you don’t know their player already? What is your characters’ relationship, and is it likely to be important?
- Diegetic information: What’s the historical era and specific fiction of the larp? What fictional information looks like it will be core to your ability to understand the actions of others? What do you know about the setting?
- Metadiegetic information: Themes of the larp, what genre you’re expecting to play in, and your understanding of the culture of the larp and its players. Experiences from other works by the same designers.
- Planned play progression: Acts, schedule, expected play flow, etc.
- Practical concerns: Food, bathrooms, temperature/weather, first-aid, access to power or communications, coffee, sleeping, hazards, and your own planning around these.
- Costuming: What am I planning on bringing? What are the affordances of these objects and clothes? How do they relate to the fiction?
- Skills: Are there particular skills needed to play this (e.g. a particular dance, fencing or a reading a rune alphabet)? If there are, do you have these skills?
- Out of character concerns: Are there things you already know about that will require you to plan around during play, like times you will need to step out of character, etc.
Once you’re on site, you’re likely to change and re-evaluate many of your answers to the previous section, and also start adding some new things:
- More information about the players: What faces belong to what names? What groups or cliques do you see among the players? What kind of chemistry do you have with people you’ll be playing with? What kind of emotional space do they seem to be in? Are there players who you think may need extra support whom you might be able to help?
- The space: Recognizing places. How long it takes to get around, what’s expected in different spaces in and out of game, what’s visible from where, what spaces afford which actions, who is likely to be in which spaces, where you are comfortable.
- Costuming: What did you end up taking with you? How does your costume look compared to others? What does that tell you about players and characters? Will your costume constrain your actions in the space? Is there anything you should change before the larp starts?
- Rules: What are they? How do they work? What are your options if they don’t?
- Calibration: What tools does this larp offer to calibrate interactions with others? How does what you’re hearing in the workshops or before the larp starts change your understanding of what you expect to happen in play? What does it look like the play style will be? Which intentions are expressed by players you’re calibrating with?
- Movement: Once you’re in costume, how does your character move? How do other characters move?
- Agency regulating constraints: What actions feel like they’ll be acceptable here? Especially if you’re a gender or sexual minority, how might other players identify? Does the room feel like it’s likely to be racist or sexist, etc., or to tolerate those actions?
- Self-knowledge: What is your motivation right now? Your goals, and your physical and emotional state?
When play starts, the map kicks into high gear, first during coloring, and then in flow. You’ll re-evaluate things above again, or confirm your judgements, and start adding things like:
- Actions: What has happened so far, and what does it mean?
- Character state: What mood is your character in, what are their goals right now, and what are they thinking about? Does this feel right, or do you need to adjust it?
- Story: What arc is your character on and where are you trying to steer it?
- Engagement and energy levels: To what degree do others seem to be immersed in play? What’s the mood in the room? Which way is it going?
- Projections: How are players and characters likely to react to your potential actions? How would an action change the arc of your character, affect your group of characters, or the larp as a whole? Are players likely to accept your social bid, and what if anything will it cost you, socially or emotionally? Are there problems this action may cause or help resolve?
- Knowledge level: What do you know you don’t know? What might you be wrong about? Where are places where you think your map may differ from that of other players, and will this cause problems?
How players manage information and how they make decisions during runtime was becoming an increasingly prominent blindspot in larp theory. The two questions are inseparable. The two questions are inseparable. The decision process of the loops must be informed by mapped information about the world, and the lifecycle of that information is shaped both by the experience of that world in play and by the decision process itself. The idea of maps and loops provides a sketch of a cognitive model with the affordances we need to talk about and reflect on the way we think in play.
There are a number of secondary concepts and explorations in this piece — player bandwidth, extradiegetic collaboration as the collective partner to steering, understanding how immersion works at the tactical versus strategic level, and the rhythmic split of a larp into phrases, scenes, and acts as something native to the medium, not just a design structure present in some larps. These are subjects we have been in need of more conceptual tools to tackle.
Larp literacy in particular, touched on in passing here, is ripe for more work, as are agency-regulating frames. Both of those ideas, along with maps and loops, came from the Player Skills Retreat held in Helsinki in May 2019; credit for them is owed to everyone in that room.
Markus Montola (2012): On the Edge of the Magic Circle. Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Tampere.
Karin Edman (2019): “Social bid”-method of playing on oppression in larp. WonderKarin, ref February 5th, 2020.
Josefin Westborg and Carl Nordblom (2017): Do You Want to Play Ball? Knutepunkt. Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories.
Jonaya Kemper, Eleanor Saitta, and Johanna Koljonen (2020): Steering for Survival. Solmukohta. What Do We Do When We Play?
Simon Brind (2020): Blue Valkyrie Needs Food, Badly! Solmukohta. What Do We Do When We Play?
Wikipedia (2020): Cognitive map. Wikipedia, ref. Jan 1st, 2020.
Wikipedia (2020): OODA loop. Wikipedia, ref. Jan 1st, 2020.
|↑1||While we are speaking about something larp-specific, humans use these types of structures all the time; for more information, look up cognitive maps or mental maps (Cognitive Map, Wikipedia, 2020).|
|↑2||The initial printing of this essay used “warming up” as the metaphor here; on reflection, “coloring in” was clearly the better terminology choice.|
|↑3||Loops are a common conceptual and practical tool in systems thinking and computer science. Credit for the decision loop metaphor goes originally to Col. John Boyd’s “OODA” loop (OODA Loop, Wikipedia, 2020|
|↑4||Simon Brind, in his piece Blue Valkyrie Needs Food, Badly! elsewhere in this book, talks about the various kinds of energy we use in play. Bandwidth here corresponds roughly to the categories of “social energy” he describes. As we’re primarily concerned with information processing here, we use a metaphor from that space, in part because we believe it makes clear the ways different activities can trade of a shared resource.|
|↑5||Communication that’s within the collective set of social norms that exists during runtime, but which is outside the diegesis, or shared fiction.|
|↑6||Often, players have different understandings of parts of the diegesis. Two perspectives (or here, maps) are said to be equifinal if the consequences of players acting on them are indistinguishable enough that material conflicts in their interpretations do not derail play. (Montola, 2012|
|↑7||There are both larp cultures and individuals that consider epilogue-writing a forced imposition of one set of outcomes and meanings upon one’s co-players; the epilogue writers would argue no one is forced to read them.|