Know Yourself

Know Yourself

When I started larping in the 90’s, I remember we had an ideal for a good player: the one who was able to play any character, take on any role. A king or a beggar, the good larper was able to stretch themselves into any shape and the player behind the character faded into invisibility.

As I’ve grown older and played more, I’ve come to understand the limits of this ideal. Sure, it’s probably good for any larper to try new things and play characters they have never tried before. However, personal aptitude, taste and desire play an important part in what works in a larp and what doesn’t.

This way, self-knowledge becomes part of the skill of being a larper. Once you understand what you can and can’t do, want and don’t want to do, it becomes easier to have good larp experiences and to co-create them with others.

Some realizations are extremely obvious, yet also hard to do anything about. I have severe dietary restrictions caused by illness. I know them very well but that knowledge only helps me if the organizers of the larp are willing to accommodate my issues. If not, no amount of self-knowledge will help me play that larp.

Personally, the greatest insights for me have been subtle: There are themes and relationships, types of scenes and modes of interaction, that work well and less well for me.

I interviewed other larpers to get different perspectives on self-understanding for this article. Most of them are from the Nordics. Some are my friends while others are larp acquaintances.

Positive Self-Knowledge

Let’s start with the positives: What works? What do I want to do? What kind of things do I want to enjoy and explore? Self-knowledge of this type allows us to direct our larp towards good, interesting and new experiences.

One interviewee said: ”My upbringing, education and current job involve a lot of controlling my own presentation. I fulfill my need for acting impulsively and thoughtlessly through larp characters.”

Larp offers a safe environment for acting out many characteristics that are not desirable in a person’s everyday or work life. The fictional framework of a larp can provide alibi for personal emotional fulfillment of a subtle kind that is not necessarily obvious to other players.

Another respondent said that they’d unexpectedly learned to enjoy: ”…wrestling, falling and fighting that isn’t with latex weapons or nerfs. I am not a fighter, I don’t do martial arts, but the physicality of brawling, being dragged on the floor or getting hit by hard projectiles is quite enjoyable.”

It’s not always obvious what proves to be enjoyable until you try it out. Larp presents an environment for us to try out all kinds of things to see what works for us. These lessons can then be taken into future larps, and sometimes to real life.

Self-knowledge also helps to understand what you’re good at. It’s fun to do something very well, to show off. We see it in particular in how players find a creative outlet in larp. Then again, sometimes you specifically don’t want to do things you’re good at in a larp. Many people have professional skills they use constantly in their day-to-day lives, and thus don’t want to take into a larp for fear of making it feel too much like work.

One interviewee said that they once unintentionally created a character with all the characteristics both of themselves and their ADHD, while coincidentally also going through the medical diagnostic process. ”It has been very therapeutic for me. The change is that I got a lot more compassion for myself, and also this character is being loved and cared for, even though it is full of all the faults I hate in myself.”

Developing Self-Knowledge

It’s easy! The only thing you have to do is to larp for a decade or two and reflect on your experiences. That’s what I did.

Fortunately, most can learn a little faster than that. Still, practical experimentation and trying out new things are great methods for acquiring self-understanding. In my experience, one of the most common things you hear from first-time larpers is: ”I didn’t expect it to feel like that!”

For the purposes of developing understanding, experience needs to be paired with reflection and analysis. One respondent said: ”In larps where my character experiences disappointment, failure, being set aside or being put down my first reaction is often withdrawal, cynicism and blaming myself. After reflecting on this, I realized it was because when I was young, this kind of behaviour got me sympathy, but it has also contributed to my depression. Realizing how this worked made it easier for me to develop my larping in another direction.”

The same interviewee continued: ”Often when I larp, my first impulses feel immersive but later I realize they are very much about myself and what I need at that point in my life. Sometimes that leads to repeating my own stereotypes. Nowadays, I consciously avoid certain themes and plan my character’s reactions in advance to avoid accidentally falling back into an old, unsuitable role. Sometimes I also do this during the larp, for example going to the bathroom to be by myself for a few minutes and consider the emotional impact of various choices.”

Taking time in the middle of larp to consider what you’re doing and how you’re playing is particularly useful. I recognize the experience: when I improvise in the heat of the moment, I make choices that feel spontaneous but are actually just repeating old patterns. Taking a bit of time helps to move beyond those.

Failures

What happens when self-knowledge fails? I’ve had a few experiences in my larp career where I’ve thought a type of game content was okay for me, and it wasn’t. I’ve gone to larps that didn’t work for me, which I could have seen in advance if I had applied my hard-won understanding of myself.

In larping, we want to push our boundaries and learn to enjoy new things. Very often we also do learn, but sometimes it’s through failure.

Failures from lack of self-understanding can happen when you purposely do something you’re not sure will work for you. These are the honorable failures. We want to expand what we’re capable of. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way we learned something about ourselves.

For myself, the really dumb failures are when I should know something will not work for me, but I do it anyway, and it doesn’t work. The cases where I think: ”Maybe this time the sleep deprivation will be okay!”

It will never be okay.

These types of failure modes are very personal. We each have our own things that just don’t work for us, no matter what.

Understanding only helps if it leads to active, good choices.

Boundaries

A lot of the discussion about safety and calibration in larp is about the setting of personal boundaries. However, for a player to be able to set boundaries, they have to know what those boundaries are. This often requires experience and understanding of the self. This is why self-knowledge goes so well with consent and calibration mechanics that allow for realigning boundaries on the fly.

An example of a calibration tool that worked very well for this purpose was the ribbon system in use in the Spanish larp Conscience. Based on the TV series Westworld, the larp featured heavy themes of violence and abuse. To allow players to direct their play in a desired direction, everyone had two ribbons, a white and red one. The white ribbon denoted physical violence, the red one sexual violence.

If you had the white ribbon on, it meant you could be shoved, grabbed and otherwise subjected to light use of force. If you had the red ribbon on, you could be approached for the purposes of scenes involving sexual violence. These scenes would then be negotiated further with other calibration tools.

I started the larp with both ribbons on. I ended up removing the white one for a very banal reason: I jinxed my back during the first night. I was okay standing and walking but anything more complicated hurt like hell. I remember agonizing over the situation and then suddenly realizing that I had just the right calibration tool for the occasion. Taking off the white ribbon meant I wouldn’t be subjected to force and could play without the danger of pain.

Other players used the ribbons for more complex reasons. A player took off the red ribbon after playing one or two scenes involving sexual violence. Not because those scenes had gone wrong, but because the player was exhausted with the subject matter and wanted to explore other aspects of the larp.

To me, this was a great example of self-knowledge in action. The players who took off the red ribbon correctly assessed where their limits were and acted preemptively to direct their experience in a desirable direction.

I’ve found new boundaries during larp, and conversely, realized that my limits were more rigid than I thought they were. In these situations, it pays to be able to make these kinds of judgments in the heat of the moment. This type of situational consent requires taking responsibility for your own experience, and seeking to actively steer it in a desired direction.

Unfortunately, pushing your limits in the heat of the moment doesn’t always work. For me, the worst failures have been related to sex scenes when I thought that I could ignore my original limits. Once I’ve done so, I’ve realized that my original intuition had been correct.

Setting boundaries is thus a player skill that is strongly related to self-knowledge. Once you know where your limits are, you can figure out how to make sure they are not crossed.

One respondent offered an example of a nuanced handling of boundaries: ”After being offered a pre-negotiated scene in a campaign I realized I would be so uncomfortable playing it that I declined, and the scene was modified to become more suitable for me. My character would have been solely responsible for our small post-apocalyptic community being revealed to a group of possible enemies, due to her negligence and selfishness with a radio transmitter.

While mentally preparing for the scene before the game I started to get very nervous about my character getting all the blame, up to my heart hammering and my hands shaking. I realized that my personal fear of failure (and being forced to admit it to everyone) was really messing me up, and I wouldn’t enjoy the ensuing events in the game. Bringing this up with the group, we agreed that the blame would be shared and my character’s involvement toned down. In the end all turned out well and I was glad I’d spoken up about my preferences.”

Often when we talk about personal boundaries, it’s about sex and violence. However, it’s important to remember that there’s a wide variety of different subjects that can prove so difcult they make the larp unplayable for a participant. In this case, the issue is the emotional landscape around failure and blame.

Stress

I’ve had two burnouts. While truly miserable experiences that caused lasting damage, they did provide the benefit of teaching me something about my own limits when it comes to stress. This relates to all aspects of life, including larp as a hobby. From the perspective of stress management, it’s good to have a very wide view of larp. Instead of focusing on the event itself, we can look at larp as part of everyday life. Signing up for larps. Getting rejected. Costume panic. Uncertainty over what will happen at the larp. Post-game weirdness stemming from handling difcult emotions. Together, they create a tapestry of stress that can affect how you interact with larp.

If I think about what larp-related things I’ve learned cause stress for myself, they include uncertainty about what I’ll be doing at the larp, uncertainty about sleeping arrangements, and peer pressure to start preparing and communicating with other players too early. To deal with these issues, I sign up to larps that work for me and have instituted rules for myself about only starting to prepare once the larp is relatively close.

Other people have other issues that cause them stress. Once such factors are identified, they can be managed and avoided, leading to a more positive relationship with larp as a hobby.

One respondent said: ”I’ve gotten more selective about the larps I attend. I’m a pretty high-energy player, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more explicit about the cost-benefit calculus of expending that much energy. It’s not that I only attend expensive larps or blockbusters now — it’s more the system and the people playing it I select for. Some systems just aren’t my cup of tea (even if my friends are playing them), and some people take my energy without giving much back.”

This also leads to a wider discussion about how larps can be run and designed so as to avoid common causes of player stress, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

The Right Larp

Probably the most obvious use for understanding yourself as a larper is to choose the right larp. There are plenty of larps that are cool, wonderful and very well made yet I would have a bad time if I participated in them. Not every larp is for everyone and it requires self-knowledge to understand what works and what doesn’t.

We are blessed with a large variety of different larps. Small and big, local and international, Nordic and non-Nordic, plot-based and sandboxy, serious and silly. Even the most versatile larper in the world won’t be equally comfortable in all of them. Like with all self-knowledge, understanding what works accumulates with experience.

One interviewee said: ”I really, really hate larp mornings. I hate roleplaying on an empty stomach, I hate putting on a costume in an in-character environment, or in cramped and crowded areas. If a larp description includes waking up in character, now I just don’t sign up.”

Antipathy to in-character mornings in larp is a pretty specific attitude. It demonstrates the kind of specific understanding of one’s own preferences that allows for selection of larps where play goes smoothly.

The same respondent continued: ”I like short, scripted larps better than long, sandbox larps. Even if a longer game looks super cool, I will probably lose steam at some point, get bored or discouraged, and it will make the whole experience, the trip and the time investment not really worth it. It’s a challenge to find larps that match my requirements because I like kickass sites and 360° aesthetics, but I’ll take short and intense any time over long and diluted.”

This preference is also rooted in experience and understanding of how the larper functions in a larp. They know how their energy lasts and tailor their preferences to that reality.

Personally, I’ve learned that I can’t deal with sleep deprivation. I need energy to larp effectively and I don’t have it if I haven’t slept. Because of this, I avoid larps featuring such elements. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be great experiences for other players with sturdier constitutions than what I have, or who enjoy pushing their physical limits.

When the Finnish scifi larp Odysseus was announced, I decided that I wouldn’t sign up because I understood the larp would run around the clock. Then later the hype got so strong, I put my name on the waiting list. I didn’t get in and in retrospect that was good. When people came out of the larp I heard stories of many great experiences but it was clear it wouldn’t have been for me despite my momentary wavering.

Hype is the enemy of admitting to yourself that the larp is not for you. If everyone is going to the larp, maybe you should sign up too? Even if your instincts are telling you that it’s not the right choice. That’s why the right moment for self-reflection is often when the hype is at its strongest.

Implementing Self-Knowledge

You have achieved a perfect understanding of yourself as a larper. What’s next?

In ideal circumstances, you’d be able to leverage this knowledge to find the right larps for yourself and play them in a way that works for you. Sometimes this is possible.

Often the circumstances are not ideal. Maybe the perfect larp experience that has been revealed through a process of introspection simply doesn’t exist, or is out of your price range. Perhaps it’s not available where you live. Sometimes the larp is worth compromising for, and other times it’s better to stay home.

In a recent larp I played, there was an offgame break in the middle with the players given the opportunity to each say what they needed to make their game better. In this way, asking for help from others was baked into the design of the larp. Larp is a collaborative endeavor and it makes sense to work together to make it work for each of us.

The issues that prevent you from having good larp experiences might not be personal but systemic. A classic example is the lack of interesting female characters. Self-knowledge can tell you that the reason larp doesn’t work for you is a lack of characters you want to play, but getting those characters is not a matter of personal choice. It requires systemic change.

In this way, the navel-gazing of self-knowledge becomes something that can have a positive effect not only on your own larp experience, but the whole community.

Playing Any Character

Personally, my understanding of myself as a larper has changed and kept changing. The community ideals I shared when I started out proved to be unrealistic. I couldn’t play every character and I didn’t enjoy the attempt.

At the same time, the process of self-discovery has also led me to new subject matter. I’ve tried new experiences and found that they work for me. In this way, self-discovery has both defined and expanded my horizons as a larper.

For me, the most educational moments have often been failures. I thought something would work out a certain way and it didn’t. While this has been painful and sometimes embarrassing, it’s also helped me further triangulate on what works.

Only you can truly know what works for you and acquiring that knowledge can be a lifelong process.

Authors

Juhana Pettersson
Juhana Pettersson (b. 1980) is a Finnish novelist and designer of larps and roleplaying games. His best known larps are End of the Line, Halat hisar, Luminescence, and Parliament of Shadows.
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