This chapter might have been titled ‘How I Larp’ or, more accurately, ‘How I Conceive of My Larping.’ It arises from my own experiences playing a broad range of larps. Therefore, though it is presented as a general theory of larping, and is intended to help conceptualise playing in larp in a way that is constructive for others, it comes with the proviso that the particular play preferences discussed are personal to me, and may not be helpful to everyone. I hope, however, that others may gain benefit from it.
The chapter is concerned with an apparent paradox about larping. The experiences and stories which we make in larping are collective. Not only does larping normally happen in groups, but it usually requires the input and action of others in the production of the experience and stories. However, it is perhaps equally obvious that no two players can share exactly the same experience, even if they are playing in the same scene together, and that the stories which we make are individual to our own experiences and the characters we play.
So, larping is both collective and individual at the same time. That is to say, larping has both a collective dimension and an individual dimension. The individual dimension is related to Jonaya Kemper’s (2019) notion of larp anarchy. Larp anarchy is the freedom of players to take charge of and create their own experiences and stories while larping. So if, during a larp, a player is not having a good experience they have the freedom to forge new relations, and develop their character and plots in ways that are more enjoyable for them (see, e.g., Simon Brind’s chapter in this volume, Larp Hacking). Anarchy here refers to the rejection of political hierarchy and freedom from the rule of a leader: you as a player are free to do what you want with your character. It is not intended to denote a state of disorder, which the term connotes due to the spurious idea that a leaderless society would break down into chaos. Nor does it denote the political movement of anarchism, though, as we shall see, there are distinct similarities between cooperative anarchism and my conceptualisation of the individual and collective dimensions in larping. It is important to note here that larp anarchy and the individual dimension do not imply absolute individualism. Larping requires structure and balance in order to function well, and if every player’s individual whim were admitted into play it would almost certainly result in disorder, and possibly that breed of power-playing/powergaming in which one player creates the character or plot they want at the expense of other players’ enjoyment (see, e.g. Algayres 2019; Huw2k8 2011). Also, as Evan Torner (2018) points out, the emergent play and story that come from players anarchically taking control occurs always in relation to the larp’s design, which defines the set of parameters all participants have subscribed to. Towards the end of this chapter I will look more closely at the responsibilities we have towards each other in larping.
The collective dimension is related to the fact that larping is an ‘ecological’ process, as expressed by Marjukka Lampo (2016). That is, larping is always relational — it is the relationships between things which bring about the creativity of experiences and stories: ‘larping can be seen as an ecological, reciprocal relationship between the participants and the environment of the event, i.e. the players and the game.’ (Lampo 2016, 35) Without the ‘environment’ of the other players, the setting, the design and backstory, etc. there can be no lived experience from which to produce our stories. It is fundamental to larping that we are acting asIn the sense of doing the actions of, rather than representing as in a play or film. the character, and not simply imagining, narrating or writing their actionsThough characters of course do all these things during a larp. The important distinction is that these are what the character is doing (I as my character am relating a story to other characters) and not the means of playing (I as a player am telling other players what my character is doing).. While Lampo, in her article, focuses on the individual in the environment, what I suggest here is that this idea of larping as ecology highlights both the individual dimension and the collective dimension — it is about both the relationships between individuals and participation in a larger process. This participation is not taking part in an activity as an individual, but rather becoming part of a collective action which is not reducible to individual participants. In other words, in contrast to the individual dimension, the collective dimension in larping must be understood holistically, not as interacting singularities but as a plural whole.
It is important here that we are discussing ‘larping’ rather than ‘larps’. A larp is a thing, either a design, or a particular instance of a design put into practice. Larping, on the other hand, is a process. As a process, larping is always in the flow of becoming rather than a state of being. That is to say, when we are larping things are not completely fixed, outcomes are not completely defined, and there are always many potentialsThis notion of “becoming” rather than “being” as fundamental to existence and change is derived from process theory, such as that of Alfred North Whitehead (1978 ) and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1987 ).. I will break the process of larping down into two distinct but related processes. One process relates to the collective aspect of larping and the other to the individual aspect. The collective process I will refer to as sceneing, since it correlates with the collaborative generation of scenes. The individual process I will refer to as storying, since it correlates with each player’s production of a personal narrative. I will also demonstrate how these two processes are related and are necessary for each other.
Here I propose storying as the process of creating a narrative for your character. This narrativizing is done individually by each player. It is a private process, experienced by each individual separately and uniquely, compared with the collective and public process of sceneing. Storying is the process of experiencing and making sense of what has been given by the collective into the process of sceneing.
If sceneing involves the dissolution of the players into the collective, storying is their reconstitution, through the integration and interpretation into their personal narratives of the process of sceneing in which they are participating. It is, to continue the analogy, the consumption of the ‘soup’ which is made in the process of sceneing. This ‘consumption’ is a process of experiencing, in which the elements making up the instance of sceneing (words, actions, expressions, gestures, both our own and those of others) are brought together in the individual experience of each player, made sense of, and turned into a narrative moment, which is also integrated into the continuous narrative produced by successive instances of storying.
The process of storying does not ‘use’ the elements of sceneing as such; the process cannot be separated from its constituents, nor does it exist prior to the coming together of those constituents in the player’s experience. The ‘soup’ of sceneing becomes the organs of each player’s story. Just as an organic body is made from the nutrients it consumes, so storying is made from the ‘soup’ of sceneing. It is the lived experience of our participation which goes into building the narratives we make for our characters. Therefore, the potential for storying is limited by what is given to the player, the words, actions, gestures, and expressions of others, in the process of sceneing. The narratives in larping are made from our experiences.
While storying is necessarily constituted by experiences of sceneing, that does not mean that every element of sceneing is prominent or even present in every player’s individual narrative. Rather, storying is individually self-determined from the data of our lived experience. Not everything in the process of sceneing will be relevant to every player. It is important that storying filters out in order to make a comprehensible narrative. Much of what is happening in the process of sceneing may be lost. Things which will be relevant to other characters and players may simply be noise. The conversation between two lovers which is overheard by chance might have no relevance to the narrative of your character, so even though it is registered it may be discounted. In a large larp with many different locations, much of the action and activity of other players won’t even be registered since they are not directly experienced, even though you might be aware that they are happening, or come to you indirectly through the ripples they cause.
Importantly, storying is, or at least has the potential to be, anarchic. Our individual processes of storying are our own. There is no authority that can tell us to experience things in a particular way, nor how to construct the stories of our characters. We are free to interpret our private narratives for ourselves. There are qualifying factors to this, of course: the filter of the character, which may have been partially constructed by a designer; our assumptions about the expectations of organisers or other players; and internalised biases and prejudices which form constructs within us about the ‘correct’ ways to play, experience, and make stories. These can be constraints by which we do not allow ourselves the freedom of anarchy, which is why I say that storying is only potentially anarchic. As I will discuss below, some of these constraints might be seen as positive and produce responsible play. It is worth recognising, though, that these constraints are to a large extent self imposed.
Whatever constraints we apply to our own processes of storying, what is certain is that no two players’ narratives will be identical. Even if they play in all the same processes of sceneing together, their experiences will be different. It is these different experiences and players’ interpretations of them which give rise to the intentions which will be given back to the process of sceneing through the ‘ingredients’ of actions, words, gestures, etc.
The processes of sceneing and storying I have described above are reciprocal —each requires the other in order to become. This is because elements of sceneing constitute each player’s process of storying, and reciprocally, any process of sceneing is constituted by actions deriving from the multitude of interpretations from players’ storying. Lampo’s perceptual ecology shows how we can move from the individual to the collective and back again. The process of creativity in sceneing and storying is largely congruent to Lampo’s. That is, the individual player makes sense of the events they are participating in (or subject to) and then acts according to their interpretation. What Lampo refers to as ‘affordances’, and the embodied choices enacted by the player are both identical to the ‘ingredients’ given to the ‘soup’ of sceneing, while the gathering and making of choices is similar to what I propose with storying.
Lampo captures the spirit of the reciprocal process between the individual and thecollective, though the process she proposes requires, for me, an excess of conscious analysis. The most intense and beautiful larping experiences for me have been when I have acted as the character without thinking, in a kind of flow state (Csikszentmihályi 1990, passim; and see e.g. Bowman 2018, 380). Therefore, the reciprocal processes I propose are rooted much more in feeling than in conscious analysis. While Lampo admits that ‘the choice-making process of the players in a larp ecology is affected by the emotions and feelings of the players as well as the somatic responses they experience,’ (Lampo 2016, 42) I suggest here that these factors are primary in the process of storying. In storying the other players and environment are first experienced physically and emotionally, and it is possible to react physically and emotionally, giving words, gestures, or actions back into the process of sceneing without the intervention of a conscious decision at all. Moreover, the reaction is already embodied in the physical and emotional effect of the experience. Meaning-making and action are more often generated preconsciouslyIn a Whiteheadian sense of before consciousness comes to bear on the storying process, rather than a Freudian sense. than consciously. The beauty of larping lies more in how it feels than how it appears.
Of course, this does not preclude conscious decision making in appropriate circumstances, only that conscious, ‘rational’ cognition is not necessary to the process. For this kind of flow state I propose, you need to ‘be in it’, to participate fully in the process of sceneing. This is perhaps where we find the limit of the ‘soup’ analogy. Where I have said above that we give the ingredients for sceneing in the form of words, gestures, actions, etc., these elements cannot be separated from our physical, emotional, and psychological selves. So in fact it is ourselves we must give into the process of sceneing — we are the ingredients, becoming part of the ‘soup’, to some extent losing ourselves in play. We are both part of the ‘soup’, and at the same time the consumers of the ‘soup’.
The narrative you create in the process of storying uses the relevant ingredients from the collective process of sceneing. Likewise, the individual process of storying feeds back into the collective process through the interpretation of events which gives rise to new decisions, intentions, and actions — the ingredients for the cauldron. Each process is necessary for the other, since each provides the constituents for the other. In other words, sceneing is made from storying and storying is made from sceneing. The holistic, collective process of sceneing feeds the multiple storyings experienced by the individual players, while those storyings in turn feed the collective sceneing through the expression of individual interpretation.
While each process of storying becomes determined in the individual player to whom it belongs, the multiplicity of the storyings feeding the process of sceneing means that sceneings can never become completely determined. In other words, the larp can never be defined by a single player’s actions, nor a single player’s interpretation. The multiplicity of narratives arising in the oscillation from storying to sceneing and back again means that the meaning of the larp is always open: undecided and indeterminate. However, this does not mean that an individual interpretation is not valid; indeed, every player’s interpretation is valid, and moreover, each is equally as valid as all others. To take up the soup analogy again, each of us eats a portion of the soup to which we have all contributed, and makes up our own mind about it. This will necessarily be coloured by personal preference and prior experience.
This way of thinking about larping, as both a collective process and an organ for anarchic storymaking, necessitates a particular way of playing together responsibly. My notion of responsibility here is threefold. Firstly, it points to the fact that players are, in part, responsible for each other’s experiences in larping. Secondly, this responsibility for each other’s experiences makes us responsible to other players for creating enriching play experiences. And thirdly, it captures the idea of playing in response to others, as part of a collective. The first of these aspects of responsibility is a theory, the second and third are practices.
We are responsible for each other’s experiences in that each player gives themselves into the process of sceneing, which is experienced by all the players in their storying. Therefore, the things we do and say become part of other players’ narratives. It should be obvious that this state of affairs is ripe for abuse, and it is where anarchy can become problematic. Each of us must make an ethical choice. You can choose to act only with regard for your own interests and experiences, or you can choose to with a sense of responsibility towards your fellow players. However, with the theory of sceneing and storying, one of these ethical modes becomes preferable. Since other players are to a great extent responsible for the experiences you will have, it is in your interest to work with them collaboratively, to give into sceneing words, actions, and gestures that will enrich everyone’s experience. The alternative may be that you find other players will avoid you, or will refuse to go along with the ingredients you give into the ‘soup’. Thus, your storying becomes malnourished; the experiences you have are less rich, less vibrant. It is better, then, to play with regard for others’ experiences, as well as in response to what others are giving to the process of sceneing. Do not disregard what others offer. Both give and receive generously.
Sometimes, something feels right for my character. An event, an action, a speech. However, if that something involves other players’ characters and limiting or changing their potentials for play, I have a responsibility to ensure that they too want this kind of play. If my character dies, that will affect those with whom the character has relations. If my character euthanizes a patient with a terminal condition, that will affect not only the patient but the characters with whom they have relations too. I and my actions are in part responsible for their experiences. These examples are big, obvious cases, but it is true of the smallest actions too.
It is in this principle of responsibility we see most clearly parallels between this model of playing and cooperative anarchism. Freedom (from authority and to pursue one’s own interests and desires) is the basic principle of all anarchism. What marks cooperative anarchism as different from more individualist forms like libertarianism is that it recognizes that individuals thrive together and that collaboration enriches the individuals involved as well as the relations between them. Likewise, in larping, we can create richer experiences through cooperation.
With the idea of responsibility, I don’t want to say, ‘you are responsible for everyone’s experience, so you’d better do it right.’ On the contrary, everyone gives ingredients into the process, so it doesn’t matter if you do something ‘badly’. However an action or utterance is executed, it can be interpreted and integrated in any number of ways. This theory of sceneing and storying very much encourages ‘playing to lift’, since the production of, for instance, the relative status of characters is the responsibility of everyone who is participating in a process of sceneing. And on the other hand, the theory asserts that the things you do matter. Your actions will be felt, even if they are only relevant to a limited number of other players. In sceneing and storying, everyone is responsible, and we are all in it together!
NOTE: This model of larping is inspired by Alfred North Whitehead’s process theory, or ‘philosophy of organism’. For more on this subject, refer to Whitehead’s Process and Reality: Corrected Edition (1978) and Ivor Leclerc’s Whitehead’s Metaphysics (1958).
Muriel Algayres (2019): The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety. Nordic Larp. Ref. 20th Jan, 2020.
Sarah Lynne Bowman (2018): Immersion and Shared Imagination in Role-playing Games. Role-playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach.
Mihály Csikszentmihályi (1990): Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987 ): A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.
Huw2k8 (2011): Powergaming Meaning, Friendly Players Roleplay Wiki, Fandom. Ref. 20th Jan, 2020.
Jonaya Kemper (2019): No Plot. No (Game) Masters: The Case for Larp Anarchy. The Smoke: London’s International Larp Festival, ref. 5th Jan, 2019.
Marjukka Lampo (2016): Ecological Approach to the Performance of Larping, International Journal of Role-playing.
Evan Torner (2018): Emergence, Iteration and Reincorporation in Larp, Knutpunkt. Ref. 20th Jan, 2020.
Alfred North Whitehead (1978 ): Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology: Gifford Lectures, Corrected Edition. The Free Press.
|↑1||In the sense of doing the actions of, rather than representing as in a play or film.|
|↑2||Though characters of course do all these things during a larp. The important distinction is that these are what the character is doing (I as my character am relating a story to other characters) and not the means of playing (I as a player am telling other players what my character is doing).|
|↑3||This notion of “becoming” rather than “being” as fundamental to existence and change is derived from process theory, such as that of Alfred North Whitehead (1978 ) and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1987 ).|
|↑4||In a Whiteheadian sense of before consciousness comes to bear on the storying process, rather than a Freudian sense.|