As a player, I build my larp characters using the tools of sketch comedy. The style may be different, but the toolbox is the same. The crude basics offered by sketch comedy provide a functional basis on which to build more nuanced play during the larp.
The sketch comedy character building method is a hack. It means breaking down the character into repetitive concrete actions that make the character recognizable in the eyes of others and give you something to do when you’re uncertain and confused. How do you build a character for sketch comedy? Here are some of the basics:
- A visual hook. This is not the same as a good costume. Rather, it means that your costume has a few distinctive, memorable elements and the rest is unobtrusive. The goal is for people to remember the hook and forget everything else. (I’m not a costume oriented player and this is my cheat method.)
- Patter. What kind of things does the character say? Catchphrases, standard reactions, repeating subject matter, stories, anecdotes.
- Distinctive reactions. This is even more basic than what the character says. A good reaction or two can be milked endlessly through the larp. They can be things like surprise, excitement, or fear.
- Irrational opinions. One or two extremely strong irrational opinions about something peripheral are great for creating quick drama and making the character distinctive.
I played a teacher in one of the early College of Wizardry (2015) larps. My subject was combat magic. I was also secretly a vampire.
Creating the character based on the text provided by the organizers, I decided that my irrational opinion would be about how to properly hold a wand. I came up with a bunch of ways to hold it that I approved and one that I detested. I called it the “Farmer’s Fist” (the same grip you’d use with a hammer) and every time I saw someone do it, I would start an overblown lecture.
The distinctive visual element was easy: Sunglasses. Because of the vampire thing. No points for originality, but it worked.
In 2019, I played in the larp Grums By Night in Stockholm. It was a comedic larp based on Vampire: the Masquerade and my character was a violent idiot. For him, I created a distinctive reaction: Every time something he liked happened, he punched the air with both hands and yelled: ”Yes!”
It worked wonderfully, although it proved embarrassing after the larp was over when I found it hard to shake.
That character had a simple default shtick: He wanted to punch people, or for people to punch him. Both were okay. Thus when I didn’t have anything else to do, I started on that.
In a 2019 run of the Danish larp Baphomet, I played a travel writer. To get the character going, I developed a line of comedic patter about a trip to the Amazon. Then in the early parts of the larp I’d talk about that to keep social situations going. Later I discarded the Amazon line because the larp had provided other, more interesting subjects for conversation.
In another Danish 2019 larp, House of Craving, I had an even simpler catchphrase, describing everything as ”A beautiful, beautiful thing”.
The key to successfully building a character using the sketch comedy method is endless repetition. You have a limited number of reactions, phrases, and other elements and just use those all the time. In some larps where I’ve done this I’ve felt like I played for two days using a vocabulary of 200 words, but it doesn’t come across like that from the outside. It looks like consistency.
My personal measure of success for the sketch comedy method is when other characters start to make fun of me by imitating the defining elements of the character. This signals that the character has been drawn clearly and distinctly in their minds.
You’ll note that the sketch comedy method says nothing about the personality, motivation, relationships or any of the other elements we usually think of when we consider what a character is. Indeed, it resembles the experimental character building methods of larps like White Death where the character consists of repetitive physical action.
When I use this method it connects strongly to the larp’s pacing. Early in the larp I’m all about the repetitive character tics. This is because I haven’t internalized the character or the larp, and the tics give me something to do. As the larp progresses my internal play becomes more nuanced and I’m caught up in the events of the game. At this point, I don’t pay so much attention to sketch comedy characterization but usually I do it anyway because I’ve internalized it during the early game.
The best type of larp for the sketch comedy character is a sandbox-style, loose design where you have the space to play around with the character’s tropes. It doesn’t matter whether the larp is serious or lighthearted. Once you’ve internalized the tics, you can use the bandwidth this frees for other aspects of the larp, whatever that is in each specific design.
The method works less well in larps where you have to produce concrete in-game results, do work or solve plot. In such cases, there is less social space for the kind of social freestyling required.