Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers

Groups are a staple of many games, taking forms such as families, political blocs, military units, ships crews and scooby gangs. It is easy to see why: a cohesive team has more means to steer and affect their game in meaningful ways. It is also a lot of fun building and creating this additional shared identity with fellow participants.

Many groups are player-driven — even or perhaps especially in larps with pre-written characters it is seen as a constructive way to contribute to the game. Most larps also come with built-in groups while some have entirely pre-written groups. Nevertheless, while pre-written characters are generally very detailed, groups are often a series of brief descriptions and aims with room for contributions.

Building a group and fostering relations therefore falls mostly to players, and requires different player skills from solo preparation. Below there is a list of tools in the form of questions and descriptions for constructing a group concept in a deliberate fashion. It should work reasonably well for most forms of larp, but focuses mainly on the entwined and transient nature of one-off Nordic style games where each ‘run’ is a fresh exercise in group-building.

Before the Game

Communication and Breaking the Ice

Initially, group concepts will be published or pitched, people invited or assigned, and first meetings organized. This will often be a digital format, such as Discord, Skype or Facebook chat, based on preferences or availability. If you are a group organiser or find yourself cast in that role it is smart to summarize the pitch of the group. It is highly recommended to try voice chat at least once so you can all hear each other — a big challenge if multiple time zones are involved.

First, consider what the group will add to the larp. Don’t set the concept in stone, and try to flexibly include the expectations and wishes of your fellow players in the group pitch. It is okay if this is a bit messy and takes a while to figure out. This is just the first step, and helps break the ice between you and your players. At this point the idea is to set up effective communication and build trust.

With so many (larping-)cultures, players and personalities, miscommunications are bound to happen. Words on a screen can be misinterpreted, and many of us communicate in a non-native language. If you find that someone may not understand you, reach out — the earlier the better. Always assume the best of intentions and work from there. During the preparation phase voice communication or face to face is preferable — hearing each other prevents a surprising amount of miscommunication.

What Is the Goal of Your Group?

There is often a difference between the ingame and offgame goals of a group. While bringing a nefarious plot to fruition is a good ingame goal to have, the group may decide that outing themselves “by accident” on the last evening of the larp may be their ultimate goal. In this case, goals may seemingly be at odds, but everyone in the group is on the same page.

During this step it is important to distinguish between player-written and pre-written characters, and the role of transparency. Group building with total transparency is often a lot easier as the actual character goals as opposed to perceived goals are clear. On the other hand, games that deliberately obfuscate generally do this for a very good reason. This must be taken into account during group creation, especially if this is a player-generated entity.

Much of the responsibility is then on the players themselves, to consider whether this group is for them. A good solution is not to define the group goal too narrowly, but as a series of directives for the players so they can play their characters aligned with the group, such as the example
“not costing the house points for the house cup deliberately” or “don’t do the big reveal before Saturday night”.

Roles in the Group

It is also important to clearly distinguish here between ingame and offgame roles. Offgame leadership and relationships generally do not reflect the ingame nature of the group dynamics. It is important to determine what roles there are in your group, how the hierarchy works and if this is where your characters will conflict.

Especially if the group decides on a single leader and a ‘command and control’ style hierarchy, ensure that everyone communicates their expectations for that well. For instance, while the strict hierarchy of a military unit is cool, the group may decide that offgame a more ‘cool-thentic’ approach fits better. Calibrating one or more metatechniques for this is recommended, such “Is that an order, sir?” as an indication of preferably not following the order while staying within the hierarchy.

On Site

Affirm trust

The nature of international games means that this may be the first time you meet in person. It will probably be a bit awkward, so get a drink, take a walk, get to know one another. If time, pre-game briefings and preparation allows, take the time to run through the concept, roles and goals one more time in person, preferably while in costume. This way you all start the game on the same level.

Check in and communicate

Things change during the game. Priorities of players and characters shift, plot happens and time seems to warp. Sometimes you gain a better idea of what you want as the game progresses, or the character takes a different direction from what you had originally envisioned. This is perfectly okay, but if it impacts your group play, you will want the others to know.

Casually checking in can be done easily without a break in the game. Mealtimes are generally good, as the game slows down and there is a good reason why your characters get together. Communicate quickly and preferably ingame, and keep your teammates in the loop on what is happening.

Some prefer digital means to stay in touch, if either the game world or player preferences allow it. This is not a guaranteed solution, with phone and wireless connectivity seemingly inversely proportional to the coolness of the larp location. A lot of players also prefer to have their mobile off and stowed away off game. Still, a chat app can be a good and authentic way to maintain contact, and can be easily read back in a quiet moment.

If a longer meeting is necessary, scheduling around mealtimes is still a good idea for the above reasons. Try to keep the meeting short and to the point. Game time is precious, and preferably spent ingame.

If Things Go Wrong

By nature one-off games with a long run-up and very busy signups will see significant change during the run-up, which will affect any group planning. Furthermore, priorities can change during the game, necessitating on-the-fly changing of the group dynamics.

Cancellations

Players will drop out for various reasons. If this happens, it is smart to quickly return to the first phase and reconsider all questions. This is i deally done as a group.

Busy busy busy

Other plots and groups can draw players in and change their priorities. In this case the best approach is to ask the player directly if the group still works for them. A variant of this I call conflict avoidance. Sometimes players can disappear, whether before or during the larp. It may be a player that is overwhelmed — international games can feel like a lot of pressure — or that circumstances are focusing their attention elsewhere.

While it can feel inconvenient or annoying, it is best to let that player rest and/or have their experience while ensuring that your group — and by extension your own experience — is not dependent on it. Carry on with those that commit to the group, and recalibrate where necessary.

After

Debriefings are as vital for groups as for characters. How was the game for the group, best moments, did it work as intended, and the general experience are all valid topics to debrief. If the group was the primary driver for your game it is wise to make it a priority. Many larps include group debriefings for these reasons. Even if this is not the case, try to make time for it.

In Closing

Well organized groups are more than the sum of their parts, even beyond what group or game writers envision. They are not without their pitfalls and struggles, but these can be mitigated with this sort of deliberate process. And when everything works, group dynamics can bring the larp design to life and ground very significant and even revelatory player experiences, as well as offer the players another way to bring their creative and nuanced contributions to the game.


Authors

Sander Burger
Sander Burger (b. 1980) has been a Dutch larp designer and organiser since 2003. He combines his dayjob at Doctors Without Borders with various larps and larp projects, like Cirque Noir and On The Styx.
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