Playing a Leader

Playing a Leader

Being cast in a leadership role is a great opportunity, but it can mean extra responsibility to shape the tone and experience of your play group, both ingame and offgame. As a player, your goal should be to empower everyone to focus on playing their characters and having a great larp. Whether you’re playing a school prefect, a bunker president, or a marine officer, leadership characters are often focal points for ingame information and tasks, and many of the core principles of playing them well remain consistent.

There are many strategies you can use to bring your fellow players together and to create an atmosphere of trust. Let’s look at a few of them:

Before the Larp

Understand what is required of you as a leader — and also what isn’t — both in setup and during runtime. This will help you set your level of engagement, and recognize when you risk being overloaded — and either delegate responsibilities, or change your character if necessary.

If the larp has pre-game online discussions, be active in the build-up to the larp if you can. You don’t need to be omnipresent, but being visible in discussions, dropping tidbits about how you plan to play your character, and posting from an account that uses a recognisable photo of you can create familiarity and trust.

Take an interest in players who will be playing your subordinates. What do they think your character should know about theirs? What play do they want from the group and from you? What are their boundaries? Answering those questions yourself first can help hesitant players give more useful answers, and demonstrates sincerity in sharing vulnerabilities to help each other play safely.

Expect your play to revolve around your group. When setting up relations, focus on connections within your group that emphasise or undercut your character as a leader, and establish your character’s investment in the success of the group and the people in it. Choose relations outside the group that complement the interactions you want within it, so they provide variety and play opportunities rather than making you inaccessible.

Build your group’s lore and dynamics with your fellow players. Establish shared expectations, like how successful the group is at what it’s supposed to do, or whether the characters are fiercely loyal, cheerfully indifferent, or at each other’s throats. Define known internal and external-facing views and behaviours of your group, and as a leader, embody these views and behaviour. Encourage your group to play off you and your position (even when you’re not present) by either following and strengthening it or going against it — for example, if you establish yourself as a strict by-the-book boss, both followers and rebels can use you to give additional ingame depth to their play.

Try to make your costume recognisable and describable so others can find you in a crowd or ask around for you. Make sure it includes some way to tell the time!

During Workshops

Find a moment to gather your group and bring anyone who wasn’t involved in preplay up to speed. Collectively review the decisions you made before the game and see if they still make sense in person, and are acceptable to players who couldn’t be involved.

Have everyone introduce themselves and describe what they want from this experience, and what they’d like the group to play up about their character.

Ask players if there are any group responsibilities they want to avoid or play on so you know who to delegate which tasks to. Encourage people to come to you in play if they feel their larp would be improved by more involvement in official group tasks.

Check if anyone has any access needs the group can help accommodate to level the playing field and make the group feel safe. If you know the larp’s structure, consider planning times to bring your group together in play, but avoid making these meetups mandatory unless the design requires it.

Work together to ensure other players understand your group and how they can engage with you during the larp.

During Play

Be a hub of activity for your group but avoid micromanagement, which can both prove stressful for you and deny others opportunities to participate. Give others a chance to contribute — they can be tasked to find ball dates, research the macguffin, plan an attack, or serve as a liaison officer to other groups. The leader gets to sign off on the action — responsibility lies with them — but by spreading the work both prevents overburdening individuals and gives all players opportunities for high status play. It also creates more potential for drama.

Your leadership position gives you access to information. Share it with your group as much as possible; share too much rather than too little unless someone specifically asked for play around being uninformed.

Involve your group in decision making — ask for and listen to their opinions. If the ingame culture supports it, consider explicit mechanisms like voting, too. Remember, if they suggest bad ideas it may signal that they’re interested in playing on the consequences.

Play an enthusiastic, larger-than-life version of your character at the start of the larp to give your group a beacon to align around. Use your depiction to illustrate key elements of the character’s role, personality, and how to interact with them.

Project when you speak. Speak louder and slower than normal and pay attention to facing the group you’re talking to.

Use non-verbal play. Take up space! Stand in the middle of the room and don’t back off when someone plays aggressive. Have a straight back, don’t lean against walls, and spread your legs to shoulder-width instead of crossing them. Stand rather still and move calmly. Look straight forward rather than down, and look people in the eye when you talk to them. Gesture with your wrists stiff rather than loose. If you’ve calibrated with other players and you want to convey superiority or dominance, you might even step this up with things like staying seated while people have to stand and report to you, or interrupt and cutting them off when they talk.

Understand your offgame advantages and use them to enhance your presence, but not to be overbearing. If you’re tall, use your height to centre focus when you need it, but make sure you aren’t looming over anyone who’s uncomfortable. If you’re playing in your native language and others aren’t, try giving an inspirational speech, but be mindful of anyone who might not be able to answer back fluently. Calibrate this with your co-players before and during play.

Not all leaders are willing and you can play on reticence, delegating decisions, but at a dramatic moment making a forceful and determined stance.

Not all leaders are competent or sensible. If you go this route, it’s important to negotiate offgame and make sure your co-players will understand what you’re doing. That said, by giving people the wrong tasks to do you can create even more drama: the shy student as master of ceremonies, the blunt soldier forced to be a diplomat, the skilled surgeon required to deal with coughs and colds. Things going wrong or deadlines being missed can create interpersonal play.

Don’t force players into tasks they’re uncomfortable with or are unable to complete. In larps, we mostly want to play on character drama and the experience of being competent. Make sure that players are set up to succeed when they want to perform competence, and that players who want to show incompetence can communicate this clearly in play. Remember to delegate tasks that need competence to players with the skills required, and pair up other players who want to try out those experiences with them as mentors. The characters may be seasoned marines, but the players probably aren’t.

Avoid “make-work” with no dramatic value. It bores players and can undermine the sense of importance of assigned tasks. Having someone cook for three hours or fill paperwork that would be necessary in real life but doesn’t play into plot or drama may be practical, but rarely makes for fun play.

Match play to players and ensure they’re prepared for the culture of the organization they’re supposed to play. If you adopt a rigid military structure and leadership style, players with little actual experience of it may not react as expected, and you’ll need to make allowances.

Create memorable moments. Leaders are often busy during larps and the temptation is to limit play to your immediate circle. However, interaction with a leader can add a lot to the immersion and atmosphere for the player of a subordinate. Try to have at least one meaningful, personal interaction with every subordinate — seek a subordinate’s personal advice, pat the rookie on the shoulder for an accomplishment and say how proud you are, have a clash with the maverick of the group. If you’re leading too many characters to make this possible, enlist peers and your direct subordinates to spread the load, but still try to reach out when you can.

Play up those around you and share the spotlight. Remember to use the information you gathered before the game to make sure you give players the kind of interaction they need to support their portrayal. For example, always ask for the opinion of an “expert” before making a related decision or reprimand the person playing the lazy worker. You have a lot of influence on how these players’ larps may turn out.

After the game

Prepare to be active in post-game support and care. As a prominent figure in many players’ larps, it’s likely your character will be a focus of discussions and feedback afterwards. This can be emotionally taxing if it’s negative, but highly rewarding when it’s positive. Remember to keep sharing the spotlight and reflecting it back to the people you played with — you’re peers again now. The amount of feedback will vary wildly; after some larps you may get none, and after others an overwhelming amount. The more prominent and dramatic the role, the more you’re likely to hear from other players. You may be called upon to support your co-players, but make sure you’re looking after your own needs and welfare too, either with co-players or with the safety team.

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Olivia Fischer (b. 1981) has been an Austrian larp designer since 2002, and is a researcher and lecturer in education. She gives talks and workshops on edularps at conferences and universities.
Chris Hartford (b. 1968) is a British larper and gamer in his mid-fifties. He has worked in the tabletop role-playing games field since the early 1990s, notably on BattleTech but also Dark Ages: Vampire, Heavy Gear and Crimson Skies. He began larping in the 1980s, D&D games leading to fantasy larps in the Sherwood Forest of his native Nottinghamshire. He returned to larp in 2017 after a long break, playing or crewing many larps in the following years as well as helping with character and story writing for several.
Maria Shulga (b. 1986) is a Russian and British larper and a larp theorist.
Joanna Piancastelli (b. 1988) is a UK-based larp designer who specialises in bringing narrative experience design techniques to familiar genre stories, aiming for safety, inclusivity and accessibility in all her events. She has written and organised larps from small black box scenarios to large on-location productions, and as a participant she seeks out larps across a wide variety of traditions to learn from as many designers as possible.