There is no one type of preplay; just as “a larp” is far from a sufficient description of any larp, “preplay” tells us very little of what this entails in practice — and yet this is often the only description offered. We often carry our own unspoken assumptions with us when talking about preplay without being aware that others might have very different expectations. I often see players wanting to engage with preplay but ending up frustrated, and I believe one reason for this is that we lack the vocabulary to communicate our goals and needs. I will here present tools for talking about different types of preplay, our goals for engaging, and the effort we put into it.
For the purposes of this text I define preplay as creating a narrative about your character in collaboration with one or more co-players ahead of a larp. One single specific narrative I call a “scene”. There are many other forms of preplay, such as letter writing, meeting up in person, or playing over a video call, but for this text I will focus on text-based online preplay.
As mentioned, preplay can take many different shapes, but I find it helpful to divide the different types into three overarching categories: Intimate scenes with between two and four participants; large scenes with four or more participants; and activity on platforms such as Kin, a Facebook- like platform created by Thomas Mertz to provide an in-character social medium. Apart from Kin, Facebook and Google Docs are popular platforms for preplay. Intimate scenes often make use of private messages or a shared Google Doc where the participants take turns writing out their characters’ actions. Large scenes often make use of a dedicated Facebook group in which different posts introduce different scenes, and members of the group can participate in the comments. These different types are not mutually exclusive, and players are not limited to just one type. Scenes of different types can interact and inform each other, but each type has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, it can be difficult to describe actions on the entirely in-character Kin, and information that comes out in an intimate scene will likely not travel very far. For this reason it is important to consider what you’re hoping to get out of your preplay when setting up and engaging in scenes.
Ashby states in their article Playing around the event (2017) that everything set in motion in preplay is intended as a contribution to the game itself. I do not entirely agree. It is true that everything happening in preplay generally expands upon the setting or the characters inhabiting it. At the same time, some players are perfectly happy to spend many hours on preplay, developing a relation with a co-player they then end up not even talking to at the larp itself. Others would feel that preplay was wasted if it were never played upon in the larp. What is true, in any case, is that everyone engaging in preplay has a goal in mind (however unaware of this they might be), whether that goal is to have fun for an evening or to set up a central conflict for the larp. When conflicting goals clash, at least one participant will end up disappointed. The specific goals for engaging in preplay are numerous, but in general I believe there is a spectrum, with a view of preplay chiefly as preparation for a larp in one end and a view of preplay as an experience in the other.
Preplay-as-preparation goals are often specific and clearly related to the larp itself. Goals on this side include setting up a plot to play on at the larp, establishing relations prior to the larp, creating shared memories in order to deepen play, and showcasing certain traits of a character to co-players. A common denominator here is that if a scene veers too far from its starting point the goal becomes more difficult to achieve, creating frustrations. For players with a preplay-as-preparation goal it can often seem like a scene is going nowhere, but it is sometimes useful to consider the possibility that the co-players might just be heading in an entirely different direction.
Preplay-as-experience goals can seem similar, but they are more exploratory and less directly related to the larp itself. These include fleshing out a character, but not necessarily with the stated goal of creating shared memories or establishing something to play on in the larp itself, or establishing relations that will not necessarily be central to the larp. For people with a preplay- as-preparation goal it is often important to “save” the resolution of plots or conflicts to the larp, while people with a preplay-as-experience goal might be just fine with settling things in preplay. Players with preplay-as-experience in mind often value “trying out” a character just to see how it feels to embody them and getting a feel for how two characters might interact. It is important to remember that this is a spectrum, and most instances of preplay fall somewhere between the two extremes. Someone might seek to prepare for the larp but won’t mind a scene dragging out for a bit for some exploratory play, for example.
While people on opposite ends of the spectrum might have a difficult time engaging in satisfying preplay, it is very possible for a scene to fulfil multiple goals. It is not uncommon to set up a scene in preplay without a clearly defined goal in mind, but I believe it is easier to have a good experience with preplay if the goals are defined beforehand and discussed with co-player(s) so everyone knows, at least in broad strokes, what to steer towards. A practical strategy for determining the goals is to ask questions such as “Would I be disappointed if this never became relevant at the larp?”, “Would I prefer to hold off on a resolution until the larp?” or “Would I like to have a general idea of where the scene is going?” These can be helpful in figuring out where you stand on the spectrum as well as determining which elements are vital for you to reach your goals and which you can compromise on.
Figuring out how much effort you are willing to put into preplay, and what that effort looks like for you, is equally important. Some scenes function as a slow burn, maybe even running over several months, while others are played out in one hectic evening, almost as quickly as the events would unfold in reality. These scenes demand different kinds of effort; a long running scene demands a large investment of time, but might not need players to reply very fast, while the shorter scenes often are of a higher intensity with replies posted shortly after one another.
One player might find expectations of rapid replies stressful and therefore prefer scenes of lower intensity in which they can take their time and reply in their own time, while another prefers not to have ongoing scenes left hanging but would want to seek out or establish short high-intensity scenes when they have the time. As was the case for conflicting goals, when different outputs of effort clash, the preplay experience crumbles. A player expecting a high-intensity scene will feel abandoned by what they might perceive as no replies and no interest, while a player expecting a long-running scene might be disappointed when it all blows over in a single evening. Knowing what is expected before entering a scene can make a world of difference to the experience.
These factors can help determine which scenes to engage in, but perhaps even more importantly, they can help determine which scenes to back away from. Too often we engage mostly out of a fear of missing out, but trying to grind on in a scene that isn’t a good fit is likely to make you feel even more left out than if you made a decision early on that this one is not for you. Try instead to find or establish a scene that works better for you.
If I could leave you with one tip, it would be to make sure to calibrate preplay with your co-player(s). Take the time to determine your own goals and needs, and negotiate them before engaging. Most of us have unspoken expectations based on our own experiences about what preplay is “supposed” to be, but it comes in many shapes and sizes, and we never know our co-players’ experiences. Communication is the single most important tool for engaging in preplay.
Charlotte Ashby (2017): Playing Around the Event. Knutepunkt 2017. Once Upon a Nordic Larp.