A heuristic technique, or a heuristic for short, is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational, but which is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal.
Larps are complex. Once runtime starts, each individual player is expected to improvise actions that are, in an ideal world, in line with the thematic vision of the writers and designers, that further the story or plot of the larp, that are true to their character’s nature and motivations, and that don’t block play for others. At the same time, once a larp has begun, no one — including the organizers, knows everything that is going on. Needless to say, things can get messy and players get stuck. A bad larp experience can often originate from the first moment when a player doesn’t know what to do.
Sometimes at the afterparty, when I tell a co-player about moments where I got stuck during a larp, their response is “oh, when that happens to me, I always do this…” This happens particularly often whenever I talk to players with more experience than I have — experience meaning general larp experience, experience with the genre or style, or experience with larps run by the organizing crew in question. On hearing their response, my mind goes, “why didn’t I think of that?” The answer is that strategies like these usually are employed as a substitute for thinking.
Heuristic techniques help us reduce the load of decision making. They’re especially useful when it’s not possible (or just not worth the time it would take) to find an optimal solution. They are mental shortcuts that are generally good enough. Examples of heuristic techniques include rules of thumb, educated guesses, intuitive judgments, stereotyping, profiling, and common sense (Wikipedia, 2019). And we use them all the time, every day, not just in larp. Typically, they look something like this: “If X happens, do Y”, “If option X is available, always choose option X”, “When making a choice, always lean towards X”, or “If you don’t know what to do, try X first”. Heuristics sometimes don’t give us the result we wanted, but they often work as a starting point for getting us there. As you gain experience in a field, you typically build and refine a wide repertoire of heuristics.
Let’s say you’re in a traditional Vampire larp and you’re feeling stuck. Heuristics that might help you get unstuck could include “if you don’t have anything to do, find someone and ask if they are in need of a favor” or “if nothing is happening, use obfuscate to spy on someone”. However, larp heuristics can be used for more than getting yourself unstuck. They can be about preferences, helping you generate scenes you typically find fulfilling, or to steer you away from play you find undesirable. A heuristic I employ in almost all larps I play is “if a council is about to be formed, look for the nearest exit” — I find that larp councils tend to generate play that rarely leads anywhere, so I avoid them when I can, and this way I don’t have to think about whether this time the council will be a good idea. To me, it’s worth sometimes missing out on a bit of interesting play to avoid what will most likely be an experience I don’t enjoy. Another great area for heuristics is during the awkward few hours at the beginning of a game, when players are all still mapping the larp and no one really knows what to do yet. An example could be “If you have no idea what is happening, find a character in a uniform and start demanding answers”.
Heuristics are practical. They’re directly applicable to situations — they aren’t abstract concepts or theoretical knowledge. This means that they don’t tell you why something is the way it is, or why an action is a good idea in a situation, just that it generally works. They’re often also personal — they might not work for everyone. A heuristic is also not a general approach or philosophy for an activity (for example, “play to lose”
is not a heuristic).
In a situation where I’m trying to learn, I find heuristics useful because they provide a point to start practicing. Practice then leads to experiences that can be talked about, thought about, and analyzed, which allows one to see new perspectives that can be generalized and learned from.
Across the wider larp community, players likely have thousands of heuristics they rely on. Gathering them so they can be categorized and compared to each other is one interesting place to start if we want to systematically explore what we do when we play.
If the arc of my character is driving towards something — killing a prince — and GMs stop me offgame — they need him alive — I have to resolve the tension in my character. Instead of dropping it, I’ll betray my character — I try, but fail — so I do the thing, but without the outcome.
Monica Hjort Traxl
Cold play makes me as a player very anxious. When there is a lot of it, I make it my character’s problem. I bleed-in the emotions I am feeling, and invent diegetic reasons why it’s happening. It’s like putting my play in a microwave.
When I feel bored, I ask myself: What is my character lying to herself about? Then I find reasons to be with characters who complicate those feelings uncomfortably. Exposing character self-vulnerabilities boosts excitement and emotions in play, and diversifies who I’m playing with.
Share your character’s beliefs and skills with others precisely when your character doubts them — hold your values to the flames. During a crisis of faith, I recruit other characters who aren’t doing much and give them lessons, letting the doubt show.
Whenever a crowd gathers to sing songs by the fire I find something else to do. I find it hard to play there — the fire makes people tired and they’re singing, so it’s hard to talk to them, and bringing a big scene in disrupts things and is rarely welcome.
During the first few hours of a larp when everything is awkward, if you have no idea what is happening, find a character in a uniform and start demanding answers. You’re unlikely to get answers, but you’ll find some play.
Magnar Grønvik Müller
Find your character pre-game by devising three unique things —emotional, physical, or behavioral— to portray them. For example, “never smile,” “seek affirmation,” or “slouch.” They can be changed or abandoned mid-game if you forget them or they don’t work.
Elina Gouliou and Simon Rogers
Never forget the Max Weber dictum that the three ways to get humans to do things are bureaucracy or tradition, charismatic authority, and fear. Also: using any of the three can make your character seem like an asshole. Good. Let them think that.
Try shouting or screaming your character’s name loudly. If it can’t be shouted, your character will need a nickname that can be — or you need to — pick a different name.
When I find myself not having fun in a larp, I choose another player and Play For Them. I become an NPC serving their story. Reframing the game transforms it with new goals and measures of fun, turns frustrated play fruitful, and makes someone else’s game shine at the same time.
When I feel disconnected in large games, I pick another character that my character is secretly in love with and a reason I can never confess it. It gives me charged connections and instant opinions on them and everyone they know and interact with in character.
If I want an exit from a larp where it’s appropriate, I plan a dramatic death scene. Go out in a blaze of glory so my nemesis sees me become a hero and my best friend can mourn, or make a smaller moment and slowly expire in the arms of a loved one.
If a council is about to be formed, look for the nearest exit. I find that larp councils tend to generate play that rarely leads anywhere, so I avoid them when I can.
Magnar Grønvik Müller
If I’m going to plan a secret meeting or conversation, I always leave the doors open or at least ajar so other players can listen in. If the secret affair or money laundering-plot never gets out during the larp then what’s the point of having it?
When playing with a competitive opponent in a larp with secrets, I always arrange to talk offgame options like transparency or fate play and to make sure we are on the same team: people who want to have a good time together.
If no one seems to notice that my character is ill or drunk, I go for a big loud gesture. Knock over a table while stumbling. Start a fight with a marine surrounded by all her buddies. Collapse on a table where a bunch of people are sitting (if it looks like they aren’t doing something intense). Drop a metal tray that will clang satisfyingly.
Wikipedia: Heuristic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic, ref. Dec. 1st, 2019.