Creating Aura

Creating Aura

This article, by Thomas Munier, was initially published in French on ElectroGN on February 8th, 2021. It was translated into English for publication here by JC, with the approval of the author and with the permission of ElectroGN.

Introduction

For alibi to really help the participant play their role freely, an aura of legitimacy needs to be built. In other words, a social, narrative and game system needs to be established that legitimizes the participant in their role. This aura reinforces alibi and allows them to play roles that are independent from their social constraints or individual capacities, while still feeling credible. The aura also validates to the group the participant’s legitimacy to play their chosen role. To this end, we propose a number of tools, ranging from larp design, to roleplaying, to an encouraging group attitude, to a global system supporting alibi from pre-larp briefing to post-larp debriefing.

How do we build an aura?

In the previous article, ‘It Wasn’t Me’, we established that the concept of alibi (“It’s not me, it’s my character”) is what allows larps to be wonderful spaces for expression and experiencing self and otherness. By allowing participants to let go, alibi allows them to meet their character, and temporarily free themselves of the place and limits society has assigned them.

There are times when this implicit tool works perfectly. But alibi can sometimes be fragile. Alibi alone is sometimes not enough for participants to feel that they can legitimately play their role. Others sometimes use alibi as a pretext for abusive behavior. The group sometimes doesn’t respect our alibi. And we can never completely escape other people’s judgement.

If we want to ensure that a participant can experience another perspective, they need to be able to give in to their alibi, and the group needs to give it legitimacy. In other words, the participant must feel empowered by an aura that makes them, if not credible, at least accepted or acceptable in their role.

Building the aura is thus a conscious and explicit process that supports alibi, which is implicit. This involves the larp’s design, but also both the participant’s and the group’s attitude.

Character Sheets

Alibi must be written into character sheets. This goes both ways: if you are playing the Viking chief, your character description should mention that you are feared and respected, but the character descriptions of all Vikings (with perhaps one or two exceptions) should mention this too. These other character sheets participate in the inception of the chief’s aura of fear. Depending on the character relationships, love, hate, trust, etc. can also be mentioned.

The character sheet’s literary quality is also important: it immerses the participant in their role, which they will then be able to play more confidently. The romanesque larp style uses character sheets that are often 30–80 pages long, so that all characters already know how fearsome the Viking chieftain is when they approach.

But a long character sheet, written like a novella, can also make the message less clear. And the length can contribute to the cognitive overload mentioned in the previous article. In any case, long character sheets of this type are mainly suited to larps based on secrecy and revelations.

Larp creators don’t all have to go that far.  However, it is always important to pay attention to one’s writing style to allow the participant to establish an emotional connection with their character, understand their relationships with other characters, and be ready to go before the larp starts. Even if one doesn’t write a novella for each character, it’s important to pay attention to supporting alibi, for example by describing relationships.

Larp Design

The way in which larps are designed plays a big role in the creation of aura and in the compensation of any human errors. Reinforcing a larp’s design is less risky than depending only on participants’ good will, because that good will might be lacking in certain larp cultures.

As mentioned previously, character sheets are larp design tools. But other tools exist to be used when participants come together.

Workshops

Before the larp, workshops can help to build aura by encouraging participants to act in a way that is coherent with their role, and with the way their character feels about other characters.

For example, gender expression workshops can be organized like this: the participant attempting to play a character of a gender other than their own will work on their physical and verbal expression, while others will practice talking about them, and discuss their vision for the character, using the character’s gender (not the participant’s gender).

Circles are another, more usual example of workshops that work for most larps. Participants take turns standing in the center of the circle. Each person then states what their character thinks of the character of the person standing in the center of the circle. The participant can also answer questions from the circle about their character, or present their character to the circle.

Briefing

The briefing is another indispensable tool to remind everyone of specific roles, but also to encourage everyone to show understanding and avoid judging. I can, for example, imagine that in the briefing of a larp including characters expected to do artistic or acrobatic feats, it would be crucial to reassure participants who were going to do live performances. It’s important everyone understands it’s not a talent contest. Reminding participants to have fun rather than looking for the perfect performance seems like an important aspect of creating aura.

Stats

I would also like to rehabilitate a larp technique that has often been despised by “freeform” or “immersionist” larpers: character stats. A character that is capable of inflicting huge amounts of damage, another with an outstanding charisma or negotiation stat: these are simple tools for building aura.

Photo by JD Hancock on Flickr

Photo by JD Hancock on Flickr

Freeform Techniques

Other, more freeform, techniques can replace stats. For example, in a larp with a strong hierarchy, “inferior” characters can be directed to freeze in place and must await instructions as soon as a “superior” character touches them on the forehead.

The larp Les Sentes goes further, with two rules: “Believe anything you’re told” and “Do anything you’re asked to.” This relieves participants of any pressure to be persuasive. Participants can further their character’s objectives by getting others involved in them, without the need for convincing role-playing.

Artistic Direction

Smart overall larp pacing can also ensure that character narratives don’t all peak at the same time, since this tends to create a cacophony where no one is interested in other characters’ grandiose or tragic destiny. For example, the Harry Potter-inspired short larp Seven Years in Poudlard is divided into acts, and the last act focuses on the crucial actions of two characters. Participants don’t know in advance who these two characters will be, but they know that the other characters will be of secondary importance. This formula works: when the two characters are identified and do their thing, all eyes are on them, with a definite aura effect. Other larps could learn from this example to give each participant their 15 minutes of fame. (In the context of heavily scripted larps, where lots of organizer input into the dramatic curves of each character.)

That said, a larp’s dramatic climax does not necessarily need to happen publicly. It can also be “decentralized,” where each small group (or even each individual) gets a separate climax. This is frequent in “improv larps,” where the larger meta-plot often takes a back seat to people’s “little stories.”

Hand and Verbal Signals

Meta-techniques, such as hand signals, are a language that can grease the wheels of larp. For example, crossing your fingers means “It’s my character thinking/saying/doing this, not me,” allowing one to yell at another character while indicating it’s the character that is upset, not the participant. I also like the converse technique, where for example saying “really really” indicates that it’s the participant speaking, not the character.

Paradoxically, the possibility to clearly differentiate between participant and character without fully breaking immersion allows one to use alibi more fully, since you can dissipate any ambiguity for others. This works even when you yourself are unable to totally separate participant and character, for example when trying to reassure another participant while experiencing intense bleed.

Third Place and Magic Circle

But the main role of larp design is larger: to establish a “third place” (not home, and not the workplace) where ordinary social conventions no longer apply. In the larp Le Lierre et La Vigne, polyamory is the norm. In the larp Les Sentes, everyone suffers from amnesia and identity is a very fluid concept. In the larp The Quota, participants play migrants. Ritualizing the act of entering and leaving the magic circle that marks the limits of this third place in time and space allows everyone to truly let themselves go to alibi, without social norms holding them back.

Overall, meta-techniques can act as a substitute for the participant’s role-playing performance, making them credible in roles that society or their own capabilities would not allow. By organizing space and time, a virtuous larp design facilitates role-playing by limiting cognitive overload and creating an area of non-reality and new possibilities.

The Participant’s Performance

Does this mean that, with a good larp design, participants don’t need to make any role-playing efforts? Yes and no.

Yes, because I believe reducing the stress associated with role-playing is one of the prerequisites for liberation. Larping is not theatre and participants are not competing for an acting prize.

To larpers doubting their legitimacy, either because they are a beginner or because their character is far from their actual social status or comfort zone, I would recommend that they just go with the flow of events without aiming for theatrics or the group’s assent. This seems like a good way for them to have fun, feel part of the group, and meet their character.

However, I would recommend the larper stay somewhat grounded in role-play. To meet your character, you have to take at least a step in their direction and find at least some convergence, be it through costume preparation, mannerism work, or memorising goals.

If a participant wants to sing during the larp, rehearsing the song three or four times will surely help, especially if they want to sing without reading the lyrics off a piece of paper. But beyond this bare minimum, alibi takes over. Making more of an effort should only result from the participant’s desire to come closer to their character, not from social pressure. To clarify: social pressure can sometimes help a participant to push their limits, but it’s a source of stress for those who suffer from social anxiety. Therefore, design document statements such as “we expect your larping to be strongly motivated” or “we expect a high level of role-playing” are fine for some larps, but should not be considered as inclusive.

It seems to me that the right balance to strike stems from self-knowledge. You can tell the other participants before the larp that you will be playing their leader but that you are not good at shouting. Or you can adapt your role-playing to your abilities by playing a cold type of leader rather than a shouty one. Aura will do the rest.

Photo by LauriePinkham, public domain

Photo by LauriePinkham, public domain

The Mirror That Others Hold Up for You

No larp design or participant effort will make your alibi legitimate if the others don’t do their part. They need to go beyond judging performance and fully participate in creating aura. This starts a virtuous circle that will enable all participants to fully live their role. The group’s mission is to create aura instead of judging.

The Audience-Participant and the Performer-Participant

We often hear that in RPG or larp the other participants are an audience. While useful in many ways, this idea is risky for two reasons: one is that participants may be discouraged from playing their character for fear of falling short of the audience’s expectations, and the other is that participants may become mere consumers of others’ role-playing.

To avoid these two risks, we must deconstruct the idea of ourselves as an audience: in larp, we are not just an audience, but an engaged audience.

When trying to impersonate someone else, the desire to do well can run into the impossibility to do well, either because we don’t know the other perspective well enough, or because we think we don’t. Take for example Alquen, a heterosexual cis-male. Even though he is open-minded about the characters he is willing to play, he is reluctant to play cis women or trans characters because he feels he doesn’t know enough and is afraid he will play them badly. I don’t think this type of reluctance can be overcome with a simple “it’s just another character with another gender.” The group needs to make the person feel legitimate and be indulgent, accepting that they will make mistakes or even be stereotypical. Workshops and debriefs can help the person to do better next time. With this indulgence, I think we are limiting people who, in good faith, are trying to be open to a greater variety of roles.

Play to Lift

We larp to encourage others in their performance and to respond to it, not to evaluate it or to profit from it.

That is where play to lift comes in. This way of larping is different from “play to win” or “play to lose,” which are both centered on one’s own character. Play to lift means using one’s character to make others shine. In this context, the character is seen as a tool to provide an ideal antagonist or associate to another character, in order to make them look good. A few “play to lift” participants in a larp greatly increase the aura of the other characters. Furthermore, when a majority of participants play to lift, everyone becomes a support or  spotlight for everyone, which creates a constructive and harmonious larp dynamic.

Play to Serve and Playing Impact

In her blog JenesuispasMJmais (IamnotGMbut), Eugénie introduces two notions inherited from improv theatre that strongly contribute to aura: play to serve (my character is at the service of other participants and the plot) and playing impact (through my reactions, I show that other characters’ actions have an impact on bodies and minds).

Eugénie also has a gesture that I would include in “playing impact”: making a heart-shape with your hands (other, more immersive equivalents exist, such as striking your heart with your fist) to signal to other participants that you enjoy what is going on. It’s important to turn as you are making the gesture, so that everyone can see it. This is exactly the type of validation that can make an alibi legitimate, as long as you accept the meta side of this technique. It seems that performances (including artistic ones) are objectively better when the audience gives the performer signs of approval. This same mechanic operates with the heart-shaped fingers: more than simply positive thoughts, it really has a positive impact on the quality and intensity of people’s role-playing.

It seems to me that being a fan of the other characters and cultivating indulgence towards other participants, instead of considering we are here to “be a good role-player,” leads to a more fulfilling role-playing experience for everyone.

  • To go further:
    [Article] ‘Play to serve‘, by Eugénie, on the JenesuispasMJmais blog
    [Article] ‘Playing impact‘, by Eugénie, on the JenesuispasMJmais blog

Maintaining Trust

The Meta Prerequisite for Character Immersion

The concept of playing to serve, described above, creates a meta paradox. For people to have confidence in their alibi, participants need to trust each other out-of-character. You need to be socially confident to be able to forget the participant and focus on the character. This brings us back to the importance of the “OK Check-in” mechanic, where you ask other participants if they are OK out of character with a hand signal, and ask them what you can do for them if they are not OK.

Emotional Safety Techniques

Emotional safety techniques protect both the participant’s emancipating alibi and psychological well-being by putting limits on alibi. One person’s alibi stops when it infringes on another person’s emotional comfort. Inside this limit, you are totally free and legitimate. Emotional safety techniques such as safewords help us to go beyond this limit and also to protect us from the most clumsy or toxic participants.

  • To go further:
    [Article] ‘Emotional safety‘, by Muriel Algayres, Marianne Caillous, Hoog & Skimy, on the Electro-GN blog

Mid-Larp Debriefings

As soon as a larp lasts longer than two hours (outside of briefing/debriefing), it seems interesting to me to add in intermediary debriefing phases. In the larp Les Sentes, we ask before the larp for one volunteer per group to represent said group in these out-of-character intermediary debriefings. This person explains how the participants in the group are doing, what is going well and what is going wrong. The volunteers then look for a solution together. In the “Nuclear Winter” session of the larp Les Sentes, these intermediary debriefings allowed participants to identify an issue: the Militia group wasn’t scary enough, which was a problem for all groups. Together, we reminded everyone of the leadership tools that the Militia had, and encouraged participants from other groups to increase their dealings with the Militia.

  • To go further:
    [Larp debriefing] ‘Nuclear Winter‘, by Thomas Munier

Note that none of these tools is enough by itself to create the necessary aura. But they all help in creating the feeling of trust, where we see that we all want the same thing: that everyone can play their character to the fullest.

It seems to me that we all face the same difficulties when trying to let alibi take over and express ourselves: we are afraid that others will think we are crazy, ridiculous, or boring. I think these fears can disappear once trust is established and maintained.

Clarity of Information

None of the prerequisites for aura creation seem possible to me without clarity on the social contract during pre-larp communication. Being clear on what to expect (and, even more importantly, on what not to expect) is key in letting alibi take over.

Transparency techniques (i.e. giving participants information that their character doesn’t know about) can also help: it’s easier to play to serve if you know what is expected of you, and it’s easier to fully immerse in a scene when you know exactly what it is about.

Transparency is not a sine qua non condition, but it does favor co-creation and trust, and also saves time. A larp based on secrecy will take more effort with regards to briefing and meta-techniques.

The Importance of Gratitude

“Thank you” seems like a good final contribution to building trust. “Thank you for taking part” is a great phrase during briefing and debriefing. It’s more a “Thank you for being here” than a “Thank you for your larping”: it’s the participant’s presence that is appreciated. We leave the characters alone: we are not here to judge them; they are part of the untouchable world of transgression. It seems to me that, in order for characters to keep their aura, we have to not expect too much from the participants, whatever happens. People want to perform most when performing is optional.

Conclusion

Yes, alibi offers a great pretext to experience and to experiment with oneself through a character. But it only works if the participant has an aura that makes them feel legitimate to themselves and to the other participants. This aura can be built through larp design, through a certain approach to role-playing, through a benevolent attitude by the group, and through a general atmosphere of trust. When all these factors are present, we get what kF calls creative de-responsibilisation, when the creative task in front of us seems just right: not too large, not too small, but just the right challenge to get us to jump into the unknown.

Creating aura is part of attaining “alibi for all.” This makes aura a useful tool for anyone aiming to live or produce an immersive and inclusive experience.

Ludography

L’association Ludique des Gnistes Rennais. Harry Potter L’héritage: 7 ans à Poudlard. ALGR, 2019.

Avalon Larp Studios & Broken Dreams. Le Quota. eXperience, 2019.

Clairence, Lille. Le Lierre et la Vigne: retour à Intimatopia. eXperience, 2017.

Munier, Thomas. Les Sentes. 2019.

Cover illustration: Photo by Brian, on Flickr

Authors

Thomas Munier is a French author of TTRPGs and of larps that take place mainly in the forest. He is inspired by marginal approaches and outsider art. He also creates content on game design and creativity.
I'm a larp-theory enthusiast and avid international larper. When not doing that, I can be found screaming into a microphone (check out my metal band Red Mourning!).
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