This article was originally published on Olivers tegninger om rollespil blog on August 18, 2016.
I’ve had a lot of fun out of romantic storylines in a lot of different larps, it’s a really powerful area to explore. There’s so many possibilities for intense emotions and meaningful stories:
I’ve played Romeo and Juliet in a prison camp, a can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-without-you story in utopia, been set up in an arranged marriage doomed to tragedy and been magically drawn back to life by my true love.
I’d like to share my observations on what I think makes for good romantic play (or any intense interpersonal drama, really).
Just to be catchy and bloggy, I’m basing it on four pillars: Context, Consent, Communication and Chemistry.
No man is an island; neither does two make an archipelago. So if you are making the romance from scratch, explore the context of the whole larp to see what relationships are possible and encouraged. Find an angle that supports the intended experience of the larp; don’t just go for fulfilling your personal fantasies.
Also make sure the play has room in between the other stuff you’re doing, I’ve seen so many romances neglected by players too busy to focus on them and an equal amount of players stuck with only the romance to play on and no one at the other end.
Find someone to play with who has a genuine desire to be the other half, who has the possibility to prioritize the play with you, so you don’t end up disappointed.
Oftentimes your character comes with a romantic story attached and you just have to make the best of it. Here the best approach is to try and see what function the plot has in the larp and where you get to decide yourself in the relationship.
The players around you are also an important part of the relationship. Find ways for your relationship play to contribute to their experience as well, and see that they have meaningful positions in regards to the relationship. Romeo and Juliet are boring without the Capulets and Montagues.
I have this thing where I cannot engage with play if the other person is not actually into it – call it neurotic. If I sense they are not enjoying themselves, my body has ways of shutting it all down.
Seriously though, consent is a basic requirement for me. If I don’t feel that the other person is excited about playing romantically with me, I steer clear of that play. I don’t just want a lukewarm “okay, that sounds fine.” I need enthusiastic consent and shared ownership if I am to play it at all.
I’m also aware of giving my own enthusiastic consent early and often; I’d rather be overbearing than not get the conversation started. You should at least have a vague idea about your personal lines. Saying “I’m not sure exactly where my lines are with physical play” is a good start; “I don’t have any lines” shows that you are an idiot.
Personally I have used the last many larps to develop an elevator pitch about my personal limits, to get started:
I really enjoy bringing physicality and touching into play, so I’m good with most normal stuff as long as you stay away from groping the swimsuit area. You can give me a slap or light physical molestation if that becomes relevant. I have a weak immune system, so anything with mucus membranes and bodily fluids is out, that means actual kissing, spitting, fingers in the mouth and such. But Ars Amandi works wonderfully for me, so I suggest that for intimacy, but if you prefer something else, I’m sure we can make that work too.
I also need to have consent reaffirmed during play. Especially when thing get heavier. If I can’t tell that you are enjoying play, I’m not going to take it further. This means we go off-game and check in, and preferably also talk about where we want play to go. Blackbox scenes are a good excuse.
If you fail to build the relationship on mutual off-game consent, you’re bound to end up in territory where you or someone else feels violated or unsafe. The stuff we play with in romantic scenes is the natural habitat of trauma, so we need the extra care not to trigger old scars or create new injuries. Sometimes we do so by accident, in which case it is going to be a lot less horrible to work out, if you have already shown that you care about consent.
Talk. With. Each. Other. A lot. You can’t really consent if you don’t know what is going on. Also there’s a lot of layers and meanings we might miss when it comes to intense relations, so it’s good to know what the other side is focusing on and what is making them excited. Talk about the type of scenes you’d be into. Talk about the kinds of stories you love. Talk about the kinds of affection that work for you. Talk about your characters. Talk about what you want to go wrong. Talk about which songs you could have as theme song for the relationship. Make up pointless bits of backstory.
And once play starts, you keep the lines open. You take time to listen to each other and sense what works for the other. You go off-game and check in. You tell how you feel as a player.
I’ve enjoyed using meta room or blackbox play to calibrate with my partner, we’ve done abstract scenes with stuff like inner monologues and free association to communicate our thoughts and feelings in ways that open up for new and more nuanced play afterwards.
I nearly always follow the basic model of mutual escalation in order to keep it feeling safe all the way through. Make a move, wait for the other to respond and reciprocate before moving on. If you get positive feedback, move up the intensity, if not you step back to a safe place and try something else.
If you want to be discreet, you can do things in-game and then check if the other player plays into the move or around and get useful info. If someone isn’t actively playing reactions to your play, you’re better off going for something else. You can tell a lot from the level of engagement.
This is actually the most important bit: You need personal chemistry to play love. Without chemistry, play becomes a sucky chore. You need at least a spark of connection. And it better be mutual. Also, it has infinitely less to do with what makes your pants tingle, than it does with subconscious trust and genuine interest in the other person.
You can’t force it. But you can grow it, if both of you are willing to open up – it takes a little work and communication to build up mutual trust and connection.
Chemistry is also awfully fragile. So many things can ruin it, so you have to put in the work, to be someone people can connect with. A lot of the points in the list from LWU is personal deal breakers that ruin the chemistry. You can’t guarantee that it works, but you can start it up.
Also, chemistry is impossible to detect without meeting in person. You might have great fun on skype before play, but once you meet a wrong pheromone can break the spell. Likewise, sometimes you build up an incredibly meaningful thing out of 15 minutes at a workshop. It’s a bit of a lottery really, so you just go to try an up your odds and hope for the best.
If you’re stuck larping a romance without any chemistry, you’re gonna want to minimize the damage. A good place to start is to acknowledge the awkward with your partner and talk about what to do about it. If possible, simply play the relationship to a breaking point and end it. Go your separate ways. Otherwise see if you can transform the relationship into something you’re both comfortable with. Going through the motions should be a last resort.
How to Get Started
You ask. Ask out aloud in the Facebook group of the larp, if anyone is up for a romance. Suggest it to someone personally. Be prepared for rejection, so don’t just aim for one perfect relationship – that is a losing strategy. Be open to whatever comes up and be prepared to shape it yourself.
The big problem is that for a lot of us, asking someone to play out romantic stuff is pretty much the same terrifying prospect as asking someone on a date in real life. The rejection is very much the same punch in the gut. There’s no big trick here, but to make it start out as low stakes for everyone involved. I’d suggest starting out talking about play in general, move onto your characters relationship potential in general, before asking about adding a romantic layer. Worse case scenario is you might get a rejection, but still an interesting potential for play.
Be honest about what you want. Don’t just go along with what you get offered, take ownership of your half of the play. It’s a lot more attractive when it comes to building the intense stuff we all want. Romance is really not that different from most other play, at the end of the day.
And my pet peeve:
Don’t you dare hook up with the other player. You’re failing to larp if you do. You’re putting your own base needs ahead of community safety.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to give up on opening romantic play, because the other person assumed I was only into if to get into their pants. I usually make a point of mentioning my off-game partner during introductory talks, to discreetly position myself.
The reason I’ve managed to get to some insanely intense levels of intimacy in larp, is the simple fact that off-game there is nothing but friendship awaiting us. Even if we feel like we connect on soul-level or hormones rage during Ars Amandi. Off-game we’re not going to pursue this further. That’s part of the contract and the magic circle.
At least keep your pants on through play and the after party, if you can’t wait that long, you are not grown up enough to larp.
Cover photo by Filipe Almeida on Unsplash.