Away from goals in LARP

There’s a design pattern in a lot of LARPs I’ve been in - especially big (>20-person) affairs. The pattern is that of the goal-driven character, and where I come from1 this pattern is prevalent to the point of ubiquity.

When I receive the character sheet for one of these LARPs, this is what I expect to get:

Of these four, goals are expected to drive play throughout the LARP. They serve a triple purpose:

  1. They give me something to do as soon as I walk in the door, to help power through that “fifteen minutes of shame” where we’re all acutely aware that we’re roleplaying and haven’t properly got into character yet.
  2. They provide an overarcing vision and purpose for my character through the course of the LARP.
  3. At the end of the event, they give me a gauge of how well I did.

While they can be pretty flexible, they often fit one of a few basic templates (examples include: “Get another character to do something”, “Find out something about another character”, and “Get a thing off another character”). Good goals are generally active (that is, to achieve them you need to do something) and outward-facing (they make you interact with someone else). Obviously, if you put twenty people in a room with active, outward-facing goals, what you get is interaction, which drives play, which makes the LARP go round. 2

But it’s not all sunshine and flowers. Too many goals can make for shallow play in which all you do is run around trying to check things off a list. Goals that are too hard can frustrate players, and of course any goal that depends on another player (and a number of good, outward-facing goals probably will) can be derailed in an instant if that player won’t cooperate.

The goal (hah) of this post isn’t to trash-talk goals, because they can and do provide players with a great deal of direction, and provide games with drama and activity. What I want to do is have a bit of a brainstorm about alternative ways you can drive play in LARP. In some cases, what I’ve done is modify the normal goal structure. In others, I’ve got rid of goals entirely. Regardless, I hope that the new structures these mechanics bring can provide different modes of play, while also keeping the game engaging.


One big goal

If you like goals, but don’t like the running-around-checking-boxes off that multiple goals results in, there is a middle-ground: the Big Goal. Maybe it’s written on your character sheet, or maybe it emerges in the first ten minutes of play: either way, there’s only one thing really going on that you have to focus on. This sort of play is characteristic of “smaller” LARPs, where the whole cast can focus on the problem at once (if not for the whole game, at least for the important or climatic points). They’re often a “solve-the-puzzle” style LARP: for instance, if everyone is trapped in a house, or room, or similar, and needs to puzzle their way out. An example of this sort of LARP is The Bell, in which all the players need to work out how to fix their space-ship (while other plot continues around them).

The one downside to this style of game is that people can quickly become fatigued by constantly throwing themselves against the one goal. If you have multiple goals on your sheet, you always have something to do if you get tired of one. In a similar vein, if you just don’t like the main goal, this style of game offers you no real alternative. It’s often good to have this Big Goal provide the basis for play, and add character motivations, back-story, etc. around that.

Easy goals

This hardly seems like a fix at first: give the players goals that are easy but that have a big impact. The plan in this case is for the players to spend the first half of the LARP accomplishing their goals, but then spend the second half cleaning up after themselves. This approach was inspired by KapCon 22’s flagship LARP Fragrant Harbour, where a faction achieved their main plot about halfway through the game (assembling enough ingredients to make a magic incense, with in-game effects). In a post-LARP discussion, one of main characters involved said:

I was driving that as quickly as I could because I wanted to start exploring the repercussions of [my character] creating the incense, rather than devoting the attention to the process of it. Finishing that incense would..generally open up a number of narrative options that could be explored however I wanted to.

In this case the goal was resolved early on by a strongly-played character, but there’s nothing stopping the GMs from giving people plots that are deliberately easy to complete. This is a nice simple fix, but it has the potential of failing badly if there’s nothing to do in the last half of the game. If the characters and their relationships are rich and nuanced, you might get away with this: otherwise, it’s important to make sure that their actions in the first half of the game leave plenty to clean up.

One other nice thing about easy goals is that they help to alleviate the Aristotlean curse, in which every climatic moment for every character happens in the last fifteen minutes of the game. Especially if you sprinkle easy goals within your normal goal-based game, you’ll find that these plots work themselves out before others, providing a more steady rate of narrative fulfilment throughout your game.

Monopoles

A lot of LARPs (at least, a lot of LARPs I’ve written or played in) have a somewhat straightforward approach to goals: player A has a problem, and player B has a solution (which may sometimes need to be mediated through player C). The point being that most GMs guarantee that if you have a square-shaped hole in your character sheet, somewhere out there in the LARP is a square-shaped peg. Sometimes there’s one peg and two people with the right-size hole, or maybe you have a hole that’ll take both square- and circle-shaped pegs, so you have to choose which shape best suits it, but the point is that you know from the get-go that there’s a solution to your problem.

The idea with “monopoles” is to give players a series of problems and a series of tools for solving said problems, but at the same time to decouple the problems from their solutions. To continue our pegs-and-holes analogy from before, the players have a series of square- and triangle-shaped holes in their character sheets, and you as the LARP-writer provide them with a number of circle-shaped pegs, a couple of chisels, and tell them to get to it.

For example, let’s say that your character is mayor of a small town. They might have a problem with a rat infestation that they’re required to solve, and you as the LARP-writer then put someone in the game with the socially-taboo magical ability to control animals - an obvious, one-to-one mapping of problems to solutions. Now the mayor must find them and wrestle with their opinions regarding the use of “bad” magic to solve their problem. Nice and easy.

Using monopole design, you wouldn’t put a “tailored” solution into the game in the same way. Maybe you’d have someone with the magical ability to control the elements, or someone with a knack for alchemy - it’s then up to the players to make solutions to their problems using what’s available.

One particular plotline that might benefit from this is the romantic plot. In a lot of LARPs, romance plots take place between predefined characters: character A needs to work up the courage to ask character B out, or characters A, B and C need to sort out their complex tangled love life. Rather than specifying a few discrete romance plots between pairs or triangles of characters, the monopole approach instead suggests that you create a number of characters who are “romantically available”, and let them find each other during the course of the game.

The big advantages of this design strategy are twofold: first, your games should (hopefully) feel more “realistic”, as people solve their problems using whatever is available; and second, your games have the potential to develop much more beyond your own vision as LARP-writer. There are a couple of downsides, however: first, your players will have to do a lot more work to solve each problem, as they have to assemble a solution out of what’s on hand. In addition, you will need to make sure the players are aware that they can be as creative as they like with what they have (I always find it weird to use bits of my backstory to mechanical effect within LARPs, but that’s exactly what this sort of goal structure is pushing for). Second, I think there’s a form of the Czege principle3 in action here, as players end up both coming up with solutions to their problems, and judging the effectiveness of said solutions. It may be that game built around this sort of framework would need a way for GMs to judge the players’ solutions: perhaps at the end of the game, each player writes a short note detailing how they solved their problem, and the GMs judge how well each solution works. The idea is to have the player still report back to the GM at the end of the game, so that it’s not just your own private goal party. Alternatively, perhaps an otherwise-uninvolved player gets the task of judging the effectiveness of the solution.

The participation goal

At the start of the game, players are given a list of goals as usual. However, their goals are much easier to achieve, and aren’t supposed to last the whole game.

For example, in one of my last LARPs, someone had murdered my character and my genius scientist little brother had brought me back to life. One of my goals was to find my killer and avenge my death - which took me the whole game. Using the participation goal method, my goal may instead be, “Sit down and talk with your ex-girlfriend about that fight you had.”

In this form, goals aren’t as much story-spanning struggles as they are story-starters or guides for initial play. This is the great bonus of goals like this: they provide you enough direction and drive for those first fifteen minutes while you get into character, but after that they let you loose upon the world, to do what you want. You no longer have to contend with the dilemma of following your written goals versus following what you think your character would want, because after half an hour you’re all out of written goals.

The big downside of this method is that there needs to be enough meat within the LARP proper for you to form your own goals. This requires more work on the part of both the LARP-writers (who need to make sure there’s material for everyone to get involved in) and the players (who need to actively seek out goals after the first fifteen minutes). However, if you have an attention-grabbing scenario, pre-planned events, or complex characters who interact in interesting ways, this sort of mechanic could let them form their own goals as they go, and with that ownership should (hopefully) come a sense of investment and enthusiasm that might otherwise be lacking.

(“Hold on,” you say, “didn’t we cover this with ‘easy goals’ above?” The difference here is that participation goals aren’t about setting up play: they’re about getting you through the first fifteen minutes. Easy goals still require you to do a bit of problem-solving or wandering around the LARP talking to people. Participation goals require just that: your participation in a scene.)

Build-your-own goals

One thing I’ve observed in tabletop games is that players get a lot more invested in things as soon as they had input into its creation. Let the players help build a town, or an NPC, or a shop, and they’ll come back to it again and again. The aim of this approach is to take that sense of investment and apply it to the player’s character, even in a one-off game where you usually put a character on fifteen minutes before game start and take it off five minutes after the game finishes.4

Here’s the plan: upon receiving your character sheet, you get some backstory, some relationships, some opinions - all the usual - but no goals. Instead, you get a series of questions from the GMs: some relating to your backstory and relationships, but the last one being: “What are your goals for this game?”

I’ve received these sort of “character-building” questions from GMs before: they might ask why my character joined a specific faction, or what my thoughts are on a particular subject. However, one thing I think is usually missing from this technique is that GMs forget to close the feedback loop: they ask the questions and then let the player answer them on their own. As a result, your answers may help you get into character, I guess, or provide you for meat when you’re talking to other people, but there’s no sense of validation in your answers. By returning these answers to the GM, you get two things going on:

  1. By accepting your answers, the GM is basically turning your answers from personal “head-canon” into actual canon.5
  2. The GM can now act on what you’ve written, noting down flags and, if appropriate, adding new content to hinge on them.

This also allows a huge amount of flexibility in your characters. The downside, of course, being that if you have an excellent plot you want to push in the game, the characters may all avoid it in favour of something else.6 The biggest drawback I can see is that it requires the LARP-writers and GMs to be flexible, ready to modify the game in response to peoples’ goals. Whether this method is effective or not is tricky to tell without trying it out - something I hope to fix in the future at some point.

Replacing the goal

Of course, sometimes you want to completely remove goals from play. This is something I really want to experiment with, but I have even less authority to write on this subject than I do for all the above sections.

The problem is that goals provide a lot of direction for people in LARPs. In the same way that removing the system from a tabletop game often makes it boring, confusing, or both, removing goals from a LARP leaves a big empty space where people can easily end up wandering around not knowing what to do. The goal, then, is to work out what to replace goals with.

One thing I’ve seen used in LARPs is the idea of structured play: that is, ritualised or formulaeic bits of the game where peoples actions are semi- or fully-scripted. The best example I’ve seen of this is Julia Ellingboe’s Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, in which the players take turns telling pre-set stories. These stories allow the characters’ relationships and backstories to come to light, hopefully kicking off drama that takes up the rest of the game.

Another example that’s come up recently is in the Czech Firefly-based LARP Moon:

First of all, there was an “intro” made of three scenes, which were written by us, and so became more like coordinated drama scenes. The reason, why we have decided to use this was in our experience of slow booting of chamber larps in that period and we didn’t want to have a game with a slow beginning.

The coordinators of Moon noted, however, that:

In almost every run of the game, there was someone, who failed to do what was asked. It is possible that just writing a set of non-specific instructions on a piece paper and leaving the rest to the players wasn’t such good idea. The basic problem was probably in the strong chain of specified actions spread among different players.

The writers of Moon actually went even further into structured play:

There were also three time points in the game which served as bottleneck for the players. All of these were speeches, which redefined the situation and focused characters back on the main story plot. In the last one, the governor could choose one of the pre-written texts to decide whether the Moon colony would go to war or accept the occupants. That is the way we ensured a dramatic ending of the larp.


And this is where I have to stop brainstorming, because I honestly have no idea. I think of all the alternatives suggested here, the step of replacing the goals in your LARP with something else entirely is the most radical, which makes it both the hardest step to take, but also the one with the most potential. I’d love to know what other narrative structures can replace the goal, but it’s something that will require work, practice, and poking around with weird experimental four-player set pieces to figure it out.

Conclusion

Which brings me to the end of my list of ideas. Looking back, I see a common theme running through many of them, which was described in Nathan Hook’s write-up of the LARP Pan as “tight-to-loose” structure:

In terms of pacing, the larp started quite tightly structured, with the organiser character therapists guiding timetabled activities. This gradually became looser and more open, both in therapy content and when the possession elements began. This..first created a well developed situation, then trusted and empowered the player characters to act freely within it.

My next step is to hollow out some time, sit down with a keyboard and some music in the background, and try to actually write things which use these goals (or replacements for goals). Hopefully writing characters, getting games going, and seeing the results will shape my views on these alternative LARP procedures, and may even suggest further modifications.

As things develop, I’ll make sure to keep this updated - and watch the projects page for any LARPs I decide to put online.


  1. The Christchurch LARP scene, a sub-set of the New Zealand LARP scene, of whose pedigree I have no idea really. 

  2. This is a classic example of “brute-force” LARP-writing that came up in the wake of this year’s Knutepunkt

  3. The Czege Principle states: It’s no fun if the same player both proposes the problem, and proposes the solution to that problem. 

  4. I think this is another problem, actually, which is why I plan on heavily pushing workshops in any future LARPs I write. If I can single-handedly push workshopping into the Christchurch LARPing consciousness, I will die happy. 

  5. I think this is more my own personal hang-up than anything else - I hate answering these things wondering if every second sentence I utter is contradicted by someone else’s headcanon, or worse, some bit of history I didn’t read. 

  6. Although this suggests that even if the players’ goals did revolve around that plot, they wouldn’t be happy pursuing it.