New voices in Larp: Distributed deadlines

(That was a joke, son.)

I tend to write about Larp more than I actually write Larps. I’m pretty OK with this.

Regardless, I do occasionally write Larps. And when I write Larps, I like putting new things in them. I find absolutely no joy in iterating on the same formula. In the case of parlour Larps, I feel that “standard formula” is a kind of mad-libs affair where the flavour of the setting and the cast changes, but the underlying problem, or the basic mechanic, do not. Instead, at the centre of most Larps I think about (or write, I guess), is a shiny idea, a vaguely gimmicky speck of grit around which the Larp grows.

Is any of this worth writing about? Maybe. Hopefully, this will be the first of a series.

The Aristotelian Curse and Distributed Deadlines

As far as I can tell, it was Eirik Fatland who coined this term. He describes the Aristotelian Curse like this:

In a larp the protagonist is you: the player. Or rather: the character that you play. Which means that if there are 50 characters, there are 50 protagonists. And when you have 50 protagonists and 50 arcs, there will be a crescendo of conflict-resolution towards the end.

This problem occurs more readily, and more often, in large games. Multiple large plots come to a head thirty minutes before the game ends and you can’t hear yourself think but for the cacophony of everyone reaching the peak of their narrative arc around you. And of course, if your character isn’t involved in one of those main plots, your best bet is probably to find somewhere quiet, grab a pint, and wait for it all to blow over.

This phenomenon of concentrated narrative tension – in which every climax happens right at the end of the game, and ends up butting heads with every other climax – isn’t great. So as Larp-writers, we want to avoid it.

Fatland identifies the following possible solutions to the Aristotelian Curse:

  • Design inclusive conflicts
  • Isolate conflicts
  • Distribute the climactic moments in time
  • Distribute the climactic moments in space
  • Have supporting parts
  • Write low-key conflicts
  • Be upfront with the players about conflicts and arcs
  • Design transitions rather than conflicts
  • Design the larp around micro-arcs
  • Make it a slice of life

Two Larps in specific made me start thinking about dealing with the Aristotlean Curse: Anna Klein’s An Intimate of Devils, and Russ Kale’s The Library: Episodes 13, 21, and ∴.1 Both of these games use a three-act format in which periods of in-character roleplaying are punctuated by short periods of down-time. In those down-time periods, players may perform actions incidental to the plot, but they’re still either chiefly or totally out-of-character. In other words, these games were designed around micro-arcs, and they also (whether deliberately, or as a result of their act structure) kinda-sorta distributed the climactic moments in time.

I think of these as “multi-act Larps”, or as Larps that exhibit “multi-act structure”. I quite like it.

Little endings…

This multiple-act structure helps resolve the Aristotlean Conflict in two ways. First, it provides the game with some narrative structure. Second, and as a consequence, it helps the players regulate their own narrative energy.

It’s pretty obvious how imposing acts upon a Larp gives it structure. In your average, one-act Larp, structure only exists when either players impose it on the game, or GM events change the story somehow. These generally aren’t telegraphed to players before they happen: obviously, player actions are pretty spontaneous, and can’t be planned for, but pre-planned events that are written into the Larp itself may also be “hidden” from players, to give the plot a feeling of “organic” or “spontaneous” development.2 This means that players aren’t consciously aware of the game’s narrative arc(s) until they’re right there in the thick of it.

But once we add acts – acts that players know about, before the game – we immediately give the Larp a series of what I’ve come to think of as “little endings”. These little endings give you a tiny prompt, mid-way through the game, to bring things to something of a conclusion. It’s a handy place to tidy up any sub-plots that you’ve been dealing with, even if you don’t want to resolve central narrative arcs. As each small sub-plot resolves with a burst of narrative intensity, the overall narrative tension of the game is bouyed up; as everyone recovers from these “little endings”, the narrative tension starts to drop down again - just not quite to the level it was at before. In other words: the players end up spreading their narrative tension over the game a little more.

By adding “little endings” to your game, in the form of act breaks, you can spread that dramatic tension out a bit.

…and space

A little out-of-character time also provides for reflection and introspection – something that can otherwise be lacking in the (often) hectic pace of a one-off parlour Larp game. I feel like this space for reflection is particularly useful when considering both your character’s opinions, and their relationships with others.

A lot of character-heavy parlour Larps focus on these aspects: what people think, and how they relate to one another. Consider the following plots:

These plots all deal with either opinions or relationships: more importantly, they deal with how these things change over the course of the game. In real life, opinions and relationships develop over the course of weeks, months, or years: in Larps, for the sake of drama, we try to condense the whole journey into a period of a couple of hours. In my experience, that can lead to intense emotional whiplash. It takes a lot of work to try simulating these weeks or months of character development, and the busy atmosphere of a parlour larp isn’t always a great place to do that. Or should I say: it is a great place to have a pivotal moment occur: an intense argument, an involved discussion, or the like – but it’s a terrible place to internalise the choices you’ve made, or ponder the consequences of your actions. Campaign Larps, which are naturally episodic, have plenty of time for reflection, but your average one-shot Larp lacks that space. This is where the act break comes in: breaks in the Larp mean time to sit down and think about the game.3

Some examples

I have a couple of projects going right now that involve this three-act structure. The first, The Lark Rises, is a game about resistance fighters running dangerous missions in a dystopian future. It’s heavily modelled on the party game The Resistance, and much like that game, The Lark Rises features a series of missions that the characters need to complete in order to “win” the game. These missions punctuate the game, giving it the act structure that I’ve been talking about. Each mission is dangerous – you might take injuries, or even be killed, as you’re going about your mission business – and hopefully this adds to the feeling of “little endings”.4 Importantly, it gives you another impetus to wrap up any loose ends you may be dealing with before each act ends, as you may not be around to deal with them after the mission.

My second project is Waiting for the Sun to Rise, a smallish (twelve-person) pastoral parlour Larp about a bunch of university-age kids spending a weekend in a house in the woods before finals. This game is a culmination of a few ideas, especially those about space in roleplaying games; the nature of the game – following these kids as they relax over a weekend – is well-suited to a multiple-act game.5

The game is structured as follows. Before each session, the players decide what they want to do during the day, and who they’ll do it with. Their success is determined by a card draw from a custom deck: but more importantly, the card also prompts the players revise their opinions of (and relationships with) their fellow characters. Do you go hunting a stag with your best friend? Things might not go as well as you hoped, and you might have an argument. Hanging out at the lodge to study with two strangers? Now you know a little bit about them. The point here is that our interlude scenes 6 also provide character growth and development, and these should provide material to roleplay in the live-action scenes. In this way, I feel, putting pauses in your game allows you to insert some in-game space. Given how often characters in parlour Larps have to consider big decisions, this space allows you a little time to develop your opinions.

Finishing up

So, to conclude: the multi-arc Larp is particularly good for breaking up your narrative climaxes into smaller, more easily-digestible chunks. It also gives your game a little more structure than you would otherwise have, which also helps people to (consciously or not) map out their narrative journey, spreading the drama smoothly throughout the game, rather than just piling it up at the end. And finally, those breaks in the narrative give everyone a chance to catch their breath and be a little introspective, allowing you to develop opinions and relationships without the usual emotional whiplash that can plague one-act Larps.

Or that’s the theory, anyway. I’d be interested to hear about other multi-act Larps, and whether they follow the above patterns. Have you written, run, or played in a multi-act Larp? How was it structured? And how did you find the experience?

  1. I cannot find a link to any details of this Larp on the internet any more. 

  2. I dislike hiding any information from the players – even information their characters have no way of knowing – but that’s a topic for another blog post. 

  3. This idea of space is something I’ve written about before

  4. These missions - which are run almost as tiny 5-minute-long tabletop sessions - also provide me with a way of simulating events that would be tricky to enact using a live-action medium, although this is grist for another post. 

  5. In fact, Waiting for the Sun to Rise feels – in my head, at least – more like a tabletop game with Larp interludes, rather than a Larp with tabletop game interludes. 

  6. Which, sure, they break the game into arcs so we can resolve issues and build dramatic tension and all that.