Xavid (kihou) wrote,

Expectations and LARPs

One thing that I notice is that, in the LARP communities I'm in, we don't have a good shared vocabulary for talking about different types of games. Settings/premises are easy to talk about, but mechanics/structure and playstyle are harder. Labels like "high action" or "low mechanics" or "jeepform" are used in different ways by different people. This makes it hard for people to talk about what types of games they like, avoid games they aren't going to enjoy, and respectfully discuss the differences between games. Basically, it's about managing expectations so that people know what they're getting into.

Figuring out what lines to draw is somewhat arbitrary, but here's an attempt at a description of different axes that you should think about when describing and advertising your game and when setting player expectations. It's very much a braindump, not a precisely-mapped-out taxonomy, and could certainly use refinement. Defining concise, unambiguous labels is left as an exercise for the reader.

Length/Time Structure

Length is pretty straight-forward, the main catching point being the difference between a two-hour game and a two-hour slot (because games seldom start exactly on time and often want some sort of wrapup or aftertalk).

Some games have a more interesting structure they should communicate as well. A scenes/tales-based game may want to communicate the number of scenes ahead of time so players can pace. Other games may want to announce a gamebreak or significant phases.

Intended Playstyle

There are many different types of priorities people have while playing LARPs. Many games are written to work for a variety of playstyles, but the feel of the game and what players get out of it depends a lot on the playstyles people go in with.

Common playstyles include:
  • Goal-oriented: prioritize achieving the character's listed goals
  • Cut-throat: try to achieve your goals and prevent others from achieving theirs
  • Shared goal: game is focused a competitive or cooperative shared goal; in some games (such as some traditional murder mysteries) this goal may be at odds with a character's interests
  • Simulationist roleplay: prioritize doing what the character would do, even if this would be counter to their goals, boring, or make a worse story
  • Story-focused: do what would make the best story, even if it means sacrificing goals or acting out-of-character
  • Fun-oriented: do what would be the most fun for the player, or alternately what you think would be the most fun for other players
Given the wide range of playstyles, giving some idea up-front what sort of playstyle your game is optimized or intended for can help, particularly if you'll have trouble finding a suitable role for someone with a particular playstyle.


Games can vary based on how much of game operates on principles that can be understood and predicted by players, versus large amounts of unknowns/surprise. Goal-oriented players will often try to plan based on their understanding of what's likely to happen, and can get frustrated or unhappy if their plans fail because of factors that feel unfair or out-of-left-field. On the other hand, surprise can be great for excitement and emotional impact, and foreshadowing the surprise too heavily can reduce this impact; games based on limited options can also get boring for characters that fail at what they're trying to do too early. On the third hand, players knowing on the meta level about things that will be surprises to their characters can help them roleplay stronger, more dramatic reactions to those surprises.

Good games can fall anywhere on this spectrum, but you want to do what you can to avoid surprises that mess up people's fun. If your game (or some subset of characters) is encouraging goal-oriented playstyles, try to avoid surprises that will mess up players' plans too harshly, particularly late in game. Alternately, foreshadowing these surprises, while removing some of the shock, can help players plan for them. ("Maybe you're paranoid, but you're worried that one of your team-mates is a traitor.") If you have plots that might strike players as encouraging goal-oriented play but will be frustrating to approach that way because of surprises (especially characters with goals that are impossible to achieve in game), it can be good to include a game note about not prioritizing achieving goals or a player note that they shouldn't count on being able to achieve their goals in game.

Note that surprise vs predictability isn't the same as "autonomous mechanics" vs "GM involvement". Autonomous mechanics can be highly unpredictable if hearing a trigger phrase can cause you to open a packet that kills you without proper foreshadowing/expectation setting. GM-based mechanics can be predictable if the GMs are implementing the universe in a well-defined and balanced manner and players have sufficient insight to the way the universe works.

Surprises can sometimes be unpleasant for less goal-oriented players as well. If a roleplay-oriented player has set up this great dramatic revelation scene where they confess their forbidden love and confront their rival, but they don't get to carry it out because the world gets unexpectedly eaten by Cthulhu in an unrelated plot, that can be very frustrating.

Closed vs Open Box/Player Creativity

Relatedly, there can be a lot of different expectations of whether it's reasonable to ask a GM or otherwise try to do something without an explicit mechanic. Players can get hosed because they assume they can't do something (e.g., make a phone call) because nothing says they can, when the GMs expect them to; this can particularly be a problem with open-ended magical abilities, when different players develop different expectation of their limits. The reverse situation can also lead to frustration, with players frustrated that solutions that should logically solve their problems get vetoed by the GMs and GMs get frustrated at players trying to work outside the expected bounds.

This one I'm not sure of great concise labeling, but I'd definitely encourage GMs to include a clear "If you want to do something you think is reasonable but don't have a mechanic for, see a GM." or "For game structure, you can't contact people or bring in items from outside during game." in a rules document.

(A related issue, but one that's not a labeling issue, is when different GMs give different answers on out-of-the-box idea questions; it helps to have what's possible clearly defined ahead of time for the GMs.)

Backstory Amount/Immersion

Creativity is also connected to backstory and immersion. Immersion is something that players and GMs are often going for, but different people think about immersion in different terms. Is it based on a rich and detailed world, with lots to read? Is it based on making everything What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get, removing signs and cards and things from the modern world? Is it based on getting completely into the mindset of your character through roleplay? Is it based on mechanics that force you to think and prioritize the same way your character would?

Often games will focus on multiples of these, but sometimes different types of immersion create tension. A player that's not fond of mechanical complexity may have trouble with a mechanic that closely represents what their character would be good at, and this can interfere with their roleplaying. A player that has trouble remembering large amounts of background may have trouble remembering things their character should know, derailing or missing what should be cool scenes or conflicts.

Detailed scenario and character backstory may also make players feel like they can't make stuff up to fill gaps, round out their characters, and answer questions that aren't answered in their backstory, for fear of contradicting something established in the world. This can lead either to frequent GM questions or to avoiding topics for no in-character reason. It can help for games that are detailed enough that players might be concerned, but where the GMs encourage player backstory creativity, to explicitly indicate this.

Rules Complexity

It seems that lots of games advertise themselves as "rules-light" or "mechanics-light", potentially because many of us have played games where the rules and mechanical complexity got in the way of the game. But different people use these to mean different things. Can a game be rules-light if it still has a combat system? Can a game be mechanics-light if there's lots of mechanical complexity, but it's all handled by the GMs? (This does not necessarily simplify things for players who want to optimize.)

Because of this, I encourage GMs to be more specific in their game blurbs. If you mean that your game has no combat, say that. If you mean that GMs oversee all mechanics, say that. If you mean that your game has contingency envelopes but everything else is roleplay, say that.

A related issue is rules length. I encourage GMs to think hard about rules and mechanics and cut rules that aren't necessary for their game and simplify where possible, because many games have more complexity than they need. Keeping your rules short is a good thing to aim for. But you also have to be careful, because your assumptions may be different from your players, and cutting basic rules that are still assumed (or getting rid of a rules document entirely) can lead to more confusion, not less. ("I didn't know you were invisible" or "I didn't know how death worked" type-situations can really derail a game.) A concise, shared rules document can help get everyone on the same page and is nothing to be afraid of.

Combat System

There are lots of different ways to do combat. I feel games should be clear ahead of time about whether they have combat, and if so what general type of system, both because combat mechanics are often hectic and based heavily on player skill and because different players enjoy different things.

Below are the general types of combat I've encountered. Note that some games may include more than one, such as having both melee and ranged combat or having a different mechanic for dueling.
  • None. Nice and simple, but potentially frustrating in some settings for people who have known antagonists they can't do anything to stop.
  • Non-real-time number comparisons. Simple, though you should be careful that the person with the highest number doesn't walk all over game. May allow teaming up.
  • Real-time number comparisons (e.g., Darkwater combat).
  • Simple random (e.g., Rock Paper Scissors, possibly plus a stat or HP).
  • Complicated random (dice).
  • Turn-based combat cards. There's great variability in complexity for card-based combat mechanics. Also, keep in mind that turn-based combat systems scale poorly if everyone in game wants to join the same combat.
  • Hit points and projectiles (Nerf guns, spell packets, etc.) Some potential safety issues.
  • Projectiles and also a bunch of incants.
  • Boffer combat. More safety issues. As this gets more elaborate it can approach SCA combat and other martial arts.
(Note that some games include a combat mechanic but don't really expect players to use it; think carefully about this, because players will always do things you don't expect. The flip side of this is not including a combat mechanic but saying "see the GMs if you really want to get in a fight"; I encourage GMs that do this to not allow characters to accomplish anything substantial via combat (and to make this clear ahead of time), because otherwise this can be very unpleasant for a character who loses combat by GM fiat.)

Metagaming/Steering/Breaking Character

There are a few different perspectives on to what degree players should be using player-level/out-of-character knowledge or feelings to affect in-character actions. (Given that players are not robots driven by full rationality, it is of course impossible to avoid some out-of-character influence on your roleplay.)

Positions I've seen are:
  • Intentionally acting on knowledge your character wouldn't have is cheating. (Normally exceptions are implicitly made for, e.g., acting on how the mechanics work.)
  • Player-level trickery to support in-character actions is acceptable. This can include things like saying (or implying) that you have a greensheet, a mechanic, or a contingency envelope that you don't.
  • Don't metagame for in-character advantage, but things like steering towards your friends because it'd be fun or steering towards players that seem to be getting left out are acceptable.
  • Players are encouraged to reveal secrets and otherwise coordinate on a player level to other players to enable cooler scenes: if I know you have a particular secret, I can help set up that secret getting revealed in a cool manner. (This type of steering is often used in tabletop RPGs.)
  • What you know, you know. This is sometimes the case for tactical/SIK games, which may not have particular secret elements.
This is another area where different standards work for different games, but it can be useful to make sure all your players are on the same page. Otherwise, players can get upset when one player's good play is another player's cheating.


Part of what makes LARP so exciting is the many different perspectives and types of game people bring to the table. But this variety can lead to problems when expectations don't match. Discussing the style and assumptions of a game up-front can help avoid unpleasant surprises and make the game work better for everyone.
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