Larp design

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Larpy Argos

What is a meaningful play?

meaningful play in larps

Kamil Bartczak

The problem of how much power should participant have over the gameplay, plot, development of own character, is complex and already widely discussed.  Player’s causality tends to be radically different from larp to larp, same as larpwriters’ opinions on the topic. On the one hand, numerous games are designed to maximize magnitude of consequences of players' actions. On the other, multiple larps have predetermined endings and arranged scenes. Some games tend to leave characters completely free to be shaped by players, other hardcode heroes' personality and motivation so not major deviation from a set design is possible. Each of these approaches proves to be able to lead to a great larp experience. At the same time when a larp turns out to be a disappointment lack of players’ causality is frequently brought up as the possible reason. So, how much power over a larp player should have? What is the determining factor to adjust player’s causality level to be right for our design?


Sanctity of choice


There are a lot of emotionally depreciating states which played in a larp could offer a positive experience. Playing anger, desperation, fear, sadness or loneliness can be a meaningful and - in the end - positive adventure for a player. Feeling of being powerless seems to be different from this perspective - it is very hard, if not impossible, to convert it into something rewarding. Similarly discouraging emotion which I can think of is boredom. You cannot be immersively bored in game and, in the same time, enjoy the play.  I think this may be caused by the fact that these two emotions are not related to in-game activities, but to the experience of participating in a larp itself.

Whatever you seek in a larp, you want to take part in it in a meaningful way. This requires tha larp to be engaging, and give us the opportunity to actively shape our experience. Logically speaking, this requires from a larp design to preserve to feedback loop, between what we are observing in play, how we are reacting based on this observation, and how our actions are shaping perceived reality. Observation affects mindset, mindset shapes decision, decision affects observation. Each step of this loop needs to be preserved by the larp design.

Observation affects mindset - what we see and experience during the larp, needs to affects us. Whatever happens during the play, it needs to be important and touching for the participant. Design needs to coordinate the character motivation and interest, with events and interaction which will be meaningful for it.

Mindset affects decision - character needs to have enough power to make and execute meaningful decisions. What is “meaningful” will vary between the designs. In the political intrigue larp, it will be decisions influencing the in-game power structure. In the gamist larp - it will be the moves that optimizes the character’s position. In the relation-focused play, meaningful decisions will affect the development of relations with other players. In the border case, of larp in which all experience is internal and design is focused on evolution of character’s opinion and personality - the meaningful decision will be choosing own convictions and values. What is common, is that wherever the larp design is putting the attention of player - it needs to give her ability to make and execute meaningful choices.

Decision affects observation - Once the player made meaningful decision - it need to affect her perception in general. This may mean affecting the world and power balance, if these are the elements on which design is laying participant’s focus. If focus is on relations - player needs to be able to affect the others, whom he has relation with. Participant needs to be able to affect her surroundings.

Once these three elements are in place, immersion’s loop is closed. Cycle of decisions and their effects starts, engaging the participant and directing towards so desired immersion.


The meaningful play

When we are speaking of perceived influence over play, the feeling of causality that allows meaningful play, we are always speaking about perspective of a player, not character. This is important distinction, as the causality of each can dramatically differs. Imagine play to lose larp’s character, where character is essentially doomed for suffering. Such designs were able to offer a player a very rewarding experience. The trick is, that the player was left with wide range of options to control his experience It is not accident, that successful play to lose designs, are introducing  transparency, giving the player control over her experience on a meta-game level.

Now comes the nice part. Once you will assure the control in the core aspect of play, control over other aspects is not that important for a participant. For eg. Having a Great Deciding Battle scheduled at second day of larp, 3 pm, would be a bad choice in the sandbox larp focused on political play, in which participants would expect that battle is avoidable. If the focus of larp is on pure action and physical play - precisely scheduling main battle will make play nicer and easier for both participants, and organizers. This is why hard scripted larps can be extremely attractive - they just need to put focus on something else, then causality of events. Development of relations, for example.

Meaningful play is not about control over plot or diegesis. It’s about controlacl over own experience.


Meaningful choice checklist

To test if your design will offer the player sufficient influence over play, ask yourself these questions:

  • What aspect of play is a focus of larp? Which aspect is the core play, and which aspects are secondary or supportive? Gamist mechanics, plot and story, emotions, physical experience, philosophy and personal development, creating relations? Other? Game mechanics can be a support for a narrativist larp, or story may serve only as a support and alibi for a gamist play. Did you make conscious choice what is your play about?
  • Are all your characters positioned in the design in the way they can participate in the larp’s focus aspect? Maybe you have characters which seem to have a lot to do, but their motivation and story is not touching what is the essence of a larp?
  • Are participants aware of methods of influence they have on a play?
  • Is possible influence of players relevant to a gameplay in the aspect which is larp’s focus?


Control pleasurably lost

Deep immersion, the holy grail of most larp designers, is sometimes being associated with limiting the feeling of control over what is happening. The state in which larp is just going, and is so absorbing, that only thing that participant is left with, is the urge to play along. This should not mistake however with being powerless. In order to give away control, participant needs to have it in the first place, and then decide to limit its usage. Without feeling of influence, interaction can hardly be meaningful, and play, in the consequence, just as well.


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