Stephanie Pegg (stephanie_pegg) wrote in gametime,
Stephanie Pegg

Domestic Realism in Larp - Game Design Theory and Practice

So in some recent behind the scenes chatter, a comment was made that Gametime is currently "the lethargic zombie of NZ roleplaying discussion."  Alas for Mash, there will be no zombies in this post.  But then, that's kind of the point of it.

I've been on a larp writing jag for the last couple of years, working in the genre of domestic realism.  I kind of drifted into it via a game about a wake, Sitting Shiva, which I talked about in an earlier post.  The thing is, what I liked about that game wasn't the magic, it was the realism, and in fact I found that removing one of the 'magical' game mechanics in the second run made the game stronger. 

I also think that if you ask people what are the basic ingredients that go into a larp, or any kind of roleplaying game, you'll often get a bunch of opinions back about how what you really need is conflict.  You might also get some comments about how it's essentially an escapist form.  These NZRag conversations are  examples, but I don't think it's that unusual a view.  But I want to challenge that view a bit - in the second conversation I linked to, I made a comment that what you really need is a reason for every character to be there, and something for every character to do. (1)  But if you do remove conflict as a game element, what are you going to put in its place?  What are people going to do?  And does roleplaying have to be escapist, anyway?  Isn't one of the cool things that people can get out of a game a heightened emotional experience?  Don't we have heightened experiences in real life, all the time?

So anyway, that's where I ended up - games that aren't exoticised at all, that could pretty much happen to anyone and that my player pool would have a good set of referents for (2), but would also meet the criteria of 'heightened'.  I was also looking for non-standard ways (for theatre-style larps) to deal with what people were going to do during the games; and I wanted game mechanics to be as invisible as possible.   Three of these games ended up as very quiet, semi-larps that involved a group of people who knew each other well sitting around a table, talking: Sitting Shiva, The Book Club (pretty self explanatory from the title), and A Stiff One (an evening in a bar after everyone has had a horrible week.)  The other two were much more chaotic: But Nobody Loses An Eye!, about a child's birthday party; and its notional sequel Super Sparkle Action Princess GX!, about filming an episode of a kiddie tv show - the one that the children were a fan of in BNLAE.  (Credit where it's due - BNLAE, SSAPGX and A Stiff One had my sister Catherine as co-writer, and the idea for A Stiff One came from Vaughan Staples.  Thanks guys! (3))  Looking back on the set, there have been some common features that turned up, that I'd like to talk about.

I gave up a lot of traditional control over the pacing of the games: no formal goals, no NPCs appearing with information, few timed or staged events (BNLAE was an exception to an extent), no contingency envelopes etc.  These games were all set up so that players got their character sheets, walked into the playing area and started roleplaying until they stopped and walked out.  In the three quiet games, I got to influence things a little by being another 'character' in the room and getting to contribute using the same mechanisms as the other players - by asking questions, or stating my point of view, but I tried to keep that to a minimum, mostly just nudging things if the game got quiet and sitting back when the players were talking.  In A Stiff One, I also gave people the ability to call a couple of mutual friends (ie me via two cellphones), but in those phone conversations I tried to act as a mirror to the discussion that was going on in the game, picking up details from what they'd talked about and adapting what was happening with the friends to what was happening with the player characters.  In the chaotic games, I had more of an NPC role by acting as an authority figure (the birthday boy's Mum in one, and the Producer's EA in the other) but again tried to keep in the background unless specifically called on. 

Inside that formlessness, though, the basic structure of the games was activity focused.  Everyone always knew exactly what they were there to do: talk about a specific topic, or do birthday party stuff, or run around filming, and their characterisation emerged around that skeleton. This was a deliberate design choice - I didn't want anyone in the games sitting in a corner wondering what they ought to be doing and feeling lost.  Whatever else was going on, they always had the core activity to fall back on.  I think they worked well enough to demonstrate that you can run an effective game without having to use some of the theatre-style design standards of puzzles, mysteries, political deals and object quests.  I still had some romance plotlines in some games, because I like romance, but they weren't necessarily of the "there's someone you like, go out and win their heart" either.

The three quiet games seemed to have a natural runtime of around 1.5-2 hours, which is consistent with another 'talky' game I've played in, A Serpent of Ash by J. Tuomas Harviainen.  At every run of BNLAE, it's tapped out at 2 hours (that's when people exhaust themselves).  The first run of SSAPGX had a hard time limit of 2 1/2 hours excluding briefing/debriefing because of the event it was run at, but I think I wouldn't want to extend it's runtime to more than 3 hours (part of its shtick was that the players were racing against the clock).

The Shared Fictive Space
I also want to invent a new term here, Shared Fictive Space, because I feel like it, and because it riffs of some of the material that other Gametime writers have put up about Shared Imagined Spaces and GM Imagined Spaces.  All of these games had an added layer of intertextuality, an awareness of an explicitly fictional element that they could manipulate directly in character, instead of having to negotiate in an OOC or game mechanics sense.  In Sitting Shiva, this was our relationship with the Ghost (the conceit of the game was that the player characters are slightly alternate universe versions of themselves, in which they all have a relationship with another player who has just 'died'), which was built up as a cooperative conversation and storytelling throughout the game.  In The Book Club, the shared fictive element was The Book, which in the game space was highly important to each player character, but in real life never existed.  For that game, everyone was given a written essay describing their opinion about The Book with some details to back it up, and the goal of the game was to build up a group consensus about it.  (4)  In A Stiff One, the players were given information about something that had happened to them independently, but also shared information about some mutual friends and were encouraged to expand on that relationsip.  In BNLAE, they were given a brief burble about a television programme they all liked, with enough space in the description that they could invent details - except for the one character who was an outsider to the group.  And in SSAPGX, the shared fictive space was the point of the game - the group was assembled to produce an episode, but they all had different creative goals that they could push for in the course of the game.

Secrets, Lies and Maguffins
There weren't many.  A few times there were some objects in the game that had plot relevance, but they weren't 'secret' and they weren't really hidden either - the closest we got was that in one case, there was a hidden object that one character was keen on that they'd 'lost' but they were pretty sure that another character had something to do with it.  At a later point in the game the object turned up in a package for Pass the Parcel, allowing the players to guess the prize and try to manipulate who got the final present.  The other objects in these games were designed to be revealed by their owners (either they wanted to show them to someone, or they were just highly visible), and things that would trigger an emotional reaction in the other players.  There weren't many secrets, either.  In some cases, people had information on their character sheets that wasn't well known but not plot-criticial, and this didn't really come out in the game; otherwise people had information about something that they cared about that they could choose to introduce into the game.  Overall, I'm pleased with how these object plotlines worked - for me, anyway, questing for an object or secret in a game can often feel very mechanical and meta-game driven - but from my observer's view, it felt quite natural how the players used the hidden information or not, and interacted with the objects or not, as they cared about it.

The Emotional Game
We did put a lot of effort into character's emotional relationships with each other and the game material.  In Sitting Shiva, this included a brief workshop at the beginning of the game where we all talked about how we knew each other, and inventing plausible connections where there weren't any real ones.  And, well, that game had a lot to do with creating a safe space for emotionally sensitive topics.  A Stiff One was written with the idea of emotionally processing a difficult situation - sometimes you need to talk something out before you've worked out how you feel about it, and the character sheets highlighted emotional dilemmas for the characters.  The other games with prewritten characters were generally designed by thinking about the relationship map between characters and building them up from that.  We put in romantic plotlines to several of the games, although we found that a typical "you fancy someone, go get them" plot didn't always activate in the games, and didn't seem to engage players as much as the alternative, which were the existing relationships.  We wrote in several where the basic theme was "You have this person, but can you keep them?  Do you want to?  What about your mates' relationship?"  These were great.  The players involved were massively invested, the outcome was never possible to predict, and it made a good link to the other players because it's very easy to have an opinion.  We also had some prewritten characters who had their own private unhappinesses, which were sometimes shared, and sometimes not.  For these latter ones, I'm interested in hearing from the players of those characters - did they add to the game experience, or did they feel more like a nasty trick from an unkind GM?

All up, I'm glad I put the work into these games, I think I got a chance to try out some ideas that I'll keep with me for further work, and there've been some crazy awesome moments that were great to feel part of.  I did find that writing this post has been surprisingly hard, involving a lot of poking at it for over  a week trying to get my scattered thoughts into a semblance of order, and rereading it before I post it still feels very disjointed.  I'm glad I did that, too, because it's a way of telling myself that these games are a set, that fit together, and that they're done now.  And they are a set, for all it was a very organic process I went through to write them, and they do fit together, and I think that it's time for me to move on and do something else now.

(OK, when I started writing this post, Gametime was pretty quiet.  It feels much less so now.)

(1) In hindsight I think it's a bit pat as a statement, but I think it's still true, with an additional rider that you need to give every character a reason to not just walk out early in the game.
(2) Yeah, just put in some corollaries about my accessible player pool being products of middle class Western society.  So am I - there's been a really strong element of writing what I know, here.
(3) Seriously, Cat is the Best. Co-writer. Ever.  She was astonishingly good about being bailed up for a weekend to brainstorm, and kept on throwing a big sparkly ideas ball back at me, and just came up with these amazing left field ideas that really made the games she helped with.
(4) At the time I wrote the game, I was spending a lot of time in Honours level English Lit seminars, and there were more than a few days where it felt like the conversation was less about getting on the same page as the author and more about asserting a point of view and finding enough evidence to make it stick.  It really felt like a performance art - it wasn't just the book + author's intentions, it was book + author + the people in that particular room on that particular day as a transitory moment in time.  I find the postmodern school of literary criticism to be extremely abstract and pretentious, but that my Big Critique of postmodernism is itself a postmodern work is not lost on me.
Tags: larp

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