Just a little lovin’, and techniques for telling stories in larp
I am trying to gather my thoughts after participating in the art larp “Just a Little Lovin” (or JALL for short), designed by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo. The larp was first staged last summer in Norway, and was now re-staged in Sweden in collaboration with Miriam Lundqvist, Anna-Karin Linder and Petter Karlsson trough LajvVerkstaden. Reports from other players are gradually coming up on-line: I recommend in particular Elin Dahlståls report for a comprehensive and accurate description of the larp design and its game mechanics, and Mikolaj Habryn‘s report of a first-time larpers experience of this quite hard-core Nordic larp – larps that designed to move you at a personal level rather than to be fun. Also, Nathan Hook has written a light-weight review of the techniques used in the game, especially concerning sex simulation techniques.
The Nordic larp genre differs from most other forms of larp in its focus on immersion (in role and world) and storytelling. You cannot game a Nordic larp because there is nothing to win. Whereas ten years ago the genre was dominated by a strive towards complete and realistic simulation, the last ten years have seen an increased focus on various ‘meta techniques’ – here we could call them game mechanics. Some meta techniques are primarily about safety – techniques for simulating violence and sex as well as the safety words for pausing play belong to this category. Some of them focus on the development of story, and this is where I would like to focus this post, because I think that “Just a Little Lovin” provided the best storytelling mechanics that I have so far seen in a larp of this genre.
From a storytelling perspective, the goal of larp is to make every single character the protagonist of his or her own story. To make this work, players must collaborate by getting involved as support characters for each other. You will constantly present invitations to plot openings and play on the invitations of others; you will be playing out several stories at once and so will your co-players. In practice, this becomes unmanageable unless you have some game mechanics to help you. JALL used four main techniques to support this: inner monologues, black box scenes, act breaks, and an element of randomness. In addition, many players made up individual or collective goals for the dramatic curve of their storyline. For example, I had decided in advance that my character would emerge from the larp as a stronger and less conflicted person (unless she died), no matter what she went through during the larp. My core group decided to play on the theme of children (I had two fictional children in-game, with different fathers and no functioning relationship with either father), going from a custody conflict towards a rainbow star family. Hence, we added an element of fate play into the game – we did not know exactly how to get there, but we knew where we wanted to take our story from start.
Inner monologues: These are thoughts that a character says out loud, in-game, to let your fellow players know your feelings, plans, or thoughts without communicating it to their characters. Inner monologues provide great opportunities for plot openings and story development, but they need a game mechanic so that players know when something is a monologue rather than something the character says. In JALL, the inner monologues were part of the sex simulation – if your character had sex with another character, the scene should end with the two characters side by side both speaking their thoughts. Personally, I think this might have been the story development technique that worked the least well. Sometimes, these inner monologues indeed became very intense and emotional, but since they were compulsory they very often just became reflections on how good/bad the sex had been. Furthermore, the monologues were usually only heard by a few people (often only one sex partner), it was impossible to share an inner monologue with a character you could not share a sex scene with, and some players preferred to play out pillow talk post-sex rather than inner monologues. I think the game would have benefitted from an additional form for inner monologues that players could initiate at will.
Black box scenes: Black box scenes are scenes played out outside of the time and place of the ongoing event. They are often used to play out scenes in the past or the possible future of the characters, they can be dream scenes or abstract scenes representing a mood or emotion. In JALL, there was a room reserved for blackboxing, but players could just go offside to play out a black-box scene anywhere, and players could do them on their own or recruit an organizer to help direct the scene. We also did some blackboxing before the larp and in act breaks. The black box scenes became really popular in JALL, to the extent that the organizers started to recommend players to consider playing out more of this content in-larp. I played about four blackbox scenes in-larp, which is more than I have ever done before, and found them extremely useful. In particular, they helped my core group develop their parental relationship to each other and to the (non-present) children. On one occasion, we recruited help from a co-player to act as the teacher of the oldest son, and her confusion when three parents turned up for the teacher meeting. It was funny, but became very uncomfortable when she started to talk about how our son did not respect the personal border of the other children…
Act breaks: One of the most important story development method used in JALL. The larp lasted for three days, but the larp was broken off at eleven o’clock each day for a round of debriefing, ‘world’ briefing for the next act (as it played out a year later), and work-shopping to develop new relationships and plan out the core group goals for the next act. (The next act would then start at five in the afternoon the same day.) I found it very hard to break game after the first day of play, but it worked better the second time. The act breaks were crucial in order to develop new stories and groups, and to get a story back on-track that had been going in a unproductive direction. Some players would change characters between acts (especially those who’s characters had died), or re-design their character a bit. In my case, I used the act breaks primarily to develop secondary relationships. When the larp started we had two main contact networks: the core group (me and the two ex-boyfriends) and a social circle. My social circle had basically no play at all during the first act. For the second act, we reshaped the social circle a bit and I also got a tiny link into a second circle. In the third act we decided to dissolve it altogether, and I changed to a new circle ‘the aids prevention campaign’ which worked much better. Also, my core group got together to plan out when to play out our main story arch. We also had debrief sessions in larger groups to see that everyone was feeling (reasonably) well and having a good play experience. In my debrief group, there was one player who definitely didn’t. We helped him to reshape the character and his social relationships, and he ended up having a much better play situation in the last act.
Randomness: JALL was a larp about love, desire, and living in the shadow of death. Whereas the techniques for simulating kissing and having sex were central to play on love and desire, the risk of dying was simulated by a lottery. Any character could get infected by HIV, ill in aids or cancer, or die. Each morning, we played out a very emotional meta-scene (as all participated, it can hardly be called a blackbox scene) called ‘lottery of death’. It was conducted by two angels in black costumes, who handed out lottery tickets. Depending on your risk level, you put one to five tickets with your name on into the lottery. Ten people were called, who went off to the black box to get their sentence: maybe they had a false call and were well, maybe they got infected or ill in cancer – or maybe they died. These scenes were among the most emotional in the game. Those who were not called up waited silently, and we were then called to the chapel for a funeral ceremony that was the end of the current act. On our way there, we would be met by those who had been called away but allowed to come back, and together we would go up to the chapel to say farewell to those who did not. The lottery of death came very close to almost everyone in the larp, and in my case it became the device that shaped my character’s story arch throughout. One of my character’s former boyfriends (the one she was still in love with) was called up already in the first lottery but came back. I cried the whole time while waiting, and when I ran up to meet him (together with all the other women that loved him – he was not particularly monogamous) he was strangely distant. The year after, he was called up again and when I walked towards the chapel I soon understood that he was not among those who met us. I collapsed in a hug with his most permanent girlfriend, and while she started crying I let out a scream that I know not where I got – it was a sound I have never heard from myself before. For me, the last act became entirely centred on mourning someone I’d lost twice and had no real right to mourn – a deep and complex emotion and a great story arch.
Fate play: Fate play means that you have some sort of pre-planned story development for a character or a group of characters. JALL used a tiny bit of fate play in the pre-set story arch, as it was played out over three years and certain events were scripted into those years. During the first year, aids was still largely unknown and we were just partying wildly. During the second year, people had started to die (only one in-game character), and we understood that many more were infected although we did not know how it spread nor how to prevent it from spreading. This year was played on fear and paranoia. During the third year, the HIV test had been discovered and we also knew it could be prevented by using condoms, but it was still a death sentence to get infected. As many had died and even more were ill, the story became focussed on comforting each other and overcoming loss. It was up to us as individual players to use this story content. For example, since my former boyfriend had died from aids I decided I had fairly high risk between the second and third act (I still escaped in the lottery of death) and I also decided to take the HIV test in a very uncomfortable blackbox scene (negative, phew!). Secondly, I got involved in aids prevention (and as a consequence, handled more condoms than I probably have done in my entire life before). I have also mentioned that my core group planned out a story arch concerning parenting. When one of the guys got infected after the first act, we decided to speed it up so that it would be completed during act two, as he most likely would be either dead or seriously ill during act three.
In all, the level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.
Finally, our individual stories were put in context. After the larp, we had yet a ‘world brief’, this time with a queer activist, an aids activist and a HIV-positive participant who told us about the status of alternative lifestyles, aids prevention in the world today, and the life as HIV positive. Larp is primarily a personal experience and a collective ritual, but by this world brief our personal experiences were put in context and politically and ethically framed. I believe that in particular the queer movement gained many new members this day – many of us straight. Through this framing, JALL succeeded to bee not just an artsy larp but also a persuasive game. This was probably my best larp experience ever – heartbreaking, mind-opening, and life-changing. Larps may not change the world directly, but they can surely change people.