Larp Design for Storymaking
In refusing my very first sketch at a scenario for the Stockholm Scenario Festival, Tobias Wrigstad once gave me this advice: “A larp scenario should help players tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell by themselves.” This is what this post is about.
To be clear: I won’t go into any itty-bitty gritty details on role-play design. Firstly, I am by no means an experienced designer myself. Secondly, to design is to balance a host of design factors, in a complex web of design decisions where all affect each other. Every designer does this differently, guided by his or her own preferences and experiences. Finally, storymaking is just one possible design goal for role-play design. Some role-playing games focus on telling a set story, others on creating good game experiences, and some on creating an alternate world for players to immerse into.
In previous posts, I have discussed why I believe that the stories that are generated by gaming do not just ’emerge’ but are consciously created by players. I have started to sketch why it is that the structures of a design help players in generating stories – by first analysing sport and then role-playing games. But so far, I have primarily discussed what players do; I haven’t discussed what tools are available to designers to help players engage in storymaking.
First, a bit of theory, again from Bruner’s article ‘Narrative construction of reality’. Narrative is one of the most important ways through which humans make sense of the world – we tell stories about it. Narratives are not true or false: Bruner describes them “a version of reality whose acceptability is governed by convention and ‘narrative necessity’ “. But Bruner makes an even stronger argument: he argues that narrative is an instrument of mind that “operates in the construction of the world”. This makes sense if you accept social constructionism (Burr 2003). It is immediately and obviously true for the collective creative process that constitutes the fictional worlds of role-playing games. Bruner identifies ten different qualities that make narratives into narratives. Most of them are relevant to role-playing games, but I will focus on three that are readily applicable to larp design.
Hermeneutic composability is the requirement that a story must take the form of a text or something equivalent to a text, through which somebody has attempted to express meaning and from which somebody else is trying to extract meaning. As I discussed in my previous post, storymaking in larp is aided by the way players read narrative intent into the actions of others, by interpreting them as invitations to collaboratively tell a story.
The Nordic larp scene has imported meta-techniques from freeform and jeepform scenarios, that primarily are used to support hermeneutic composability. Inner monologues allow players, but not their characters, to hear what a character is thinking. Black-box scenes can be used to play out things that have happened in the past, may happen in the future, or even be dream scenes that never happened. For example, in my recent scenario ‘Revolver’ I used a version of blackboxing where scenes are replayed from the perspectives of different characters. Finally, a great tool is also to just pause the larp for a while. A break lets players re-plan their course of action and re-negotiate their relationships. Finally, while safety words are used primarily to ensure safety (duh), they can also function as meta-communication for negotiating what kind of narrative you are playing towards. I saw this use in ‘Monitor Celestra’, where the in-game swearword ‘Frakk’ was used as a signal that a scene could be escalated. In this usage, the word is not just a safety word but also functions as a signal about what kind of scene you are playing towards. ‘I am inviting you to a particular type of narrative, are you cool with that’.
The concepts of canonicity and breach explain why not all sequences of events are stories worth telling. According to Bruner, as story can only be created when there is a breach of script, where a ‘script’ is what we typically do in a culturally defined situation. An example is going to a restaurant: we know that we will be ordering food, eating and paying and exactly how to do it, and unless something out of the ordinary happens it doesn’t make for a story to be told afterwards. To be worth telling, a tale must be about how a canonical script has been breached, in a way that somehow questions the script. But Bruner also points out that the breaches in turn tend to be highly conventional, they follow narrative conventions and typically describe well-known human plights. Innovative storytellers are marked by their ability to tell stories that subvert the familiar conventions for breaches. In larp design, you cannot assume that your players will be innovative storytellers, but you still expect them to engage in storymaking. This is where Tobias’ advice comes in: ‘A larp scenario should help players tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell by themselves.’
I think we can identify three main strategies in how larp designers do this. The first is to subvert normality. When larp designers create a fictional society with different norms and social rules, they install social scripts that are alien to the players. When playing along with such scripts, the players experience a breach of normality. Giving players characters, with personality traits and goals that are different from their everyday personality, also subverts normality. Even when these characters live their normal everyday life, it generates a stories for players.
It can be hard for designers to subvert norms that are ambient in our everyday society. A recent report from the larp ‘KoiKoi‘ illustrates this. While the cultural compendium for KoiKoi explicitly instructed players that marriages needed neither be heterosexual nor pairings, the players still ended up in classic heterosexual pairs.
The second strategy is that designers embed story content that push narrative progression in their desired direction. There are a host of more or less explicit ways to do this. Tested and tried methods include presenting players with new information during play (e.g. sending them a letter from a long-lost love), or use non-player characters. Rules regulating fate play (such as telling a player that they should die at a certain time) is also an explicit way to control storymaking. Less explicit strategies include giving characters personal goals to play on, or design characters that, when meeting, are more or less certain to react in certain ways to each other.
And finally, there’s chance. There is always a level of randomness in larp; so much depends on events such as who happens to meet with whom, external factors like weather, how the players inspire each other, etcetera. Every run is a unique event. Hence, designers tend to rather work against chance to make the events a bit more predictable; but chance can also be conciously designed into larp. Staged battles and the lottery of death in Just a Little Lovin are examples of this. As a player in Mare Incognitum, I learned to do basic card reading – which turned out to be a realy useful way to introduce a controllable level of chance into the game. I personally like when there is a bit of chance designed into a larp. Meybe it is when chance intervenes that we as players start to feel that stories truly ’emerge’, that our experiences are unique enough to be worth telling.
Oh well. I am not sure that I’ve been useful to a designers here; actual design is a good deal more complex. Let Tobias’ wise words guide you: Design for storymaking is not about designing stories into larp, it is about helping players to tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell on their own.
Jerome Bruner. The narrative construction of reality. Critical inquiry (1991): 1-21.
Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge; 2Rev Ed edition (2003).
John Kim. The three-fold model. http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/threefold/