Alleged Entertainment

Styles of larp

At Alleged Entertainment, we've written larps in several different styles in the past.  By "style," I mean a basic game design template upon which many games can be built.  For example, in the video game world, point-and-click adventure games, platform games, and first-person shooters would be examples of styles.  Similarly, we have many different styles of game in the larp world.

I've been thinking lately that we need better terminology to talk about these styles, and this in this post, I'll attempt to work out some of that terminology.

Whenever possible, I'd like to use terms that are already well-known and understood in the larp communities we're active in.  When that's not possible, I want to find terms that are descriptive, so that people unfamiliar with the term can understand what it means, and non-judgmental, so that larpers who identify with these forms of larp won't feel as if the term denigrates the style they love.

Above all, I think it's important that larpers be able to talk about their games in ways other larpers understand.  I'm under no illusion that we'll ever get to one standard set of terminology, and this isn't an attempt to get everyone to talk about larps the way I do.  Instead, I hope this can serve as a reference point for one (incomplete) set of terms that I plan to use in the future.

It's also worth noting here that I don't think these terms are mutually exclusive.  A larp can draw influences from multiple traditions, and indeed, I'll mention a few of ours below that I think could be defined multiple ways.

Secrets and powers larps

"Secrets and powers" larp is one of the oldest styles of larp in existence, dating back at least to the 1970s.  It's what people at Intercon usually think of as a "normal" or "traditional" larp.  It's the form we started out writing, and it's still what we mostly play today.

The term "secrets and powers larp" comes from an article by Evan Torner and Katherine Castiello Jones in the 2014 Wyrd Con Companion Book, although in that article they mention that it's not originally their term; they were just the first to write about it on the Internet.  (James Stuart may have been the one who invented the term; that's what some people have told him anyhow!)

For a rigorous academic definition of the term, you can read the Torner and Jones article, but I'll loosely and informally define it here as "exactly what it sounds like."  In a secrets and powers larp, characters are mostly working to achieve some set of goals, which may or may not conflict with the goals of other characters, and goals can be accomplished by some combination of obtaining secrets and using powers (along with, possibly, other means, such as solving puzzles or convincing other characters through social interaction).

Alleged Entertainment's first two larps, Snaf University and Welcome to Scearbridge University definitely fall within this style, and so do several later ones, such as Fire on High, The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf, and Also Sprach √úbermensch.

Horde larps

A horde larp is one in which the players are split into two groups.  There is a small set of players called the "cast" who receive a character at the start of the game and play that character throughout.  A second set of players, called the "horde," pick up tiny character sheets - usually one or two paragraphs - from a table, play that character for a short period of time, and then when they're done, go get another one repeatedly until the game is over.

All the horde larps I'm aware of are comedies.  In theory, writing a non-comedic horde larp is possible, and I'd personally love to see it done; however, I think the format works against seriousness, for reasons I'll probably write about at some later date.  (UPDATE: J. Walton on Google+ tells me that there is a zombie horror larp called Shelter in Place that's substantially similar to a horde larp in its structure, and which is not a comedy.  Thanks very much!  I haven't read it myself, but thinking further about it, I could see this format working well for horror as well as comedy.)

I have it on good authority that the first horde larp was Buses Welcome, which was written in 1995, although the term "horde larp" wasn't invented until later.  This term has the advantage of already being in widespread use and well-understood.

Alleged Entertainment has written four horde larps: Time Travel Review Board, City Council of Hound's Teeth, Harmony at Last, and Her Eternal Majesty's Privy Council for the Continual Funding of the Mad Arts & Sciences.

Tale-telling larps

A tale-telling larp starts out much like a secrets and powers larp, but from time to time, the action pauses and players go into a "tale."  This is a short scene in which they receive new character sheets.  The scenes may represent a character in the frame story telling a literal tale, or they might be a flashback, or something else related.

The original tale-telling larp was called Tales of the Arabian Nights, which debuted in 1988.  Another term people have used for this style of game is "storytelling larps," but that term has become a bit muddled by the fact that others use it to mean a game in which the players, in character, tell stories to one another, so I'm going to stick with "tale-telling larps."

Alleged Entertainment has written three tale-telling larps: The Last Seder, Resonance, and A Garden of Forking Paths.  However, one could also argue that these games fall under another term...

American Freeform

Of all of these terms, American Freeform is the one for which I can actually link to a more-or-less official definition.  Lizzie Stark introduced the term in this blog post, and she does a much better job defining it than I intend to attempt here.  If you don't already know what an American Freeform larp is, please go read that post.

After that post, Lizzie Stark wrote The Pocket Guide to American Freeform, and in that book she says that as a designer, if you feel like what you're writing is American Freeform, then feel free to use the term.  (Thanks Lizzie, don't mind if I do!)  The book also explicitly names our tale-telling larps as American Freeforms, in addition to the 10 Bad LARPs games, and that's what I'm going to do here.

In addition to our three tale-telling games, I also think it's fair to classify Harmony Quest, In the Jungle, and Spring River in this style.

Okay, Nat, so what's the point?

I'm reorganizing our games list, and I thought a long-winded blog post would be the best way to tell you all.

More seriously, there has been a fair bit of academic writing about different styles of larp.  Nordic freeforms and jeepforms have, of course, received a great deal of attention over the years, and since the introduction of the term American Freeform in 2013, several essays have appeared on that style.  But as far as I can tell, some of the other styles are far less studied.  Secrets and powers larps and horde larps, in particular, have almost nothing written about them from the point of view of studying the form.  

There have been quite a few pieces of writing about these styles from the point of view of how to produce it well.  I'd recommend Mike Young's The Book of LARP and Jeff Diewald's So You Want to Write a LARP in particular, but that's far from all that's out there.  However, almost without exception, these works tend to describe what they're talking about as either simply "LARP" or, at best, "theatre-style LARP."  Thinking about (usually) secrets and powers games in these terms is limiting in terms of analyzing these games explicitly.

I don't believe that secrets and powers larps are worse, or less intellectual, or a lower form of larp, than any other style I've played.  I've had transcendent play experiences in secrets and powers larps, and I'm proud to have co-written some decent ones.  The form holds both incredible challenges and great potential rewards for a designer.

Further, I expect that the next few years will bring some major innovations to the world of secrets and powers larps, as other styles of play percolate and spread.  It's happening already, and I for one can't wait to see it.

Role Playing Game Axes (and not the foam kind)

 In recent years, there have been several attempts to categorize LARPs in ways that would help players understand what they’re getting into and help writers and researchers talk about different game styles. I’m strongly in favor of anything that provides more clarity of expectation, but I think that there are several different scales on which LARPs can differ, some of which correlate well with particular style divisions. This really struck me when I saw Freeform placed between Tabletop and LARP, when instinctively, I tend to think of Freeform as further from Tabletop than Secrets and Powers LARPs are, headed more towards straight theater in many ways. Here are several axes that occurred to me. Let me know if you think of others that are important to you.

EDIT: I wanted to clarify my intent with this post. There have been several attempts to do similar things from the player experience perspective. However, a lot of the conversations I have about LARP are comparing game structure from the writing and running perspective. This is focused more on structure and approach and less on experience. 

Verisimilitude: How much of the game is narrated and/or imagined, vs WYSIWYG? At the low end of this scale is a classic tabletop, where all action and setting, and many conversations are described rather than shown. At the high end are 360° physical immersion games and boffer games, where—as much as possible—the action is acted out and the setting is WYSIWYG.

Mechanics: When it is not possible (or desired) for the action in game and out of game to be the same, how complex are the mechanics that are used to resolve it? At the low end are games where the action is simply described and happens as described, or negotiated among players and/or GMs. At the high end are very “crunchy” tabletop games, like early D&D or Hackmaster, where there are very detailed calculations to determine exactly what happens.

Scope: How big is the narrative effect of character actions in game? At the low end, this focuses on small, mundane interactions in their lives and has little to no impact outside the characters. At the high end, the game is about the interactions of worlds or nations, or about saving the world from some greater force.

Secrecy: How much game information is kept secret from the players? At the low end, the players have access to all game materials and use this information to collaboratively create the story. At the high end, not only is all character information for other characters secret, fundamental features about the game world may also be secret, and character secrets are extremely important for plot. In the middle are games where players don’t get the sheets for other characters, but the game meets the set expectations and secrets are not the main focus of in game plots.

Continuity: Does the game occupy one consistent spatial location and have temporal continuity? At the low end are scene-based games, where scenes may go backward and forward in time and take place in a variety of locations. At the high end a game takes place in one location or set of connected locations and time goes forward in real time. One hour after game start in player time is also one hour after game start in character time.

Persistence: Do players play the same roles the whole time? At the low end of this are horde games or some scene-based games in which players embody a variety of roles over the course of the game. At the high end are games where players continue with one role throughout the entire game, particularly in campaign games, where roles may persist over many game sessions.

Obviously games can differ in many of these axes, and I’m not particularly intending these axes to be used to score games. I’m hoping that talking about high vs. low secrecy or scope might be useful in setting expectations for a wide variety of LARPs.

For a slightly different take on this, see the Mixing desk of LARP, which is doing something similar. My goal here is to use few enough terms that they might actually get used that seem to focus on some of the big differences I see come up in LARP styles.