Alleged Entertainment

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.

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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.

12 comments:

  1. You seem to be reinventing the mixing desk of larp:
    http://nordiclarp.org/wiki/The_Mixing_Desk_of_Larp

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    1. Yes, I did discuss that at the bottom. I'm looking at it from a different perspective, and have somewhat different goals.

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    2. The Mixing Desk of LARP doesn't address a couple of things that seems to come up a fair amount in our exploration of the medium. It doesn't directly address things like scene-based structures where stories, flashbacks, or lengthy time leaps (sometimes years) break up the temporal (and sometimes spatial) continuity of the game. It also doesn't comment directly on players playing multiple different roles within a game (whether that is horde games in one continuous scene or playing different roles in different scenes). This use of Scope is also fairly distinct, pointing at the range that exists between slice of life games and epic, world-shattering scenarios. All of these have been areas where we want to be able to set appropriate expectations for potential players of a game.

      These could be additional faders in the mixing desk structure, but it already has a fairly large array of options. Sometimes a limited framework examining what seem to be focal points in particular conversations in particular communities at particular times is a more useful tool. Sometimes it is just simpler to have a screwdriver available rather than a multi-tool with a couple of dozen options.

      We've written a lot of what is now called American Freeform (http://leavingmundania.com/2013/11/18/introducing-american-freeform/), pushing different boundaries of what some communities expect from larps. Having defined terms to discuss these areas where we're deviating from certain expectations is tremendously valuable. If one can substitute a word or two (with a link to the definition and discussion surrounding terms) that can be useful.

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  2. I started a reply, but my computer exploded. Let me see if I can get this back.

    I agree, this is similar to the Mixing Desk, but what's cool about it is that it's customizable: add, change, or delete faders as you see fit. Make it your own. I created one for a larp workshop just before the Larpwriter School released their own, but I didn't publish it nor can I find a copy so this could be apocryphal (well, I did have one for a larp workshop, that is true). It is similar to the elements of a larp that I describe in my essay: http://aaronvanek.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/UnderstandingLiveActionRolePlayingLARPCoolerThanYouThink.pdf

    I also recommend watching the Theory of Axes from Maria Raczynska's Nordic Larp Talk: http://youtu.be/zFdn5fejyYc

    I think some of your terms are already sort of in use, (IMHO): verisimilitude is, to me, like immersion, and secrecy is like transparency that Evan Torner describes in the 2013 Wyrd Con Companion Book.

    This might be derailing your intent, but today I thought how useful it would be if larps had a rating system, a universal way of looking at an event and knowing:
    how much emotional heft is it designed to have (bleed)
    how much character are players expected to represent (alibi)
    how much combat (quantity)
    what type of combat (quality, e.g., representational or light, medium, or heavy boffer)

    This would be a voluntary rating system, but a way to quickly look at a larp's description and have a general idea of what the designers' intent is--whether they succeed or not is another story, but at least you roughly know what you are getting into.

    Wow, looks like I was able to post this!

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    1. Thank you Aaron.

      One big difference that I think I'm seeing between this and either mixing desk or some of the others is that this is focused primarily on the structure of the LARP rather than the player experience. It takes a slightly different perspective, and is more useful for a lot of the conversations we wind up having around types of LARPs.

      Vito and I actually had a long discussion about the one I wound up calling verisimilitude. I had originally titled it immersion, but that term has gotten so complicated and controversial that we decided to get away from it. Secrecy definitely has a lot in common with transparency, but I think it comes at it more from the player perspective and, therefore, has some slightly different aspects. In particular, I think the focus on how important these secrets are to the structure of the game. That one I could see potentially exchanging if it seemed valuable.

      I think a lot of the ideas you are talking about for a rating system might be very useful, but once again, that's coming back to a player perspective. I think I'm going to go make some edits that clarify my intent a bit.

      Thank you for your feedback, this has been useful in helping to identify why I was looking for something different.

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    2. I do not think there will be any naysayers if I suggest that game structure influences player experience. I would very much like to look at how each of these axes can and do have an impact. Setting appropriate expectations is a large amount of why we think about and talk about game structure and game styles. Being able to talk distinctly about the structure and what makes something a Secrets and Powers larp as opposed to an American Freeform larp is important. We have a fair number of definitions of styles or genres of larp floating around right now and part of what spawned the discussion that spawned this post is whether there are more concrete elements or locations on axes that can help encapsulate this.

      Our games that have been clustered under American Freeform don't necessarily fall in the same place on any of these axes, which is really interesting to me. It says to me that perhaps there are more categories of LARP yet to be named. Or that these axes aren't measuring the same thing that the styles are. Our AF games do tend to fall on extremes in at least a couple of axes though.

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  4. Thanks for the article. I think you've nailed many of the most important axes, and done so with terminology that's broad enough to apply across many larp communities - good job on avoiding the word "immersion".

    One axis I might want to add to the design perspective is player control. (aka agency, story power, freedom, impact) On the low end would be predetermined scenarios where the characters, story, and outcome are set by the designer. On the high end would be sandbox games where players make their own characters, set their own goals, make their own plots, and NPCs don't exist or have little influence.

    I enjoy playing and working on games at all places across that spectrum, but I enjoy them for different reasons, and benefit both as a player and as a co-designer from knowing what to expect on that axis.

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  5. One of the things mentioned that I think is interesting is Freeform falling in the spectrum from tabletop to larp. That particular reference comes from Finnish larp designer and larper Juhana Pettersson by way of Lizzie Stark's Freeform for Noobs (http://leavingmundania.com/2014/12/31/freeform-for-noobs/). The abstract ideal of larp on this spectrum seems to be 360° physical verisimilitude where there is no barrier between player and character and the environment is likewise completely responsive. Everything is real and live without disruption or abstraction.

    While a fascinating perspective, that isn't what larp is for me. I think that overburdens the term with a particular set of expectations that need not be there. That's why I am happy to see a number of scales or axes pulled out to measure individual constituent structural aspects of a larp.

    A spectrum between larp and theatre is a more interesting one. I think that it perhaps fails in different ways, but looks at things in a way that challenges us to define larp. I have seen an increasing number of games that could be called freeform by larpers and improv theatre by thespians. This has not historically been the case. Finding the middle ground there, as well as where and when to use theatrical terms to discuss certain structurally similar events is potentially tremendously valuable.

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