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 Übermensch.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Susan and I have been toying around with an idea for a somewhat serious slice-of-life larp where all of the characters could be construed as horde: Pub Crawl. Characters start out at a particular bar or pub, mingle, drink and talk about things. Some break off to go to the next place for drinks. At that branching point some characters either stay at the pub that is being departed or call it a night. The players of those characters then take up the roles of regulars at the next bar. There are no permanent focal characters and characters at any particular locale can decide to join the crawl when it moves to the next locale. Players can portray the same character throughout or switch it up based on the flow of things.

    On Susan's RPG axes (http://blog.aegames.org/2015/03/role-playing-game-axes-and-not-foam-kind.html) it has moderate game continuity with low-to-moderate persistence of characters. It breaks down the barriers between horde and cast, as well as not being a comedy (though it would no doubt utilize some humor in game). It is also partially inspired by Slacker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slacker_%28film%29).

    Of course, we have so many game ideas that I don't know if or when this one would be written. It is fun to poke at the boundaries of game structure and style though, which is part of how we came up with the idea.

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  2. Also relevant to "secrets and powers": pop-larp (which mentions you), and the article in this year's Knudepunkt book on "brute-force design".

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    1. Right, I'd forgotten the pop-larp article. Thanks for reminding me! That was an early attempt at thinking this same thing through, and the points in it might resurface as part of a later post I'm thinking about.

      I haven't yet seen the Knudepunkt book but I'll definitely go check that out. Thank you!

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  3. After the last Intercon, I coined the term, Reactive LARP, which is one where the characters do not have specific agendas per se, but are there to react to the events around them. These are usually horror larps, and even more usually Cthulhu based larps. Both Victim's Ball and Critical Path were reactive larps. A larp, especially a Secrets and Powers larp, can have both proactive and reactive elements, but there are some larps where the whole point is to react to what is going on. Sometimes you can affect it and sometimes not.

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    1. Interesting! It feels to me like a game in which the point is merely to react, without having any affect on narrative outcomes, is fundamentally different than one in which your reactions can change the outcome. That is, they seem like they would potentially appeal to very different sorts of players, since they involve very different styles of play.

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