The idea of “raising the stakes” for LARP game design

I’m in the process of creating a basic beat sheet for writing line-course LARP games.  Part of almost all beat sheets details the concept of “raising the stakes” in a scene or chapter, which increases the tension.  That tension leads to an eventual climax and resolution (ala Creative Writing 101).

This is a fascinating concept to adapt for LARP, since the “viewer” is also the protagonist, and there are multiple viewer/protagonists.  As a result, the tools available to raise the stakes are pretty different than those used for screenplays & novels.

I’m going to use a method I’ve mentioned before, which is to put these “stake raisings” on different axes.

Vertical Stakes 

The vertical stakes are when the consequences for failure are increased.

example:  The players move into a graveyard after hearing that there were some zombies coming out of the graves.  At that time, the “stakes” are that if they fail, the nearby village will continue to have the occasional zombie wandering into town to nom-nom.

They clear some zombies, but then they see a mark on the foreheads of the zombies, indicating that they were created by the Ritual of Necro-Bad-Assitude.  As a result, it’s clear that there is a necromancer nearby, and now all the nearby villages are threatened.  The vertical stakes are increased.

The important observation here is that you need to leave room for the vertical stakes to go up.  If at the outset of the adventure the players are presented with “kill the demon or the world will end”, then there’s nowhere to build tension vertically.  This is a mistake, since it’s the journey of the story that is important.  It makes the players feel like they have agency (e.g. “I started out just looking to make a bit of coin, but now I have to decide if I’m going to be a hero or not”).

Horizontal Stakes

The horizontal stakes are increased when the problem becomes more complicated.

example:  The players now track down the necromancer, and the solution to their problem seems pretty simple.  Bash his skull in and burn down his hut.  Unfortunately, when they do exactly that, his body crumbles to ash, and his spirit can be visibly seen to dissipate.  Ooops, he’s is now a lich, and it’s going to be lot more complicated to solve the problem.

This is a similar station with vertical stakes, in that you should not start with high horizontal stakes at the inception of a game.  The foils need to get added on.  This enables the illusion of player agency.  (e.g. “Shit, we were trying to do the right thing bashing in that necromancer’s skull, but we made it worse instead.”)  Horizontal stakes are a great way to get player buy-in to a problem, since it often can be done in a way that makes the player feel like the situation is now partially their fault.

Another pitfall is making the horizontal stakes too high (i.e. too complicated).  Players (and NPCs and GMs) can only juggle so many permutations.  This is another reason to keep the initial horizontal stakes really really low (i.e. make the initial conflict dirt simple)

Z-Axis Stakes

The z-axis of stakes are increased when the problem becomes more personal to a player (or players).

example:  The players track down where the lich is hiding his phylactery.  Unfortunately, the phylactery is the heart of one of the player’s friends. 

Z-axis breaks the rules of the other two stakes.  You can start with serious z-axis stakes right at the beginning of a game.  This does involve a collaboration between writer and player.

writer:  “Hey Joe, I’m writing this game, and I’d like to fuck with your character in the plot.”

Joe:  “Umm… okay.  Just don’t kill my mom.  I have plans for my personal plot with my mother.”

writer:  “Okay, but can I turn your lover into a half-vampire fish person?”

Joe:  “YES!”


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