Archive for the tag “theory”

Forced Character Retirement in LARP

Forced character retirement is the normative in Socal larps.  For those unfamiliar, there’s two parts to this concept:

  1. You may not have a character over X points.
  2. When you reach X points, you get a retirement story arc that makes your character go bye-bye.

I come from a non-retirement larp tradition myself, with characters being “eternal”, so I have some insight into the contrast.

Retirement is marketed that it accomplishes two goals.

  1. Forced retirement mitigates the power disparity between old-timers and newbies.
  2. Forced retirement makes sure that the story screen time doesn’t center around the old-timers.

Both of these marketing bylines are lies.


In the first case, smoothing the power disparity is not accomplished, at least not here in the 5+ LARPs resident in Socal.  Characters that are half-way to retirement are absurdly more powerful than starting characters, both vertically and horizontally.   As a result, content that isn’t silo’d (i.e. most of the content) is a cakewalk for the folks past the halfway point.  The resulting “mishmash” of content is error-corrected on the backend, by making death nearly painless.    Even worse, forced retirement systems often give insane “retirement benefits” to characters, giving access to powers unattainable on the first playthrough.

In the second case, every LARP will always have cliques, and the Socal LARPs are no exception.  Forced character retirement has no real effect on this.  Storytellers will cater to their friends, giving them more content, regardless of their character’s power level.  People make their post-retirement characters often even more connected to existing characters that are their friends.  We’re all baboons, we’re just baboons that dress up like elves and wack each other with foam-sticks.

Nevertheless, I believe character retirement does accomplish non-marketed goals that have immense value.

The “meme” of a Character Arc 


The benefit of forced retirement is the introduction of the concept of a character arc early to people.  The game I came from resultingly had no concept of character arc, and players needed to discover it on organically.  Many never discovered it, defining their characters, but defining them without the meta-agency to say “this is where the character is going”.    Forced character retirement should be marketed as “forced character arc”, since this is the real benefit of the mechanic.

But Scotty, should forced retirement or forced character arc really exist?

No, but there should be a point cap, and there should be a voluntary option to retire when you want to start a new story.  Perhaps, depending on logistics, alt characters could co-exist with capped characters.  However, if somebody wants to play their character another five years at the point cap, let them.

I make this point, because I believe that the value of LARP to a lot of people is that it is a place where they can feel powerful.  I believe that many nerds go through life feeling powerless in so many places.  They feel powerless to find a good job, a lover, a boyfriend, friends that aren’t shits, etc.  However, folks can come to LARP and feel an amazing amount of agency and power.

Making people feel powerful in a LARP shouldn’t be “turned off” without good reason.  I don’t believe there are good reasons (see above), ergo, it should not be turned off.











GNS Theory for LARP – part 3 – Simulationist

The core goal of simulationist play is for the game to feel “real”.  Understandably, very few LARPers in light-combat games view themselves as simulationist.  It’s a much more common view in the medium-combat games (Amt/Bel/Dag), and those games address the simulationist view more directly systemically.  Nevertheless, there is a simulationist satisfaction provided by the verisimilitude of LARP in contrast to table-top and CRPGs.  The senses of accomplishment and immersion are one of the core strengths of all kinds LARP.  Much like Gamist and Narrativist, every LARPer wants a bit of simulation in their game, and most will claim they want immersion when they express that.

Immersion is Collective Illusion
Immersion is usually defined as “there’s no shit pulling me out of character.” Most immersion snobs (and you know them) have this correct. It’s hard to be immersed with OOC talk and elements of the modern world in plain sight. However, the snobs only have part of the answer. True immersion happens when everybody buys into the illusion, drinks the Kool-Aid, and loses themselves. It’s a collective effort, and worth making OOC efforts to get people into character. I’ll write more about that in a future post.

If it can be done safely and cheaply, it should be done “live-action” rather than with a call or tag.

The failure to abide by this edict is the biggest pain point I have with LARPs, or the decisions made by LARP designers.  I think they are missing the value of simulation in so many cases.  The power of an actual phys. rep. instead of a tag is underestimated.  The satisfaction of overcoming a physical or fighting challenge is miniscule if you simply use a verbal instead.  My best war stories involve “and I ran across the field and did X”.  This is primarily why I don’t have a great appeal for “nordic” style larps, and posit that they aren’t very “live-action” as they are missing the “action”.  LARP is strongest when it has live-action and role-playing.  There’s plenty of other venues that do those activities alone, and do them better.

Have enough verisimilitude to not broach credibility, and not much more

Now, the other aspects simulation can vary within the rules of each LARP.  Medium and Heavy combat LARPs are definitely very Simulationist.  The light-combat LARPs I prefer tend to be minimally Simulationist.  Light-combat LARP needs just enough verisimilitude to not broach credibility, and often they do not want more than that.  In order to accomplish the narrative and gamist goals of light-combat LARP, the simulation needs to decline.  We want a guy that can throw fireballs, and those fireballs don’t light clothes on fire, but they do kill orcs.  We want a gal that can get hit with a spear in the chest twenty times and still keep fighting. We want the blows to be light, the weapons to be light, and the combats to last a long time.  These are non-purist Simulationist desires.

The Simulation is decided by rules, not Plot

The amount of simulation, by necessity, is decided on a holistic scale by the rules design, not by the plot/storytellers.  Yes, plot can breach the underlying logic of the world, but in general, they do not, and the simulation level stays static.  This is an important observation, since it means that as storyteller, you have only two levers to play with on the macro scale, the gamist and narrativist features of your game.

GNS Theory for LARP – part 2 – Narrativist


Much like Gamist, Narrativist play has a lot of facets.  The core premise of narrativist play is the application of theme to the game.  It’s the theme that varies.  Some narrativists wish to express their internal character themes, and others desire external themes to express themselves onto their characters.  

Theme is about requesting the future

The entire goal of theme is to foreshadow desired changes to a character, or desired events for the character to encounter.  A character may attack orcs on sight and viciously mutilate them.  This may seem to be simply fulfilling the requirement made by their character background of “village was massacred by orcs”.  However, it should be viewed as a request from the narrativist player.  That request is “please give me something about orcs that takes this character somewhere else.”  

Oftentimes, the storyteller needs to meet the player in the middle, as the narrativist player has an idea where that “somewhere else” is.  Some players may want to reconcile their hatred of orcs in some fashion.  Other players will just want more and bigger orcs, and the opportunity to kill every orc everywhere.  On the macro scale (across several games), it’s best to ask the player where they want to go with it.  On the micro scale (in a single scene), emergent gameplay must be relied upon.

Narrativist play is about decisions

Just like gamist play, you cannot have narrativist play without presenting a player with decisions.  There’s some key observations to be made here.

First, these decisions are often the primary conflict with gamist play.  If you present a decision that has a clear gamist choice versus a narrativist choice, you are going to have conflict that is meta in origin.  Nobody is going to like that, and the gamist and narrativists will most likely resort to name-calling, or at least claiming that the other group is “playing wrong”.  An example would be a huge group of injured peasants.  The gamist knows that expending magical resources will do nothing to “win” the game or the encounter.  The narrativist might have a thematic reason to help the peasants.  

Second, just like gamist decisions, the narrativist decisions must be validated.  The validation, however, is very different.  The validation to a narrativist is additional information and/or screen time.  If a narrativist makes a decision (i.e. healing the peasants), but then nothing of note happens, the decision feels empty.  If later on the narrativist learns that the peasants were able to home safely and rebuild their village, the narrativist is validated.  In some cases, a negative validation works as well. The healing of the peasants could mean that they were later captured and enslaved by the slavers that have cropped up before.  

Narrativist play can be poisonous

Narrativist play can be just as poisonous as gamist play, but it’s not commonly viewed as such.   This poisonous play has the same requirements as it’s gamist cousin, in that the enjoyment comes at the expense of the enjoyment of others.  The most common version of this would be the narrativist that refuses to compromise their character’s theme, halting gameplay until other players concede their own narratives.  Another example is the narrativist claim of “but my character would act this way”.  This is just as poisonous as the gamist claim of “but this is the best way to win.”  Another poisonous play is the narrativist cornering an NPC, usually a captive, and dragging out content that isn’t there.  This is commonly the PC saying the same thing over and over, until the NPC concedes the point in boredom/frustration.  Some NPCs love this, but some NPCs just stand there and take the abuse.

Narrativist play is cooperative between Plot and PC

The story that a narrativist craves is part created by plot, but part created by the player.  The amount of each can vary widely, with the story being almost entirely created by one party.  However, the key is that at least some of the story is created by the other party.  This is an important observation, as it dictates that narrativist play requires cooperation between storyteller and player.   

Design for the Narrativist

Here’s some tips and tricks.

  • Present plenty of rumors and lore before game.  These give the narrativist ideas on the kinds of thematic moments coming up in game.  
  • Present a list of quests to choose from before the game.  These give the narrativist a goal (and coincidentally the gamists as well).  These quests need not give any concrete reward, but instead something that gives that character a unique reason to be on that adventure.  Both the quests and the rumors help the player to meet the storyteller in the middle when it comes to story.
  • Have a mirror-moment in every game, preferably in the middle.   The goal here is to have a player reflect upon the nature of their character.  Most players will need to do this with meta-thought (i.e. what would my character do here?)  In general, this is a place where the character is further defined.  The mirror moment can be any of the following:
    • A moral quandary, preferably one with no “right answer”.  It might be important to make sure there isn’t a gamist angle to this quandary (see above), or make the decision something that an individual makes rather than the group.  
    • A softer version of the moral quandary is presenting the quandary in theory, but not in practice.  An NPC can discuss what they are going to do in a situation, with the intent being that the PC can reflect their approval or disapproval.
    • Another “soft” moment is a “shrine meditation” scene.  A magical location requires a specific ritual to get an effect.  That ritual entails reciting some story/lesson/philosophy (think Stations of the Cross or the Sith Code).  An even better version of this is that the character has to reflect back their interpretation, or answer questions like “What is best in life?
    • An actual mirror in a fantasy game could have magical properties (and a mind-altering device in sci-fi can work as well).  The mirror could show an exaggerated version of the character, or an opposite version of the character.  The mirror could impose a temporary or permanent change to the character’s personality (like a Mirror of Opposition).tumblr_mrmdeg6kzK1rv231do1_1280
  • Have the opportunity for a heroic moment.  Many players deeply desire a heroic theme to their narrative.  Think about heroic moments in fiction.  They almost always involve one of two elements, both related to the movement of the hero.
    • The hero stands in place.  This is the classic “holding against impossible odds” moment.  Create a chokepoint for somebody to hold.  Throw goons at checkpoint.  Put something important behind the hero.
      • A macguffin for the other players to deal with.
      • An escape route that takes a bit of time to use.6940159-gandalf-balrog
    • The hero travels alone across a hazardous area to accomplish something.  There’s three elements here.
      • Put something that one person can accomplish at a distance.
        • A ritual to stop.
        • A damsel to save.
        • A villain to stab.
      • The hazardous area to cross.  This is usually just bad guys.  This should be controlled to let one person through, but nobody else.  The example I can think of were the bullshit force-fields in The Phantom Menace that held Obi-Wan back.  From a viewer’s perspective, these were a bucket of fail.  From a player’s perspective, the hero won’t notice that they somehow got through the all the bad guys really easily.  However, your NPCs would have instructions to “let the first player through, but make it look like you tried to stop her”.AMb9j
      • Make sure that the decision is easy for the hero to charge into peril.  Make the goal something important to a specific player.  So important that they don’t think twice about trying to charge through six NPCs. You can do this with quests (see above) and other foreshadowing.

GNS [Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist] Theory for LARP – part 1 – Gamist

GNS theory is a pretty good starting point for a lot of RPG discussions.  Below are two links that go into it in detail, but largely in the context of table-tops.

The core of this concepts is that you can box a person’s RPG desires into three boxes, either Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist.  Most folks don’t fit neatly into a box, but they can often point at one box as their favorite box.


I’m going to address this theory from a LARP Plot/Storyteller aspect.  As usual for me, this is for light-combat, large group fantasy LARP.


There is a core philosophy to gamist play.  It’s the philosophy that games can be “won” and that “winning” is the goal of the game.  There’s a lot of ways to win the game, and that is an internal construct brought by the gamist LARPer.  Some might want to establish their LARP-peen, either in fighting ability and/or the power of their character.  An other gamist attitude sees the game as a challenge to be overcome, and success is measured in the defeat of the villains, the recovery of the lootz, and the survival of the players.

Gamist play is about decisions


The core pleasure of gamist play is having decisions validated by winning.  There’s a lot to talk about here as a designer.  

First, you must present valid decisions to the players.  Without a decision, the gamist feels no agency (the narrativist will gripe as well).  In a combat situation, present opponents that are clearly different in appearance and abilities (i.e. a guy in the back with long-range attacks).  The gamist is validated by choosing who to attack, but cannot do this if all the NPCs are clearly the same “thing”.  This is stupid easy to do in almost every combat by adding one dangerous spell-caster.  In a puzzle challenge, present/allow multiple paths to success instead of just the one you thought of.  In a role-playing encounter, make sure there are multiple NPCs to talk to so there’s decision for each person what who to talk to and what to say.

Second, you must give the validation.  There is a temptation to kick players in the nuts for a less than perfect decision.  There is no upside for anybody in making a player feel defeated.  There’s certainly a place for defeat dramatically (see the next post on Narrativist play).  However, go out of your way to let players feel like winners against gamist challenges.  The emphasis is on “feel”.  You might eat up a lot of mana/resources as a result of a challenge, which could be regarded by some as a loss.

An example I can think of was a game I played in where there were archers physically hidden in the brush, and they would pop up and hit us with a single very high damage arrow before we could reach them.  It wasn’t fun, because there was nothing we could do to stop the arrow, and after they got the shot off, we mowed the single archer down.  We didn’t feel any agency as a result.  If we still took that damage, but there was a decision we could make (i.e. interrogating the archers, having some agency in keeping them from shooting us, or keeping them from fleeing) that made us feel like winners, it would have been resolved much better.

Gamist play can be poisonous


Yes, some gamist attitudes are bad.  When a gamist seeks to have enjoyment (i.e. winning) at the sake of the somebody else’s enjoyment, that’s a poisonous attitude.  However, there is also a very important point to make.  A lot of people, as a result of bad experiences with gamists doing this, they label all gamist play as bad.  They will use terms like powergamer, min-maxer and munchkin as derogatory.  As a storyteller, this is not an attitude you should have.  Gamist entertainment sources are very valid, but you should not enable the zero-sum entertainment angle.  Don’t make NPCs that can be popped instantly and don’t respawn.  Don’t put your NPCs in horrible tactical situations so that they get destroyed instantly.

NPCs need gamist joy as well

How can an NPC have a gamist attitude, when they are supposed to lose, and the deck is stacked against them?  Certainly the most poisonous of gamist attitudes is the one by noob NPCs wanting to “kill PCs”.  However, you can give NPCs an alternate win condition that doesn’t involve the defeat of the players.  This can be as vague as “give the PCs a good fight”, and frankly, that’s often enough for me.  I usually try to add “and try to enable a cool event/story as well”.  If I feel like I had enough screen time as an NPC, and I put in some good hits, then I feel like I won as an NPC.  Communicating this to NPCs is difficult, because it’s a tricky concept.  

Educate your Gamists to be Bros

Whenever you see a zero-sum gamist moment, regardless of your role in the game, make sure to point it out afterwards.  “Yes, what you did was correct tactically, but it was really unfun for that NPC”.  Promote the idea that “hard mode” for a gamist isn’t just winning, but winning in a way that doesn’t sap the fun from others.  Challenge their larp-peen as a result, saying “the best players I’ve ever seen managed to pull that off, and I think you can to”.

Design for the Gamist

In LARP, it’s usually fine to present a combat and present no other win condition outside of “kill the NPCs and survive the process”.  This is the default wincon and still presents plenty of gamist enjoyment.

Some Socal LARPs have a variant default wincon which is “talk the fight away”.  I originally thought it was because the player base was heavy narrativist.  However, I found that any encounter that begins with NPCs that talk seems to communicate to the players “you should talk this one out”.  I’ve been amazed at how far the NPCs can take it and the players will simply not start hostilities if the NPCs made a minimal effort to start with talking.  This is because the decision to talk it out is rewarded often enough, and the win condition of “talk it out” has been presented.  They want to “win” the encounter as a result.  I was just missing the cue, since my experience was that the cue of “we have foam weapons in our hands” means that it’s a fight.
The key here is communication.  As the designer, you must clearly communicate an alternate win condition(s) to your gamists.  This is not railroading, or at least it shouldn’t be.  Without that communication, your gamists are going to default to what they know.  

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