Thoughts of a first-time larper

The past two days, I’ve been at Chaos League’s International Larp Festival, held primarily on Discord. Whilst I’ve played a lot of tabletop games, performed in immersive and interactive shows that cleave very close to larp, and have been getting into reading larp scripts and exploring larp design since the first lockdown, this weekend felt like my *official* entry into larping.

Knowing that it’s so easy to get embedded in a scene or industry, get cosy, and quickly forget all the little things that felt difficult or new or different when you were on the outside and just getting in, I wanted to note down precisely those things.

(The below points are just meant as observations of my particular assumptions, experiences and reflections as someone comparatively new to larping, not critiques or suchlike of the specific games I played. Which, incidentally, were Glimpse / Long Time Listener, Last Time Caller / Melt Me – each of which I had a great time playing and would readily play again.)

So, in no particular order:

  • I was way more intimidated by the notion of ‘all character details will emerge during play/there will be no character creation before play starts’ than I would’ve thought. I often think very little in interactive/role-play contexts is outside my comfort zone, but that definitely caught me off guard.
  • This, of course, ended up not being a problem at all. It’s really surprising – though obviously heartening – how easily you can place trust and confidence in people you’ve never met before, and for that faith to be borne out through rewarding gameplay experiences. (And I say that as someone who’s had some shitty role-playing experiences.)
  • I definitely found attending the festival less intimidating because it was digital. I knew no one else there at all, and travelling to a physical place alone and then being around all those new people in person for a full weekend would definitely have been A Lot. Not necessarily enough to stop me, but definitely a different experience.
  • Endings are tricky, and weird, and hard, and interesting. Something that came up in I think every larp I played was the endings of scenes or games being a bit sticky – in some cases it was because the games were in very early stages of development, so ending conditions were a bit fuzzy. Sometimes it was not being given permission in set-up to be ‘rude’ (aka leave a video call immediately when you’d seen you had a private text prompt to go elsewhere) and so that becoming a bit eggy.
  • The most interesting ending was in Long Time Listener, Last Time Caller, where technically there was still one more call ‘to go’ but a player said in chat that the current call was a really nice and satisfying place to end, and a tiny back-and-forth between them and the facilitator was how that ending point was confirmed. Which was a really lovely level of space and collaboration to have.
  • I don’t know whether it’s because of the scripts I’ve read, or my background with performance or something else, but I was imagining much more structured set-ups for the games, when largely it was pretty open conversations – and in some cases really short.
  • I didn’t mind that hugely – I guess sometimes I wanted more structure, because – especially when you’re having ‘let’s make big choices about the world we’re in’ discussions with multiple people you’ve never met before, it can be hard not to default to polite and deferential. Maybe ice-breakers, maybe just more structure or exercises to draw out that information might be what I like most.
  • Where I wanted more structure was after the games. Not always for the reasons I expected though – not so much for decompression (I’m typically able to do that myself if it’s really needed, and two games weren’t ones where I personally needed that). But for hearing about what other players enjoyed/understanding their experience (which happened a bit during some private messages post-games, but I’d loved to have known more) and also having a moment to reflect on the game and story as a whole, to close it off. The whole festival had a closing event, part of that being led reflection where we closed our eyes and individually remembered games, remembering the whole shape of them and the details – I really enjoyed that and it helped in cementing my memory of them a little.
  • If I’m given a big block of text to read during a game session I will make visual notes to try and quickly make sense of it. I will also rush reading it because of feeling self-conscious about being the slowest and not wanting to slow everyone down. I won’t write or draw notes or feel as pressured if I’m sent similar game information a day or two in advance.
  • I’m really surprised how easy it can be to lose your inhibitions – though having my camera off whilst I ate ice-cream in increasingly creative and suggestive ways (as part of Melt Me, where players eat ice cream in a way that’s reflective of their characters’ connections with others) and moaning in tandem with other players definitely helped. The camera needed to be off to reach that level of comfort.
  • I don’t have the vocabulary to properly describe how the above activity was gentle, and caring, and moving, and meaningful when what was happening on the most basic physical level was me sitting fully clothed on a towel in my bathroom, eating Phish Food in front of a laptop balanced on a bin. It can be hard to communicate how tabletop games feel to non-players; I think this is going to be just as hard, if not more.
  • By chance, one session had a five minute break between set-up and beginning of play. Since I knew my character, their general history and relationships, and the tone of the game, I listened to a song (To Build A Home by The Cinematic Orchestra) to get me in the headspace. I was so pleased I could do that, it worked well for me and is the kind of thing I want to remember to consciously design into things in future.
  • (After the end of the session I listened to Consolation Prize by Montaigne to get out of it. People should listen to both these songs regardless of if they’re playing larps, because they’re great.)
  • Emotional, ‘always-on’ larps are EXHAUSTING, and I need to remember that for future events, because if I’d had three of those in one weekend (rather than just the one) I’d be absolutely hollow by the end. I would’ve thought I’d be primed for that from my performance work, but the level really caught me off-guard. (By ‘always on’ I mean that you’re pretty much always doing in-character interactions or activities, rather than having some time that might just be listening and reflective where you can be out of character if you want.)
  • I’ve come up with a phrase this weekend for something I think I experience – tonal bleed. It’s more something I noticed in lockdown (little irl contact with people, limited sensory stimulation whilst inside constantly, and then if I watched a TV show I’d ‘carry’ the feel of it with me for the rest of the day) but without my decompression exercises – personal, more than any implemented by any game – I think I would’ve had a lot of that this weekend.
  • Even when playing with people I don’t know, I feel like I have a better sense of the ‘level’ of role-play that people will approach a game with when playing tabletop games (or that the Game Master will to a degree be a marker for this). I definitely felt an apprehension at the beginning of games that I didn’t know how much people would get into it/be in character (I have a similar thing when in the audience of an immersive show, where I have a sense of ‘I do this for a job, I know how to do this’ but there’s a pull to almost draw back so as not to seem like you’re showing off or something). There was a sense of an unknown norm as to what larp role-playing looks like – which I’m sure is a totally imagined fiction on my part – that still played on my mind a little.
  • People picking up what you put down feels great. Whether it’s a character or notion they flesh out during a game, or an interaction that gets paralleled or commented on, it’s really cool and I especially enjoy when games really set people up to do this.
  • I want set-ups to games to break down unnecessary and unhelpful politeness. Some conversations felt like maybe they were twice the length they needed to be because we were, as players, navigating how to suggest ideas, set them aside, build on them together, and so on.
  • I still don’t love Discord. But I do now see a lot more value in how it can allow for fluid play and create different structures and dynamics to exploit in gaming.
  • EDIT: an additional point that only occurred to me this morning. Every game I’ve played in the last five years (and some of the interactive theatre experiences over the past ten) is part of why I was able to feel what comfort and confidence I did this weekend. Someone new to larping, but also completely unfamiliar with role-playing in tabletop or interactive and immersive theatre, would – I think – have a completely different experience, and it’s important not to let that context become invisible.

I think that’s it for now – I’m still processing a lot, and really I’ve had an incredibly cool weekend full of the kind of experiences I want more of.

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