What makes Live Action RPGs different from tabletop RPGs? In a Live Action RPG, you experience the game rather than hearing about it. You become the hero rather than describing his actions. You are immersed in the LARP world in a more tangible and real way than you ever could experience in a tabletop game.
In LARPs, we create scenarios which would never happen in the real world. Adventurers deal with things like flying citadels, expeditions to the plane of fire, and supernatural forces which can’t be simulated with our meager special effects budget.
This is where many bad directors rely on narration. In a tabletop game, you’d describe the spooky forest to the players. In a LARP, however, the description of the spooky forest is not sufficient to make the players experience it. They should feel like they’re really in a spooky forest.
I caution larpwrights and game directors to avoid narrating the game. Narration only widens the gap between the game world and the real world. I recall entering a dungeon at a NERO event and being told “You’re in a blue stone room. There’s a door to the east and to the north. There’s a crystal ball in the middle of the room.” In reality, we were standing in a field with no props or setup to help us “see” the dungeon we were exploring. Instead of walking up to the crystal ball and looking at it, we’d describe our actions to the marshal. I remember feeling frustrated at this experience – is this a LARP or a tabletop? Our characters explored the labyrinth verbally, occasionally breaking the dialogue to fight some monsters. It felt hollow.
Avoiding narration means not creating experiences which you cannot effectively represent. Sure, we can all use our imaginations, but there’s something viscerally different about fighting a character who says “I look like a ten foot tall giant” and fighting a character who is actually on stilts. Covering the room in fake spider webs is much better than saying “the tomb is filled with spider webs.”
In short: Gaming requires imagination. But we should strive to create LARPs that require as little imagination as possible.
Part of this process is also creating a game world which can be represented by LARP tools. Don’t send your characters to the middle of the desert unless you have a part of your campsite which feels like desert. Don’t rely on effects like flight, invisibility, or knights on horseback – you simply can’t create that experience in the game without drawing attention to the out-of-game mechanic mediating it.
You can’t, of course, make a wooden cabin look exactly like an ancient burial crypt. But with props and atmosphere, you can suggest it in a way that it’s clear to the players and they won’t have to break game to ask what they’re experiencing.
One way around narration is to create a type of narrator character, called a confederate. The confederate either directly follows the party, or makes appearances during the adventure. They often are the ones describing game effects which are in place. They react to what’s going on. Their reactions create a sense of reality that you cannot accomplish by describing a situation to players. Confederates are a much more immersive way of marshaling the game than forcing characters in the game world talk to an out-of-game referee.
For example, a guide (module hook) might follow the players into a tomb. The guide is quite vocal about his fear of undead. As the players go deeper, he keeps asking about whispers he heard in the shadows. He thinks a corpse blinked at him. He is nauseated by the smell of decay. He gets more nervous as the players go deeper, raising the tension.
The players then experience the tomb by proxy; they actually experience it through somebody else’s experience. They feel courageous because they are juxtaposed with a coward. And you never had to describe it for them!
INSERT: “We’ve arrived at the blightmarsh! Watch your step – if you fall off these slimy rocks, your foot will be withered. But lucky us – that plant over there is called boonblossom. If you spend ten seconds inhaling its pollen, it’ll cure you of all necromantic effects. It smells terrible though. And it gives me a horrible rash, so I’m going to sit over here while you guys handle this one.” -Janus Two Pence, pay-by-the-hour guide to the dankest places in Kitheria