Emergent Gameplay. It’s the sort of thing that gets me really frothing at the mouth with excitement. Players are presented with a world with which they can interact. Pretty much the entire story is one they create themselves, not one the designer has predetermined. Instead of putting the players into a castle, give them some tools and rocks, and let them build that castle themselves. Or an icecream factory.
That’s what I love about Larps. It’s not about giving players a fixed set of choices and hoping the go either left or right, and doing everything you can to stop them running off into the sunset to create a worldwide ice-cream stick manufacturing conglomerate.
Emergent games, especially Larps, and also tabletop RPGs, let you do that. You might piss off your fellow players, and the Game Master, if there is one, but you’re still free to throw your foam sword into the wind and start whittling branches into popsticks. Well, sort of.
Larps do set out limits. They’re more or less a grown-up version of the playing a 5-year old does, with some chalk lines on the ground. While the child will most likely pretend the chalk lines aren’t the arbitrary limits to the play area, and will probably pretend they’re superhighways for his toy cars.
Larp almost always sets a very strictly defined setting. You’re going to be playing in a dystopian Paraguayan nuclear wasteland, dammit, so stop trying to sell ice cream, you child. Larp also has a very strictly defined time limit. We’ve all got jobs to go to which don’t involve wearing gas masks. Mostly. Larp also has a very strictly defined space in which to play. Because good honest normal people look funny at weirdos in pointy ears. And, well, it’s nice for the players to know where the real world ends and where the gameworld starts.
But within those limits, Larps are often free to go where they choose. Often, a bare minimum of game mechanics are introduced, though the mantra seems to be “Do we need that?” to achieve the sort of situation, setting or playstyle the Larpwriter wishes to achieve. Especially in Nordic Larps. If you want to have your Larpers play out characters trapped in an office environment, such as the Larp Papers, you don’t need a dice roll to see how well they brew a cup of coffee. That’s in contrast with many Tabletop RPGS such as Dungeons and Dragons. Roll a 10+ on a D20 to determine success in Popstick Crafting Skill.
And that’s really cool. I’d love my audience to have the opportunity for emergent gameplay.
But there’s some downsides, too. Larps need characters. Without a character, it ain’t no Larp. As such, it’s expected that players either create their own character, again within the limits of basic mechanics and the setting, or have a predetermined one assigned to them. This means that although it’s easier and more fun to play, every action the player does can be justified as “Well, that’s what my character would do”, and as such I have my doubts whether the experiences of that character can effectively translate a moving, changing effect of realisation onto the player.
As exemplified by other pieces of interactive theatre, such as Early Days of a Better Nation by Coney (yes, I’ll use that example quite a bit), the possibility is there to create a character. However, most players did not, instead, they played as themselves.
That is to say, all their actions were made from the thought “What would I do?”, and then acted and played as though their character was a projection of their own personality. This means that their actions, especially if they were perceived as negative afterwards, hit the player much harder, as that is what they would have done themselves, had they been in the sketched situation within the playtime.
Then there’s the question of accessibility. Larps aren’t cut out for everyone. Neither are any other form of media, but to cut to the chase, Larps are hard to really get into. There’s a certain amount of acting skill involved, a certain amount of pregame preparation and familiarisation with the rules, setting and characters, a bit of a stigma to overcome (overweight elf lords with foam swords), and a mode of free play that people who aren’t used to that find difficult to pick up quickly.
In conclusion, Larps are great for their emergent gameplay, but that same lovely bit brings concerns in distance between player and character experience, and overall accessibility.
So perhaps I should try incorporating Larp’s well-defined setting, play limits and embracing of emergent play, with some clear and well-defined rules and mechanics?