Category Archives: history

Why is it called Theater LARP?

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A few days ago James Stuart started a very interesting conversation on Google Plus about the phrase “Theater LARP” (also sometimes called “Theater Style LARP”). He was confused about when and why it is applied. A number of people showed up to talk about the history of the term and it’s use today. Here are some excerpts I found enlightening about the history.

For reference, the phrase Theater LARP or Theater Style LARP is used in the Chicago LARP community I belong to as well as the Intercon community that’s centered around Boston (and it has been used in both for a long time, so many people use it who weren’t in the community before it was invented as a label, including me). In the original discussion I linked to this article by Nat Budin that gives a rough overview of the games the phrase is applied to in the Intercon community more recently.

Vivian Abraham:

I remember back in the day, I ran a Vampire LARP (before the Masquerade rules were out), and we ran it in an actual theater. Theater-style LARP was an easy way to convey to the folks who owned the theater that a) we were not going to be fighting each other with weapons in their building and b) this was an artistic sort of pursuit that they might find interesting and/or generally acceptable behavior. This was in the days way before LARP became as well-known. Most gamers didn’t really know what LARP was, much less non-gaming folks. Improv theater was the common ground we could build on to explain what the heck it was that we were doing 🙂

Mike Young:

ahem  When I coined the term “theater-style” back in the 90s*, it was to differentiate it from “adventure-style” larps. In adventure-style larps, the focus of interaction was with the environment, be it npcs, monsters, or puzzles.  Theater-style larps focused more on the interactions between players.

I believe theater-style was chosen because secrets-and-powers larps have a good deal in common with improv theater without an audience and it was the best term I could come up with that communicated what larp was to people who had no idea what I did with my weekends.

Since then, the concept of larp academia has spread and the definition and terminology of larp has expanded. But that’s why it was what it was back then.

*It is possible that I wasn’t the one to coin the term, but I was the one who popularized the concept of theater-style vs adventure-style and simulated combat vs live combat, and it still bugs me to this day when people conflate them and use theater-style vs live combat, which was never my intent.

Tod Foley:

I began referring to my 1991 piece “Ghosts in the Machine” as a “Theater LARP” years after it was produced, only because I saw other people using that phrase.  But between that and what people were creating by that time, there were numerous differences.  GITM had these features:

– Three distinct tiers of plot: the top plot was a simple two-way branching story; the second tier was a set of modular circumstances for random audience characters to pursue, these were written without resolutions and dropped in whenever the Stage Manager deemed them appropos; the third tier was comprised of very simple “problem-solution” sets which could be “solved” with relative ease.

– Yes, “Stage Manager”.  We also had a Director and a Casting Crew, because…

– Distinct functional differences between “actor characters” and “audience characters”.  The actor characters were semi-scripted and their plot arcs were mostly predetermined (except for the final branch).  Audience characters were pregens which were assigned based on a short Myers-Brigg test taken before entering.

– Cutaways. At key moments in the 8-hour show, the room would go dark and a spotlight would focus on one or more actor characters who would perform a short soliloquy or dialog scene.

In short, I’d say it was closer to theater than it was to LARP, except for the fact that the audience – who were all given characters to play complete with connective plot points, key information and play money – could mess with the story freely and pursue whatever ends they wanted on tiers 2 and 3.  But the word “LARP” wasn’t in popular usage yet.  When the show was produced I called it “HyperTheater”.

Steve Hatherley:

These are my reflections on why we ended up with the term “freeform” in the UK

Mo Turkington:

In my history in the early 90’s we used “theatre larps” as a differentiation from city larps, because they were less self-directed, more framed and often held in the theatre we ran versus the bars/pubs/coffeeshops/streets among the mundies.(Note: this  had no relationship to boffer larps at all, because we didn’t know they were a thing outside of reinactments or SCA, which we didn’t at the time call larp).

Years later theatre-style started to be used to  differentiate boffer larps from non-boffer larps. They included parlor larps, MET larps, single session story larps and theatre experience larps (like, say Tony & Tina’s Wedding or How to Host a Murder events).

In my mind the term is non-functional, and I never use it, for exactly the confusion you describe, but also for the cognitive distortion I get from my past use of the word, and for the stratification loadedway it sometimes is used (in a similar vein to “art larp”).

ETA: I used parlor larp up there retronymically. At the time, parlor larp wasn’t a term in place used to describe the thing I’m describing as being part of the theatre bucket.

Mo also offered this very interesting account of doing live improvisational dramas on stage for an audience in the 1990’s before the people involved would have known about “LARP”.

Mike Young also suggested that I look through the archive of to try to trace the term.  

This is the earliest use I could find of Theater to directly label the type of a LARP (on Febuary 12th, of 1994)!searchin/$20style/ and this is the first use I could find for the full phrase Theater Style (on June 26, 1995)!searchin/$20style/ .

I seriously doubt they’re the first times people in the community used those though, as there’s some discussion about theater and how it relates to the kinds of LARP people were trying to develop earlier in the messages.

Also notable would be that “Mind’s Eye Theater” shows up in messages before people start actually using either Theater or Theater Style as a general type. Wikipedia tells me that the first edition of White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theater was published in 1993.

In my attempt to look through the archive, I also stumbled upon this account of the history of Theater Style LARP written by Gordon Olmstead-Dean in 1998.

(I was amused to see his mention of “The Live Ring Game” which was published in 1973. A game inspired by that booklet has been running pretty much continuously since the late 70’s in Wisconsin and I played in it in college. )

If anyone else has accounts (their own or from friends) of the early use of these terms I would love to add them.

Failure in RPGs and Why I Love Dungeon World

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“If you can’t die then how can winning a combat mean anything?”

Failure and death. Missing blows, losing, running away…. all things that we’re told you must have in tabletop games so that combat is “meaningful.” I used to assume that when people said “meaningful” they meant “engaging and fun” or “like you were a significant part of something difficult and cool” and by that measure most of the games I’ve played have failed miserably at failure.

I have vivid memories of sitting on a couch in a friend’s basement, waiting thirty to fifty minutes between each round of combat. Often my character would attack and miss. We were playing D&D 3.5 and the GM wasn’t great at combat narration, so missing meant nothing happened. Not slightly boring things or confusing things or even bad things… just nothing. I left those games with the overwhelming feeling that I might as well have stayed home.

I would write that experience off as just being just 3.5 or just that GM, but I’ve had similar issues with other systems that present tactical combat for tabetop. Often a miss mechanically means “nothing.” A good GM will give you some narrative fluff, but functionally, you’ve still got “nothing happens.”

I suspect the designers of many of these tactical games see nothing as a neutral result. As a player who suffered from social isolation as a kid, I see “nothing” as the worst punishment I can receive. I want to be a part of what’s happening, and “nothing” cuts me off, erasing me from the scene while others fill the narrative space.

I’ve slowly come to understand that when most people say “meaningful” they don’t mean “engaging and fun.” Most people mean “mechanically challenging.” I think this assumption that games must focus on “mechanical challenge” to be fun or at the expense of fun is damaging to our overall tabletop experience.

Robin Laws (at least as of February, 2012) would have you believe that we need to be miserable to be challenged because our choices are very limited: pure success, pure failure, or partial success of the action we attempted. How we succeed and fail is measured in resource depletion (hit points, healing, etc.) and we can only have fun when we’re succeeding at the appropriate dramatic time after playing a banal resource management game.

The problem with this is that 1) not everyone likes resource management games and 2) most modern tabletop games include a lot of randomness, so players sometimes contribute highly unequally to a resource management task because of random chance that’s beyond their control. For a player the loss of agency in the face of the “power of the dice” can be very frustrating.

A game built to give people spotlight only when they succeed and to let them succeed only when randomness allows encourages powergaming and penalizes players who don’t powergame as much or as well. Powergaming is not my favorite part of gaming.* I like smashing things as much as the next gamer, but I prefer cooperating with other player characters, not getting the spotlight at the expense of others after extensive rules-mongering.

Accepting that success and failure are a pure dichotomy and resource management is the only available challenge implies that the traditional way tactical games were made challenging is the only way games can be designed. Accepting those restrictions seems like a trap. It limits how you can potentially build systems in tabletop games immensely.

The world in a tabletop RPG is very open ended. I’m not saying we need to ditch counting resources for pure narration. But managing resources doesn’t need to be the sole focus of our tactical challenge. Interesting tactics are made up of all sorts of things like planning, environmental factors, and teamwork that aren’t related to counting hit points. That’s without getting into creative use of non-realistic forces like magic.

I’m not saying we should hand out success on a golden platter with extra fluff to dress it up. The real world is messy and often the best way to learn is to work through failures. We build up solutions to climb over lots of little hurdles until we finally solve the bigger problems. That’s far more compelling than instant success!

I read an article about emergency treatment that totally changed how I look at failure from a narrative point of view. Serious complications are unavoidable in a hospital situation, but some hospitals keep more patients alive despite this. The key to their success is in how they quickly rescue patents when things go wrong. As the author put it the only failure is a failure to rescue.

This concept is great for gaming because it allows for bad things that aren’t direct “action failure” (ie. nullifying what you were trying to do), and brings a “raising the stakes” mentality to the table. Things are going to go wrong. If they don’t, the story we’re telling will sound like a boring Mary Sue fan fiction about how our awesome characters are all awesome and waltz in and win while everything is perfect.

When things go wrong, they’re not always predictable, preventable, or even directly related to what you were attempting. You may have stabbed the dire lion exactly how you wanted to, but in the process you also stumbled on her den so now she’s enraged because you’re between her and her cubs!

Acknowledging that tactical complications can be tangential means a “bad” result doesn’t need to block your original actions. This gives you more interesting ways to interact and engage with the in-game world, while leaving the system free to make more nuanced decisions about how success and failure work.

Another thing that’s huge for me at the gaming table is player agency. I want some level of control over my own destiny, even when that destiny is sliding downhill very quickly in a handcart with no brakes. I’m perfectly willing to be the person who stumbles into the lion’s den, if I either came up with the idea myself or have some choice in the matter (like I agree that trading off the stabbing for the stumbling is worth it). Then it feels like a hilarious and deadly comedy of errors, rather than the GM punishing me for something outside my control like a dice roll.

I started writing this post over a year ago and at that point I hadn’t worked out how to solve these problems. I had thoughts, but thoughts do not a full fledged game system make. Between then and now, Dungeon World (built on the Apocaylpse World engine) beat me to the punch.

Which is pretty awesome; I’d rather play and build on what they made than start from scratch! 🙂

Dungeon World has very quickly become my favorite game system and I think it deserves a bit of a love letter to talk about how it solves some of the problems I’ve talked about and makes gaming fun and engaging. It also addressses some of the shared-narrative-reality issues I’ve mentioned before.

A Love Letter to Dungeon World

Dungeon World explicitly defines the purpose of it’s mechanics, individually called “moves”, as being to bring everyone to the edge of their seat. One of the first things the rules book says about moves is, “Tension and excitement are always the result, no matter how the dice land.” Wow, does the design deliver on that promise.

The mechanical system of success and failure has been built with that “tension and excitement” in mind and it’s a stark contrast from systems that are designed with the goal of “simulating reality” or “introducing randomness.” It’s like they took a short circuit past all the things we thought we wanted to the things we needed to have fun, action packed game sessions.

In Dungeon World there are three basic outcomes of almost all rolls. Rolls are generally 2d6 with some modifiers, usually in the -2 to +3 range, and the general outcomes as described by the book are:

The Basic Outcomes

  • 10+: You do it with little trouble
  • 7–9: You do it, but with complications or trouble
  • 6-: The GM says what happens and you mark XP

This system is surprisingly nuanced, because each individual move, be it hacking and slashing through your enemies or trying to talk NPCs into doing things for you, has specific trade offs for those levels. Some of the complications and trouble explicitly include the player making choices and trade offs, giving them agency in how things go wrong or what dangers they expose themselves to in order to get additional advantages.

Some of the moves that relate to understanding and perceiving the world around you have absolutely fascinating trade offs in that they allow you to ask the GM a certain number of questions from a pre-existing list and the GM must give you an honest and helpful answer. Making a call about whether it’s more important to learn “What happened here recently?” or “Who’s really in control here?” can be tough in a very fun way!

I also want to note that the 6- result tends to be amusing and the fact that you “learn” when you fail is more of a consolation than you might think. We often laugh about “learning about failure” when we roll 6- and the GMing rules behind the moves mean that something happens to change and complicate the situation each time one of these failures is rolled. It’s up to the GM to decide exactly what happens, but it’s not a “nothing.” Often the world shifts under our feet in interesting and unexpected ways in these cases.

Dungeon World also makes a point of the fact that the game isn’t about one person at the table dictating to the others. One of my favorite paragraphs in the introduction describes the game as a conversation.

There are no turns or rounds in Dungeon World, no rules to say whose turn it is to talk. Instead players take turns in the natural flow of the conversation, which always has some back-and-forth. The GM says something, the players respond. The players ask questions or make statements, the GM tells them what happens next. Dungeon World is never a monologue; it’s always a conversation.

While moves are triggered on specific player character actions like “attacking someone with a melee weapon” in character, it’s the job of the table as a whole to agree if people aren’t sure when a move is taking place. It’s not the job of the GM to decide and dictate. Dungeon World recommends that the whole table discusses in-game reality until everyone understands and agrees on what’s happening and if a move should be used. I can’t tell you how giddy I was when I read that because it so perfectly matched my mental model of how shared realities are constructed in tabletop games.

As a Dungeon World player, you take a big part in the conversation that determines the in-game reality of the world. The GM is encouraged to ask players questions which define the background facts and history of the world and everyone works together to stay within the existing established facts about the world. The GM is also encouraged to ask players questions about their characters and there are some moves that specifically require you to justify how your character knows what they know. This may sound tedious, but it somehow turns into an awesome organic backstory generator for PCs that accretes over time. Along with the fact that making a starting PC takes like 5 minutes, Dungeon World characters are some of the most dynamic and fun characters I’ve ever seen. They’re simple to make, become deep, multi-dimensional people with surprising speed, and are easy to get attached to.

I especially love the alignment system in Dungeon World. Every character gets a choice of alignments based on their class (different classes have access to different sets) and each alignment comes with an alignment move that reflects something your character is rewarded for doing. An example of my favorite chaotic move from the Thief class is “leap into danger without a plan”. Most of the alignment moves are similarly active and they make the act of being your alignment less being and more doing. There are XP rewards for performing your alignment move, which encourages players to portray alignments in interesting ways.

Dungeon World has an explicit set of three reasons why you play the game: to see the characters do amazing things, to see them struggle together, and because the world still has so many places to explore. It codifies these goals by giving PCs overt bonds with each other that provide mechanical advantages when they work together and grant XP as the bonds evolve over time. PCs also get experience when they learn new and important things about the world, overcome notable monsters and enemies, and loot memorable treasure. At the end of each session you do an “End of Session” move where you get experience for these things and for performing your alignment move during the session. This is a very powerful motivator to keep plots moving, to continue exploring, and to actively portraying alignments.

None of this has even touched on the innovation behind the GM mechanics in Dungeon World and how they encourage putting the player characters and their actions center stage. That’s probably a love letter for another time!

Dungeon World definitely has it’s issues (let’s not talk about the Bard class… *sigh*) but on the whole it deserves the acclaim it’s currently getting. It’s a very different take on fantasy tabletop gaming, focused much more directly on having an exciting, fun adventure that includes and engages all the players. I can honestly say the Dungeon World games I played are among the most meaningful I’ve taken part in… and that’s no mean feat given the number of systems I’ve played.

* If it is yours that’s fine: go powergame with friends who also like powergaming and have fun. It’s not my thing. I don’t think I’m alone in preferring other styles of play.

Escaping Wargaming: How the Purpose of Rules Has Changed in the Tabletop World

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I want to start by saying, I have a strong fondness for wargames. I cut my teeth on board games and tactical wargames long before I got excited about tabletop RPGs. Wargames have rules, generally well defined rules, and that’s a lot easier for a kid who’s a bit awkward around other people.

The origins of RPGs in wargaming are far before my time (I’m not that old!) but I’ve seen the echos of how wargaming has shaped the industry right through to modern times. There’s a series of unspoken assumptions that people make about rules and how the rules you have reflect on a game that’s slowly shifted over the years. New, truly innovative games have chipped away at old ideas and prejudices as people began to accept that a game can have a short book with few rules and produce a consistent and enjoyable experience.

In the 80’s and 90’s the RPG writer’s favorite example of why we have rules seemed to be a kid’s game of cops and robbers. “It’s like that,” they’ll say, “but we have rules so that when one person says ‘I hit you!’ the other person can’t just say ‘No, you missed!’” The problem is, even kids don’t quite behave that way. Sure they fight and disagree, but kids have a great sense of narrative arcs and they absorb archetypal stories and characters like sponges. When I ran games for kids it was awesome how hard they worked to get things like “the anti-hero’s redemption through heroic sacrifice” to happen. They knew that was how the stories were supposed to go.

Beyond that, most of us aren’t children. The unspoken point behind the cops and robbers example is that children can be petulant and angry when they don’t get their own way. Assuming that you need iron clad rules to adjudicate every conflict without wiggle room means the players and GM you’re modeling are so immature they never got past that development stage. Do we really think gamers are incapable of looking beyond their immediate wants to the desires of other people or the needs of the group? Or that they’re totally incapable of separating their in-character persona from their out-of-character self?

None of this was important in war games because players weren’t actors in the unfolding drama. You might want that cavalry unit to win a skirmish, but you weren’t personally invested in the survival of one of those little riders. You were focused on the larger battle and the tactical puzzle of how to beat your opponent. The rules were used to abstract away physical and psychological things on the battlefield, since recreating a battle at 1:1 scale with actual military gear and people killing each other isn’t practical.

The focus of many wargames has traditionally been on understanding and recreating historical events, so rules supporting realism were valued over a game being fast or abstractly fun. It’d be especially bad if a wargame was prone to unrealistic numerical imbalances of power, since the overt goal is generally to give players a fair chance to display their tactical prowess as if they were commanding real units. These values have persisted for a long time in the tabletop community and you can still find gamers who put a very high premium on rules being “realistic”, “technically correct”, or “accurate”… even to the exclusion of being fun at times.

But in a tabletop game the role each person takes is very different than in a wargame and what it means to “win” is coincidentally different. What people think of as winning in RPGs varies about as much as what they think it means to win in real life. Designers have always tried to deal with this to some degree. We’ve seen cooperative tabletop games, adversarial tabletop games, and games that can be either depending on the player’s choices. This all sounds very flexible, but up until the last ten years or so many designers lost sight of why rules existed in their games.

Highly tactical games, like Shadowrun or editions of D&D like 3.0 and 3.5, focus on creating an air-tight set of “realistic” tactical rules… giving the players something they hopefully can’t subvert or unbalance too badly. This is often a reaction to the power-gaming that occurred in earlier versions of the rules. Other than power gaming issues, designers didn’t generally talk about what kinds of gameplay those rules were encouraging or what kind of gameplay they wanted to encourage. If you wanted a good experience at the table, you had to find a good GM or be a good GM.

To me it felt a lot like wearing a sweater 5 sizes too big to a formal dance. Sure, I’m not nude, but I’m really not dressed for the occasion. If I go to the dance with my best friends we’ll probably enjoy it, but the sweater isn’t helping me to have fun, just keeping me from being arrested for public indecency.

For a while there was push-back against highly tactical, complex games. Some games, like Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), began trying to present simpler, more compact rules that let groups ignore the “realistic” complexities and get on with their gaming. Many of these games were still very generic and a lot of people looked down on them because they didn’t have highly structured systems. I got some side-eyes when I chose to run a BESM game and I’m pretty sure that a few of my friends filed it away mentally as, “well she’s just doing it because she can’t handle the rules in a real game like D&D.”

Some of these games also hearkened back to the subset of the very early old school RPGs that had much simpler rules. A few of these early games, like Tunnels & Trolls, are still around and started getting considerably more attention during this period.

Slowly game designers began to question, what game are these rules creating? How can I create the experience I want with different rules? And what experiences do gamers want anyway? This led to games like My Life with Master and Steal Away Jordan that pushed players into more narrative responsibilities and situations that were possibly less familiar or comfortable.

Over time these indie games got more and more traction and larger companies started producing rules that were tuned to helping players create the experience the designers wanted, rather than modeling reality. Not all of these were “rules light” or moved in the direction you might think. D&D 4.0 was built on rules geared to create a tactical combat game that valued a balanced and fun player experience rather than pure simulation or realism; it was a big deviation from it’s predecessors and upset a lot of people because of it. Around this time we also got a flood of narrative storytelling games like Shock and Fiasco that shifted the responsibility of narration entirely over to players, removing the GM from the game.

There are still people who prefer Shadowrun to Fiasco or the Leverage RPG, but the general attitudes have shifted. Games aren’t looked down on just because they have fewer or less traditional rules and people are starting to understand that a game can create other kinds of experiences if it uses rules designed for purposes other than simulation.

There may still be lessons in wargaming that can help us to grow, but we’re beginning to build games based on the unique needs of tabletop play, instead of living in wargaming’s shadow.