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Culture Shock, In-Groups, and Player Bonds

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In my experience*, the beginning 10 to 30 minutes of a larp is awkward and uncomfortable, whether you’re spending it in workshops or unstructured in-character play.

Players need time to feel comfortable in their “new skin” and in the new social environment of the game. They need to develop first impressions and gauge how much other players’ portrayals fit their expectations. Players who are shy or suffer from social anxiety can be badly overwhelmed and sometimes shut down entirely. Players often have difficulties forming emotional in-groups and feeling strongly connected to other players they don’t already know as they’re struggling to acclimate to the world of the game.

I’ve watched my community struggle to find and develop tools to deal with these problems. Historically we’ve been pretty bad at documenting and discussing our tools, so there has been a lot of reinventing the wheel. Two examples of techniques that I have seen, but not seen discussed are warm-up play** and limiting player mobility to develop in-group bonding.

Warm-up play is more limited or prescribed play at the beginning of a game, usually with some writer / designer direction and a limited time period or scene goal. I’ve seen this done with something as simple as trapping two players in a car ride (both in and out-of-character) for 10 minutes before they can join the full game. On the more complicated end are things like very explicitly setting a short scene before the time of the main game and giving each player rough goals or scene direction for what to do in that scene. In all cases the more limited play gives players a less complicated situation to work out their initial unease and awkwardness. It allows them to ease into the water rather than just diving head first into the game.

I suspect warm-up play could be used more generally to acclimate people to changes in culture, drastic character changes (for example character deaths), or to introduce large time shifts gracefully during games as well. The crucial part is that you are limiting and prescribing short periods of play to insulate your players from being overwhelmed by change. Some games that are heavily limiting and prescribing play (such as games with very heavy GM scene setting) are probably already using this effect. I’m definitely curious how different kinds of limitations affect how players feel about their connection to the other players and to the story they’re creating.

I’ve also seen that limiting player mobility early in a game can lead to a very strong sense of in-group bonding, even among players who don’t know each other out-of-character. I first experienced this in a relatively large game (30+) where I was part of a smaller family (about 6 people). We were instructed to have a “family meeting” at the beginning of in-character play before we joined the larp as a whole. The meeting itself wasn’t long and not a lot happened, but it created a strong bond between the members of our family. Since then I have seen this technique used in several games to create different kinds of in-group bonds, both in larger and smaller groups, included bonding with important non-player characters.

I have generally seen designers use limitations on player mobility at the beginning of a game (so during a period of warm-up play), but I suspect that it could be used effectively to change, strengthen, or weaken in-group bonds during later parts of a game.

I recently played Here Is My Power Button and that game uses limited player mobility very heavily during the game to promote bonding between the two types of characters (the humans and the AI) and to form strong bonds between the human / AI character pairs.

I find the psychological bonding aspect of limited mobility fascinating and intend to experiment with this more in my future games.


* I play and write larps, mostly American theater-style games that emerged from the evolving traditions of older secrets-and-powers games. I’ve played other types of games and I’m friends with people who write American Freeform larps and more Nordic inspired games in the USA, so I’m aware that there are different styles of larp in our wider community.

** I think workshopping that happens in some styles of larp is at least partly taking the place of warmup play, but I haven’t seen warm-up play discussed as a separate tool for acclimating players to the game’s reality.