No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy

The Tension Between Narrative Structure and Player Autonomy in Larp
by Phoebe Roberts

Many larps, particularly one-shot, American theater-style games, center the player experience around the telling of stories. In these games, where you have a self-contained story the starting point of which is already determined, the players’ interest and enjoyment comes from the exploration of the narrative, where they take on the roles of protagonists who enter new circumstances, encounter conflict and obstacles, and are compelled to grow and develop in dynamic ways in order to pursue desires. The joy of these comes from a similar place as loving an engrossing book or film for the unfolding of the story, except it allows for the players to be in the thick of it rather than merely observers. In cases like these, the success of the larp rests on the telling of a narrative that is engaging, moving, and interesting.

The intersection of these two things—player participation and compelling story construction—on the surface seems to be working toward the same purpose: telling the best possible tale. But sometimes, even though they have the same goal, the efforts of the person designing the story and the person carrying it out can come into conflict. The very core of larping, the interactivity of the narrative, has the potential to break the experience of the narrative. And the reason behind this can get complicated.

One of the tools storytellers use to shape narrative is structure. Structure in this case refers to the design of the order, manner, and pacing of events making up the story and the relationships of those events to each other. Narrative is at its fundamental level about change—starting with a thesis, confronting it with its antithesis, and seeing the new synthesis that results. Structure is an important tool for storytellers to choose and arrange events in order to create, control, and facilitate that change.

In much of literature, structure falls into a traditional form. The circumstances are established in a setup, after which a triggering change, the inciting event, propels the protagonist into challenging new situations. As the protagonist struggles to achieve their goals in the face of unexpected obstacles, the tension of the situation is increased by the rising action and its addition of complications. Ultimately, the action builds to the highest point of confrontation, the climax, where the hero faces their greatest challenge, and the changes they have undergone are tested to see if they are sufficient to overcome. This point is usually the most intense action of the story. After this, the tension ratchets down as the consequences of the climax are unpacked, at least to some degree, in the falling action. Finally, we are left with the resolution, which tells us the new status quo, to contrast with the way things were in the beginning.

This pattern of structure is so prevalent in storytelling because of how well it presents conflict and response to conflict in order to prompt development, growth, and change. It offers a steady buildup of the level of challenge in a manner that increases tension and our investment in the stakes of the conflict—the more struggle a goal entails, the more important achieving it becomes—while eventually providing satisfaction by offering a resolution.

Beyond this simple ordering of events, it offers the storyteller the tools to figure out how and at what speed the events should occur in relation to each other to achieve the best effect. By using this framework as a guide, the storyteller can determine at what point of the emotional journey they would like their audience to have reached at any given moment. The teller can then decide how to shape each event in relation to the other events to achieve the desired effect. If the tension needs to go up, intense actions can occur all in quick succession. If the intensity is increasing too fast, the plot-driving moments can occur on a smaller scale, or be spaced farther apart. So the curation of the occurrence of events in the story allows for the best release of information, timing of events, and measured building of tension.

But the key part of that is that curation. To utilize structure to best effect, it requires design—intentional choices made in what events occur when, with specific desired effects in mind. For events to have the greatest impact on the course of the story and the development of the characters, they can’t just happen in any order or in any relation to one another. Story events don’t build properly upon each other or deliver their full effect when they occur in a completely uncontrolled way. For example, if you are unraveling a mystery, part of the appeal is acquiring each clue and encountering each complication in turn, with the opportunity to piece everything together and examine the picture step by step as it develops. If all the clues and secrets come together too immediately, the solution feels anticlimactic. If you are on a quest, the challenge of testing your mettle against obstacles and rising to the occasion to achieve your end is a huge part of the fun. If the ultimate prize is simply handed to you, the experience is short-circuited. Even if a character develops and grows past their difficulties too easily, without any personal effort or cost, it feels cheap and unrealistic. Indeed, since goals become more important the harder you have to work for them, and easy achievements feel smaller than difficult ones, any resolution that comes too easily or too soon is going to feel less satisfying.

Up to this point, all this applies to storytelling in general. But it’s not difficult to imagine how story structure affects the progress and experience of a larp. In larp, players are not living the experience of the story vicariously, but literally placing themselves into the shoes of the protagonist. As they themselves are the actors, their efforts take on an even more personal importance. If their journey doesn’t unfold in a compelling manner, or fails to provide emotionally satisfying climaxes, the play experience is massively compromised. However, as important as when and how events progress is to roleplaying, structuring a larp entails difficulties that are unique.

The trouble with larp is that the storyteller never has complete control over the structure of the story. This fact is baked into the collaborative nature of larps as interactive literature. In traditional storytelling forms, there tends to be a single artist behind it, or at least a small team of artists with some kind of united vision coordinating their efforts, who are the only force with control over the shape of the story. The audience takes in what they produce in a more passive way, and does not contribute much to the direction it takes; at the very least, their contribution is limited to suggestions only if they have any awareness of the creative process.

Larp, however, has many contributors affecting the direction of the story in the form of the players. Even when players tend to be given pre-generated characters whose starting points are already set, the direction each PCs (Player Characters) plot line takes is largely determined by player choices. They are the only means by which most of the major points of the structural system, basically everything past the inciting event, can occur. On top of that, these choices are relatively unpredictable. A writer can influence their decisions based on the setup given about who their characters are, where they begin, and what they want, but ultimately what to do in game is up to the player. This means that, unlike so many other narrative forms, all the actions that are taken by the characters are out of the writer’s control. The events they create have the potential to affect any storyline they encounter in the game—and as such, that storyline’s structure. And as the players decide on their personal activities without direct storyteller input or control, storylines develop according to not a unified effort, but a collection of independent efforts. The plot is shaped not only by many forces, but ones likely to be working towards many disparate ends.

This unique feature of story building in the larp form can have many interesting and desirable consequences. Players participate in larp to have the chance to live out exciting stories and scenarios, so they can enjoy the ability to make their own choices and test their own mettle to shape their character’s destiny. They can find a feeling of accomplishment when they start a great interaction, discover a cool thread, or achieve an interesting result due to their own actions. Because of the unpredictable and individual natures of so many contributors, each run of the game may end up with a different variation of the story. This can lead to new and exciting directions the author may never have thought of otherwise, keeping things fresh, and perhaps even suggesting ideas to incorporate into the game’s canon to improve future runs.

Because of the unpredictable and individual natures of so many contributors, each run of the game may end up with a different variation of the story.

Because of all these factors, many game writers and runners conclude that player autonomy to act as they choose is a good in and of itself. Some players, of course, actively desire to be autonomous and feel like their efforts don’t matter unless they feel they have both the freedom to choose their activities and the sense that those activities can meaningfully affect the story around them. In theater-style larping, it’s generally considered appropriate to warn players ahead of time of games that run “on rails” and do not allow for this freedom, since it tends to be a basic feature larpers expect. While some Nordic style games expect a high level of GM intervention, and are in fact designed to run with heavy involvement over any approximation of natural narrative flow, in theater style that might be considered excessive. After all, some argue, the form is “interactive literature”—we larp in order to get to participate in the story! If we wanted a story just told to us that we had no control over, we’d read a book.

The big problem, however, with this freedom of players to shape the story is the consequences to structure. As mentioned before, structure requires some level of design, and design requires control. Control over the plot’s direction is split up between the writers and however many PCs are in the game. So, in short, the game’s structure suffers due to the “too many cooks” syndrome—too many tellers spoil the tale.

While the players exert power over the story events, however much they may desire to tell a good story, they are not in a position to create ideal structure. It’s common for larps to require that players come into the game with limited knowledge of the scenario, for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s to ensure some things will be surprising. Sometimes the fun lies in the process of unfolding the mystery or seeing where the story goes. We generally don’t like to know the ending of a story before we go through it. But because of this imperfect knowledge, the players may not realize when they are about to take an action that disrupts an element of the narrative arc.

There are dozens of ways players can unwittingly damage the narrative arc. They can be designed to have a bloody final confrontation with their greatest foe at the climax of the game, but an opportunistic player sees a shot early on and they can’t help but take it. The targeted player’s game is ended and the storyline has no finale. A player can stumble upon pieces of evidence that incriminate them and destroy them, eliminating any chance for other players to pursue those clue threads which might make up a big part of their intended in-game activity. They might misinterpret some bit of information in their character sheet and spend the whole game pursuing a plot thread that doesn’t exist, making them absent in the storylines of other characters who were supposed to interact them with them. They can decide the characterization they were given isn’t interesting to them, and make up a completely different motivation that leads to actions that were never expected in the game. When other players around them make choices that conform with a more expected direction, they may find the elements that would normally respond to their actions are absent, giving them nothing to interact with. And a game without interactions, with the plot or with other characters, is almost certainly a failure.

When players decide what actions to take in a game, they are not necessarily making those decisions based on how their activities will impact the narrative arc. Managing this is a skill and priority of writers, and one cannot automatically expect any given player to have the ability or understanding to do it. First and foremost, players tend to be concerned with taking the actions that will give them the most personal enjoyment, or at most account for the enjoyment of other players like themselves, with whom they have interactions. This is, of course, a valid approach, and very important! If a game is not fun for the players, it is not a success! A larp’s perfect story structure doesn’t mean much if the players don’t like playing it. But these self-interested choices geared toward maximizing one’s personal play experience are not always best for the health of the overall game. And since the overall game can impact players’ enjoyment on a wider scale, that can be a real problem.

The severity of this issue scales proportionally with the size of the game. It’s a matter of entropy. More individual actors means more independent actions. The more actions occur independent of each other, the more likely those actions are to contradict or conflict with one another. The more actions conflict, the greater the chance of the plot falling into chaos. So as the player count goes up, the GM’s ability to direct the flow of the narrative goes down. Game runners cannot possibly be expected to manage all the consequences of those disparate actions. GM teams are almost always smaller than player pools, so they simply could not keep up with the developments. Moreover, GMs generally don’t want to quash player contribution. Players often desire to have the ability to affect the course of the story, and to not allow this would strangle off all the creativity and spontaneity that results from their explorations of the plot.

At this point the question arises of how a GM is to react to this. It is of course possible for a GM to do nothing; that is, to allow complete player autonomy. The GM in this case provides all information and reactions the players actively request, but takes no unprompted action. All player choices are validated, or at least not countermanded by the GM. The consequences of their choices arise naturalistically, with no attempt to control the impact on other players or the game at large.

This maintains the players’ sense of their actions having real effect on the story and world of the game. However, zero management of this activity can also result in a lot of far-reaching damage. All these independent player actions may have unintended impacts on other PCs’ story progress. If a PC reaches or uncovers a point of the story before the appointed time, pieces of your carefully-written storyline may be skipped over entirely. That plot will then have an awkward progression that doesn’t build naturally, sacrificing tension and the chance to examine each piece in turn. Certain bits of information or interactions may never come out. On a practical level, those absences could mean breaking the logical flow of the story, but moreover that players don’t get the chance to fully enjoy it. If the conclusive elements of the story are accessed out of order, it could even trigger the need to end the game early.

Ultimately, as players tend to pursue primarily their own interests as opposed to the game’s or anyone else’s, some PCs’ fun will be made at the expense of others. Those characters whose journeys were interrupted will be robbed of the satisfaction of the proper unfolding of their story. A lot of the work, design, and creativity the writer put into the game will go to waste, and you’ll end up with a much lower overall quality of narrative.

Because of these issues, GMs may feel the impulse to intervene to prevent this. In the interest of making sure player actions do not trigger events too early, out of sequence, or in such a way as they negatively impact other PCs, GM may instead use their authority to control their effects. They can decide to fiat that certain results have a greater or less extent, or even countermand player actions entirely.

However, this extreme can cause problems of its own. Excessive GM interference can make player choices irrelevant. If there is no naturalistic impact of their actions, it can cause players to feel like the things they do in-game don’t matter. This might lead to feelings of discouragement, leaving players disinclined to make efforts and emotionally uninvolved in the game. While some scripted and/or GM-controlled events aren’t unusual game elements in small measure, when everything runs according to a plan that PCs cannot affect in any way, it puts the game on rails. As mentioned before, players should be warned in advance if that will be the case. In a game that isn’t specifically designed to run on rails, this level of GM intervention is usually so invasive and clumsy it kills any sense of natural progression of the storyline.

In this case, you end up with a run where players make no original contributions. Players expecting to drive their own adventure feel out of control of their experience and dissatisfied. The story, with no naturalistic consequences arising from its protagonists’ efforts, feels contrived and doesn’t ring true. When artificiality grows too extreme, it kills any sense of immersion, which can make it harder for some players to enjoy the game. So ultimately, these efforts to preserve the benefits of narrative structure are self-defeating, because a story of such artless construction is not going to be very moving.

So what is a GM to do, if they want to both shape a strong narrative and allow the players to meaningfully contribute to it? There are a number of design features and running styles that will allow LARPs to strike a balance between actively shaping a strong narrative and applying judicious moderating power to maintain narrative flow, and enabling player agency while accepting some degree of unpredictability.

Even in high-autonomy games, it’s normal for the run-team to bring about a few events of their own. GMs in boffer-style games, where instances of combat are often built into the expectations of play, often set off events for the players to deal with on a schedule that’s already been decided. These GM actions can be planned out beforehand specifically to move the narrative in a particular direction, and their timing can be chosen to keep the flow of events moving at a desirable pace. If the game is unfolding too slowly, the GM can trigger such events earlier to spur things along, or if the plot is happening at a frenetic pace, the GM can decide to delay it. GM-triggered events can be devised on the fly as well, if the need arises. If runtime monitoring shows that necessary progress is not being made when it was supposed to happen organically, a GM can decide to take an action to push things forward in order to compensate, even if it wasn’t originally in the plan. This must be used judiciously, however, as too heavy-handed an intervention can feel as if the story development is being wrested away from the players, as GMs have the final word on what actions actually impact the game. In some forms, like boffer-style and campaigns, this may be a more normally expected tactic, but often in theater-style a lighter touch is expected so that players can experience the story more naturalistically. For example, a GM can always fiat that the in-game events happened a certain way, such as you never actually managed to kill that character or you didn’t actually meet the requirements to break the curse. And if that’s the version they inform other players to act on, that will dictate the reality of the game.

It’s possible to make use of NPCs for this purpose. GMs often take on the roles of NPCs for particular moments, frequently so that they can carry out the aforementioned pre-planned events or interactions. But it’s also an option to create NPCs who are present and active for the duration of the game. The person in the role of such an NPC can be aware of the entire content and direction of the game, and so be prepared to only take actions that serve the narrative purpose. They can time their actions to best advantage with the pacing, they can release information that hasn’t come out in other ways, and they can shape their character arcs to fit what tells the most dramatic story at any given moment. This is resource-intensive—often it requires a member of the run team who has time to do nothing else—but has the advantage of affecting the narrative in a way that feels more naturalistic to players. Indeed, despite the fact that their actions may be preplanned and they may go in with a complete understanding of the plot, skillful performance of an NPC can feel identical to a PC to the other players, so the repercussions of their actions fit in as seamlessly as any of them. At the very least, it can cloak GM intervention in a way that appears less invasive.

Sometimes, however, players are just going to do things that are not compatible with the direction you’re hoping the story to take, or at least ill-timed with current developments. As mentioned before, it is an option to just fiat that the action had no consequences, but generally that kind of heavy-handed GMing feels artless and dissatisfying to players. A more delicate way to mitigate things in this case might be to allow the action’s consequences to occur, but say they do not take effect immediately. A lot of the time player actions require GMs to inform other PCs that they happened in order to have consequences to the game world. In those cases the GM can, rather than neutralizing the effects, simply wait a bit to carry them out until a more advantageous point. This can give time for other plot-important events to occur, or other players a chance to take their own actions that might be prevented if others’ actions impact them right way. Structure comes from not just which events occur, but when they occur, so even subtle rearranging of event sequences can have a meaningful effect.

The right sort of player can be informed ahead of time what certain arcs are supposed to be, so they can choose to take actions that best serve them.

The last line of defense can be tipping players off to the needs of the story, allowing them the information necessary to take structure into account. The “bird-in-ear” technique involves GMs whispering suggestions and information to one player at a time to guide them during a moment of play. Many GMs are reluctant to take this step because of the assumption that a player will not enjoy the game as much if the element of surprise is not maintained. However, many players simply enjoy the experience of traveling through the narrative, and their fun isn’t ruined just because they know what story beats are coming. The right sort of player can be informed ahead of time what certain arcs are supposed to be, so they can choose to take actions that best serve them. They can be informed to hold onto their secret until a certain point in the plot, and then let it out at the time that will create the most drama. They can be encouraged to delay their biggest gambits to late in the game because they stand a chance of taking other players out of play. Many larpers have a sense of dramatic flow and are happy to tailor their game to facilitate it. Players to attempt this with must be chosen carefully, however, as some surely don’t want the surprise of discovering the story to be taken away.

It may seem from all this that player autonomy and narrative structuring are inherently at odds with each other, and there could be some truth to that. But the interest of structure lies in the way that it makes the story better, and player contribution means the inclusion of a creativity and freshness that the writer’s limited perspective cannot necessarily give. The effort to acknowledge the issue and achieve a balance can combine the best of both worlds, resulting in a play experience where the opportunity to freely explore an adventure in the role of a character is shaped and facilitated by the artistic ability and judgment of the writer.

Phoebe Roberts is an MFA-trained playwright and screenwriter who has been larping since 2007. In that time, she has turned her love of storytelling to the writing of twelve live action games, solo and in teams. She is also on the editorial staff for Game Wrap Magazine. Her writing for larp and for other dramatic forms can be found on her website,