Secrecy in Intercon-Style LARP

by Brian Richburg

Every LARP community has unspoken assumptions about LARP, whether they’re about some element of LARP design or what the ultimate goals of LARP are. People whose LARP experiences come from a single community are often unaware of these assumptions, which they tend to take for granted. Talking about these assumptions explicitly is important both for making your community open to players from other LARP communities and enabling experimentation with new forms.

In the Intercon community, one of these assumptions is the importance of secrets and hidden information to our game design. Intercon-style1 games usually contain numerous secrets and surprises which are pre-written into the game materials and revealed by either the players or the GM(s) over the course of gameplay. While these secrets are central to many Intercon-style games from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint, we tend to take their presence for granted rather than seeing it as a design choice. In this article, I’ll be talking about the importance of secrets and hidden information in Intercon-style LARP—where it comes from, how it has influenced our LARP culture, and the effects it has on how we write and discuss theater-style LARP in the Northeast.

What do I mean by secrecy? How does it underlie our games?

When I talk about the unique way in which secrets are important to this style of LARP, I am talking specifically about secrets that are pre-written into the character sheets or other game materials. Many other LARP writing traditions have ways of providing surprises that do not stem from pre-written materials in this way, such as by encouraging players to invent their own character secrets, either individually before the game or in pre-game workshops.

In most Intercon-style games, these pre-written secrets are integral to both the narrative and, in LARPs that feature a gamist element, to the gameplay and challenges presented. On a narrative level, the stories in our games are often driven by secrets. The story beats often consist of surprising revelations of material that is pre-written into player backgrounds. In games in which players cooperate against challenges in the game world itself, those challenges often take the forms of puzzles or mysteries for which the players need to discover the correct answer. For many games in which characters come into direct, mechanical conflict with one another, the primary challenges consist of determining who can be trusted, where other characters’ loyalties actually lie, and what resources people can bring to bear on a conflict. When games feature negotiation, one of the biggest bargaining chips tends to be other characters’ secrets, and the community has coined the phrase “information economy” to reflect that character secrets are often the de facto currency of the game.

Where does the culture of secrecy come from?

People come to LARP from all over: from tabletop roleplay, from improv theater, from historical reenactment and combat sports. Two large influences on the New England theater-style scene were “Assassin” style games and murder mystery games2, both of which hinge on secrets. In the former, players are assigned a hidden “target” which they must get close to and “assassinate” through a variety of means (nerf gun, buzzer traps, etc). In the latter type, people are given a backstory and must probe the inconsistencies in other characters’ stories in order to solve a mystery. It’s not that surprising that as our games grew in complexity and drifted away from these sources, they kept the familiar focus on secrets.

The seriousness with which we treat preserving these secrets stems from how we write games. Intercon-style games are somewhat unique in the sheer amount of written material that goes into them, and thus the amount of prep that they require. Games often have character sheets of 5 pages or more, meaning that a 20-character game could easily contain 100 pages of writing for a 4-hour event. These games can often take dozens of person-hours to create, or even hundreds for some of the larger games. As a result, successful games tend to be re-run several times in order to get more out of the substantial time investment that went into them. It’s not uncommon for these games to be brought back and re-run years down the line, when enough new players have entered the community that haven’t had a chance to experience it in the initial runs. Thus spoilers can remain a concern almost indefinitely.

What are our social norms around secrecy

Social norms around spoilers in the community resemble general common courtesy about spoilers you would see in other media, but with one major difference. When we discuss spoilers with regard to movies or TV shows, the point is usually to protect the media consumer from unintentionally having the surprise ruined for them. Thus spoiler etiquette consists mostly of warning a potential consumer if you are about to discuss substantial spoilers from a work they might not yet have seen. In the etiquette of the Northeastern theater LARP community, the purpose extends to also protect the creator against having the size of the potential unspoiled audience for their work reduced. This concern stems from the prep-intensive nature of our LARPs. LARP writers who invest dozens of hours into writing the materials for a LARP are “paid back” by seeing the enjoyment that players derive from it. Because so often the core gameplay of these LARPs revolves around unearthing secrets, some organizers will go so far as to consider someone who has been spoiled as no longer able to play the game. There’s often a sense in the community that if you spoil a potential player on the secrets of a game, you’re not only depriving that player of the joy of surprise, you’re depriving the writer of seeing a player experience that surprise—or depriving them of having an audience for their game at all.

The fact that our spoiler etiquette extends in this way means that it’s no longer always enough to simply warn that an online discussion may contain spoilers. There is an expectation that the LARP writer has some say over what can be spoiled as well. If a LARP writer requests that people not talk about their game’s twists in public, this request is usually deferred to by those in the community. Beyond this, there is often an expectation that someone wishing to write publicly about a game’s secrets seek approval from the writer first, something that is never seen when discussing other forms of media. When asked how they would feel if someone wrote publicly about their game without consulting them first—even if clearly labelled as containing spoilers—several local LARPers I spoke with admitted that they would feel put out.

Consequences of Secrecy

The prevalence of pre-written secret information has had a number of effects on our design traditions as well as on our culture. Some of these are neutral, quirks that arise from having games heavily built around the revelation of secret information. Take for instance this publication’s namesake, the game wrap. A game wrap is a local tradition, a type of post-LARP debrief specifically structured around the revelation of “what is really going on.” During a game wrap, the GMs or the individual players will often go through and shed light on any major mysteries of the game (“So, who really killed Mr. Body?”), as well as reveal the true natures of characters and what they were after (“Ha, I was really working for the enemy all along!”) This focus on the revelation of secret information serves to differentiate it from debrief in Nordic Larp which tend to focus more on creating a sense of closure and processing the emotional content of the LARP. Because of its focus on revealing in game secrets, some local groups refer to it as a “spill,” as in “to spill one’s secrets.”

Too often, however, the focus on secrecy has had some negative consequences for how we design and discuss games. On the design side, we have the prevalence of the “big twist” LARP (sometimes called a “bait-and-switch” LARP by its detractors.) This is a LARP where the entire advertised premise of the LARP is, in some significant way, inaccurate. Maybe a game advertised as a Victorian comedy of manners is actually a horror game, with several of the characters actually playing vampires. Or maybe a game advertised as high fantasy is actually a post-apocalyptic game, with players finding out that all of their magical artifacts are really just lost technology from before the fall of civilization.

“Big twist” LARPs can lead to unsatisfying gameplay if players are not given sufficiently accurate information to strategize effectively.

These types of games are the subject of growing controversy within the community. For some, they can create an exciting sense of surprise and shock when the player puts together what is really going on. For others, they are seen as breaking the sense of trust that exists between the players and GMs. Locally, many of these games are run at conventions alongside dozens of other LARPs. Players often have a choice between several LARPs in a given time slot at these conventions, but may only make it to a small number of these events in a year. There is often a real sense of frustration when a player chooses a game because it is in a preferred genre, only to find out 15 minutes in that it is really of a different genre that they have no interest in. For players who relish the surprise that these games provide, the twist often has more impact the less they were able to see it coming, which makes writers of these games reluctant to even advertise that the game might not be what is written on the tin.

In more gamist or competitive games, these “big twist” LARPs can lead to unsatisfying gameplay if players are not given sufficiently accurate information to strategize effectively. Because of the simple conflict mechanics that many games employ, which often involve little or no element of player skill, gameplay challenge often consists of taking a calculated risk by choosing whether to engage in conflict in the first place. These risks often incorporate what a player knows (e.g., “Most of the lords openly support my bid for succession over my rival”) as well as “known unknowns” (e.g., “I don’t know if the lords who claim to support my bid will betray me”). “Big twist” LARPs often incorporate an excessive number of “unknown unknowns”: twists

Our culture around secrecy poses even greater problems for how we discuss and write about LARPs.

that a player can’t strategize around because they are beyond the normal boundaries of what they would consider possible in the world as presented (e.g., “One of the lords not supporting my bid is a time-travelling robot, come back from the future to warn my rival of my plot”). Twists like these destroy a player’s ability to take calculated risks, because there are effectively no longer any boundaries to what the “unknown unknowns” might be.

Beyond design, I think our culture around secrecy poses even greater problems for how we discuss and write about LARPs. The Nordic LARP tradition, which also focuses heavily on one-shot games, has a long tradition of writing about their games. Publications like the Knutepunkt books books and contain articles that both document how the LARP played out, as well as provide a post-mortem analysis on the design decisions that were made and how they succeeded or failed. No similar tradition exists in the Intercon community. Last year’s Intercon featured over 75 individual LARPs none of which, to my knowledge, were the subject of similar documentation. While some discussion happens on social media, of course, I am aware of only one blogger who provides public post-game reports of games run in the community with any regularity, and even then concern over spoilers often leads to them being heavily redacted.

The problem with this is that public, written discussion is what allows us to learn design lessons from games that we haven’t played personally. This failure to document LARP design puts us at risk of needing to re-invent the wheel and repeating the avoidable mistakes of the past. While in-person game discussion is common, taboos around spoilers often mean that such discussions hinge around games that all people present have already played in. Relying solely on in-person discussion makes our design knowledge unavailable to newcomers just joining the community, and limits cross-pollination of ideas with other communities with which we are not in personal contact.

Where do we go from here?

Despite the problems I see stemming from a focus on secrets and spoiler culture, I don’t think that going to the other extreme of full-transparency in LARP writing would be a good thing for our community. While it has its drawbacks, our LARP traditions around secrecy also allow us to create experiences that are difficult to provide in an environment where everything is known to everyone. These secrets allow us to create intricate mysteries and carefully balanced webs of intrigue that wouldn’t be possible if everything were made available to players beforehand. Creating these types of experiences in LARP is a unique strength of our community, and one that would be a shame to completely lose if we were to move universally towards fully transparent games.

The problem then isn’t secrecy, but how we prioritize surprise over other forms of engagement. By treating the preservation of in-game secrets as something sacred—an absolute which we don’t even think of compromising on when we design—we miss opportunities when we could trade a small amount of surprise for a larger improvement somewhere else in the LARP experience.

Take for instance the design tradition of contingency envelopes. These are envelopes containing written information that are given to players with the instruction to read the contents when a specific event happens. A common use of these is an envelope with the instruction to open when you see another specific character in the game. The contents go on to tell you that you recognize that character as someone that you did not expect to see in game, such as a family member that your character thought was dead. The problem is that maintaining the surprise of that character’s appearance in this way also disrupts the flow of what should otherwise be a very dramatic scene. At a moment that should be a dramatic reunion, you now have two players fishing through their pockets for envelopes to open instead. We need to ask ourselves if that disruption to immersion and drama is worth spoiling the surprise that an unexpected character is in game. We should look closely at how impactful that surprise will be, and how much disruption preserving it until game time will cause, and consider giving some information ahead of time instead.

Dealing with the question of the “Big Twist” LARP is a tricky one, because for all their pitfalls, there really is a subset of players that really enjoy them. Here I think we again need to consider matters in terms of the tradeoffs we are making, which means avoiding the big twist when the surprise isn’t actually going to yield a big payoff, or when it is particularly likely to annoy players. For instance, the revelation of supernatural in an otherwise mundane LARP is a common trope in our LARP tradition, and it doesn’t have the impact that it once did, as players have come to expect it. Furthermore, introducing supernatural elements to what is billed as a mundane LARP centered around interpersonal drama is more likely to annoy players than merely blending two fantastical genres. It’s also important that a twist not render a character’s decisions during the game meaningless. The revelation that a magical artifact is really technological in nature might change how you look at the world while still leaving your strategies intact; the addition of a time traveller to an otherwise historical LARP changes the rules of the in-game world entirely.

Most importantly of all, we need to change our culture around spoilers to avoid stifling public discussion of LARPs. I’m not suggesting abandoning the common courtesy we extend around spoilers in other media. Rather, I’m suggesting that we need to treat it exactly as we would any other medium: warn people when we intend to discuss spoilers and let them make their own decisions from there. Ultimately, I think that writers need to lead the way here, both by expressing that frank discussion of our LARPs is O.K., and by analyzing and documenting our own LARPs once they are past the initial set of runs. Bad design is ultimately a fixable problem, but surrendering the tools we have to improve our designs is a much more serious problem. And open discussion of our design decisions is one of the most powerful tools for improving game design at our disposal.

Brian Richburg has been active in the New England theater-style and live-combat LARP communities for almost a decade. He is involved in a number of NEIL projects, including volunteer work for the Intercon LARP conventions and Game Wrap.

  1. By “Intercon-style Larp” I mean a particular style of one-shot theater-style LARP using pre-generated characters, which is popular in the American Northeast and is typical of games run at the Intercon conventions. It is not meant to imply that this type of LARP only runs at Intercon, or that only this type of LARP runs at Intercon. 

  2. Budin, Nat. “Over Time: Intercon and evolution of theatre-style larp in the Northeast” Wyrdcon Companion 2012. 2012. 65-70.