In many LARPs, especially secrets-and-powers LARPs, the writers and GMs are seen as the authorities on the game’s premise and setting: in many ways, the arbiters of what’s true. However, even if a GM is the ultimate authority, their knowledge of the “right answer” doesn’t matter if that information doesn’t make it into game or gets overlooked. It’s what the players collectively believe that matters in practice. Putting a fact into game isn’t a simple operation. It can be done in many ways to varying levels, and acting carefully when writing can help make sure that the way you express a fact supports your intention and will properly be interpreted by the player. One framework that can be helpful for this is to assign a game fact three qualities:
truth: how well established a fact is in the game materials
mechanical support: how well game mechanics reflect a fact
impact: how much a fact meaningfully affects things people care about
Even if a GM positions themself as the ultimate authority, they won’t be the first resource players go to in order to form impressions of the game world. First, players will look at the scenario document, their character sheets, and other game materials. But not all of these materials are created equal. Something that’s just in one player’s packet has much weaker truth than something that’s known by multiple characters. Something that’s in a scenario document that goes to everyone, that’s an even stronger truth. For example, if it says in someone’s character sheet that she’s the world’s greatest swordswoman, but it doesn’t say that anywhere else in game, then people are going to react to her very differently than if the scenario establishes that the world-famous swordswoman Yukiko has paid an unexpected visit. She may be able to convince people that she’s a famous swordswoman, but this fact will still often feel more questionable or uncertain if it’s not well-established. Similarly, something that’s discussed in depth on a sheet is established more strongly than something mentioned in passing.
It’s worth noting that weak truth isn’t necessarily bad. A gamewriter generally shouldn’t try to cover every possible detail of culture or history in a setting document, because that can distract from the parts that are most important (effectively weakening their truth). Many characters might not be well-known, for example, and it’s fine for other characters to learn who they are in-game. Similarly, a cultural detail that’s only relevant for a character’s backstory or motivation and not likely to be a big point in game might be fine to be present only in that character’s sheet. Conversely, if the detail is relevant to a plot they have in progress, it may be worth establishing it more broadly. When a fact like “only nobles can be generals” is the main obstacle of someone’s plot, the plot is much less compelling if no one else is aware of this fact.
In particular, truth can be an issue with player-augmented backstories. Many players will be inclined to fill in details of their past or the world when something comes up that their character would know that isn’t specified in their sheets. This is often a positive addition to a game, embellishing the world and making roleplaying and conversation more natural and fun. The truth of facts made up by players will necessarily be weak, however. While it’s impossible to always avoid the risk of players in different parts of game inadvertently contradicting each other with these created facts, it’s possible to limit the chances of the worse problem of such player-made facts contradicting game materials. Explain the scenario and setting history clearly enough to all players to give them a reasonably solid basis for improvising details. Relatedly, be sure to make absent facts clear rather than just leaving them out. If you don’t, it’s easy for a player to assume that it’s fine to make something up when someone asks them a setting question, leading to confusion and derailed plots. For example, if how the last king of the land died is a mystery some group in game is working on, make sure the fact that the details of his death aren’t generally known is part of the scenario for everyone. This can help avoid creating traps for creative players.
In some cases, giving the players information the characters might not have can be helpful for setting expectations. Being clear about the genre of a LARP is one way of doing this. If someone claims they’re a vampire, others might think they’re crazy in a realistic fiction LARP. In an urban fantasy LARP a character would be more likely to be open-minded, even if they don’t have any awareness of vampires. More specific indications of what to expect can also be useful. For example, “it would be absolutely unthinkable for anyone to disguise themself as a member of a different caste” both makes the cultural assumption clear and also hints to players that disguises are a part of the game. This helps strengthen the truth of the disguises of various characters in game and helps others get into a mindset to play up their reactions to revelations. It’s also generally good to try to avoid creating misleading expectations in the rules and scenario. If there are secretly vampires in game that are immune to bullets, it can be better to make it explicit that some characters may not fall down when shot. If the rules inadvertently create an impression that bullets work the same on everyone, this could mislead players and lead them to make bad choices. This sort of explicit player-level communication isn’t necessary for all games, but can be a useful tool to help get people on the same page.
In general, it’s worth thinking hard about how you’re communicating your understanding of the world and premise of your LARP. Facts that are important to plots, twists, and dramatic revelations should be strongly established across multiple sources. For embellishments that are less crucial, weaker truth can be appropriate, and it can be okay to have fewer references in game materials. Carefully considering your sheets in context with each other and the scenario, especially for key facts, can help your game maintain consistency and proper levels of truth to achieve your objectives.
The degree to which mechanics in a game support a particular fact is important in avoiding frustrating players, supporting immersion, and ensuring that players form correct impressions during a game. It’s reasonable for players to expect that the skills and abilities their characters have will be reflected by the game’s mechanics. For example, if Yukiko is the world’s greatest swordswoman, her player is going to feel like she should be able to win swordfights in game. If there’s no combat mechanic at all, or one dominated by player skill that the player is not very good at, then Yukiko’s player doesn’t have the ability to use a major part of her character during game. This is related to how, in any story, if we’re told that a character is exceptional in some way, we expect them to be able to use this to accomplish things in the story.
If Yukiko is the world’s greatest swordswoman and there’s no combat mechanic, then her player doesn’t have the ability to use a major part of her character.
Mechanical support disconnects can lead to immersion problems, as well. Other players form expectations about what a character should be able to do and when they’ll be useful. For example, if someone’s attacking people, other characters might look to the great swordswoman to stop them. If her player doesn’t think she has the advantage mechanically, that can put her in an awkward position of trying to come up with excuses in-game for an out-of-game issue or trying anyways and failing. Conversely, an unarmed ordinary person should probably not be able to take down a fully-armored knight in normal circumstances. Events that don’t seem to make sense can make it hard for characters to figure out how to react appropriately. Players have to figure out if it was just a mechanical weirdness, and thus not plot-relevant, or if it was evidence of a secret in-universe. If there is no secret reason for the confusing event, players may chase a very frustrating red herring for much of the game. Keeping mechanics consistent with in-universe expectations can help avoid these issues and reinforce player’s perceptions of the in-game universe.
These concerns aren’t limited to combat abilities. Magical abilities sometimes have an issue where either they’re very open-ended, and thus have enough mechanical support to overshadow other ways of solving problems in-game, or they’re limited to a very specific list of predefined uses, which can seem at odds with backstory or setting. Thinking carefully about the magic system and finding in-universe limits that work with the mechanics you want can help. Alternately, you can provide a reason, such as lack of access to necessary ingredients, why characters are limited in-game. Other skills can be hard to give mechanical support to, such as ones that represent something hard to simulate in game (e.g., the ability to fly). If a character is likely to find a situation where they should be able to benefit from that ability, it might be worth either revisiting the character concept or coming up with a way to give the ability some functionality even if you can’t capture its full flexibility. (A character that can fly might mechanically be able to avoid combat, for example.) Otherwise, abilities characters supposedly have may feel unsubstantial or false.
When thinking about mechanical support, it’s important to be aware of what purpose you’re trying to achieve and how the various abilities and items you’re putting into game assist that purpose. Less is often more: not every character skill needs to be a mechanized ability, and having extraneous abilities that aren’t likely to come up can make it harder for players to remember to use their more interesting or relevant abilities. Over-complicated, confusing, or useless mechanical support can be worse than no mechanical support at all. Often you have to put some limits on what characters can do to keep the game manageable and balanced. Having characters with professions of no practical use can still add fun flavor or depth and is one way to make characters feel more distinctive, but giving characters professions that should be useful in-game but inexplicably aren’t can impair your game universe’s verisimilitude.
Not providing mechanical support to the extent that it interferes with immersion can be unfun. In that situation it’s good to think about if you can either find a meaningful way to add mechanical support or change the facts to better work with the mechanical support you can provide. Just because you want a party or diplomatic meeting that’s resolved without combat doesn’t mean you can’t have a character with fighting skill in their backstory. But when writing, try to avoid creating facts with weak mechanical support that seem like they should be able to resolve situations in game. One way to have backstory that doesn’t interfere with game is to include a reason why the skills aren’t relevant. For example, if you want to put a strong fighter in a game with no combat mechanic, you could talk about how they’re not here to fight and why in their character sheet. Measures like these can help avoid frustration and help the facts of your game hold together well.
Mechanics that feature player skill are a particular source of mechanical support issues. Nerf or boffer combat mechanics and player skill-based puzzles can be a lot of fun, and many people enjoy them in LARPs. However, either you only cast players as characters with corresponding skill levels, biasing your casting, or you end up with inconsistencies where the character’s effective skill in game does not match what’s on their character sheet. Modifying character abilities to “handicap” based on player skill is an option, but it’s hard to measure player skill and the value of tweaks precisely enough to do it rigorously. Striking the right balance here can be tough, but is often important to keeping the practical facts of your game in line with the original intent.
It’s important to remember that mechanics are often an important part of shaping the player consensus. A fact that lacks mechanical support is likely to be forgotten or distrusted by the players as a whole. Even if you’re convinced that Yukiko is a great swordswoman and you’ve established this well in the scenario, if she keeps losing fights players are liable to forget this or assume that there’s something up. (Maybe she’s an impostor, or secretly ill.) Since LARPs often feature secrets and twists, players will often question information in their sheets that seems inaccurate, even if that’s not the GM’s intention. It’s often ineffective to try to correct such things at runtime, so it’s best to try to avoid such situations. Mechanics are one of the main tools you have for shaping this consensus over the course of game, so it’s important to use it to support your intent so the practical and theoretical realities of the game align.
Another thing to think about when putting something into a game is who’s going to care about it, and why. In any story, if a detail isn’t relevant to the plot and doesn’t seem to have some other significance or meaning, it’s liable to be forgotten. In a LARP, unless a fact is connected to characters’ goals or the characters have some other reason to care about it during game, it’s liable to feel hollow or unimportant in a similar way. A fact that’s irrelevant to game is very similar to something that’s not true at all. For example, if someone’s an elite pick pocket with abilities that let them steal from people, this may not seem so inspiring if no one has any items to steal that are useful in game or will help them achieve their goals.
Concrete consequences that affect the rest of the game are great sources of impact. Combat abilities, for example, often have high impact because the ability to restrain or kill someone can have dramatic effects on the victim and those they are involved with. Information-gathering abilities can vary widely: learning crucial secrets can have high impact, but if the information gained is overly vague or players are unlikely to know to ask the right questions, the ability can end up largely irrelevant. An ability that’s never used usefully has little difference from an ability that’s not in the game at all.
Having multiple characters with incompatible goals can help increase the impact of the thing in contention. For example, if multiple suitors are seeking the prince’s hand in marriage, that gives the prince’s search for love much stronger impact than if it was entirely open-ended. Many resource-based plots, while less directly oppositional, work in a similar way, leading different parties to compete over something limited. Insufficient opposition or scarcity can make a plot resolve too quickly, which can make it feel unimportant or uninteresting even if in-universe it should be a big deal. Conversely, having characters compete ensures that at least those directly involved care and often encourages others to take sides as well, heightening the impact of the plot.
It’s important to think about the impact of a character achieving their goals, as well. A plot feels higher-impact if winning it affects the rest of game in some way, and low impact if the results of success don’t materialize until after game’s over. For example, finding a lost pirate treasure is more exciting if the money inside is relevant to other plots. A ritual that has dramatic effects in-game that other characters need to react to is much more exciting than being told that it’ll happen tomorrow. Seeing the effects of a success or failure spread into other parts of game increases the number of people that care about said success or failure and thus establish the plot more strongly throughout game.
Secrets are one area where impact issues often arise. It’s common for a character to have some “horrible secret” they’re worried about getting out. A secret by itself, however, can easily fail to affect game in a meaningful way. For a secret to have impact on game, you need two things: reasons for others to care and some way for it to get out. Other characters that care will have reactions that drive interesting play and help the character with the secret feel they have impact on the rest of game. A way for the secret to get out could be a mechanical way it can be discovered, someone else who knows the secret who may blackmail or negotiate about it, or there may be a motivation for the character to reveal their own secret when the time is right. In some games, it might even make sense to suggest that the player ensure the secret comes out even if the character is trying to keep it hidden. Having a real chance that the secret will come out and interesting consequences when it does gives a secret real weight. If a secret never gets out, or no one cares when it does, it doesn’t feel meaningful and ends up functionally similar to not having secret at all.
It’s important to keep in mind that the impact of an ability can depend a lot on other characteristics of the game. Some abilities that seem high-impact on paper can be prohibitively hard to use in practice. For example, the ability to knock someone out from behind seems powerful, but it might not be in practice if gamespace is small enough that it’s basically impossible to use without getting caught. The likely negative consequences outweigh any benefit to using the ability, leading to weak impact. In a game with a more spread-out gamespace without line-of-sight between different areas, such an ability would have much stronger impact. In general, impact depends a lot on how something interacts with the rest of game, rather than being evaluated in a vacuum.
Another idea to keep in mind is that low-impact plots aren’t necessarily bad. The issues with player skill-based mechanics can be partially avoided if those plots are relatively low-impact. For example, if Nerf guns are only used for a tournament, but not real life-and-death combat, then even if a player is particularly bad at the mechanic, that won’t get them killed or keep them from enjoying other parts of the game. Along with this, having plots with different levels of impact can help manage time in game. If plots end up being harder than the GMs anticipated, players can drop their lower-impact plots without feeling like they’re failing; conversely, if plots end up being easier, they still have something to pursue to avoid feeling bored. Evaluating plots and other game elements in terms of impact can help gamewriters act with intention, so that if something is low-impact it’s a well-thought-out design decision rather than an unfortunate accident.
What players value in terms of impact can vary widely. Some players care mainly about achieving the goals specified in their character sheet, or the goals that would be important to their interpretation of their character. Some players are happy to be doomed, but likely still prefer that their doomed struggle interacts with the rest of game in some meaningful way. Even a player who just enjoys roleplaying a character and doesn’t care about pursuing goals still generally prefers to have people react to their roleplaying and have the interactions progress in an interesting way over the course of the game. Whether players are playing to achieve goals, playing for fun interactions, playing to see what happens, or some combination, they likely want to feel like their choices and actions matter in the context of the game. Thinking about the impact of their characteristics, abilities, and plots when designing and writing your game can help ensure that everyone feels relevant and no one gets sidelined.
When writing a game, it’s easy to assume that writing something in your materials is enough to establish it as fact. However, how effective this is depends on many factors. It can be helpful to think about how strongly established various game elements are in terms of truth, mechanical support, and impact, and from there determine whether these qualities support the intentions you had when creating them. Thinking of games from these perspectives can help avoid pitfalls and make games that are more fun and compelling for everyone.
This article was strongly based on the concepts of Truth, Mechanical Support, and Valence from the tabletop roleplaying game Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist & Weaver of Their Fates by Jenna Moran, available online at http://imago.hitherby.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/wtf.pdf.