I had been planning a post on tabletop gaming versus live-action gaming, then Jenni went and stole my thunder. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I actually wanted to explore was what lessons I think tabletop games can learn from theatre-form LARP.
LARP killed the tabletop star?
In my local roleplaying community LARP has been on the rise over recent
years, and tabletop games and events have suffered diminished attendance when
tabletop and LARP events clash. Some tabletop GMs I know have complained
that this has meant some of the more creative and immersive gamers in the
community are now less likely to pull up a chair at their tabletop games at a
‘con when offered a LARP in the same slot. Certainly the LARP community has
been growing and flourishing in a way that the local tabletop community has
not. Why is this? What makes LARP more appealing to some players
than a tabletop experience?
There are many differences; some people enjoy costuming and set dressing
(perhaps better termed 'immersion'), others prefer romance or intrigue plots,
which are more elegantly executed in a live setting with a larger cast, than across a table with the GM playing multiple NPCs. There’s not much
tabletop can do to compete with this, but I do think there are some other
things that tabletop can learn from the LARP experience.
In most parlour style LARPs players are given a high level of character
agency. They usually have a background, contacts and goals to try and
achieve during the game. From that point on, the player has almost
complete control of their character. There is usually little or no
GM moderation, and often no interaction with a GM at all. The
players are effectively in charge of creating their own fun. This is a pretty
big challenge to traditional tabletop games, although much less so to indie
This freedom can be very liberating, and I think the thing that tabletop
games can take away from this is that many players enjoy a high degree of
freedom in the way they explore their characters, and interact with plot.
To my mind this is pretty much the opposite of the ‘railroading’ common in many
traditional tabletop outings. Although I don’t think this means
traditional games should move away from railroading entirely, I do think that
there is cause to examine just how many assumptions, set-piece scenes and
pre-determined outcomes feature in tabletop scenarios. Do the characters
genuinely have agency? If not, can some elements be constructed more flexibly
to allow other outcomes? Ideally a scenario should have a number of
moving pieces, which can be added, removed, shifted, or replaced with entirely
new character-generated pieces as required.
Systems and rules are often extremely light in LARP. In general
they follow a principal that the rules should be secondary to interaction
between characters and have as light a touch on the game as possible. I
think this is a principal that would enhance tabletop games for many players.
To be clear, some player like rules, mechanics and dice irrespective of the
game or setting, but others are much more focused on story character and
drama. If you want your game to appeal to these players, the rules should
support and enhance the game, not shackle and slow it.
There are so many different rules and hacks available, that it should be
possible to find the right kind of rules, for the right kind of game. For
example, in Trail of Cthulhu, a game about following clues, characters spend a
relevant investigative point, mark it off their sheets, and narrate how it
manifests, automatically earning the clue. The system supports players
rapidly accessing clues, and building some narrative details into the
experience, while balancing their actions against a finite pool. In
EPOCH, during a Challenge Round players choose the level of injury or trauma
their character sustains from cards in their hand, then narrate how this comes
to pass -the focus is on the impact of the challenge for the character,
not the mechanical resolution to achieve this outcome. In wrestling game
Piledrivers and Powerbombs, ring scenes are simple and fast flowing, with
players drawing playing cards, then holding or folding – promoting a narrative style
combat without slowing the game for mathematical calculations, or the
translation of actions into game-terms to apply a resolution.
So the question I think a tabletop GM should ask themselves of a
scenario is: ‘what is the core activity of this scenario for the characters?’
then ensure the system being used is optimised or streamlined to enhance and
support this activity. It can be tough – we all have our favourite
systems, but unless your players share this love, it is worth at least
investigating other possibilities.
Sharing the Spotlight
Due to the high level of character agency in LARP, and the ability for
multiple conversations and encounters to happen simultaneously, the amount of
down-time in LARP can be pretty low. Compare this with a tabletop game of
say, 5 players where it is unlikely that more than 1 or 2 characters are
narrating actions or speaking at once, and often the GM is speaking and all of
the players are listening. In this situation there is a high level of
down-time for some players – particularly if there are folks in the game who
enjoy the spotlight, and others who are quieter or more retiring.
In some games, a less description from a player equates to a lower
levels of action involving their character, meaning that both player and
character are less involved in the scenario if they are overshadowed by
others. Both traditional and some indie games have tried to correct this
balance through mechanics (e.g. combat rounds & character-specific powers
or story points & narrative negotiations). Nevertheless, there is
generally going to be a higher degree of downtime in a tabletop game for the
In my view, the key to achieving a better balance is through game
management by the GM – which is to say being aware of the amount of spotlight
time each player/character is getting, and trying to balance this as much as
possible. In addition, encouraging the players to share or build on one-another’s
narration, and interact more is likely to reduce downtime and mean the players
are more engaged. It’s not always easy, but it is an important step in
making sure all the players are having a great time.