Thursday, October 17, 2013

What Tabletop Games can learn from LARP

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.

Character Agency
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 games.

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.

Rules Lite
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 players.

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.


  1. You've made a great comparison with some excellent points. We mainly TT but have an excellent GM and spend about 1 hour 'off table' -just letting the characters chat and develop - for every hour dice rolling and orc-bashing. It seems to redress that balance you have highlighted between TTs and LARPS quite well and definately improves the group dynamic and the 'plot'. Great post, thanks fr sharing :)

  2. Thanks - it sounds like your game has a really good balance.