Freeform Dramatic Roleplay

LARPs are all about getting dressed up, either with groups of people who got in heavily costumed and shouting spells while others wailed away on each with foam swords or actively plotting about the plots against their domains or the biggest threat to the Freehold with earnest index cards and play rock papers scissors, right? Well, just as there are innumerable styles of play, and people willing to experiment with design of more traditional tabletop formats, there are people who like to play around with how to run different styles of LARP, and I wound up stumbling into a freeform style that prioritizes how people get and stay in character, and what they do to make a story interesting entirely over mechanics.

For a long time, I had a specific idea of what a LARP was, mostly through the way that I watched it be mocked in more mainstream media. That was definitely closer to what I now know is a Boffer LARP. And, in spite of others making fun of the seeming silliness it was portrayed as, I was still intrigued. People were seriously getting into character and seemed to be having fun while doing it. Unfortunately, at a college that was fairly isolated and without a car or a way in, I really didn’t have any idea of how I might get started and I wasn’t about to go about working on getting a costume and trying to hide replica weapons in a dorm room until I actually got a feel for it. So, when my school had its annual gaming con, despite my own glee at the Left 4 Dead LAN party and the Guitar Hero tournament (yes, I am dating myself here) I kept an eye out on some of the module listings. 

Among them was something called “The Dramatic Roleplay Tournament” (still done yearly). It didn’t require anyone to have a rulebook, or a premade character, or anything really. It was a very different thing than I was used to from my years of playing D&D. I was handed a character sheet, and found out that the scenario was about a support group for addicts in the basement of a hospital…something a lot more mundane than the epic adventures (or misadventures) that I had become accustomed to. Except, as I read, I found out that my character was a serial killer who had nearly gotten caught, and was now looking for a way to get counseling to help keep the urge at bay. Well, until there was an explosion, and we found ourselves trapped under a mountain of rubble and it turned out that there was more than one killer in the mix. 

There weren’t any stats or skills given. The drama and intrigue was simply the claustrophobia of a bunch of assorted addicts all forced into close proximity with each other, each with their own secrets, manipulations, and baggage and now facing an emotional stressor without their safety mechanisms to keep the bad habits away. What I remember was finding out that the coffee had been poisoned by a resident black widow and many of us were slowly succumbing, and I “died” with the hands of another character around my neck.

According to the man who started it, the idea began while he was running a D&D LARP at a con back in 1994. He was one of several GMs who were presiding over the game, and the rogue was on a side quest and was trying to lockpick a door. The revelation that struck was that this was a player who had an idea that would make the story more interesting, and in this case, the mechanics were making the game less interesting by preventing the story from going forward. So, he chose to neglect the roll to keep the story going. 

While this is hardly unusual for a GM to do behind the screen, is now expressed in systems that utilize partial successes (PbtA games) or a success with a cost (Blades in the Dark and Torchbearer), to my knowledge there wasn’t a ton of this thinking being put into game design at the time. With that revelation, the GM decided to extend the concept of story and character based storytelling into LARPs he designed. In a typical hours-long module, there would be characters presented to players as they stepped in the door: a description of who they were, their background, some of their personality, and often the character’s initial opinion of who they would be interacting with. That’s it. Players would be given about half an hour to acquaint themselves with their characters and ask questions to flesh out the mental image. 

From there, the GM would set the scene, prepare a few things to prod along the plot to ensure that it wouldn’t get stale, and then turn the players loose to interact with each other, using the reactions to weave their responses into the narrative and building to some sort of conclusion. The “winners” of early rounds were people who played a character interestingly and well, and overall contributed to the storytelling. Each round was self contained, with the events of one module having no effect on the other, and people could sign up for as many or as few sessions as they wanted. Those who the GM determined had done best were winnowed into a final group in the last session (with the others invited to be NPCs), with the best final performance considered the winner.

Obviously, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea. The character that players are handed are nothing like the traditional games that many gamers are used to. There were no stats, skills, attributes, or inventory, simply the character’s story. There was no XP gained at the end of a session, and you would likely never see that character again. Who “won” was decided by a pretty subjective margin: the judgement of whoever was running the game. There is a very decent chance that someone who had participated in another form of LARP would be unsatisfied, never mind people whose pleasure of gaming comes from making gamebreaking mechanical choices. 

But, for a subset anyway, there are plenty of people who enjoy the format because it is entirely about a segment of gaming that they love: the roleplaying. Because the format strips away everything else the decisions your character makes, and how much fluidity you give them to change or act within the initial brief, is entirely up to the player. It can be an incredibly liberating and challenging experience at the same time. One example was a module where the group had captured a government official who we thought could tell us all the answers about our conspiracy theories. Out of character, I was positive that one of the players was an informant…but my character brief had listed that the supposed informant was one that was implicitly trusted. The other player was clever enough not to do anything obvious, so I was forced to ask a dire question: what would my character do? In the end, it led to our group being messily killed, but looking back, I don’t think we would have had as interesting an ending without it, and I stand by the decision.

While the majority of sessions that I have seen this format used in have been limited to a few hours, I was recently introduced to an expanded version. The “Con” was held at the event planner’s house, and rather than a slew of miniature sessions, he decided to hold one large module. Players were given lanyards, and whenever they were worn they were in character and were free to discuss with any other players in-character. If they wanted to plan something, or needed something adjudicated, they would ask one of three GMs who were wandering around. During breaks, the GMs would confer and answer questions. The result was a far more elaborate story than before, with details that I honestly still likely won’t get a full answer about, if only because of the number of people involved. It certainly took a great deal more investment, but the story became a vast, serpentine power struggle filled with intrigue, romance, and treachery. I think that it was the most roleplaying I have ever done in a single setting and I consider it a highlight to my gaming career, even if it is a different format.

As previously mentioned, this sort of roleplay is not for everyone, yet here at Cannibal Halfling, our mission is to bring games and gamers together, and this certainly is a game even if it is of a different sort. If anything, I would recommend giving it a try some time if only as a way to hone your skills at roleplaying, and maybe even try out some tips and tricks when it comes to improvisation. I’ll see you out on the stage!

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