Theatre LARPs: Play Like A GM   

I was reading through some old Nightflyer posts, and came across an article entitled “Play Like A Protagonist”, by Alasdair Sinclair.

This got me thinking about some of the different expectations on a player between Tabletop games and Theatre LARP/freeform. In a freeform, most of the plot is driven entirely by how the players are interacting with each other, and that’s something the GM has little control over. Possibly the most disconcerting thing about GMing a freeform is that once a game starts, you have no idea what’s actually happening. Where are the magic items? Have the good friends betrayed each other yet? How close is the villain to achieving their dastardly plan? Someone knows the answer, but it’s not the GM.

Unwritten Rules of Play

This places an enormous amount of trust in the players. You need them to think a bit like mini GMs; to act in ways that help everyone’s game, and not act in ways that would screw things up.  There’s a whole host of things that players learn to do, and it’s not often explicitly mentioned to new players; you watch, copy others, until you just ‘know’ how to play the game.

Probably the number one thing to remember is: Information is there to be shared. If you know something, then let other people know. If you have a secret, expect it to come out – better yet, confide in someone you trust, just to make sure. The same is true of items: don’t hoard things, especially when you have no particular need for the item yourself.

The reason why this is less obvious than it should be is that character sheets often include goals like: “Keep your involvement in the death of your cousin a secret”, or comments like “you’ve brought your grandmother’s necklace”. Both of these examples fail to inform the player that the writer’s likely intention is that this secret will definitely not be kept, and that someone else may be holding your grandmother’s necklace by the end of the game; worse, they sound like they are encouraging the opposite.

It is also assumed that a player will endeavour to follow the brief given on their character sheet. If you read that you’re an orphan who cares about your friends, likes the circus, and is trying to track down your birth mother, and you decide to murder your friends and become a jam making expert, then there is a good chance you will screw up the game for whoever is playing your friends and your birth mother by removing a large chunk of plot.

Narrative Structure

A typical plot structure for a lot of stories goes something like this: Setup; Conflict; Resolution. Something similar happens in a theatre LARP, often seemingly by magic. The game begins, and the players spend a while wandering around the room, introducing themselves, talking about their most important goals, and generally establishing who everyone is, what they want, and how this might fit with what you want. After a while, the pace begins to ramp up. People start to do things. Information and items change hands. The villains achieve things, while the heroes suffer some setbacks. Their clashes build.

Finally, in the last ten minutes of the game, everything comes to a head! The villains’ hour of triumph is at hand. They get a moment to do something cool. Then the enormous band of heroes appear to oppose them in a dramatic final showdown. People die dramatically. Suddenly everyone wants to get married. Things end in a satisfying denouement.

This is not an accident. This is the players, acting as mini GMs to ensure the game works out in a satisfying way. Sure, the writers will (usually) have this sort of structure in mind when they wrote their plots; and sure, the GMs will have been rushing around, trying to speed things up or slow them down as needed. But as mentioned above, once your freeform kicks off, what happens is mostly in the hands of the players. Players who do what they can to go along with the structure, who will themselves push things or start new things or delay things, are adored treasures.

I think the group with the hardest role to play here are the villains. Oxford players are often familiar with the idea of playing to lose; this is a vital skill for a good villain. A villain player needs to build their rise and fall in a directly opposite pattern to the hero. They need to know how far to go: far enough to provide a credible threat, and far enough that they have a good game themselves –  but not so far that their victory is overwhelmingly inevitable, and not so far that they cause distress to the other players.

Player Goals

It’s usual in theatre LARPs to have explicit character goals; very rarely do I see player goals. I have however played in games with goals like “go down in a blaze of glory”; “have fun”; or “Find a way to save your finance [GM Note: this is your character’s goal, and pursuing it should help your plot; but you should expect to fail and have a nice angsty scene].” Thinking about and describing player goals in this way can be useful, and a nicely direct way of getting players to think like GMs.

A particularly good example of a rule designed to address player goals is the Paperclip Rule. This is a fantastic and very simple idea. It goes like this: if you find yourself at a bit of a lose end, unsure of what to do, then put a paperclip on your name badge. If you see another player wearing a paperclip on their name badge, then you should go out of your way to involve them in some of your plot.

I have been considering whether this rule could be extended, to further co-opt players into fulfilling player goals. Perhaps some marker meaning “Please foil my dastardly plans”? Or “Please cause me terrible angst”? What about “Kidnap fodder”?


Like Indie games in tabletops, there is a rise in theatre LARPs making use of improvised storytelling techniques. In such games, the ‘GM’ is usually there to mediate and provide a framework; the events and characters are developed directly by the players, with pre-game workshops are often used to create the initial background and set-up.

Allowing the players responsibility for the game like this can be a great thing. There are more ideas to throw into the mix. The players can be more invested in the development of a story they had a hand in creating. You end up with characters that are a better match for what the player wanted to try out. On the other hand, not only does the GM not know what’s happening, they now don’t even know what might be happening. This can lead to its own problems; for example, you can’t give out trigger warnings for a game if you’ve got no idea what might come up. I have also found that plots tend to be less intricate, since other players need to be able to know about and remember things. So far I have not seen an improvised game where a player has misused the trust in them to mess up the game for other players, but this is a risk – though whether this is more or less than in more ‘traditional’ freeforms I don’t know.

A simple technique for player improvisation is “Yes, And…”. Any statement given by a player should be followed by agreeing and furthering the idea, usually by beginning a follow up statement with the words “Yes, and”.  The key concept is not to deny what other people have made up, but to build on their ideas.

3rd Party GMing

Some games take a much more direct approach, and just ask the players outright to be GMs. The third party GM approach is this: if two or more players want a GM ruling on a conflict, they should consult a neutral third player. Simple, but frees up the GMs from making a lot of judgement calls when they need to be doing other things.

A variation on this is to have pre-written mini adventures, and ask players who go n expeditions to find a willing player to run it for them. Slightly more subtly, I’ve also seen some players being given the ability to assign some sort of award to other players for doing something; for example, I ran a game set in Never Never Land where some players could give out Adventure points for good storytelling.


Because the GMs are not managing the game closely like in a tabletop game, the players of a theatre LARP become a much more valuable game resource (particularly since I feel the GMs are also an often underutilised resource, but that’s a ramble for later). Playing with half an eye on creating a fun and dramatic game will enhance the game, not only for the other players, but also for you as they bounce off and react to you. So: try playing like a GM – because this is your game.




4 thoughts on “Theatre LARPs: Play Like A GM   

  1. The use of the word “secret” in character write-ups is almost always a mistake for just the reason you suggest. It requires the player to meta-game in order to play the character “as intended”. Using that construction in your LARP character write-ups is a novice mistake one should grow out of as fast as possible.

    • Yes, I agree – “keep your secret” is almost always a silly goal to put on a character sheet. “Your secret is just eating you up inside; confide in your friend so you can figure out what to do about it” is slightly better; or perhaps “You’d prefer to keep it a secret, but you think someone else knows. Decide how you’re going to deal with the fall-out.” It’s something a lot of games assume the player knows about, and it can make the game that bit less fun for a new player who doesn’t understand; better to make it clear what’s likely to happen.

    • When I was still somewhat new to roleplaying, I definitely had the sort of experience where my character was described as ‘having’ a fairly powerful artefact, and this was key to some of her characterisation. So I hoarded it and did nothing with it. When it then got stolen and used by another character early on in the game – obviously, because it was a powerful artefact – I was confused and felt a bit cheated, because I hadn’t really understood that game start is when your characters are implicitly assumed to stop behaving like they have previously throughout their lives and start being protagonists to push plot forwards. With more experience, I now recognise this, but as a new player your expectations are very much set by how your character has been described in their pre-game life, which is not always helpful.

      • If your character doesn’t already sound like a protagonist in the backstory write-up, I think odds are good your GM has gotten things wrong in their story design.

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