The Difference Between Larp And Freeform

Steve Hatherley

Mo wrote about the difference between LARP and freeforms on his LiveJournal and it sparked some debate, both in the LJ comments and then when Mo posted the link to the uk-freeforms mailing list.

I’m not going to repeat the whole uk-freeforms mailing list, but these are the things that I took away from the discussion.

Roleplaying and emotional buzz: The word “roleplaying” seems to mean different things. To me it covers all the activities I’m doing when I’m playing a roleplaying game. For some, roleplaying (usually with some kind of emphasis) means something more and particularly means that time when you are emotionally connected to your character and get a real thrill from playing.

I also get that thrill (but I’m less likely to call it “roleplaying”) and I wondered if it is possible to write games that deliberately try to encourage that emotional buzz. I recognise that often the buzz comes down to a number of unplannable elements (e.g. who you are playing with, your emotional state at the time) but I don’t believe we can’t do more to ensure our games promote emotional engagement.

Unfortunately I’m not exactly sure what that should be. However, I have reviewed some of the freeforms that I got a kick out of and listed them below.

  • The Village – this is a Peaky game that hasn’t ever been re-run. I really liked it – it’s really dark and the situation (which I’m trying not to spoil) created a huge amount of tension largely because it was a life-or-death situation for quite a few characters. We worked hard to achieve our goal - but were foiled at the last moment.
  • Sword Day – I played this Game of Thrones style freeform at Peaky. Lots of political machinations, some delicious plot twists and careful negotiations.
  • Miss Maypole and the Christmas Pudding Affair – Another Peaky game, I spent the entire game on tenterhooks waiting for the emotional train wreck I’d spotted in the character sheet to hit me. (I’ll confess to a bit of metagaming there, but it really gave the game some fizz for me.) Sadly, the train wreck never hit, but I spent the entire game on edge.
  • Pyrates – I might be the only person to say this, but I thought the attack on the pirate safe haven by the French/English fleet was brilliant. I had a glorious 20 minutes or so reacting to the bombardment, putting everything on hold and rallying the ships and put up some kind of defence.
  • I got a real buzz out of Arabian Nights and Lullaby of Broadway – but I’m not sure how much that was my individual character as opposed to creating something as a group that really worked. In both cases, it felt as if everyone pulled together in the end, creating a real sense of overall victory.

There appears to be a couple of themes:

  • Tension is clearly important to me, along with a sense that what I am doing matters.
  • Collaborating with everyone to create something (which may or may not include “winning”) wonderful also leaves me feeling good.

From the discussion, for some people the emotional connection comes from getting into character. I’m not really someone who really “gets into character” (in any actorly sense) and I need more from the game itself.

For myself then, it looks as if I need to write more tension and create something where actions matter. That and the sense of creating something wonderful together.

“Main Plot” and “Many Plots” games

The discussion drifted into the area of “main plot” and “many plot” freeforms. Clearly there’s a spectrum, but I consider “main plot” freeforms include Sword Day, The Night Train and Diamond Geezers. On the other hand, “many plots” freeforms include Midsummer Mischief, An Ecumenical Matter and most of the weekend games (e.g. Lullaby of Broadway and the upcoming The King's Musketeers).

My (limited) understanding of “proper” LARP is that it tends to be closer to the “main plot” type of freeform. (I’m not sure if either one is better or worse at creating emotional moments though.)

In a “main plot” freeform there’s a danger that you get “main players” and NPCs (a divide that’s much clearer in regular LARPS). In “many plots” games there are only “main players”.

I think that some of the biggest disappointments I’ve had freeforming has been when I signed up thinking I was going to be a “main player” in a “many plots” game and I ended up playing an NPC in a “main plot” game. (This is not a problem I had with Sword Day, Night Train and Diamond Geezers – all of which I thoroughly enjoyed when I played them at Peaky.)

I’m not saying that the risk goes away in a “many plots” game, but in my experience it’s lessened.

Miserable Moments: Speaking of freeform disappointments, my miserable experiences in freeforms (including games where I've left early!) have been where the main plot has taken over everything and my character has been sidelined with nothing to do. In my experience there's a greater risk of that happening in a "main plot" game. (And when I think of the three or four games that this occurred in, they were all fairly large "main plot" games where some characters felt more like NPCs or filler characters than player characters. I suspect it's less of an issue in smaller games.)

I have nothing against NPCs or filler characters - providing they are properly advertised as such when signing up. I don’t mind being a filler character/bit part/NPC providing that’s what I’ve signed up for. But if I’ve signed up to “be the star in my own movie” then giving me a filler character will not endear me to your game.

And if I’ve signed up to play a filler character, I probably want to play more than one!

Article by Steve Hatherley.


Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.