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What is larp?

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Jan. 19th, 2017 | 01:18 am

Spinning off from the previous post, what is the difference between ‘larp’ and similar but ‘not-larp’ activities?

- “Two people read a script and then play out that scene as fictional characters, following that script”

I think most people would accept this is drama / theatre, not larp.

now consider:

- “Two people agree the general direction of the scene but not the exact words, and then play out that scene as fictional characters following that script”

In my view, this is still theatre, not larp.  In some theatre traditions, this is an established norm. For example, in Shakespeare’s time comedy characters would improvise their dialogue rather than rely on the playwright. To use another example, if one stage actor forgets a line, other actors will improvise to keep the play going around it. When this happens in a stage play, it’s still theatre and not larp.

Despite this, the Nordic larp tradition has been evolving in this direction, particularly with the fashion for ‘act breaks,’ which creates opportunity for this kind of scene planning.  (e.g. Inside Hamlet, Demeter).

now consider:
- “Two people agree the starting point of a scene (‘who the characters are, why they are here, what they want’ to use the key questions for Babylon 5) but not the resolution (‘where are you going?’). They then play out that scene as fictional characters, and let the ficiton unfold naturally (‘let the dice fall where they may’ as the ‘knights of the dinner table’ comic puts it).

To my mind, this is larp (or role-play at least; larp requires elements such as embodiment). It is not theatre. However, in and of itself this would also include certain improv drama traditions (comedelle de la arta (sp) being the version of this in Shakespeare’s time). The difference between such improv drama and larp is that larp focuses on building a diegesis (a shared fictional setting / sub-creation), where as improv drama will disregard it to create drama. That is, role-play is defined by actually playing a character role in a fictional setting, not just using the character as a puppet to create drama. It may even look the same at first glance, the essential essence (the internal psyche of the characters) is missing.

What appears to have been happening in recent years is the concept larp becoming diluted, partly deliberately as part of a tactical move to raise the value of the term ‘larp’ by applying it more widely.

Since I believe (consistent with academics in the creative literature discipline) that a well-constructed diegesis will produce stronger drama as an emergent property than manual design by players (or, evolution vs intelligent design) I think the move towards scripting scenes is ultimately a developmental blind alley; a dead-end that doesn’t really lead to improved development. The more practice that goes into construction of diegesis (‘exercising the power of sub-creation’), the better we get at doing so. Second-order design (designing a setting that produces narrative) is more worthwhile than first-order design (trying to design narrative directly), whether that's a GM railroading, or players railroading their chararaters.

This battle has already been fought in creative writing studies and is ongoing, but the simulationists are winning (as far as I understand it; granted I only studied creative writing to undergrad level, so possibly someone deeper in the subject knows better). We can also see this in the film industry, with the rise of ‘cinematic universes’ across films. Post-Tolkien (who gives us the term 'sub-creation'), plenty of modern writers understand they are building worlds, not just writing stories. It’s a lack of interface with modern literature studies / creative wiring studies that means larpers are going the other way, along with a rejection of diegesis being an error caused by the rejection of gamism (coherent diegesis supports both gamism and simulationism, but rejecting gamism is not a reason to reject diegesis).

There is a point of debate I have not touched on here over whether larp should be considered a distinct category, or a sub-category/type of theatre. That doesn’t really affect the position here – the logic still applies over whether the larp is a sub-category or not. I personally prefer to place it as a sub-category of ‘ludic role-playing,’ alongside other activities where people play character roles in a fictional setting; that is, a sibling to MUDs rather than to theatre; I’m still reflecting on this. However, this distinction made here woul move some activites that some people are calling larps (wrongly, since they literally do not involve roleplay) into being a sub-category of theatre.

There is another point of debate about whether the presence of (or focus towards) an external audience (or an imagined one, in the case of rehearsal) makes the difference between larp and theatre. I have considered that in the past, but currently I’m leaning towards the difference discussed here, between following a ‘script’ or lack thereof.

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