3 ways to create narrative tension in LARP

LARP events, big or small, are all about telling a story. Unlike normal story books, however, in a LARP we are telling a story with twists and turns. A story that could change in an instant if the player characters go left instead of right. Of course, when organizing LARPs there is a toolkit of techniques such as the illusion of choice to help refine the possibilities the story could go. However, mainly the story will react to the players.  One major part of storytelling is having narrative tension. Having consequences, uncertainty, and permanence. When watching The Lord Of The Rings, if soon after Frodo and Sam left the group they miraculously rejoined it would have felt pointless and flat. The action they chose would have only lasted a short time with little to no consequences. Storytelling like this doesn’t lead to great and enjoyable stories. Instead, we need to be focusing on how we can keep narrative tension while also not overly restricting the player base.

Narrative Tension is such an important part of making games and stories enjoyable.  If you’re a player and want to create some player driven story in a LARP world these are also some important aspects to keep in mind. While for game organizers these are some of the principals that are great to have in a game design toolkit. This list is in no way exhaustive as there are a myriad of techniques out there to create narrative tension. With that in mind here are 3 ways to create narrative tension in LARP.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of the things that will keep bringing people back. It’s the idea of people seeking the resolution of a story due to its compelling nature. Uncertainty is the idea of having players know enough information about a story to be interested but little enough to not know what’s coming next. Having people seek the answers to questions in your game world is an important storytelling tool. Bill Johnson, author of ‘A Story is a Promise…’, explains narrative tension in regards to storytelling quite well.

In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can’t refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there’s also a price to pay for acting. A novel that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling.  It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there’s no tension around an outcome to these events.  Characters act, but there’s no tension generated around their actions.  When an audience has internalized a story’s narrative tension, that audience needs to experience a story’s resolution and fulfillment for the relief of the tension created by the storyteller. Then and only then is a story compelling.

– Bill Johnson, author of ‘A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling’

Consequences:

I spoke about consequences in another article. I’ve mentioned it twice because consequences are such an important part of making a game world feel real. The idea of consequences gives weight to actions, making the game feel realistic. While doing some research for this article I stumbled upon a short story by Frank Stockton. The story goes like this:

The Lady, or the Tiger? | Frank Stockton

A king has a peculiar method of putting criminals on trial. They’re placed in an arena and allowed to pick between two doors.  Behind one is a beautiful woman; behind the other, a hungry tiger.

This story has obvious consequences. If the hero of the story chooses the wrong door they suffer being eaten, while if they choose the right door they have the chance of meeting a beautiful lady.

In so many LARP systems consequences are lessened in fear of upsetting the player base. Fear of killing, pacifying or making play unsatisfying for players. Using the same example what if the player chose the door with the tiger in? Maybe they would be left with scars, upsetting dreams or even given the choice to choose again. This makes the original choice carry significantly less weight.  Of course what if killing a player does upset them, what are our options? I believe it comes down to expectations. Does your player base, reader or otherwise know what this story or game is about from the offset? If so then they will be mentally prepared for their actions and understand that such actions carry consequences.

Downtime

With stories in LARP, it’s important that the stakes continue to climb. Maybe yesterday they were fighting goblins but today they’re fighting gods. However, steep that curve it needs to be going up. With that in mind, however, players can’t keep going from encounter to encounter. There has to be some downtime for their expectations and norms to be reset.  I once had a friend tell me about a holiday special LARP he ran. A LARP where the players played in an adaptation of Cluedo before the next story arch began. It’s these down time’s where players can really discover their characters and make connections that aren’t just in the heat of the moment.

With all of this in mind the question still stands, ‘how do we create narrative tension in LARP’? It would be impossible to sum this up in a line or two. There have been game organizers working for years still trying to perfect this. The real answer comes down to creating engaging worlds. Finding the balance between giving players freedom and keeping enough back to keep them on their toes. This is a balance that can’t be defined in numbers or statistics and instead is one you have to find. It comes down to using techniques like; consequences, uncertainty and tension to keep people yearning for more.

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