For as long as role playing has existed stories have existed also. Be it rescuing a princess from a castle, or finding gold in a dragon’s lair. With stories comes decisions and with decisions comes choice and the illusion of it.
Before we continue, I’d like you to wink.
Now did you decide to wink with you right or left eye or even decide to not wink at all? This is the epitome of free will and of free choice. By its very nature, that decision was yours and yours alone. That choice allowed you to decide to do whatever you wanted in response.
When it comes to LARP, our free will is limited. It would be impossible for a game team to populate a game world with endless possibilities and outcomes. With most people, their experiences of the ‘illusion of choice’ comes from video games. With games like Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead using the illusion of choice to varying degrees. The illusion of choice in video games is normally met with disdain. That being the case there is a great counter argument by Daniel Floyd from Extra Credits:
“It’s really easy to hear something like that and say: ‘Ugh what a terrible thing. I hate it when they do things like that to me in games.’
The truth is, what you actually hate is when you notice that they’re doing that to you in a game.”
Daniel Floyd | Extra Credits
LARP is quite special in this regard as in LARP there is no or at least little replayability. You will never go back and play the event again, noticing where your decisions would have lead to the same outcome. It’s also important to understand that as LARPs grow in size less attention can be put into the little things. It becomes almost impossible to focus on small conversations with NPCs or if a player decided to pick up a prop or not. That being the case using the illusion of choice as a LARP game designer can considerably help lighten your workload. That is if it’s done well.
Hiding the ‘behind the scenes’
Let’s take a step back and look at an example of the illusion of choice. Let’s, however, tell this story in two forms. The first being what the players will choose and see and the second being the inner workings of the game team.
A group of adventurers are asked by a local drow queen, that is known for her devious plans, to secure an artifact. The party is low on funds so are happy to have a job of any sort. After some adventuring, the party realizes that the artifact is not an item but instead a young girl. With fear of what the drow queen would do to the girl when returned the party decides to hide the girl away with a local family. It is not long however until the drow queen and her minions show up to confront the adventuring party. Doing so via a lock of one of the adventurer’s hair she plucked in their original meeting. After the confrontation, the young child awards the party with an artifact from the drow queens collection.
The Game Team
The players have been asked to find a priceless artifact for the local ruling, and slightly evil, drow queen. The party set off on their adventure and after several twists and turns find the artifact. They discover that in fact, the artifact is a young girl. The party is left with a choice; do they return the girl to the queen or keep her away. The decision is moot however as the game team has decided that the players need a pay off in the form of a final encounter. That being the case it is decided that no matter the decision the drow queen will show up, with her minions, to ever silence the party after finding her artifact or capture the girl after the party tried to hide. Depending on the choice the players will ever receive a boon from the drow queen or the young child.
This is a great example of how what happens in LARP isn’t about what’s really happening but instead about how what’s happening makes us feel. The players have control over the choices they make and how they use those in influencing the consequences that result. However, they don’t actually have control over those consequences. Otherwise, if we did have this control, we’d just make the best option happen all of the time.
Anouther way we can implement the illusion of choice, outside of directly limiting story outcomes, is to use a technique called ‘Visual Highlighting’. This is a technique that is commonly used in video games but can also be seen in Table Top RPGs. Visual highlighting is the idea that we’ll always head towards items that are highlighted, of note or that hold connotations of moving forward. For example finding roads or following paths of coins in video games. While in Table Top RPGs this can be seen by the party moving towards the chest that the GM so vividly described. In LARP this comes down to immersing players in specific locations or items. This will lead to players feeling the world, and game space are bigger and more diverse than they actually are.
The question isn’t necessarily ‘how do we make better LARPs?’ The question is instead ‘how do we make smarter LARPs?’ How can we manage our resources to provide a richer experience for players while also not working our game team to the ground? The answer comes down to using tools like the illusion of choice. It’s better to create a masterpiece with two possible outcomes over creating a massive sandbox with 20 mediocre ones.