Death (in LARP)

It may seem strange to non-LARPers that the death of a character in a game can be extremely emotionally affecting. As an entertainment, a friend of mine once ran a one-evening horror LARP two nights in a row, one evening attended by regular LARPers, and another evening by interested work colleagues. The event was in some respects inspired by the murder mystery genre, and there came a point when the players discovered a body hidden in an attic. The LARPers responded with extreme performances of distaste and shock, while the non-LARPers made some indicative remarks over how unfortunate it was and quickly set to ghoulishly examining the body for clues. When some of their own party were in turn murdered, the distinction between the two groups’ behaviour remained evident.

In such a short timespan, it is hardly to be expected that either group would develop a genuinely strong connection to their character. Equally, the non-LARPer contingent in this case were less involved in the initial development of their character’s history and background. Furthermore, these characters were played for no more than an evening. In fantasy LARP, however, some players perform the same characters for over a decade. Even more than actors in a long running West End/ Broadway production, these performers become closely entwined with their performed alter ego. The ‘part’ is written by them, for them. They costume the character, develop their history, respond independently to life events. And if actors feel a sense of loss at the end of a long run of performances, LARPers too may have an emotional response to an end where the character can no longer be played.

There are of course in-character responses to death which are separate to the out- of-character response to the loss of a character. As I am considering character death generally I am not going to discuss the IC responses, although they are varied and interesting in their own right, particularly in the relation IC responses have to OC responses (see previous post on Immersion versus PvP). Last week I attended an academic workshop on death and loss which made me realise there might be correlations between the tangible experiences of losing a character, and how it could compare (albeit in a ‘thin’ way) to the loss of a loved one.

What comprises ‘death’ in LARP?

In the majority of different LARP systems there is an established mechanism for ‘death’. Under particular circumstances, the character enters a liminal condition which requires intervention from other players to preserve their ‘life’. The character may have limited or no participation in this process (for example, they may be ‘unconscious’ or they may be able to demand help). Without this intervention, the character will ‘die’ and the player loses all claim or control of that narrative and performance (there are some few exceptions, as when the organisers might find it useful to transform the ‘dead’ character into a threatening zombie or guardian spirit, but the discretion lies with the organisers and no longer wholly with the player).

Fear of death

While characters may have a particular attitude to death appropriate to the culture and setting of the game, players are likely to have a healthy reserve about the death of their character from the offset. On a basic level, to die is for the game to end, to ‘lose’ in some form. If the player is competing on systemic advancement of the character with other players, death eliminates all acquired advantages. If the player’s intent is to engage in the game on a narrative basis, then the narrative is completed or cut short dependant upon the circumstances of the death. All developed ties to other characters cannot continue with the player in a new identity, even if they re-enter the same game, therefore there is something of a ‘social death’ experience. Finally, costume and props which may represent significant investment of time and money can also become unusable or have limited applicability in the next role.

Each of these aspects is something that a player may justifiably ‘fear’; yet does this constitute a fear of ‘death’ or is that instead a matter of a transfer of emotion from performed to embodied self? This touches upon a difficult area. While the Scandinavian model of LARP may encourage the pursuit of ‘bleed’ and emotional transfer between player and character, this is not widely held to be the case in Britain. Instead, the performance of emotion is applauded, but any inability to maintain the distinction between self and character is an infringement of a fundamentally cherished principle of the game.

Recalling several near-death and death experiences of my own in LARP, one aspect which does seem to strike home is the narrative aspect regarding being ‘ready’ for death. I have experienced some deaths which I felt were ‘good’ in that they fit with the narrative I was attempting to portray, and others which were troubling in the sense that they were unexpected, or followed periods of uncertainty. In every case I have felt a little upset, often proportional to the length of time I invested in the character; however I do not expect that my experiences reflect those of everyone. I may discuss these instances further in relation to social connections and the role of momentos in a later post.

Ignorant of the rules – avoiding death

One of the most controversial issues in LARP surrounds the administrative process of death and its associated loopholes. In one large well known LARP system, characters are marked as dead by cutting the player’s laminated card in half with scissors. This can only be done by a referee. In other systems players must self-declare as dead, a type of altruistic suicide which preserves the integrity of the rules system. In the minority of games I have experienced, the referees or game organisers take whole responsibility for the character’s lifespan, and will inform the player of their status accordingly. Each and every system of this type works on a basic set of principles (the rules system), and upon trust among the players and the organisers. However, there are instances where that trust is infringed or broken, through ignorance or arrogance. I confess to making mistakes of ignorance myself, although I was lucky enough to have a referee on hand at the time to correct me. My short term memory is particularly poor and I have a tendency to miss things in the heat of the moment. However, when players specifically set out to ‘cheat’ death, this suggests that it is indeed something to fear. That such circumstances do exist lends some support to the idea that perhaps death in LARP does have some significance for players that is more than the sum of its inconveniences listed above.

Finally, the distinctive scenario of a game populated by LARPers and one populated by non-LARPers demonstrated one distinctive difference. Those who were not used to playing this sort of game, in concentrating on the puzzle solving element, were inclined to ‘forget’ their responses to wounds and the death of other characters after a few moments. They focussed on ensuring the solution was found to the outlandish scenario they found themselves in. The LARPers familiar with the format instead seemed to revel in the emotive responses which frustrated their overall aims, struggling on despite their ‘psychological’ and ‘physical’ limitations. I do not know which group had more fun.

Comments welcome as always.

Community Debates I – Immersion versus PvP

Disclaimer: all of the views represented in this article are my own and I confess to immersionist sympathies, though I have tried to represent both perspectives fairly in the below article.

In Live-Action Roleplay there are various different aims and objectives. As a theatrical-simulation experience one significant aim lies in developing a sense of ‘immersion’ in the game world; convincing yourself, even if only for a moment, that you are your character and the events around you are real. This is usually a part of the game new players find difficult, though some are perhaps more ‘natural’ than others. One of the ongoing controversies of LARP lies in the validity of different aims of play. Although LARP is described as a game, much like ‘life’ there are no clear win conditions. Nonetheless, to some it can be considered a ‘lose’ condition if your character dies (especially if this is unexpected or unplanned). There are complex feelings around this issue among the community. While immersion is relatively uncontroversial as a goal of the game, other aims include competitive rivalry to develop greater ‘powers’ or strength according to the game rules. The best way to test this is by player versus player interaction. The matter of PvP (which usually refers to player versus player combat, often resulting in character death) is therefore controversial as it brings these different aims of play into conflict.

Immersive PvP

Taking the broadest possible interpretation of player versus player interaction, every aspect of play in most games incorporates an element of this. Players may (and do) compete on grounds of inventiveness in on the spot improvisation, on costume, on wit, and on talents that cross the in-character / out-of-character boundary, such as music. As such, player versus player interaction which is embedded in the context of the game is the foundation of the roleplaying ‘art’.

PvP which ‘breaks’ immersion

It is possible, however, for some forms of PvP interaction to come into direct conflict with immersion. Where resolution of competition involves extensive recourse to the rules of the game, or where one party perceives the other to be infringing either the letter or spirit of those rules. At such a point, the interaction drifts from in-charater interaction to out of character gameplay (sometimes referred to as ‘meta’).   For the immersionist, this is a deviation from the object of play. For the competitive player, this is recourse to the laws of the game, which form a key part of play. However, the competitive player experiences just as much tension in such conflict, for unless an adjudicating referee is to hand, the trust system on which rules are applied may be infringed (intentionally or unintentionally) by players who are ignorant of the detail of the rules. This is also likely to ‘break’ immersion through creating inconsistencies in the game world.

Other elements

In discussions of roleplay versus immersion, other elements are often introduced into the argument. Some of these I hope to discuss in later posts, as they highlight some of the most interesting parts of LARP as a carefully maintained fantasy world. However, such concerns often detract from the argument above. They include ‘professionalism’, or discussions over the difficulty of maintaining clear internal distinctions between IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) knowledge, emotion and behaviours. There are also concerned discussions over emotive ‘bleed’ as a significant aim of the activity and the emotive distress felt at character death. This in turn often highlights and questions the parasitic relationship between the hobby and ‘real life’ in terms of income and skills; this is often added to the discussion in economic terms related to the cost or time required to put together costume and weapons, the ability to regularly attend events and so on.

The nature of immersion

Roleplay is a narrative game, albeit an improvised one. To maintain the aspect of narrative requires commitment to preserving the game world, sometimes at the expense of the norms of everyday life (as any LARPer who has gone four days with only cold showers will tell you). Narratives cannot continue if the ‘book’ is closed, the ‘tv’ muted, or the fantastical game world interrupted in a similar way. Yet equally, in a world which is not a perfect simulation, some recourse to a world outside the narrative genre is required. It is rare you see a fantasy hero/ine visit the bathroom on camera (unless it furthers the narrative).

Yet the goal of immersion is to be fully absorbed in the flow of the narrative, to set aside the thoughts and worries of an outside world and be ‘in the moment’. This requires support in maintaining the suspension of disbelief, even in order to be the biggest good or bad guy in the field. It is likely that conflict between the goals of PvP and Immersion will always be in some small amount of tension.

Quotes from players (unsolicited by the author):

“Roleplay is a means of escapism, It’s a way to be more theatrical than in real life, to be more than we can be. Immersion does not equal roleplay, I actually prefer tabletop to lrp, It’s easier to lose myself in a world of my imagination uninfringed by others interpretations. I have been to ‘highly immersive’ systems and seen some of the shortest roleplay ever, but with 4 to 5 people sat round a table I have had some of the best, most emotional roleplay in the 15 years I’ve been doing tabletop and lrp. Pvp I support, as long as its well grounded, look at history, famed figures did kill and assassinate each other, heroes and villains should die in battle with each other, and sometimes people who have aroused the ire of bad people should just disappear… I am however against random murders and killings, deaths should be earned. All good stories, historic, mythic, sci fi, all have deaths, and the people killed don’t always know why, and sometimes aren’t even the right people, for me, roleplaying is all about being part of a story, live or die, its about being a good character, not winning, its lrp, not a board game.” Matt Strange

“it’s a difficult line to draw, but it’s the actual monetary investment, the osps and clothing, effort making armour that affects the way you feel about losing your character and therefore makes you pissy when some random bod kills you for nothing other than fun…don’t have a problem dying by getting caught in the night by monsters, or even players accidentally mistaking me for someone they’re trying to job for a reason (for example), like I’ve done something stupid to upset them IC (perfectly possible for a kender).” Sam Rose

“Personally I think that dying IC is a big part of the game, and is what makes the game feel real, I myself am giving myself a massive pvp tag at some time in the near future by becoming a werewolf, because if my character dies, then I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep that character alive…” Deklan Howells

“In my opinion, PvP has its place, but there is no hard and fast answer to the ‘good or bad’ question. It will probably always happen, but is affected by two major aspects: firstly, the aims of the system (to generalise – family fest system or hardcore immersive) and secondly the motivations behind the PvP actions (i.e. are they IC or OOC). I’m not a big fan, although I’ve been involved in some in the past but it’s part of the game so not really avoidable.

All I have to say about mugging, with Jen and I having been mugged twice at the G (did we mention “Twass! – In 5 minutes – within 50yds of the gate!”), both the mugger and the ‘muggee’ need to be aware of the search rule. One of the times, I was searched for about 5 secs and asked “What have you got?”, so I said “nothing you can find!” and the mugger moved off. If I’m searched properly, then they’re welcome to what I’m carrying, otherwise…” Mark Bateman