What is a LARP?

A larp, or Live-Action Role Play, is a medium for telling stories -- somewhat like a novel, a play, or a narrative videogame. In a larp, the writers create a dramatic scenario with a setting, characters, and rules of engagement. Each of the players then takes on the role of a different character, and together they improvisationally play out the scenario to its conclusion. The larp provides a structure that guides this improvisation, but the ending of the story depends on the choices made by the players as they play out their roles, and may be different every time the larp is played.

Do you have a larp I can play right now? Right here? At home? With a friend?

Why yes! Click here to check out Debrief, an excellent hourlong larp by our friendly local larpwrights Elisabeth Cohen and Warren Tusk. Note that Debrief is meant to be played by two players, both of whom can help facilitate the experience. Unlike most larger larps, Debrief doesn’t require an out-of-character facilitator to guide the experience.

Okay...I think I want to play Debrief. But how do I do it?

In order to make your experience with Debrief successful, you’ll need to set up your cast, prepare in advance, and familiarize yourself with your materials. Casting: In order to play Debrief, you will need to find one other person to play with you, and set up a time to play either face-to-face or (recommended) over video chat. There are two characters in Debrief, George Russell and Robert Alderidge. You and your partner will need to decide which part each of you will play. Russell is a spirit medium who runs the paranormal espionage unit of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, MI6. Russell is a loyal officer and a loyal friend, and he’s deeply upset to discover both that his best friend is dead, and that his best friend has been betraying him and their shared service. During the larp, Russell will be trying to debrief Alderidge to discover what he has done and why, and deciding what to do with that information. Alderidge is a ghost, and a double agent who has been feeding British secrets to the Soviet Union. Alderidge is an independent thinker with strong feelings and opinions that he hasn’t been able to express openly for many years. During the larp, Alderidge will be deciding exactly how much Russell ought to know, trying to set his affairs in order, and figuring out what comes next. Preparation: Before you play Debrief, there are some documents that you’ll have to read. The most important thing is to read these documents carefully, probably more than once. For Debrief, these documents will include the following: Public Documents: These are documents that all the players will read before the game. They will include information about the setting, information about the particular scenario to which the larp is devoted, and information about rules. The rules will tell you about the structure of the game and what you are allowed to do as a character other than talking to other characters (“unstructured free roleplay”) in order to accomplish your goals. Debrief has two public documents, Introduction and Setting&Rules. Introduction describes the scenario -- a spirit medium working for British Intelligence summons the ghost of his best friend who turns out to have been a double agent working for the Soviet Union. It should give you a sense about what you will be doing in the larp (roleplaying a character who is having a conversation with his best friend across the veil of death, either as the ghost or as the medium). In Setting&Rules, the “Setting” portion explains the background of the world where the larp takes place. In this case, the story occurs in 1960 in a world that is mostly similar to our own, except that secret intelligence services make use of spirit mediums. The document also lays out what the characters in the larp know about ghosts and spirit mediums. The “Rules” portion of the document outlines the structure of the game. Character Sheets: These are documents that describe personal information about your character, which only your character knows. You read character sheets in order to understand your character’s history, personality, motives, relationships, and goals. As you read, try to identify with the character and understand what it would be like to be that person. At the end of the character sheet, you will find personal rules that only your character knows. Read this in order to understand the choices that your character must make in the game, and how the other player’s choices will affect him. Ideally, you and your partner should NOT read each other’s character sheets until after you’ve both played Debrief! Discovering each other’s in-character secrets is part of the fun of the game! Getting Into Character: After you have read the materials, you probably want to spend some time thinking about how you can take on the role of this character. Review the character’s goals: what are they? How would someone with your character’s personality try to pursue those goals within the structure of the larp? Prepare some character interactions: consider a few subjects you want to raise with another character, and even to think about what words your character would use to talk about those subjects in that situation.

Alright, but tell me about more larps that aren’t Debrief! What do they do differently?

Well, first, most larps have more than two characters -- anywhere from five to a hundred is common. Characters have more complex plots and more numerous relationships than those in Debrief. An out-of-character facilitator (also known as an “Orchestrator” or “Game Master”) is present to help people navigate materials and plots and make the transition from in-game to out-of-game seamless. Finally, tone and length of materials (and therefore game) can of course can be different -- Debrief is a psychological deep-dive meant to take place under time constraint, which means the public documents and (particularly) the character sheets are very long whilst the game itself is quite short. In contrast, many comic or mostly-plot-driven larps have much shorter player-facing materials and/or a somewhat (or much!) longer runtime.

How is a larp like other storytelling media?

Novels: As when reading a novel, a player in a larp will first read literary prose about a setting, a dramatic situation, and the characters who find themselves in that situation. The player, while reading, will find the story and characters coming to life. Unlike with a novel, the reader then takes on an active role as a player, and -- in collaboration and competition with the other players -- plays out the story and decides how it will end. Plays: As when performing in a play, a player in a larp is acting out the part of a character, and speaking the words that that character would say. Unlike with a play, the writer provides literary descriptions of the characters, rather than a script of lines to recite. The players must then imagine themselves into the heads of their characters, and speak and react in the way they think those characters would. Also, unlike a play, a larp is a participatory activity rather than a performance: the players are “performing” for themselves and for one another, and they don’t need to practice in advance. Video Games: As when playing a narrative video game, a player in a larp is playing through a scenario that is artificially constructed to be interesting and dramatic, using the player’s skills to accomplish the character’s goals and making choices that may affect the direction of the story. Unlike in a video game, the player is interacting with other living people rather than with a computer -- which means that there is more flexibility to interact with other characters, but less flexibility to interact with the setting. Also, there are no save points or do-overs, so every minute counts! ...and Real Life: As when having a conversation in real life, when you play in a larp, you are responding to what the other characters are saying in real time. larping involves having strong feelings, making tough choices, and trying to put it all into words that the other person will find convincing -- or at least understand. Unlike in real life, however, the scenario and characters have been engineered to provide interesting and enjoyable dramatic tension. The problems you face are not your problems, and at the end you can go back to your real self in the real world.

What makes larps special?

Every storytelling medium has different strengths and limitations. Here are two reasons people enjoy larp in particular: Being In the Story Yourself: When playing in a larp, you take on a much more active role than a reader or even an actor can. People enjoy this aspect of larps because it offers a powerful sense of immersion -- the opportunity to lose yourself temporarily in the story -- and agency -- the opportunity to make choices that affect the story’s outcome. Playing A Character: In many larps, people play characters other than themselves. When playing in a larp as a different character, you can fully inhabit that character, internalizing their beliefs, relationships, and even personality. By talking as a character other than yourself and making your character’s choices, you can really make the character your own...and discover new aspects of yourself.

What kind of larp is Debrief?

Debrief is a one-hour larp for two players. It is centered on themes of loyalty, ideology, memory, obligation, and the difficulty of interpersonal knowledge. The larp is designed to be played remotely (over Google Hangouts, or Skype, or Zoom), with one of the players sitting in a darkened room. It may, however, be played face-to-face if remote play isn’t feasible. Both player characters are male, within a setting of Cold War espionage and mid-twentieth-century British social norms. If you’d like to read more about the premise of Debrief, you can read the game’s introduction here.

What should I do if I want to play more larps that aren’t Debrief?

Check out our other offerings on our homepage.

Finally, are there any conventions of larping in general I should understand before diving in?

The most important convention of larping is that you should take the larp’s fiction seriously; try to stay “in character” when you can! If you stop to look things up or surf the web, get off the topic of the game, or crack jokes about the game out of character, it will interfere with the literary suspension of disbelief and contribute to a less-satisfying experience for everyone. Cracking jokes in-character, however, is totally allowed! If it’s necessary to go out of character, the convention is to touch your fist to your forehead to indicate that you’re speaking as a player and not as a character. If there is a safety concern (regarding the physical or emotional well-being of you or any other player), please, please put your fist on your forehead and speak up! While we urge people (in the preceding paragraph) to stay in-character as much as possible for the fiction’s sake, the fiction should in fact take a backseat to any player’s real-world well-being!