Goals in theatre-style again

There’s a discussion on Facebook ATM about lists of goals on theatre-style character sheets, and whether players of such games like them or not. Because it was started on a personal page, its not appropriate to summarise the comments here, but there’s some useful stuff. And hopefully some of the participants will contribute here, so their thoughts won’t disappear down the Facebook memory-hole.

Speaking for myself: as a player, I find goal lists to be a useful starting point. Typically they give me a couple of explicit directions I can go in before the chaos takes over. I think they’re probably also useful for beginning players who feel lost about what to do.

Goals don’t have to be called that, of course. “Ambitions” is a nice way of putting it for some genres. Or you can explicitly call it “starting points” or “directions”, or even just “things to do in the game”. And you can have varying levels of complexity - while a three item bullet list is standard, On Display was notable for having a long, layered list, full of "alternatively"s, which made it clear that all of this was about options and choices. The Kestrel Saga instead has detailed notes, there as a summary (because the character sheets are so long) and including an explicit note that they are suggestions, not constraints. Both methods are great if that suits your writing-style and space constraints.

As a designer, I find goals absolutely essential. If you’re writing traditional theatre-style using traditional design (as opposed to e.g. freeform or framework or workshop-based games), you absolutely need to know what the characters want. The answers to that go straight into the plot spreadsheet, and so the goal-lists effectively define the structure of the game, establishing conflicts, alliances, and the varying directions the game can go in in play. The goals get written into the characters (hopefully in a way that makes sense for them), but I tend to just transplant the list straight onto the character sheet somewhere as well, usually at the end, both as a prompt for the player and a check for me during the editing process.

(What sorts of goals you should have, whether they’re external or internal, open or closed, or even achieveable - that’s a different question, the answer to which depends on design and style preferences).

I completely agree with much of the reasoning mentioned here as both a player and… well not really a designer, but someone who has aGMed. When this conversation came up among Intercon circles, there were some people who expressed preference to not receive lists of goals, because they felt it was too strong of a direction given to them by the designer, rather than letting the player decide for themselves how they want to interpret the character.

To this end, it makes me wonder, can one make either sort of player (ones who prefer goal lists, and ones who don’t) happy by creating the goal lists, and then simply not giving them to players who prefer not to have them? (Or, similarly, would it be valid for a player to simply choose not to read the goal list, assuming it doesn’t contain any new information… and they nearly always don’t.)

I think there’s a lot to be said for this, as a lot of goal lists are intended to be an extra tool for players who want them, but the LARPs are flexible enough such that a player who declines to use them (and thus may interpret their character’s goals in a way the designers did not anticipate… or may simply forget a number of them and then those goals stand either no chance of being achieved, or a much lower chance, if they overlap directly with other characters goals) is not really risking damaging their run of the LARP.

That said, there do exist some LARPs whose designs are heavily based around achieving goals, which may have features like…
…goals that require a minimum of cooperation and effort between all of the characters designed to be attempting that goal
…goals that occupy enough of the other players’ time such that one player choosing to spend much less or no time achieving goals may find they don’t have much else to do and/or can’t obtain enough attention/RP time with other players who are focusing on goals
…groups or factions of characters with opposing goals and their odds of success are carefully balanced against one another such that one character forgetting or declining to get involved seriously skews the odds of success in the other faction’s favor, possibly creating frustration
… resources that are required to complete plots in the hands of individual players such that if they reinterpret, forget, or decline to pursue certain plots, various elements of the LARP may come to a screeching halt

One could point out that this is brittle LARP design and should probably be something we’re evolving past… which may or may not be true, but regardless, such LARPs (or parts of LARPs) do exist, and in such cases, it might be worth providing the goal lists to players and encouraging them to read them. (One player who voiced a preference not to receive goal lists has told GMs that they’re generally not a goal-oriented player, but if a GM tells them ahead of time they really should pursue certain goals, they will certainly do so.)

(Also, I did once help run a LARP where GMs discovered after the first run, some information had been accidentally left out, and the character sheets were already emailed out, and the hard copies already printed for the next run. So the information was added to the goal lists… which is a kludgey sort of patch and not intended to be a feature… the GMs did inform players that a few of them had new and relevant information in their goal lists. Obviously, this is an edge case.)

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The simplest solution is for players who specifically don’t like goal lists to just not read them. While the GM / game producer can include or remove them from individual sheets to match player preferences, or put them on a different piece of paper, that adds logistical complications. Also, not all sheets are editable (purchased games tend to have a non-editable PDF).

For strongly goal-based games, all of that information should be on the character sheet anyway; its just a question of whether its effectively given greater saliance by being in a list somewhere. Whether it is or not doesn’t help you if players decide to deliberately ignore it, but it may reduce the chances of them accidentally doing so.

Players who want more freedom to interpret the character themselves is more of a design issue than a layout one. But IMHO if you’re doing this sort of game at all - short-form traditional theatre-style rather than a workshoppy, framework thing - then you’re already removing significant player choice around interpretation. That’s just the nature of the beast. In order for the game to work and produce dramatic conflict, the characters need to want things, and enough of the players need to follow that initial direction to kick stuff off. Players who don’t want to do that probably shouldn’t play this sort of game.

Sure, if removing the sheets for players who prefer to avoid them takes a non-trivial amount of effort on the part of the GMs, it makes sense for the player to simply not read them. I think the relevant bit is that some players would prefer not to read them and would benefit from some kind of acknowledgement from the GMs that potentially having a wildly different ideas about their character goals than the writers did is ok and that can come in the form of a short dialog rather than the GMs actually removing the sheets.

Agreed the information should be in the sheets anyway and repeating them in the goal list is just a matter of reinforcement. As I mentioned, the example I listed above was a kludged fix for an edge case, and not intended by design. I’m sure future runs will address this.

I disagree that players who prefer more freedom should be avoiding these games – it’s not always clear which LARPs are more flexible and which are more brittle in this regard, and such players generally can still enjoy a LARP where they’re actively pursuing a list of goals, even if that wouldn’t have been their first inclination. A particular LARPer comes to mind when these topics come up, who generally doesn’t aggressively pursue particular goals (especially when they’re heavily involved with mechanics) and prefers to not have a goal sheet, or not read them when provided, but will mention this preference on casting questionnaires and clarifies that they will pursue whatever goals the GMs think it’s important for them to pursue… and often succeeds anyway by virtue of their charisma, and are generally assets for LARPs because they have a generous style of roleplay that makes them fun to interact with in LARPs.


I have a thing for naturalistic larps, that minimise game-like aspects. I like the idea of larps that focus on the characters and the world, while the game clockwork fades into the background. Objectives on a character sheet can make a larp feel more game-like to me, because games usually have win conditions.

As a player I sometimes get competitive about character goals, to the detriment of other aspects of play. Pregen larps with character objectives often have a back-loaded pace, where in the last half hour they turn into a frantic melee for everyone to complete their objectives. I think this indicates that enough players get competitive about goals that it can influence the way a larp plays.

Which is a long way of saying I think there is a place for pregen larps that don’t list objectives. That doesn’t mean that the character’s interests aren’t clear from the character description, but I think there’s an added implication when goals are listed, of a game to be “won” as opposed to a person to inhabit. Perhaps it’s an inference on the part of players, but many players do make that inference.

I wrote The Queen’s Justice with that in mind, and the characters for The Rose and the Dragon were also written in this style. I feel that the latter in particular represents this naturalistic style well. It had plenty for characters to do, but a reduced sense of being involved in a contrived contest against other players.


I have a thing for naturalistic larps, that minimise game-like aspects.

Same here.

I think it can depend hugely on the sorts of goals the characters have. Sure, if the goals are “get the macguffin” or “become king”, then there’s that implication. But not so much if your goals are things like “decide what to do about X” or “stop the kingdom from falling apart”. Open or internal goals give space for interpretation, cooperation, and compromise. They give direction to the players, a big sign saying “fun this way!”, while being inherently less gamey and competitive. Obviously though that doesn’t work for every sort of game.

IMHO one of the reasons Rose and Dragon felt less like a contrived contest was because big parts of the game had characters with open and internal goals (and also goals that were very low key). Some characters had the big, zero-sum stuff, but they were in a sea of normal people who wanted normal things.