Immersive theatre and "Westworld" and larp

Immersive theatre person Jim Fishwick is doing a series of articles on “Immersive Theatre and Westworld”. The first one dropped today, looking at narrative structures:

The language of immersive theatre is different from that of larp, but we can still recognise what they’re talking about (and recognise it from computer games). So it talks about railroads versus open worlds, for example. More interesting is the concept of passive versus active story offers (Dolores’ dropped tin of beans versus the army recruitment station) - campaign larps tend to use active offers, though not necessarily directed at any one person (so e.g. we “send out plot”, and have a special subset of “personal plot” where we use what players provide in their backgrounds or past interactions). I’m not sure if anyone has tried doing passive plot, or what it would look like (an NPC accidentally leaves an important document somewhere?) - the big risk would be it failing to trigger. Which doesn’t matter for Dolores - she can drop her tin of beans day after day after day, and it doesn’t matter if anyone picks it up - but larps have fewer people and less time, so I guess our plot offers have to not be wasted.

Next week they’ll be looking at audiance agency, which should be something of direct application.

I think NZ games work in different axes than active/passive.

I would say it’s more how targeted is the plot is one important axis - is it “whoever gets there first”, is it “for one specific build”, or is it “for Idiot and will no sense to anyone else”?

And then there’s how optional it is for the players. Is it GM fiat you are in this encounter now? Is this herd of cattle coming through regardless and your options are get out of the way or engage? Is it get your have to choose to get your shit together and go into the woods?

And I think there’s an important aspect of criticality. Does this encounter need to trigger in order for the either the game-as-game or game-as-story to work together in a satisfying way. In a true sandbox, there’s no such thing as encounters that need to trigger, but most games (not just larps, video games and TTRPG included) are not true sandbox - Minecraft and the ilk are the closest and I’m told some of them have plot. Non-critical encounters are like The Forest Folk showing up for after-plot drinks, while plot critical ones are the killing of the BBEG.

So a passive encounter would need to be low-criticality, entirely optional, and for nobody in particular, and I’ve never seen a game with enough leftover crew to bother!

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Those are really useful axes. They also highlight the differences between larp (as run in NZ) and a sandbox (which I don’t think anyone really does as a larp): we have Plot (as opposed to plots), a spine to a weekend’s story. Which also suggests a useful priority for game design: first focus on the critical stuff, then the optional stuff with the widest targeting,with optional, tightly targeted and non-critical plot the “nice to haves”. And all of it is driven by the resource constraints of GM plotting time and crew on-the-day time (and GMs never have enough of either?)

I tend to conceptualise A Larp Event (or at least the ones I’m most interested in) as

A Game: It is fun (or at least satisfying to participate in) and has rules guiding interaction.
A Story: as per PTerry. It’s powered on narrativium, not good sense or realism
A Sport (particularly when it comes to combat): in which we all go out there and do our best and Cricket Larping is the winner on the day

However other people also like to play/run larps as

A War: Sportsmanship be dammed (within the rules), try to win (I personally wouldn’t mind a bit more of this, but only in small carefully contained doses)
A Simulation: The world is ticking over as it was always going to and the player space is just one small part of it. Sandbox.
Theatre:
Therapy: (personally, very much no thank you)
Living History

And, my personal preferences aside, I think you can crank any of them to 11 and get a functional experience out of it, but the more you push one the less room there is for the others.

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Part 2 is on “audience” (which we would call “player”) agency

Larpers expect agency, but as the article points out, this clashes with narrative control. In theatreform, the format I write and am most familiar with, agency is limited and controlled by frontloading: character goals and backgrounds imply a limited set of arcs and key choices, which may be stated implicitly or explicitly (Dolores: “You need to choose who you want to drop your beans for”). An unstated rule is that players follow the sheets and improvise within the framework offered, but are free to choose from the options presented, or create other options consistent with them. The larp is therefore an exercise in seeing what they choose, and where in the possibility space the resulting story ends up (usually somewhere in the polyamory - human sacrifice - cannibalism zone).

How is it handled in weekend-long games (or rather, games with player-created characters, the usual campaign format)? From crewing, my impression is that the answer is furious improvisation from the crew (in scenes) and GMs (in tweaking plotlines in response to player actions).

Yeah, basically.

For things with low criticality, bah, what happens happens. I am prepared for having to improvise these low-criticality things going way off the expected outcomes and the improvisation sphere suddenly hitting the critical-game-pathway like a freight train, but I don’t much plan for it.
For high criticality things, I usually prep

  • Win conditions
  • Lose conditions
  • Responses to a random smattering of entirely off the wall reactions from the participants
  • A good logical basis to enhance improvisation - it was really important to me to provide a meta-physical or logical framework so that if the scenario was run multiple times with different members of the crew making the call, a very similar call would be made each time (although part of this was because solving the metaphysical problem was part of the arc of the story so contradictory information couldn’t be allowed to circulate)
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Part 3 talks about character and goals:

I found some of the Westworld material on realism and suffering to be very emotionally/morally challenging. Because the Westworld team are objectively monstrous… and I saw them going through very similar thought process that I do as a GM. I felt very called out.
But then my “hosts” were real people who were invited to have a fun weekend and had the ability to opt-out of anything I sent them, and all the weapons were designed not to cause harm, and they weren’t in torture loops for what… decades?

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