LARP Discussion V: Relationships

17 Jan

Okay, so the bottom line is, friendships and other relationships between characters can have powerful positive impacts on players’ LARP experience. The question at hand is, can we influence whether characters will develop exciting relationships? And if so, how?

Why Relationships can be Good

We’ve already been discussing this notion to some degree, but I’ll give some reasons why relationships can be important.

1. Sometimes an interesting relationship can be the most memorable and exciting thing about your LARP experience, or it can be a fundamental force in helping you to shape your character. (For examples, check out my answer to the casting questionnaire, post III: I described a lot of my favorite characters in terms of their relationships.)

2. Sometimes friends can be characters to share the story with. When something interesting happens to one character, it also provides excitement and plot for that character’s friends. I know that I’ve been in LARPs where I couldn’t think of anything to do plotwise, but a friend came to me with her problems, and I got to help her out. Also, friends can sometimes just spend time socializing in a LARP– talking about what they’ve learned or what’s happened to them, or just hanging out in character. (This is something that strangers can do as well, but just like in real life, it’s usually easier to hang out with friends.) Similarly, friends can provide support when a player isn’t enjoying their LARP experience. Sometimes I’m just not having fun at a LARP, or I (as a player) am feeling frustrated or depressed; when this happens, it’s always great to have a friend to interact with.

3. Relationships facilitate role-playing (obviously), and for many (most?) players, role-playing is the point of a LARP. Now, you don’t need interesting relationships to role-play. (The sinister villain can give evil speeches to her enemies even if she doesn’t really know them, for example.) But it really helps.

How Writers Can Create Relationships

It’s been noted (in previous discussions) that it can be difficult for LARP writers to give players interesting relationships in a LARP, in part because players tend to make their own relationships and often ignore the relationships suggested to them by their character sheets. (For example, in DCV, my character sheet suggested that I be friends with several characters, none of whom I was actually close friends with during the LARP.)

I tend to be more optimistic about the abilities of LARP writers to encourage this sort of thing. That said, I think that it’s possible to do so in many different and often subtle ways. Let’s look at a few.

1. One way to give characters relationships is to write them into their character sheets. This is definitely not a bad idea. Relationships created in this way don’t always “take root” and become extremely well-developed, but that’s fine. When writing a relationship like this, it’s great to give players an idea of how their characters relate at the start of game, or something they might want to role-play about. “You and Smitty are friends” isn’t all that useful. “You and Smitty are friends; you have a secret crush on him” is obviously useful, but I should give you an example that isn’t quite so blunt, shouldn’t I? Here’s an interesting relationship: “Smitty’s just so adorably shy. You want to protect him from the big scary world, and you like to think of yourself as his big sister.” Likewise, “You’re pretty sure that Kat is the one who saved you when you were a kid– she even still wears that locket that you remember,” will probably generate some interesting interaction. So will many standard relationships, especially if they have twists on them to give the players something to work with. For example, parent-child: “Of course, Kat’s your daughter and you love her, but you’re worried about all the time she’s spending with her new friends. You feel that close relationship you’ve had for so long slipping away– isn’t there some way to stop that?” Or employer-employee: “You hate King Garion with a burning passion– he’s a stuck-up idiot– but he’s your king, so you’ll guard him with your life. That said, you don’t care if anyone knows what you think of the King, including the King himself.”

Notice that all of these relationships suggest some level of trust. This is important in many games, because characters are often much more likely to have deep interactions if they feel that on some level they can trust one another. (For example, if we’d encouraged the bodyguard to keep quiet about her dislike for fear of the king’s wrath, she might have concealed it for the entire game, which could have meant less role-playing.)

Here’s a less useful one: “You’ve heard that Smitty is very talented with a sword. You’d like to see him fight!” That’s not utterly useless, of course, but the relationship it suggests doesn’t necessarily encourage an interesting relationship to form. Likewise, saying “you’ve heard that Kat is really bright and very kind” will encourage the character to trust Kat if necessary, but it presumably won’t push the two characters into any interesting role-playing by default.

As I mentioned earlier, for each character, some of these will likely flop, for any number of reasons. This is why it’s important to give characters several relationships, to increase the likelihood that some will be successful. (Maybe Kote has a crush on Dianne and never tells her because he’s too nervous. Maybe Albus really likes Harry and is supposed to befriend him, but he’s too busy dealing with plots or goals– or maybe for some reason he thinks that Harry is LARP Mafia and doesn’t want to trust him with any secrets. Maybe Garath and Gara are friends, but their friendship is relatively stable, and they’re involved in very disparate plots, so they don’t really have a chance to talk. Maybe James and Reynardine are enemies, which is supposed to make for a cool relationship, but they just hate each other so much that they never talk in-game.)

2. Another way to encourage relationships is to write your characters in ways that will… encourage them to have relationships. The simplest way to encourage friendships is to tell a character, “you want to make friends!” (Well, ideally there should be more to it than that. For example, “You enjoy leading your crack team of assassins, but lately the job’s gotten lonely. You feel like none of your teammates really think of you as a friend, in part because you’re so awkward socially. You’d like to become closer to them if you can…”)

Another way to encourage friendships is to insert characters into a game who would be great friends if only they could just read each others’ character sheets. The most obvious way to do that is to just give them shared goals. For example, if I want to keep the Silver Blade of Nemath-Enzor away from the Lord of Terror-Doom, and I run into another character who wants the same thing, we might team up! This is especially useful if our characters then turn out to have other things in common. (Obviously just having a shared goal isn’t enough; if we think of each other as enemies or as untrustworthy in most other respects, we’ll probably just have an alliance of convenience and never really get to know one another.)

Having shared secrets is often a good way to encourage characters to befriend each other– though if they don’t know each others’ secrets, they might never tell each other. (If Michael and Vitto are both secretly Mafia, and they know about this or find out, they can buddy up. But if they don’t know that each other is Mafia, then they might not trust one another enough to tell!)

In my experience, lots of backstabbing and cold-blooded calculation can really discourage friendships. If I’m playing a character who plans to betray everyone to get to the top, I’m not going to be able to trust anyone. Or if my goal is to win the tournament, and so is everyone else, it becomes harder to trust anyone since we’re all competing. Or if I’m a Mafia member, and literally everyone else is trying to take down the Mafia, then I won’t be able to make any true friends.

3. You can, of course, give characters goals that tie into their relationships. (This idea builds on both #1 and #2, I think.) This is very useful, I think, because it strongly encourages characters to spend LARP time developing their relationships even if they are goal-oriented– or, if they’re role-playing oriented, it gives them a way to work toward their goals while role-playing.

For example, maybe Rick wants to obtain the Sword of Truth to save the world. His friend Kahlan, who tends to be overprotective of him, knows where it is but thinks it’s too dangerous for him to wield and doesn’t want to help him get it. This setup strongly encourages these two characters to interact, hopefully in emotionally charged ways. Or, another example: Annie is trying to broker a treaty between two kingdoms. One of the ambassadors, Anthony, is her estranged father. This gives the two of them an excuse to role-play while striving for their goals.

Of course, it’s okay to give Rick the two goals “convince Kahlan not to be so overprotective” and “obtain the Sword of Truth,” even if the two subplots are unrelated, but in that case I expect the first subplot might not go anywhere. And it’s okay to give Annie the goals “reconcile with your father” and “broker a peace”, even if her father is not related to her mediation work, but of course having her relationship with her father connect to the rest of her plot might be a good way to help her relate to him.

4. I won’t get much into romance here, because it’s a big topic in itself. That said, I don’t know whether I will write a post about it in the near future, so feel free to get into it in the comments if you want. Suffice to say, not all players like romance, but some do, and for such players, romantic relationships can be very useful at encouraging role-playing and developing plot.

Some questions.
1. What are some of the best relationships (friendly or otherwise) you’ve had in LARPs?
2. How did each of these relationships come about? Do you feel that the writing of the game pushed you together in some way with your friend/enemy/whatever, or did you start a relationship based more on chance or on good role-playing?
3. Do you like / disapprove of any of the methods I’ve suggested for creating interesting relationships? Do you have any other suggestions or thoughts?

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