Immersive Story Methods for LARP

         The problem of how to prepare for games, whether as a tabletop GM or live-action organizer is well known. Players go in totally unexpected directions and may invalidate much of the preparation that you have put into the game. Plans go to waste and the action of the game may stall or simply lack impact. (See e.g. Green 2003) Here I outline some ideas for preparation that are based on my concept of "Immersive Story" (Kim 2004). I outlined some similar ideas on the Forge (Kim 2003). In brief, that analogy suggests that each player sees the game as a dramatic story with her own character as the protagonist. In other words, throughout all events seen -- including actions by other characters -- the player's emotional identification is fixed on her own character.

         In this essay, I will examine what this theory implies for larp preparation and structure. Larps are often split into immersionist, dramatist, or gamist. In particular, the immersionist/dramatist split suggests that larps which are player-controlled and immersive lack drama. For example, Petter Bøckman's larp dictionary reported,

"Martin Erickson claims that as there are no ways of enforcing a hidden montage on your participants, a game with hidden plots will always experience hang-ups (see also "the Bøckmanian maxim"). The only solution to this problem is either to not have plots, making a purely immersionist larp or force single solutions on the players, making it fate play. The theory is controversial." (Bøckman 2003)
In the book Dissecting larp, J. Tuomas Harviainen suggests a similar dichotomy between Being and Doing (Harvainen 2005). The analysis of my prior article suggests that these dichotomies are partly incorrect. The seeming opposition of immersion and drama results from attempts to force emotional identification with an external character instead of one's own character (i.e. to have a plot with a protagonist separate from the character played). Immersive story is an alternate paradigm that attempts to create a structure where each player sees a different character as protagonist. Rather than simply discarding dramatic principles in favor of undirected immersion, I wish to examine how dramatic principles can be used within this framework.

Story Soup

         Immersive story is in part chaotic, because the same event will at once have different dramatic functions in different stories. One analogy for this approach to play is "making a soup or stew". Rather than trying to arrange ingredients in some sort of structured narrative, the organizers toss them all into the pot and see what comes out. The dramatic direction should not come from what the situation is, but rather from the characters' action and initiative. In this approach, the organizer is responsible for the balance of ingredients, and occasionally stirring the pot, not how it is arranged.

         But while tightly controlled structure is impossible, it is possible to encourage the development of individual stories by the mix of the ingredients. Each player is given a character that has a defined central issue to tackle. By taking action towards that issue and by having results, a narrative is formed. The player is responsible for driving this plot, but should be supported by relations with other characters.

         Note that this method also has implications for other models of story structure in role playing. For example, one model is unified structure -- i.e. there is a single central storyline. However, this means that the player characters are either on the sidelines, or they compete for a single protagonist-like role. Another structure is alternating -- i.e. each player character has a turn in the spotlight. However, this means that the player is spending the majority of time either watching stories external to her character, or not interacting with other characters. Immersive story seeks to arrange action, so that what is foreground to one player character is supporting background to another.


         The first key is defining a Scope. This is the boundary line of the stew pot -- the set of locations and characters and objects that have been prepared. The purpose of the Scope is to force the characters into regular contact with each other such that they provide support and context for each other. At the same time, there needs to be enough space for a player to not feel overshadowed by all the other action going on. The optimum for this may vary, but the principle is based on desired character interaction. Within larp, there are usually hard physical limits of where the players are allowed to go in the real world. However, this can mean different things within the fictional diegesis of the game. I would distinguish two categories of in-character limits.

         The first is a hard limit, meaning that there is an in-game physical barrier that prevents the characters from leaving. The main drawback is that this strictly limits the fictional options for what is going on. For some scenarios, it can be a stretch to invent plausible reasons for such barriers. If there is a plausible reason, though, this can be very useful. It is possible that the characters' attention may be drawn to the barriers, and working on ways to get past them. As long as this is considered in the design, however, this may be fine.

         The second is a soft limit, meaning that there are social expectations or psychological draws which influence the characters to stay within the Scope. There should be some sort of conceptual boundaries. These should not depend on particular situations or characters, as those are likely to change under chaotic conditions.

         In terms of story structure, the Scope is the bounding box for all the stories that will take place, which should be equal to the number of PCs. A player needs to be able to play the larp without being distracted away from her character's story by the mass of other stories going on. However, she should also be forced into regular contact with other characters that form the supporting cast for her story. The ideal may depend on not only on physical size of the space, but also acoustics, how loud the players are expected to speak, and visibility. Further, the in-game reality of the Scope needs to be varied enough to support many different stories.


         I generally divide the Scope into Factions -- these can be formal organizations, clans, or informal ideological groups. The factions might be as simple as the two opposing sides in a war. There should probably be at least four factions, but no more than ten. These may include sub-groupings within a larger unit (like vying political blocks within one side of a war). Factions are necessary because if you as organizer are going to keep a handle on ongoing events and plots, you need to have some abstraction larger than individual characters. You need to be able to generalize with things like "This character is likely to piss off members of Faction X", rather than relating to each individual character.

         Individual characters should have positions within a faction, but should not be thought of as being limited to that position. In practice, characters will take on a life of their own and may do things quite different than their position suggests. It is more stable to prepare in advance only the broad tendencies and relations of the factions. Still, by having the framework, it becomes easier to write up individuals. You can create based on "What would the second-in-command of X faction have to be like?" This also grounds the characters in the fictional diegesis.

         You should make sure that the factional conflicts run deep and yet are difficult to resolve. Often, this means coming up with reasons to not either avoid or openly attack the other side. Basically, you don't want a little push to bring the conflict to a decisive result. There is a balance between the setup being too rigid and too unstable. If there is too much stability, then the players will be unable to effect change, which can be frustrating. On the other hand, if it is too unstable then you may have a bunch of carefully prepared characters quickly killed off, or scattered to different sections without reason for interacting. In short, your preparation becomes quickly invalidated.

The Player Characters

         The player characters, then, are set loose within this Scope to interact. Within any role-playing game, but particularly in larps, the PCs themselves are by far the most important ingredient: their background, personalities, and motivations. Some but not all larps have NPCs or more properly organizer-controlled characters. If this model works, each player character should have a dramatic arc -- i.e. some issue or facet to the character that changes over the course of the game. It is change to character that defines the drama. However, given the chaotic conditions and that the change is in the hands of the players, it is impossible to say what that change will be.

         This suggests a principle for what information should be secret and what information should be public. During preparation, each player will receive some information about their own character, and some information about other characters. If something is only relevant to a character's own story, then it need not be externalized to other players. Material that affects other characters' stories should be externalized. For example, a character might have internal struggles over his morality. However, to others that character functions as an antagonist. The other players need not be given hints to see that side of the character, as it is not relevant for their stories.

         In general, this will mean that characters will be deeper and more conflicted in the background for that character's player. Other players will each be briefed with different slices of that character, depending on what the story from their side is. Further, instructions to the player should not focus on externalizing the character's internal struggles, but rather on how the character affects other characters.

         Since the action will be played out primarily with other players, the most vital part is the relationships among the player characters. However, the relationships in practice are outside of the organizer's control. The organizer can plan and suggest relationships, but the results from play can and will vary from this. One tool for charting out the relationships is to create a chart. The idea of the chart is that it cross-indexes characters, so if there are 8 characters it is 8 x 8 for 64 boxes. Each row represents a character, and specifically that character's story. Each column represents a supporting character in that story -- i.e. one of the other characters. What is being documented here is what potential impact the column character has on the row character's story.

         So, taking a brief example from a campaign of mine, I could diagram out the stories of each of the four PCs and indicate the relations.

Protagonist Story Supporting Cast
Noriko Kate Martin Steve
Noriko taking responsibility X impractical bookworm irresponsible adventurer
Kate learning an adult world irritating X
Martin finding passion lacks vision fellow explorer X
Steve getting power goody two-shoes X

         Now, the important part for me was filling in the blank spots. The ideal here would be that each PC has an important supporting role in each story (except, of course, his own). But this isn't an exact guide. All the stories and roles going on are bound to clash with each other. Furthermore, even if character relationships are defined, they may not work out in play because of the dynamics of the players. Rather than trying to assure a few relationships, it is better to maximize your chances by filling in the blank spots.

         Of course, such a chart becomes increasingly difficult as the number of PCs becomes larger. This is where the abstraction of factions comes in handy. Rather than having a 16x16 chart, you can instead make a separate chart for each faction or sub faction. For example, I might have three factions (A, B, and C) each with three characters in them. I could have one diagram for Faction A that looks like:

Protagonist Story Supporting Cast
Leader Lieutenant Follower Faction B Faction C
Leader taking responsibility X impractical bookworm quiet scary type
Lieutenant learning the world irritating X
Specialist getting power goody two-shoes X

         There should be concrete bonds that keep the factions together, or as the basis for other key relationships. For many relations, it is important to have ties that are difficult to break -- i.e. more than simple friendship or common interest. Relationships can and should take unexpected turns in play. You might intend during design that two PCs are friends, but they soon have a terrible rift over some incident. Particularly in pre-modern societies, I am fond of using blood relations. Friends can split, but a brother is always a brother even if you don't like him. Another bond could be that the PCs are all officers assigned to a particular ship, or positions within the same organization.

         For individual PCs, the most important issue is that they be proactive. This involves attitude of both the players and the PCs. Good PCs should have ambition. This need not be selfish ambition -- it could be ambition for a cause. However, what this amounts to is an unwillingness to settle for the status quo. (Kim 2004)

Externalization & Symbolism

         One criticism of immersive story is that without clear cues from traditional single-protagonist story structure, the players' attention can become lost in minutiae. The multiplicity of conflicts and themes can be overwhelming. To offset this, you can try to build in clarifying elements -- symbols that externalize the conflicts that are in place. In keeping with the principles of the style, a symbol should be:

  1. Intra-diegetic, i.e. part of the in-game reality. The object needs to speak for itself, not be the result of external description or emphasis.
  2. Discrete. The symbol should not be construed as leading in a particular direction, or requiring a particular arrangement to look right.
The point here is that symbols should not be guides. They are directionless, part of the soup that the players manipulate. When the players pick a direction, they take on new meaning by proxy.

         I would draw an example from a tabletop role-playing campaign which I ran, called "Water-Uphill World". Within that game, Magic served a symbolic function. I had conceived of Magic as a place. The PCs would concentrate deeply, and then find themselves in a maze where there were certain unusual objects that they could carry. Each unusual object represented a magical power that the character would have in the normal world. So, for example, Kate in Magic found that she had a bag that contained things that she touched in the real world and came to Magic with. This was a sort of eidetic memory. At any time she could go to Magic and read a book that she touched.

         The maze started in the middle of a four-way intersection. Secretly, I had determined that each direction was a branch of Magic. I divided Magic by social types rather than physical effects. Magic at first appeared to the characters as a four-way branching corridor that they found themselves in. There were four signs, but rather than labeling the four directions, each sign was exactly in-between two directions. The signs were:
A) "This way to higher understanding"
B) "This way to ultimate dominion"
C) "This way to your heart's desire"
D) "This way to fulfillment"
The corridor in the direction between A and B represented political or social power. The BC corridor represented material wealth. The CD corridor represented love. And the DA corridor represented knowledge. In principle, along each branch of the maze, they had opportunities to get more objects, but also to lose or trade objects they had.

         In practice, all four of the PCs were most interested in the knowledge direction at first. In short, they were curious rather than greedy. In that direction, there was a dead end with a hole in the wall, which gave a periodic grinding sound (about every 1.5 seconds). There were no clues here -- whoever comes seeking must put their hand inside the hole to go further. The wall turns once a hand is placed in, letting them into the room beyond where further puzzles awaited.

         One of the most interesting twists of the game, though, was when one of the PCs, Noriko, went down the AB path. That had a clear explanation of what it was. The hall ended in a stone door, beside which was an alcove where an iron rod stood on a pedestal. A sign beside it explained:

This is the First Rod of Power, which conveys to the wielder authority in arguments. With it, when you pressure them, others are influenced to concede to your arguments not only on the surface, but in their true belief. It will also open this door. However, once grasped it may never be put down.
As it is magical, it will not encumber you physically outside of this place. However, its power will be felt and can never be turned off or discarded.
The symbolism for political power should be fairly clear. But I had not arranged at all how or even if this would work into the plot. It was just an inherent power. During the campaign, Noriko was at first a constant voice of caution to the others. At some point, when the others had split up, she impulsively went into Magic and picked up the rod. She would use it on others to protect the group. However, from that point on, she would never speak when the others discussed what they wanted to do, since she didn't want to use the power on her friends.

Additional Information

         Players will generally receive additional information besides their character -- such as a summary of the event, description of the genre, and out-of-character instructions. This method is immersive in the sense of encouraging identification with one's own character, but not opposed to out-of-character information such as genre logic instructions or fate-play. Genre logic instructions are out-of-character suggestions directing the player's understanding or input into the game. (Harvainen 2005) An intriguing suggestion from Jaakko Stenros is to have different genres for different characters. (Stenros 2004) This could further support individual story, though it may interfere with how characters support each other. Fate-play is predetermined dramatic events which players are instructed on. (Bøckman 2003) This could in principle work with this approach, but the events would have to be broad enough to support many stories. Further, the chaotic nature of the overall plotline may make such events difficult to properly integrate. Even an organizer who is walking about the event may not have a firm grasp on the mass of action. Nevertheless, this may be an interesting avenue for experimentation.


         This essay should not be taken as a manifesto of how games should be, but rather suggestions for how to create one type of game. Further, the prescription is far from complete. The principle is to create a crucible for the creation of story without pre-plotting, and without splitting emotional identification across many characters for each player. The organizer should provide starting motivations or motivating events for the PCs. However, the intent is that the preparation should be flexible enough to continue to drive action even if those initial goals change. There will still be times where the action is slow, though. These are often useful and good. The players drive the action, which means that at times they should be able to sit back. Overall, it is literally impossible for even an organizer who is on the floor to perceive the complete stories as they happen. Without a central storyline, the result is hard to see. The true results should be seen through debriefing and other feedback from the players.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sat Apr 9 12:56:45 2005