Before I called myself a ‘fiction writer’, I called myself a ‘LARPer’. This isn’t to say I never wrote fiction before this year, I just never felt confident enough to own up to the title or worse, make it my profession. When I think about what changed between the time I was stapling together handwritten stories and crayon illustrations and when I started submitting to literary magazines, I think LARP played a major role.
But first, what is LARP? The acronym stands for Live Action Role-Playing and I often describe it as a cross between theatre, reading, and video-gaming. Just like there are many genres of books, there are many genres of LARP. There are horror LARPs where the main point is to kill zombies and survive. There are tournament LARPs where the focus is on fighting and/or recreating historical battle scenes. There are psychological LARPs where you are locked in a room with your colleagues and interrogated until one of you cracks and betrays the others. There are social LARPs that look like a noble’s dinner party from the 1700s filled with gossip, romance, and intrigue. Though the themes vary, the essence of LARP can be broken down into three roles:
Players: If you are entering a game as a player, you will typically play as one consistent character that you have written a backstory for and that you will eventually level up (add new skills/abilities).
Staffers: If you are a staffer, you have attended weekly meetings to put together open-ended plots for the players to experience. During the game, you will typically play as anywhere from 4 to 10 characters per weekend event, and you may have had some hand in writing the rulebook for your game.
Cast members: If you are attending a game as a cast member, you are an on-hand actor who will take on various roles in the open-ended plots that staff has written for you. You may also fight players while dressed in a various monster costumes, or help set up decorations, or plant hidden items for players to find.
My experience with LARP lies mostly in social/psychological/combat games, as both a player and a staffer. The games that I hold closest to my heart are both in Central Pennsylvania, both professional non-profit businesses created by two groups of students from my undergrad. As a player, I am the town’s priest/vice mayor (aka their power-hungry church and state) and as an Assistant Director, I like to write psychological and social plots that test a character’s morality (I guess that philosophy degree is good for something).
The people who I typically LARP with come from all sorts of backgrounds. We do have a couple of self-identified fiction writers, but we also have engineers, lawyers, EMTs, veterans, teachers, cashiers, actors, models, zookeepers, and librarians. When we write stories, we have a lot of different backgrounds coming together, each advocating for different perspectives and considerations. It is this diversity that has really aided my fiction-writing. Rather than sitting around a table of twelve people who have always studied fiction, LARPing has allowed me to gain feedback from people who have actually experienced the worlds I am writing about. A veteran can tell me if my character with PTSD feels real enough, an EMT can tell me how the wounds my character received would most realistically be healed (and no, not all LARPs heal with “magic spells”).
With that group of diverse voices as my workshop audience, here are a few things I learned from LARP that I feel apply to fiction:
- Audience feedback: When writing a plot, I first run my ideas by staff, and eventually they will be launched for the people playing the game. Once I send my plot out (let’s say, a sassy Baron asking players to help him spread rumors about his rival), players will participate in it, and then after the event they write feedback to staff letting them know what could have been done differently. This has really helped me figure out how much information a player/reader needs in order to understand things like motivation and background.
- Collaboration: Having a workshop group of diverse professions has certainly helped me with realism, as mentioned above, but even more so it has helped me writing plot. Have you ever read an author whose books have become predictable (“oh, it’s a George novel, of course that character isn’t the gender I expected them to be”)? The fact that I never write 100% of anything that goes out allows for stories to become unpredictable and therefore more interesting.
- Comprehension: I will admit, I think I wrote about 1 paragraph of my game’s 100 page rulebook. I hate numbers. But I did still sit through the process, and what it taught me was clarity. If a player is depending on your text to understand how to use their props correctly in game, then you need to go through several drafts, fixing even the smallest words to make sure your language is clear enough on the first read.
If I ever do get to a point in my life where I teach Creative Writing, I would love to teach a LARP writing class. I think there is so much that creative writers (and others!) can learn from creating a world collaboratively and also for a group of reactive audience members. Have you ever had a non-traditional genre influence your writing? If so, how?