Power in Larps

I’ve played in more than my share of larps. That’s “live-action role-playing” for the layman. Role-playing games where you act things out instead of relaxing around a table, “improv acting with no audience” if you want to explain it to some who doesn’t game. Most larps are based around White Wolf’s popular “World of Darkness” cosmology, a series of interlocking fantasy-horror games set in the modern world, with each game devoted to a particular supernatural creature that has its own special society: be it vampires, werewolves, sorcerers, ghosts, or what-have-you. White Wolf is the only prominent role-playing company who has really marketed larps instead of just table-top rpgs, and so it is not surprising that most larps played in the city involve a “World of Darkness” game.

“World of Darkness” games all have very detailed social structures with numerous political laws and whatnot, for unlike, say, Dungeons & Dragons, the “World of Darkness” are ultimately less games about combat, though that’s certainly there, but are more games about social interaction: about creating a vampire to interact with others vampires or a mage to interact with other mages. This makes sense for larps as though there’s a few non-World of Darkness stuff that involve hitting people with foam weapons, most live-action games involve a bunch of people hanging-out in a room together, maybe with something to snack-on, and spending three or four hours talking with each other as their fictional characters. In some ways, “World of Darkness” seems ideally suited for that, since each game involves characters who are members of a paranormal subspecies united against common enemies and by common interests. What’s more, each character is a member of particular clans and sub-communities, so you can be, say, a beast-vampire of the aristocratic community, and hang-out with other beast-vampires or aristocrats and deride those people who happen to be neither beasts nor aristocrats, or be a necromancer sorcerer who’s part of the community of scholars, and thus uses ghosts for information, far different from the necromancer who’s part of the community of warriors, and uses ghosts to beat people-up. By deciding which groups you belong to, you get ready-made friends and rivals are, easy as that, and so can start playing with a clear idea of where you exist in the social framework.

That said, there are serious problems with “World of Darkness” larps and the biggest one is power. Every character in such games starts with funky powers, and has the ability to buy more. That’s a large amount of the appeal of playing them in the first place. You be a vampire so you can turn into a bat or make the nubile young woman in the low-cut nightie dance to your tune. You be a mage to spew lightning from your nostrils and call spirits from the vasty deep. You be a fairy to conjure hallucinations and spin flax into gold. That’s what’s promised, that’s what it says on the tin. What’s the point of being a vampire if you don’t get any kick-ass vampire powers?

However, a large part of the appeal of larps is that people can keep coming into the games, changing the structure, keeping them fresh. It is much harder for them to do so, or indeed do much of anything, if the people who’ve been playing for a long time have accumulated a buttload of super-powers. It’s all very well to be able to grow talons from your fingers, but if another guy on your team can, with one wiggle of his nose, turn all your enemies’ heads into strawberry jam, then the talon thing no longer seems so cool. Mage is the biggest offender of this, game-wise. Because magical powers are so pivotal to that particular game, you’re playing wizards after all,, someone who’s been in the game a long time and accumulated a lot of Arcana can do all sorts of crazy things, overcoming many obstacles with ease while new players just sit on the sidelines, stare, and occasionally resentfully applaud. Many don’t return to the game, having had their thunder utterly stolen. In order for a larp to be properly welcoming for new players, there should not be the easily accumulation of vast power for the veteran gamers.

If I were designing larp (a full larp game world, not merely a particular larp session), I’d have it so that not every character possesses supernatural powers, and in fact few do. In addition, such powers are subtle and do not completely overshadow non-supernatural actions. A sorcerer all-powered-up can still be afraid of a guy with a gun. New players can then still be potent, and non-magical characters can be as touch as magical ones; they’ve simply channelled their focus into different pursuits. This worked well in the 7th Sea larp I played in, where the magic was actually more compelling due to its subtlety and unexpectedness; as when everyone can do all sorts of crazy things, it is very easy to become blase about the supernatural. And then, of course, new players would feel that they have a much more important role in the game, and wouldn’t be totally overshadowed by the old guard. After all, aren’t larps supposed to be about social activity, taking on roles and interacting with numerous people through them? That’s so much more interesting than high magic power-fantasies.

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