Larp rant: we don’t hate surprises, your surprises are just boring

girl standing beside glass window, looking surprised

Photo credit: 张 学欢 on Unsplash

Much has been said, at larp theorycons past, about setting expectations in larps. The common consensus is that surprises often fall flat because they don’t meet the expectations the game runner has set for the players about the game. This includes things like changing the game setting or genre, i.e. adding time-traveling Hitler to an otherwise historical game set in the Renaissance, or having Cthulhu appear in the midst of your game about teenagers at party.

I don’t disagree with this cause of “surprise failure.” You’re taking a risk whenever you mess with player expectations. But today I want to forward an opinion that’s a bit different:

Players don’t hate surprises. They’re just tired of the predictability of certain “surprises.”

Certain surprises have come up so often in the history of larp* that they’re just not novel any more. When I end up in a game like this, I’m filled with boredom and ennui. Oh, of course this game set at a Victorian fun fair has Dr. Who showing up. Oh, I guess we’re all secretly dead. Oh, *yawn* Cthulhu has risen from the deeps and interrupted my romance once more.

*(Here I mostly mean “Intercon-style” theater larps, but some of my examples are from New England boffer larp, as well).

I’m not saying that you can’t still do something interesting with one of these well-worn twists. Some of the examples I use below still succeed magnificently! But it’s a tough row to hoe.

So, I bet you’re wondering:

What are some of these tired surprises?

These are the ones I personally find tiring, or have heard other people express as tiring.

1) Time travel

Time travel is on the short list of “things you shouldn’t put in a (theater-style) larp,” though that’s often for mechanics reasons (i.e. it’s hard to manage characters that can manipulate causality).

But that sure hasn’t stopped people from writing games that have time travel as a secret twist.

As many of you know, my first boffer larp NPC gig was for Shadows of Amun, which ran from 2013-2016 in New England. The big twist in Shadows of Amun was that, after nearly a year of being in 1918 Egypt, the players were thrown back to 1168, during the Crusades. Another year, and they were in 30 B.C., negotiating with Cleopatra and Tony No-pants (as we called Marc Antony). Finally they returned to 1920s Egypt, and a world that had greatly changed.

Now, I think Shadows was a wildly successful game. It was run by a group of SCAdians, and you can bet their historical settings were top-notch. Seeing how the players’ actions changed the world was also REALLY COOL. Additionally, it was super well-organized.

But there were a large number of people who got to the end of game 3, where the first time jump happened, and noped the fuck out. I watched people stalk off the field in anger. Some people switched to playing different characters entirely; some highly-invested players left the game; some even demanded their money back! To say this design decision was polarizing is an understatement!

A subset of the time travel twist is the “secretly a Dr. Who game.” I’ve played in at least three games where this has happened, and every time it’s like LOOK I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR NEVERENDING BBC SERIES WITH CHEESY SPECIAL EFFECTS, CAN YOU PLEASE STOP PUTTING IT IN EVERYTHING??

But maybe this is just me.

2) You’re all actually dead.

Hey, we’ve all played in this game once. Or twice, or ten times. It might have worked the first time, when you weren’t expecting it; now, on some level, I’m always alert for signs of this trope. And when you’re expecting it, it’s not only not interesting, it’s infuriating.

Remember how disappointing the end of the TV series Lost was? That’s because “actually all the characters are dead” is not in fact a very satisfying ending. It resolves very little. In larps, it renders pointless everything else you spent your game doing. With a TV series, you might find yourself thinking “well, that’s a hundred hours of my life I’ll never get back.”

This applies, to a lesser extent, to similar tropes like “it was all a dream” or “you’re in a simulation.” I’ve seen those succeed for some people, at some times, too. But it would be foolish to consider these novel plot devices.

3) Cthulhu (or other Lovecraftian horrors)

My appetite for Lovecraftian horror is far greater than most peoples’, and even I’m getting tired of this trope. Especially when it’s done as a twist, the stars are right… for player dissatisfaction.

Why? I’ve written about it before, somewhere on LJ, but basically Cthulhu is a “bomb bigger than your game.” If you throw that in, every player has to put aside whatever else they are working on and fix this problem. Like with the “you’re all secretly dead” trope, it has a tendency to render player agency meaningless.

Plus, if you are going to put Lovecraftian stuff in your larp, please label it appropriately, because 1920s style pulp + cosmic horror, with bonus racism, is not exactly everybody’s cup of tea. Especially when it interrupts otherwise interesting gameplay.

A good example of a game where the Lovecraftian elements work well is The Borden Legacy. But that’s because it doesn’t surprise the player. You all start the game knowing that you live in a society where the cultists have won and where the nations are ruled by Deep Ones.

Basically, you, larp author, are not Neil Gaiman, and you are not writing “A Study in Emerald.”

(Though if you are Neil Gaiman: hi, I love your work; why are you reading my blog?)

So what’s an example of a good surprise, Lise?

Besides “one I didn’t see coming a mile away?”

Whenever I think of surprises that worked for me, they were ones that didn’t change the fundamental nature of the game. But they did intensify one particular aspect of the game.

Without spoilers, one example is a larp I went into expecting intense personal relationship drama at a glamorous party, and ended up with intense personal relationship drama in the face of impending death. While that is a pretty big surprise, it worked for me — and most people I’ve talked to about the game — because it’s within the tolerance of what you would expect from a game like that.

Also Cthulhu absolutely did not show up.

Author: Lise

Hi, I'm Lise Fracalossi, a web developer and writer. I live in Central Massachusetts with my husband, three Maine coon cats, and a collection of ridiculous hats.

3 thoughts on “Larp rant: we don’t hate surprises, your surprises are just boring”

  1. Well said! I’m personally not as against Big Twists as many others in our community (which has more to do with my fairly lax attitude towards what players are entitled to know when they sign up?), but I agree that some of the most common forms are problematic because they tend to be predictable/repeats, and/or render other things in the LARP irrelevant.
    I’ll have to remember to ask you about SoA sometime — I know some people disliked the time travel and left, but that about all I know about the reactions to it.

  2. I love this article, partially because it moves us past the “surprises good” vs. “surprises bad” argument (As someone who’s been critical of big twists and spoiler culture in LARP I have been very frustrated hearing my position described as just “surprises are bad”).

    I think a LARP writer is always paying a cost in introducing the “big twist” (at the very least, it makes it harder to find the true audience for your game). When the big twist payoff is one of these non-surprising surprises, you’re still paying the cost, but you’re not getting anything in return.

  3. The three twists you describe pretty much have one thing in common. You captured it when you wrote that “Cthulhu is a bomb bigger than your game.” In TNT, more than a few times, we end up in an argument that ends up killing a project because a twist is proposed. And usually someone comes back, “Okay, but then the first hour of the LARP is irrelevant, we might as well serve cocktails because the players are going to need it when FOO happens or BAR is revealed.”

    (One LARP we did that I can think of in particular got pulled back from that chasm and became a fairly interesting LARP because the twists were toned down and became relevant to the characters in the LARP.)

    Players need to feel that they have control of their play–or if someone is going to have a piano drop on his head it is ONLY that person. Start the Escape from the Towering Inferno LARP with the fire alarms going off and the players knowing that the curtains are on fire. You don’t want a situation where a player is saying “Well, I was talking with Nadine and Jeremy about the upcoming lacrosse match , and having a fabulous time, when that THING came out of the ocean and started killing people! I had no idea what to do and screamed so it killed me to shut me up! I’m going to miss Jeremy. We could have…sigh.”

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