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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

First Time Smoking?

I intend to go back to The Smoke festival next year.

Having enjoyed my first time, I thought I’d offer my brief (not-especially-reliable) tips.

If You Think It’s Fun, You Can Probably Do It

You may not have made a character before in any medium (TTRPGs, videogames, improv theatre…).

LARP is often about stock characters or grand themes. If you can get a sense of genre or theme, you can probably imagine what your fantasy is of being in that space.

You can also, and this is important, ask the people around you. Over my Smoke, I asked people for my characters’ names, health, musical tastes, and family relationships. I was asked, in turn, for ideas about hiking-based friendships, things to have a fight over, and evil things relating to ambient noise.

People are there to support each other. Enjoy it.

Build Your Character To Be Helped

The best choice I made at The Smoke was making my first character useless.

By which I mean: in a LARP about space fighter pilots (Star Wars etc.), I was told my character enlisted because they were excited about war. They also had a lucky charm. So… young?

By making ‘Bunny’, a very peppy but frankly useless pilot, endlessly keen and eager to praise people and ask them for advice (Rook, Rowan, Paladin, Wotsit, Kestrel give a sense of the other names), I was able to invite other players to help my character, and thus support me in my play.

While also avoiding the awkwardness of other needs (romantic, authority over others etc.).

Build Your Character To Help Others (Play Their Character)

Everyone at a LARP will want to play their characters.

Pay attention to what they want to do, and give them space to do it.

Why is your character interested in others? How can they shine a light on them?

With Bunny, it was easy to ask people about themselves, thank grizzled mentors [thus letting them demonstrate their grizzle], sympathise with fellow rookies [letting them demonstrate their rookieness], and argue hopefully with pessimists [letting them demonstrate their pessimism]. Why do you think X? What do you think about X? How are you feeling about X? You. You. You. Always.

It might be that your character is suspicious, naturally caring, or has some other reason to give others space. But it’s much harder to play a brooding loner, unless you want to play by yourself.

Play To Support Others; Go Off-Game

If you can enjoy other people’s play as much as or more than your own, you’ll have an even better time. Encourage them to talk.

Continuing this theme, the thing I found most people wanted was someone supporting their play. If they’re playing a scholar, treat them as wise. Tell other people that person A is a brilliant spiritual leader/evil genius/musician. Be the gullible fool to their brilliant spy; sign on the dotted line of their obviously deceptive contract.

This is where the off-game tool comes in handy, if needed.

Off-Game is one of the more distinctive concepts of LARP practice. During a scene, anyone can go ‘off game’ (usually indicated by a hand-signal) and check whether something is OK with the other people in the scene. They can get a sense of whether to escalate things, lower the energy, or ask for ideas about where to take something.

For example:

“Just checking, are you OK having an argument about this?” [Yes, I’d love that! Yes, but please don’t actually shout at me! No, sorry, can we take it down a notch?]

“Are you OK with this level of physical contact?” [Yeah, I’m comfortable with pretty much anything. Yes, but let’s leave it at hugs and shoulder-contact. No, sorry, can we just sit close to each other?]

“Any ideas of how I can persuade you to help me?” [Yeah, I’m pretty near being persuaded. Yes, I really need X. No, not really, but maybe they could?]

“Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re aiming at here; what do you actually want from this?” [This is actually great; I just want our characters to have a bit more of a connection. Oh, I really want you to break my heart - turn it up a notch! Maybe let’s just say we’re done with this bit and move on.]

The last two usages (getting ideas of what might be fun to do) is a great way to both create moments of drama, and confirm that they're OK, allowing you to have blazing rows or dramatic protestations of love with strangers in the confidence that nobody’s uncomfortable.

Poster Paint Play; Play To Find Out; Play Them To Break Them

These are three concepts that are important to me, drawing on interactive theatre and TTRPGs.

Poster Paint Play: In a three-hour LARP, you’re probably only going to hit the core elements of a character; it’s not going to be too deep (though, of course, a motivation might be complex in being soft, tender, gentle or otherwise).

Have fun with that. Play whatever you’re playing clearly and strongly, leaning on the tropes and the spirit of the game.

Play To Find Out: Abandon your conception of the character the moment they meet other PCs. Humans are defined by our relationships, and therefore other PCs ought to change you as much as you change them. Let the pessimist wear you down (it’ll be great fun for them!). Let your mentor teach you something. Discover that actually, maybe you don’t really hate your family!

Play Them To Break Them: It may be that you’re playing a character who gets everything they want, despite the odds. That can be a lovely story, especially if you start at the bottom.

Alternatively, in the words of Apocalypse World treat your character like a fast car. Point them where you want them to go and let them fall apart. If you have two things you value, find out which one is more important to you. Maybe they’re ambitious, and betray a friend. Maybe they’re useless and at risk of being fired, but take active pride in their failings. Maybe they’re filled with hope, and slowly realise that it’s entirely misplaced, before finding a new and more pragmatic sentiment. In three hours, enjoy how much you can lose.

Taster Menu

The Smoke is a really good place to get a taster menu of LARP.

Before going, a friend with a similar level of LARP knowledge compared notes with me, and we agreed that we wanted to attend at least one introspective, artsy LARP, one schlocky genre-fun LARP, and one nordic-style LARP (more literary, though it’s difficult to define clearly). We also wanted to benefit from playing wherever there were spaces left, since we had failed to understand the booking system.

This meant that we were surprised by what we did. We’d go to the start of each session with a rough top 3 list of preferences, hope there were spaces, and see what we ended up doing. It was a wonderful way to enjoy The Smoke and see what was out there; it’s quite possible I’ll do that again.


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