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Live Wires: Dispatches From the Live-Action Front

Border Dispute

Scott Lynch
December 21, 2000

Border Dispute

Drawing the Line Between LARP and Tabletop Gaming, or

A Tale of Two Roleplaying Modes

It has been my privilege, since this column began, to witness the ongoing debates in its forums as well as receive dozens of personal messages from readers offering praise, seeking clarification, or threatening my life. This last group puzzles me the most.. Only rarely have detractors who contacted me in person taken issue with my inexperience as a columnist or a lack of clarity in my text. Rather, the majority of them have resented the very fact that I am offering a column about LARP, as though I am kicking sand in someone's face by daring to suggest that LARP and pen-and-paper games are very different creatures.

Well, I'm here to lay it on the line for you, dear reader, since a number of polite and genuinely curious people have also brought up this issue. Is there any real difference between live-action gaming and tabletop? Where should the point of division be drawn, and why? Don't the shared elements of roleplaying convention outweigh the cosmetic differences of the two forms?

My original answer was three-fold:

1. Tabletop relies upon descriptive meta-narration provided by the GM and the players to a much greater extent than LARP does;

2. Tabletop relies upon the mental environment of each player to support the game narrative, while LARP relies upon the limitations and resources of a real-world environment; and

3. LARP must be modeled with a plurality of simultaneous plot threads of indeterminate relative value, while a tabletop gaming session evolves a central narrative thread under direct GM authority.

Shortly after writing those points down, however, I began to ponder them a bit more deeply. I couldn't escape the feeling that there was something else lying just beneath them, something that I was missing. I finally realized that, while valid in their own fashion, these three points are merely symptoms of a greater underlying gulf between the two roleplaying modes. The primal gulf, the greatest point of division between LARP and tabletop, can be summarized thusly:

Tabletop gamers base a shared narrative action thread upon individual perceptions, while LARPers base individual narrative actions on a shared baseline of perception.

This arises from the fact that each style of game uses a different method to deliver the information participants need to make decisions. Tabletop gaming sessions are made up of a description/response cycle that arises between the players and the GM. The GM provides necessary information, refines it through player queries, and arbitrates player interaction with the rules structure. Each player takes the GM's input and constructs a mental model of what is going on based upon the GM's descriptions. So, although there is only one central action sequence shared by all the participants, there are as many separate perceptions of the game environment as there are separate participants.

Example: a group of players around a table might understand that the player-characters are in a bar, a drunk Halfling is taunting their leader, and the party thief has started juggling to entertain some onlookers. However, one player might imagine the bar to be a smoky fantasy version of the Mos Eisley cantina, while another might be drawing a mental map of a favorite bar from Raymond E. Feist's Serpentwar Saga.The player with the juggling thief might imagine her crowd to be made of half-drunk human laborers, while the player next to her might be envisioning a motley band of demi-humans. Regardless of the vivid precision of GM description, each participant will see things in a somewhat different fashion. The differences might be as subtle as the perceived color of character clothing, but they will be there. Only the ultimate, tangible results of player actions are immune to this selective perception. From these results are forged a record of accomplishments- a strong ce! ntral narrative thread that requires continuous GM attention. Player-character actions in a tabletop game cannot be legitimized unless they are accepted into the narrative thread by the GM.

A LARP is the reverse of the tabletop situation. Participants in a LARP are all provided with the same sensory input, as given to them by their eyes, ears, and the physical laws that govern our universe. There is no need for a GM to describe the placement of objects in a LARP environment, because every player can see that placement for himself or herself. There is no need for a LARPer to tell a GM that their character is going to sit down at a bar or stay alert for danger- those are actions they take for themselves, and other players are free to notice them without GM narration. Each LARPer's actions have an autonomous legitimacy unknown to tabletop gaming, because LARPers are let loose in a sort of narrative matrix that does not require the constant attention of a GM to set its tone. Costuming, posturing, movement, speech, and environmental decoration take the place of most GM narration (although a GM might occasionally have to step in and verbally announce an outlandish eff! ect, like the use of a magic spell).

The other thing to remember is that most contemporary LARPs are open-ended in nature, leaving a great deal of room for individual goals and initiative. Such a game cannot accurately be modeled as a unified, linear narrative in the manner of a tabletop game. It would be more accurate to visualize a LARP as an ever-shifting hedgerow of converging and splintering plot threads, each one propelled by the engine of an autonomous player-character, but each one initially based on a perception of the physical game environment that is in total harmony with the perception of every other participant.

In short, tabletop gamers evolve personal mental understandings that come together to form a unified plot, while LARPers evolve personal plots from a unified understanding of the game environment. Whether you realize it or not, your brain is working under very different circumstances when you LARP than it is when you play a tabletop game.

In my experience, a long-time LARPer needs some time to adapt to the paradigm of their first pencil-and-paper game, time to evolve the ability to connect words and dice rolls in reality to the tiny movie that is playing in their brain. Conversely, an experienced table-top gamer stepping into their first LARP will often feel uneasy with its seeming lack of narrative authority and structure. Each gaming style confronts its participants with a totally different method of information input.

We all seem to take for granted the incredible intuitive leap and creative flexibility needed to convert a few words from a GM and some numbers on a die into a vivid tapestry of action just behind our eyes. Stop and think about this skillfor a few moments. When you play a pen-and-paper game, there is an extra layer of processing that your brain must undertake in order to translate the numbers and words you are receiving into a picture of the action you can understand.

A LARP, in comparison, does not call upon its players to translate sparse narrative into a three-dimensional action model. A LARP is taking place in vivid color and motion all around its players. Instead, by its very nature, it requires extra processing from the areas of the brain that govern human interaction and motor skills.

Is it any wonder that longtime participants in one form of roleplaying often have trouble understanding and appreciating the other? LARP and tabletop both train their participants in very different ways. Although they are both roleplaying forms and share many common traits, their informational input models are as different as night and day. Understanding the root of this difference not only lets us improve our personal approaches to gaming- it also nourishes an increased respect for the little-understood spark of creativity that turns words and a few mathematical abstractions into living color in the mind of a gamer.

Game well, game often, and don't let the bastards grind you down.

Scott Lynch TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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