118. Road Trip larp, Part Three: Playing among strangers

This is the third part of the series on the Road Trip larp project. If you want to start from the first post, it is #116.

For most of Road Trip, we were playing amongst ourselves. In the cars, at rest stops, in hotel rooms and at random locations on the way. We weren’t always alone, though. One of the core components of Road Trip was playing among strangers — people who had no idea that we weren’t what we pretended to be.

There are many interesting (and some disturbing) facets to discuss in that regard. They’ll come later in the blog series. For this part of it, I’m going to share some thoughts on how playing with strangers worked — not whether it’s good or bad (or why). This is just about the execution of the idea.

The short explanation is that while the 22 participants of Road Trip were playing characters, nobody else knew that this was the case. To everyone else, we presented ourselves as a rock band on tour, so that’s what we were received as. Maybe some knew that we were playing — but if so, they didn’t let on. For all we know, some of them saw right through us. But I’m assuming that most didn’t.

The Road Trip series follows a Ten Lessons learned format, so with that introduction out of the way, I present you with Ten Lessons Learned From Playing Among Strangers.

  1. Playing in consensus reality makes for great immersion. My late friend (and longtime larper) Elge Larsson often used the word consensus reality. Here, we played around in it. No elves, pirates, wizards or secret cults (that we knew of!), but bartenders, musicians and partygoers. It’s easy to feel that it’s real when you’re playing in a 360 degree illusion. Because it is, even if your own story isn’t.
  2. It’s hard not to draw on yourself. You can be a wizard for a couple of days without using a lot from yourself. Nobody’s going to ask you pointed questions about where you grew up or what you thought of Barack Obama’s presidency. Here, we had to be able to provide that depth, and the easiest way to do so was to interweave our own lives into those of our characters. I lived in Seattle as a child — so Rick Stevenson, my character, grew up there.
  3. It was both incredibly easy and incredibly hard. Whether I introduce myself as Rick or Claus at a restaurant and order food makes little difference, yet one of them is “real”, while the other isn’t. To the waiter, it makes absolutely no difference. When interviewing an adult photographer about his thoughts about Route 66, I was playing Rick Stevenson. But had I done it as Claus, it would have been more or less the same. Still, being Claus feels easy. Being Rick feels hard, because it feels like (and is) lying, even though the act is simple.
  4. Steering is everything. When we talk larp, we sometimes use the term “steering” when talking of providing character motivations for things we, as participants, want to do. Here, that was extreme. Want to shoot a gun? Give your character a reason to want it too. And doing a real world road trip, filled with interesting things? Plenty of character reasons for getting into trouble.
  5. Fiction/Reality gets blurry as hell. In Las Vegas, two of our participants got married. For real. They were Polish filmmakers, and part of the documentation team. In the fiction, they got married as well. They were Bulgarian filmmakers, and part of the documentation team. What was real and what wasn’t? It was a real wedding, and also a fake one. Both we and our characters were there. Tricky? You bet!
  6. You need to play down the drama. In larps, we do crazy shit from time to time. When playing among strangers, that needs to be severely toned down. Sure, some of it remained, but the big outbursts and wild stuff was kept to a minimum when there were Mundanes around.
  7. It’s also slightly dangerous. We made it very clear to the participants that this was not a zero-risk larp. I did an interview with a guy, who had a gun sticking out of his pocket. Our (ingame) drug dealer saved a cameraman from being hustled in Albuqurque. The hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma was a shady place. When playing in the real world, you play by its rules.
  8. We became more and more real. One character, Sarah, was a young Christian woman, who’d joined the tour by mistake. During the trip, she learned how to be a drum technician – both ingame and offgame. The band got better and better. The names were fake, but the actions were real. I WAS a filmmaker for a week, even if I’m not normally.
  9. It made for awesome adventures. I’ve recorded a music video at Cadillac Ranch (google it), and in it, there’s Caleb, who played the tambourine. Caleb joined us the night before. Even if we were fake, he still got to be part of a music video shoot at an impressive location in the desert. That’s prety cool and pretty 1:1 to the real deal. Would a real band have put him in there? Who knows? We did it.
  10. It felt slightly wrong – but I’m not sure why. We all perform facades of ourselves. Here, those facades had different names and different back stories. But they were still us portraying these people. I’ve discussed it over and over both during and aftet the larp. Several people have challenged my feeling that it was somehow wrong with the words “Does it matter?”. I’m not sure of the answer. I’ve set aside a whole blog post to talk about the moral aspects. For now I’ll just say that it’s complicated.

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Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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