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12. The power of rapid reframing in larp

In 2008 I was part of the organiser team for the larp Motherland. It was set in an alternate history 1964, inspired by the Robert Harris novel, Fatherland. The participants played Russian soldiers training at a secret army base, with the mission of missions; to assassinate Adolf Hitler on his 75th birthday.

For the larp, we provided costumes for everyone, and as part of the costumes, the players received small pieces of coloured cloth marked with some kind of symbol. These were to show which of the training groups in the larp they were part of.

Some wore them as armbands, while others attached them to their jackets as oversized medals. They featured cool icons like tractors, battleships and sickles, to help show that in the Soviet Union of 1964, you didn’t belong to Combat Group Dragon, Combat Group Valkyrie or some such. Instead, we had Combat Group Tractor and Combat Group Rifle, to celebrate the important things in the Soviet military-industrial complex.

There was just one problem. The symbols looked like crap.

The artist who did them normally does amazing work, but simply had a bad day, and since we had not foreseen even the possibility of them being less than optimal, we had no plan B. So we made one. We decided that they had been painted by the famous child artists Dmitri Berbatov, in the fiction. We presented them to the participants as such in the fiction, and it was mentioned as a matter of pride.

No one suspected a thing, we found out later. Several thought it was actually a very nice touch, and thought that they had also been made by a child artists in reality. It went smoothly from being a bug to being a feature.

Now, you can’t solve all problems this way. If our toilets hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t have told the players that they’d have to shit in the nearby woods and that this was to give them a better experience. They wouldn’t have bought that for a second. At least, I think so. We’ll never know.

The thing was, that as an event organiser or an experience designer in general, you will come upon problems you can’t solve. Then you can do one of several things.

  • You can downscale, and do your best to tell people, and apologise if you feel you have to. “Sorry, we thought we’d be staying at a 4-star hotel, but it turns out that it’s only a 2-star hotel. Let’s make the best of it.”
  • You can try to lie about it, and hope no one notices. “What? No, we never actually said that we’d be paying for your transport. We said we’d pay for transport, but we didn’t specify it. Here’s 5 dollars to cover the bus.”
  • You can change the framing, and see if it’s accepted. “We’ve decided to let you set up the tents yourself as a teambuilding exercise.”

There’s other stuff you can do as well, but let’s focus for a moment on these three options. The first is of course always doable, and sometimes it’s the best thing to do. Sometimes things fuck up, and the only way forward is to acknowledge it, own up to it, and move on. The second can be tempting, but I wouldn’t advise on it if there’s even the slightest chance that it will go wrong. And maybe not even then, but that’s a discussion all in itself. And last, but definitely not least, many people seem to be afraid of #3.

This is the part I really don’t understand. Any kind of project makes #3 decisions at one time or the other. If you wanted a battleship, but got a destroyer (for the not-too-maritime among you, a destroyer is a big warship, but a battleship is a LOT bigger), then you come up with a reason for using a destroyer instead of a battleship. You don’t lie and pretend it IS a battleship, and you probably don’t apologise for it either — unless of course you found out the day before the event that the two aren’t the same. ;-)

But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’re doing a brainstorm on an event you want to do, and people are throwing ideas left and right, nobody feels bad about reframing like crazy. If someone suggests hiring a famous band, and another person in the group suggest hiring a friend’s (cheaper) band instead, nobody feels they should apologise to anyone.

“Hi, do you want to come to our festival? We wanted Bon Jovi, but we’re getting my friend Ahmed and his guitar trio instead. Sorry.”

That’s not how it works. Ahmed and the Guitar Heroes are presented as the main attraction, and nobody outside the project group ever hears of the Bon Jovi dream. Of course. Anything else would be strange.

Now say you’re the day before the event. You’ve planned to have Bon Jovi come, but you’ve told no one. It’s going to be the surprise of the century. As the cancellation rolls in, and everyone is raging in despair, someone calls Ahmed. He’s happy to come, and he’ll cover for the surprise act.

When the festival-goers arrive, and are blown away by the relatively unknown guitar trio, it’ll still feel like cheating. Even if it works. Even if no one knew about Bon Jovi. Because it wasn’t planned like that to begin with, and it was making the best of a bad thing.

Everything. One of the amazing things about larp is that control virtually everything. You control the time, the rules and mechanics, the space and the fiction. You control the characters, the setting and the structure. You have so much control that it’s hard to even understand it.

Not everyone else has this advantage. Least of all sports.

Mind you, I think some forms of sports are pretty damn cool. Even though I was bad at it, I liked playing football (or soccer, if you live west of the Atlantic). But try to change even small things, and people will go apeshit on you and say:

“That’s not football any more!”

Suggest that you put 15 players on the field instead of 11. Change the rules so that a goal scored from outside the penalty zone counts double. Remove the offside rule (which a lot of people don’t understand anyway). To most people with any football experience, you’ve just created a new game that’s definitely not football. Try to get these changes introduced at a tournament, and you’ll just be laughed at.

But to me as a larp designer, those changes seem absurdly minor. I’m used to having so many levers to adjust that’s it positively overwhelming. Even in small and simple larps.

  • I can change the length.
  • I can change the number of characters.
  • I can change the fictional frame.
  • I can change the pre-game workshops.
  • I can change the rules of the larp.
  • I can change the scenography.
  • I can change the organiser-run events.
  • I can change the player briefings.
  • … and a thousand other things.

All of these changes can have major impact. I’ve run series of small battle-oriented games, showcasing how even minor changes make a difference. Even a small thing like changing the combat rules, let alone change the entire tone of the larp.

The famous child artist Dmitri Berbatov came into existence as a last-minute solution. But if we’d known how “his” artwork would be received, we might have done it that way on purpose. And then instead of feeling like frauds getting away with an out-of-the-ass solution, we would be justifiably proud of our out-of-the-box idea. With the EXACT SAME props.

To me, that’s fascinating. And it can also be the other way around.

Spending a ton of time and energy on something that people end up hating feels a lot worse than spending literally no time/energy on EXACTLY THE SAME, and people having the same negative reaction. People don’t care if you’ve sunk a thousand work hours into something, if they don’t like it. In fact, they may feel it’s better if they know you only just flicked it together, because then there’s an obvious explanation for why it’s not to their liking.

Sometimes it gets completely weird. I’ve sometimes lied to people about how much time it took me to produce something, because I knew that they would be more positive towards it if they thought it had taken a long time. Showing people a book you’ve done usually makes them go “Wow. Cool!”. Tell them that it’s been a 6 month project, and they’ll be impressed. Tell them that it took 2 weeks and they’ll think you’re sloppy.

WITH THE SAME PRODUCT.

As someone who does a ton of stuff, this is something I fight on a daily basis. The number of times I’ve been in conversations with people who want more time “because it should be done properly” is absurd. There’s a huge difference between “better” and “good”. Better is relative to what something is. Good is relative to other things. If I spend 100 hours doing a painting, it may come out more or less ok — but probably not, since my painting skills are quite low. If my wife spends 10 hours on the same painting, it’ll be brilliant, since she’s an actual artist with 20 years of experience.

Effort and effect are very context-dependent.

Rant over.

When I go to a larp, I care about what I experience. Whether it was originally planned that way, turned out that way by accident or was hastily cobbled together five minutes before it happened doesn’t really change my experience. When I learn of it, it changes my experience, and that’s inevitable. Blind luck and good design are not the same. Of course not.

But whether someone wrote their speech and practiced it for hours and hours, or made it up on the way to the stage because they’d forgotten they were going to give a speech and only remembered when they were presented — I don’t care. If I like what you do, then I like what you do. At least I try to think like that, because I really hate it when others don’t.

And when you have a medium as flexible as larp, you can reframe to your heart’s content, without having to do more than think and communicate. If you’ve built a rollercoaster, it’s pretty damn hard changing it a lot once it’s done. You can repaint it, change the queueing system, up the price or change the opening hours. But the core experience of riding the rollercoaster isn’t easy to change.

With a larp, you can change everything with a moment’s notice.

If you do a dark dystopian prison camp larp and gather your participants just before it all starts and say “We’re going to be playing this as slapstick comedy.” then it’s suddenly a totally different ball game. Your participants may not be excited about it (especially if they’ve signed up for a dark dystopian experience!) but it’s very possible.

You can even do it while you’re running the larp. In fact, it’s pretty seldom that a larp doesn’t need some calibration on the fly — and often pretty major calibration if you’re trying out new stuff. Some of this will be noticeable to the participants; changing the rules, the setting and the mood is hard to do discreetly. But changing your behind-the-scenes plans is very easy indeed. And — surprise! — these changes are often a lot more beneficial to people’s experiences than ones made five months in advance.

So what am I saying in this chaotic ramble, that got even more chaotic by the fact that a thunderstorm and power loss broke my workflow into half?

I’m saying three things.

  1. “Going according to plan” doesn’t necessarily mean “better” or even “good”. Following the plan isn’t a goal in and of itself. If changing things in the last minute makes it better, DO IT.
  2. Larp is pretty damn awesome in this regard, because it’s so flexible and gives you so many ways of calibrating. And if we embrace #1 a bit more, then we’ll get better larps and better experiences.
  3. I’m afraid some people will read this and think that I’m just advocating for no plans and complete chaos. I’m not. I’m advocating for using the larp medium to its fullest, and that means embracing calibration, not fearing it.

After all, the child artist Dmitri Berbatov was a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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