By: Luke Mahar
Immersion: a longtime buzzword for LARPs. LARP’s advertised as highly immersive are the latest affectation LARP owners use to promote their product to players, yet without an industry standard in vernacular and measure, how are players to know just what to expect out of a LARP that’s “highly immersive,” or even mildly immersive, for that matter. It is nothing new to employ a sort of spectrum for different elements of a LARP, be it focus on roleplay vs combat, or other. It may be worthwhile at this stage, for the community to consider adopting some system to determine the level of immersion people can expect for one pretty important reason. Without this rating system or reference, even the term, “immersive” will begin to slowly lose value and grey in meaning, as every game will, or continue to, boast about their “high” Immersion Factor. What is now an aspect of the product a player would consider when choosing a game with which to be involved will eventually become the next “all natural” or “organic.” It will become even the most humble of LARPs MO when trying to draw players, diminishing the work another game might put in to in fact be, highly immersive. One might compare it to a business or company advertising with a customer satisfaction rating based on the ratings of their own staff. “We were ranked #1 in service by 100% of our customer service representatives!”
Although no standard rating system currently exists, for the purposes of this article I will propose various “Immersion Factor” or “IF” ratings based on various key elements of LARP games. Immersion is inextricably linked to both how the LARP game looks and how it feels. Immersion is more than what is seen, in fact, it deals more with what a LARP player would experience as the game is played. By no means are these suggestions the end all be all list of how to have an immersive game, however, there are some aspects which distinguish one LARP’s Immersion Factor from another that can be clearly identified and categorized. I believe the level of immersion is what makes it easier, or harder for that matter, for a player to leave reality and fully disappear into the LARP as their character. Many games are attempting to accomplish this, so how do we gauge whether or not one is successful in doing so?
Look and Feel
The look and feel of a LARP speaks largely to mean the devices which help develop and maintain ambiance, promote Player Character continuity, and atmospheric immersion. Here are some simple, common sense approaches to consider that will add to a LARP’s level of gameplay and overall Immersion Factor:
1. Transforming a Room – This is a small effort that goes a long way in hiding reality. The easiest thing to do when you have large items in a room which are not in period is to simply cover them up with some plain sheets or blankets. Just having these items out of site will make a difference. You’d be surprised at how much more acceptable it is to see a lump of cloth covering something on a table in the corner instead of looking at a microwave. Sure, your mind knows it’s a microwave under there, but eventually it will become far easier to ignore and won’t pull you out of character in the middle of a sentence when you notice it. If it’s a room you spend a lot of time in, eventually your mind will just overlook it. Another great trick is to cover it with cloth and then decorate it using the object underneath to provide levels for your candles, trinkets, or treasure boxes. Dressing up what you’re hiding works wonders.
A snapshot can help in making these sorts of decisions. Just like a person may check the mirror before going out in order to see what object stands out the most and then take it off or change it. It is important to glance at a setting or character to see what things might stand out as not part of the right genre for your game setting. A great way to do this is by taking a quick picture with your phone and then looking at it to see if anything stands out or “ruins” how good that picture would be for a promo shot. In this way, you will eventually get very good at seeing what looks out of place and finding ways to cover it up or fix it. A lot of my LARP experience comes from playing in fantasy or medieval settings which have consistent items that stand out or break immersion for the game. Plastic/Styrofoam cups and drink bottles are some of the most common offenders. These items can be replaced with wooden or period appropriate containers at a relatively low cost, be they brought by players, or provided by the game for a longer term solution.
2. Props – Props are the additive source of ambiance. They are the simple details which can help a player become a character. Props can be environmental or physical.
- Environmental Props are the sights and sounds which make up the setting for your LARP. Some examples of using environmental props would be: walking downstairs into a room or dungeon where the floor is covered in smoke or fog, hearing creepy sounds play in the distance, or drums banging away as you approach a hut deep in the woods. Using remote locations, or locations that fit into the overall scheme of the LARP are also good examples of ways to create a highly immersive environment.
- Physical Props are objects such as candles, fake blood, scrolls, books, webs, treasure boxes and other standard or common props used in LARPs. If most of your props are representative of the time period then props that are not part of the environment stand out even more so. Having excellent props within will additionally increase the Immersion Factor for the players.
Fortunately, all props are optional. They aren’t a necessary component since they are used as an additive factor for immersion. By that I can make the assertion that it is harder for a player to perceive what might be missing from a scene versus what is definitely out of place. So, if you don’t have scrolls, books, drums, or smoke, these missing articles won’t necessarily detract from an immersive environment. However, having them certainly adds to it and helps players get more in touch with their character. LARP games that use props effectively would have a much higher Immersion Factor than LARP games which simply rely on the players’ imagination. One of the most difficult props to control is the costuming, armor & weapons, and makeup that players bring to a LARP. Since each player is individually responsible for these elements, quality control is in the hands of the player and can be challenging to administer without having some uncomfortable conversations. For instance, if a bunch of players wear basic tabards, carry distinctly fake weapons, and have some brown face paint smeared on them, one might accept them all as the “trolls” who need to be defeated in order to save the kingdom. Unfortunately, one of the “trolls” decided to wear a baseball cap backwards and stands out like a sore thumb. Boom, Immersion Factor drops over something that is not always in your control. In order to increase your LARP Immersion Factor rating, provide rules for what is acceptable and unacceptable. True LARP players who are looking for the full immersion will appreciate your efforts to bring this aspect into line.
Here are some suggestions for helping players add to the overall Immersion Factor:
1. Costuming – Obviously, one of the biggest things that stands out in a fantasy setting is clothing items like sneakers, t-shirts and jeans. These are commonly worn items and some players may have difficulty accepting structure or critique regarding these items. I understand that controlling what someone wears, especially if they’re coming to NPC for you for free is a difficult conversation! If you are having difficulty with these things, you can attempt to raise the standard a little at a time by enforcing a “no jeans” policy, and then later a “no sneakers” policy or you can simply just not allow it. At the very least, simple concealment is still a workable solution for many of these setting-inappropriate items. If at first it sticks out, keep on adding costume pieces and layers! Keep adding and eventually you will no longer notice the out of place item. Artifacts, trinkets, scarves, robes, jewelry, hoods/hats/mantles/skullcaps, tabards, armor, gloves and even wigs can all add enough to a look to essentially hide the one or two items that would normally be out of place, or at least draw your attention away from them. For those running their own LARP, bring a trunk (in period of course) or some collapsible clothing racks with additional pieces that can be added if your NPC’s are having a hard time bringing their own gear. Tabards are usually the first solution for covering t-shirts, but are definitely not the only option available when going for a higher level of immersion. Wrap pants are amazing! Most players will be far less likely to take a second glance at jeans under a fine pair of wrap pants. Armor can also be used to cover up jeans and a t-shirt, however, no matter how ornate, realistic, or amazing looking, if you’re wearing it over a t-shirt and jeans, you’re still wearing it over a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. A big argument about armor and Immersion Factor is real or realistic. Here’s a simple thought which sometimes helps to assuage those who are looking for the benefit but don’t necessarily care about look: If you’re going to wear armor that doesn’t look real or you’re just wearing it for points, put it under your clothes. I have a very cheaply made suit which passes for plate or scale armor in one game that I play. In fact, so many other players have come to wear something similar that it has been dubbed “poker chip” armor because of its hard, plastic disks sewn into the fabric. It looks terrible by itself in nearly every example I have seen, and most wear it as their tabard or armor above the rest of their costuming, but as a layer under my tabard it just looks like some thick black fabric. I still get the points for it and I’m showing off my garb, not my tech-crafted armor.
2. Makeup – Whether yours is a game with heavy makeup requirements or little to no makeup, the trick with maintaining immersion with makeup is to be consistent! I have played many games where you see a lot of players who obviously take the extra effort to ensure their makeup and/or prosthetics are done very well, however, just as I mentioned earlier, if even one of them doesn’t take that requirement as seriously, they stand to immediately detract from immersion. This is perhaps most difficult for the Plot and NPCs running the game, as players may have to sometimes slip in and out of various roles and it takes time to apply good makeup and prosthetics. Again, the key is to cover up or distract from what can easily be seen as out of place. I’ve seen players wear headbands or skullcaps because they forgot their ear prosthetics. I’ve seen players use various things to cover what they are unable to supplement with makeup or props; partial masks to cover their face where a scar or tattoo might be missing, a veil to hide a missing beard, a hood to cover missing horns, gloves to cover bare skinned hands, a scarf or mantle to cover the back of your neck. These seemingly minor details are those which maintain the consistency of the “snapshot glances,” ensuring that nothing is out of place or spoiling or detracting from the atmosphere. Again, it is difficult for your mind to not do this naturally, so try to limit those things which trigger that response. Increase your Immersion Factor by ensuring that players have these items available.
3. Rules – The actions, effects, calls and logistics of a game are just as vital to the atmosphere as any props or roleplay. A LARP developer known to some as the “Grandfather of LARP” in the US, Ford Ivey, is developing his latest system with the motto “play the game, not the rules.” This is a great model for improving on a game’s Immersion Factor and when looking to design a system or rule set for our own games, attempt to focus a player’s attention on playing their character or role, not the game system. The game and its rules system needs to be transparent and seamless relative to the environment in order to achieve a high Immersion Factor. If I have to stop game play in order to read a card that describes what something does or how I should roleplay an effect, I’ve stopped playing my character and am now playing the system. This goes for the vocalization mechanic as well. Many times we find that LARP systems are inundated and plagued by lots of vocalized effects that must be remembered and in turn, interpreted by all players. Unfortunately, keeping the rules and calls as in character and immersed as possible creates a new level of difficulty for players. This is not something a game can simply adapt and employ without a serious level of understanding and investment from the players. They have to actually know what an effect does or how they’re supposed to roleplay it. In the end, players are basically communicating their intended actions to one another using words that aren’t at all in character. This reminds me of the table top games where I tell the GM what my character does instead of just doing it. While this method for executing on actions seems logical for players who are just learning, it is anathema to the basic concepts of immersion, where everything you are doing should be as your character would do it and very little, if anything, is said out of character or out of game.
4. Roleplaying – Staying in character is probably the biggest contributor to immersion as well as the most likely offender in breaking it. Even the “purest” of role players can be caught slipping out of character or breaking immersion at a moment when they forget their role or are themselves forced out of character. One of the great tricks that more players should put into practice is to actually take a moment to get in to character. This is what actors do when they hear “action.” This is why we countdown to a “Lay On” after the game has been paused for whatever reason. We don’t just start, we try to ease back into it. For some players, the whole ritual of getting dressed in their garb or putting their makeup on is what helps them get into their character. Some people seem to come by roleplaying more naturally than others, but everyone should be able to remind themselves that what they may be about to say or do doesn’t fit in the game world with which they’re currently involved. This is much easier when everyone and everything around you is promoting immersion and helping to keep you “synced” with your character. Likewise, it is the responsibility of players to help bring those who may be slipping out of “decorum” back in sync with their character and their character’s respective appropriate actions. It doesn’t mean you have to berate them or even step out of character yourself to snap someone else back into the game. Sometimes a gentle reminder using “in character lingo” can go a long way in helping a player check their own behavior. Some ways to gently remind a player could be to ask if they aren’t feeling well, or if they are speaking madness, or if they have been drinking. Other, more intrusive, ways to remind people are to do things which are obviously part of the game or in character, such as standing up abruptly and saying “I won’t be a party to this nonsense,” or threatening to cast a spell or use some ability on the person whose character is obviously not acting like themselves. I have made a fun game out of finding new ways to bring people back into game that have strayed by doing something or even correcting their words to fit the genre. In one game I play, it has become popular to refer to your vehicle as your caravan or carriage. So, when someone says, “I left my sword in my car,” and you correct them by saying, “You mean you left it in your carriage?” you are simply providing a gentle reminder that “car” is obviously not setting appropriate. One of the biggest shifts needed to create a more immersive LARP game is a departure from the “just ignore it” idea, as it represents a mindset that is perhaps the largest detractor from creating a LARP that can completely capture and pull you in. Some may feel this attention to detail may be too exacting or a bit ridiculous, but the human mind is really good at subconsciously picking up on things which seem out of place or don’t belong. It is why we notice movie errors, like an actor who forgot to take his wedding ring off during a take where he was playing the role of some single guy. It’s at that moment you’ve ceased suspension of disbelief and have instead begun considering those things which exist in reality. So, if you find yourself fully immersed in a game with a low technological setting and it’s been hours since you thought about reality, chances are you’re doing a great job reacting and responding as your character would. Then, perhaps you hear or see someone’s cell phone. The reason this is so jarring for a player who is in character and not very easy to “just ignore” is because your character doesn’t know how to react to what you’re seeing. So, you revert to your knowledge as a player and attempt to dismiss it. Either way, it was enough to throw you off your game and now you’re most likely no longer immersed in the moment.
“Oh there you are, Peter.”
So, in an effort to provide some guidelines for the things which add to or detract from your game’s IF rating, I hope this has been helpful. Not everyone wants to capture this level of detail or gameplay for their LARP and there is absolutely no cookie cutter version of what you should or shouldn’t do for your own game. For me, I would hope that this IF rating idea could eventually translate into something which tells me how easy it is going to be for me to stay in character at a game as well as how important that concept is for the people running that game. Since my experiences stem mostly from those games in the fantasy and medieval genres, I would love to hear some tips and tricks from players of games with vastly different settings and rules systems on how they get into character, cover up reality and set the mood for their games.
“The less I have to imagine, the more I can pretend.”
~Luke R. Mahar
Owner, LARPlink, Inc.