This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007. 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I always thought that the great breakthrough of the roleplaying hobby into the pop culture mainstream would occur at a remove. As Hollywood’s obsession with brightly-colored genre properties ready for their CGI close-ups accelerates, I always figured it was only a matter of time before some enterprising producer sniffed out a gaming property and had a big hit with it. Sure, we’ve already had a D&D movie and a Vampire TV show. The comics field also had a long list of disappointing attempts — even some very successful ones, like Superman in the 70s and Batman in ’89 — before the success of X-Men prompted an all-out buying spree for the movie rights to comic book characters. Now that even the fourth-tier comics characters have been parceled out,it seems logical to expect somebody in Hollywood to pony up and knock one out of the park with a Shadowrun or Deadlands flick. (And, hey, I just happen to know a guy who owns this property that’d make a great vehicle for a Chow Yun-Fat / Jet Li pairing…)

Turns out I was, as is so often the case, wrong.

Who would have thought that the multi-million dollar media explosion would take its cues from the ever-so-humble, studiously non-commercial LARP? (Also known as a ‘freeform’ to the Brits in the house.)

All around the world, all around the TV dial, Live Action Roleplaying rules the airwaves.

What? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed all the LARPS!

Survivor? Big Brother? The Bachelor? Average Joe? The
Apprentice?

After, all, what are they but televised, pre-processed versions of those games of negotiation and hoodwinkery we all know so well? The guy with the goth-style top hat standing on the escalator at Origins, his crossed arms proclaiming his state of invisibility, is involved in the same essential activity as Richard from Survivor or Omarosa from The Apprentice.

The most immediate benefit of this phenomenon is to provide us with a new, more succinct and accessible way to describe our hobby to perplexed relatives and acquaintances. “It’s like a cross between Survivor and Lord of the Rings,” makes up in brevity and easy cultural reference what it lacks in precision. It certainly beats the ever-popular, “Well, you’re improvising a group story, but there are rules, so it’s more like a game, but there’s no ending and nobody ever wins.”

The nobody ever wins part is the second-biggest sticking point that prevents us from expanding beyond the comfortable hobbit warrens of fandom into the culture at large. The only larger obstacle is the requirement that participants exercise their creativity by creating a fictional character and contributing to a group narrative.

You might well argue that without these two elements, you no longer have roleplaying as we know it. Maybe so. Still, there could be great benefits to creating a gateway experience. This hypothetical LARP variant might act as a stepping stone to draw new people to our world. It could contribute to our hobby’s infrastructure by becoming a new sub-category of gaming, like CCGs or clicky-base games. It could move crowds into the convention halls and send traffic into game stores. Every little bit helps.

At the very least, a compare ‘n’ contrast between the reality TV genre provides an interesting thought experiment. What elements do they have that our games don’t?

Competition

Some LARPS provide clear victory conditions; others parcel out awards to an array of winners and generally celebrate the cooperative spirit of group storytelling. Reality-TV games are all about winning and losing. Our hypothetical gateway experience has to be a game in the purest sense, with one triumphant participant left bloodied but standing at its conclusion. Even those of us in the current roleplaying culture who love Settlers of Catan or Panzer Leader tend to be shier about pure competition than society at large, which trumpets its values at every stadium and sports bar.

Clarity

With competition comes clarity. Instead of the multifarious goals of a lovingly complicated freeform, which might revolve around succession in a vampire clan or the raising of a new goddess, reality TV pounds home a single, simple goal: don’t get eliminated.

Packaging

The big difference between reality TV and our kind of game is the spectator element: you can enjoy it passively, the way almost all entertainment in our culture is consumed.

On reality TV, events are heavily massaged through editing, background music, and other techniques of the medium to emphasize conflict, drama, and emotional impact. They build with epic, drawn-out pacing to the crescendo of each episode, in which the evening’s loser is chosen.

Even if you don’t want to play, you want to watch. Watching breeds excitement. It transforms a game into an event.

Punctuation

In Reality TV, player eliminations provide regular dramatic high points, generating a wave pattern of suspense and excitement. Our LARP-like events, on the other hand, give everyone the chance to participate for as long as possible.

The punchier, more ruthless reality games get their charge by having irrevocably bad things happen to certain participants at predictable intervals. There’s always a freight train coming; the only question is who gets tied to the tracks this time.

Emotion

Reality TV focuses the pursuit of primal goals: love and status. Participants seek the approval of others even as they plan to climb over them.

A huge number of these shows are high-stakes versions of the Dating Game, and appeal strongly to women. Although LARPS tend to draw more female participants than other streams of hobby gaming, in general we do a bad job at pitching ourselves to half of the population. Our LARPS tend to blunt emotional interaction by framing them in boy-friendly martial themes, history, and politics.

Relatability

Though few of us expect to be marooned on an island with a cast of buff, half-naked fellow outcasts, many reality games draw on more universal themes of daily life: trying to get along with the other people in your house, looking for a mate, or, as in North America’s latest reality hit, The Apprentice, vying for success on the job. It might be fun to picture a reality show with magic swords and talking dragons, but the imagery of successful reality TV hits much closer to home.

Money

And in the end, most of these shows offer the winners something everybody wants and can relate to: a big cash prize. With a kitty of money at stake, suddenly any game abstraction, any immunity challenge or contrived stunt, takes on a clear meaning.

Therefore, a more mainstream-friendly flavor of LARP would possess the following traits: simplicity of concept, a spectator element, constant suspense generated by dramatic events at regular intervals, accessible emotion, familiar imagery, and a big pot of money.

I can see the creation of a cash-prize LARP circuit as a serious business opportunity for someone with the capital and vision to make it work.

I can also see the result as something that many current players would flee from at maximum velocity.

That’s reality for you.