Yes, I'm that much of a nerd. But I'm getting ahead of myself. LARP stands for Live Action Roleplaying, and if you have heard of it, you've probably heard of boffer LARPing, the kind of LARP where you run around in the woods and hit each other with foam swords. That's not the kind of LARP I do. I mainly play secrets and powers, litform, and American freeform LARP, which are more theatrical, abstract, and don't usually involve physical contact. I'll quickly define these three terms, then get into more detail on the kinds of games I play and write, and how I've been working to adapt them for online play since the pandemic.
Secrets and powers LARP is an older term, referring to games where characters (and their players) have secret information that will likely come out in play, but that the character generally doesn't want to come out. Play is often adversarial, with the intent of uncovering others' secrets. Characters generally also have powers or other abilities that they can use in game, often on ability cards. In secrets and powers LARP, costuming is generally optional, and most games are pre-written with distinct characters and worldbuilding. Most secrets and powers games are one-shots between 2 hours and 6 hours, though I've heard of games going as long as 10 days, mostly in the past when this style was more popular, especially on college campuses. This is my favorite LARP style (which, of course, I learned on a college campus). Specifically, I love the MIT Assassins' Guild style of secrets and powers LARP, which I'll go into more detail about later. I didn't go to MIT, but this style was imported to the Stanford Gaming Society, which I was a member of.
Litform is a new term that arose at one of the Living Games Conferences with the intent of replacing the use of secrets and powers too broadly. Litform simply means any game with pre-written characters and worlds. Most such games are one-shots. Secrets and powers still has its place as a term, but as a subset of litform. This term is mostly popular in New England with the Intercon crowd, of which I am a part now.
American freeform is a little harder to pin down. It's getting increasingly popular around the United States, though it is influenced heavily by Nordic LARP. American freeform games are usually low prep, without pre-written characters (instead, characters and relationships are usually workshopped), though they may include character archetypes and some pre-written worldbuilding. Most American freeform games are one-shots, and aren't adversarial like secrets and powers. They are more about exploring feelings and relationships, and are almost always high transparency games. In other words, characters may have secrets, but players don't. Players may work together on how to have scenes of play occur, and how their characters will reveal information to each other. Some games are divided into scenes for framing, though some aren't. I'm personally not the hugest fan of this style, but I play a lot of such games because they are easy to run online. And a lot of times I do have a great time! It's just difficult for me to create and keep straight all the info about characters and relationships when it's created on the spot. I am better at remembering character info when I have a lot of time in advance to read a character sheet.
I (try to) keep track of the LARPs I've played or GMed on LARP Resume: My LARP Resume
Some Basics on GameTeX and MIT Assassins' Guild Style LARPs:
Now to address my specific preferred LARP style and how I write that style of LARP. If you aren't familiar (most people even in LARP circles aren't), GameTeX is system built on LaTeX (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaTeX) for writing and typesetting LARPs in the MIT Assassins' Guild style. It's written by Ken Clary, and available here: http://web.mit.edu/kenclary/Public/Guild/GameTeX/ and in a more recent forked version here: https://github.com/dwhalen/SGSTeX
It is mostly used by the MIT Assassins' Guild, but has also been imported to the Stanford Gaming Society, which is where I learned how to use it. People tend to learn how to write this style of game in intense LARP-writing bootcamps known as "Guild Camp", after the MIT Assassins' Guild. It has a pretty high learning curve, but is intensely rewarding once you get the hang of it.
MIT Assassins' Guild style games are more "crunchy" (to use TTRPG parlance) than American freeform games (where characters and relationships are workshopped and the focus is roleplay and emotions) and make use of abstraction in mechanics than boffer LARPs (where foam swords are used to physically act out combat). MIT style games usually involve combat using combat ratings ("Darkwater" combat) rather than physical contact, involve lots of item cards and envelopes, and stuff like using playing card decking to represent lockpicking). Games written by Assassins' Guild members tend to have higher amounts of character death than those written at Stanford.
MIT style games can also be described as "litform" (using pre-written character sheets and separate sheets for world and faction info and mechanics) and "secrets and powers" (LARPs built around characters having secrets in their backstory and powers to use in game).
Here's some other standard features of MIT style games:
GameTeX makes it possible to write this style of game such that you can use macros to swap out things like names, pronouns, etc. across all the documents in the game by editing them in a single file, and then you can export all the necessary documents to PDF so they can be printed. Given that there tends to be about as much content in an MIT style game as in a novel, this is very helpful. The exported PDFs are personalized for each player, and can easily be assembled and distributed to players.
- Bluesheets - Information about setting and factions
- Greensheets - Information about mechanics
- Whitesheets - Occasionally used for in-game sheets like puzzles or contracts
- Memory Packets - Folded packets or envelopes containing memories, timed events, or other new knowledge introduced to a character that are opened according to a trigger condition (for example, a packet that is opened when the character hears someone say the word "banana"). Booklets of memory packets are also a possibility, each one having a different trigger.
- Research Notebooks - These booklets can be in-game (notebooks) or out of game (green notebooks) and start with the first page open. Each page will have some condition for opening subsequent pages, often representing characters researching something or following trails of clues.
- Item Cards - Represent items, or may be used as a label on a physrep (item with a physical representation). Item envelopes or folded item cards with a trigger for usage are also possible.
- Ability Cards - Double sided cards with descriptions of abilities. One side shows the description for the player whose character has the ability, and the other side represents what the character the ability is used on/near can see or experience.
Here's a guide for writing this style of game: https://jakebeal.github.io/Unpublished/MITAssassinsGuild-Gamewriting.pdf
Since the pandemic, I've been playing lots of LARPs online. And, of course, the question arises there as to whether these games can still be called LARPs, or some other form of roleplaying game. In my opinion, it depends on embodiment, though others have other opinions about these gray areas. Do you embody the character in moments of play, even if that embodiment is that character typing away at a computer? In those cases, I'd say you could call the game a LARP. It's easier if you're playing a video chat LARP, but text-based LARPs or hybrids of video and text are more in the gray area. In those circumstances, I'd say its up to the players and GMs as to whether to call it a LARP.
Since the pandemic began, I've been fascinated with coming up with new ways to LARP online, and so have a lot of other people. I spent several months coding a Discord bot to allow people to play MIT style games on Discord, but it still needs to be fully tested. I also made a bot for a text-based game by Jason Morningstar, which is currently being tested and improved. And now, I've discovered Gather.town, a platform that allows you to create 2D multi-person pixel worlds to move around in, and the closer you get to others, you are able to see each other over video chat as well. There's also text-based messages, and lots of interesting ways to interact with the worlds through "objects". I think this platform is going to be the next big thing for online LARP. It gives a sense of space and movement that Zoom can't, even with Zoom rooms. Same goes for Discord. Discord is great for multiple video channels and text channels, but can't really replicate the sense of space and movement. I'm considering making a web app to work with Gather for the purposes of MIT style LARP. I'm also planning to host the zine fest I organize on Gather virtually sometime in November 2020, and I've already made the map for it, though I'll probably tweak it somewhat. I'm also planning a free online Queer LARP Con with some other people, which may use Gather for socializing and some games, and will definitely use the same software as the Intercon websites (Intercode) to manage signups. Expect great things in the future...