Larp is a young art form, and for most of its life, it’s been part of a largely oral tradition. This makes some sense–larp is ethereal, existing only in a particular time and place–and it’s hard to hang on to a ghost except through stories and memory. Today I want to talk about how larp’s oral tradition shapes larp culture and the emerging written tradition might change that.*
Larp is moving from a largely oral tradition to a largely written one.
In folklore, and oral tradition is one where information and cultural practices are transferred from one generation to another via speech. As a young art form, larp is just at the cusp of being two or so generations old, and as it gets older, more and more of the traditions are being written down. So I’d like to dispense with the generational requirement and say that the oral tradition in larp consists of all the wonderful tips and tricks on exotic larp mechanics and on how to play, design, and run games that are trapped in the heads of the current generation of larp elders, and have not yet been written down.
I think larp is undergoing a shift where it is moving from a substantially oral tradition to a written tradition. But, Lizzie, you say, there are lots of books about roleplaying. Sure, many larps in the US have always had extensive rulebooks, but, say, the Vampire: The Masquerade sourcebook tells me nothing about what happened at your event last weekend and how you employed these guidelines to create a scintillating story. The rulebook is the tool, but the oral tradition is what enables people to use that tool to create art.
In recent years in the Nordic countries and elsewhere, larp documentation has come into vogue. For example, the hugely influential 2010 coffee table book Nordic Larp (now available for free download) included photos and essays of a few dozen games from Nordic larp’s 15-year history. The recent Larps from the Factory collected instructions on how to make a few dozen short larps from the Norwegian scenes in Oslo and Trondheim, as well as collecting some information on the cultural context of these games. In the last two years, no fewer than four books have been published, each documenting a single run of a weekend larp, including the Mad About the Boy book from the US run of the all-women game, the Kapo book on the prison larp, the Just a Little Lovin’ book about the Danish run of a larp about the summer AIDS came to New York City and the White War book about soldiers deployed to a culturally different locale (all free downloads).
And yet, for all this writing, for all the rulebooks, documentation books, and theory books, there is plenty of practical information that has not been written down. For example, you will not find instructions on how to run a Norwegian improvised ritual workshop or an Ars Amandi (technique for using arm-touching to represent emotional and physical intimacy) workshop in print. There is not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps; only incomplete lists of game mechanics exist; many larpwrights do not write down instructions for their games, rendering it difficult to know what has been tried; and there has been precious little written about some vital components of larp-organizing, such as dealing with problem players, how to be inclusive, and how to push scenes as an organizer to make them more satisfactory for everyone.
Some of these textual silences are simply the product of a tradition still in its infancy–folks haven’t gotten around to writing them down yet–and some of these silences are strategic.
The oral tradition has advantages.
Keeping certain information oral is a way of controlling access to the information. A few weeks ago I met an Australian game designer who liked to create intense, real-life narratives. She does not make scripts for her games, she told me, because they can produce powerful experiences for the players. She feels responsible for her creation and doesn’t feel comfortable putting it in just anyone’s hands. This means that if you want to run her games, you have to meet her, which gives her a chance to check you out and make sure you’re OK.
Oral traditions produce a chain of custody for certain types of knowledge. If I want to run a ritual workshop and benefit from the expertise of seasoned veterans, then I have to find a knowledgeable person and personally ask them for the knowledge. And they, in turn, can decide whether I am worthy and capable of both producing the workshop and respecting the tradition. It also means that I get the knowledge from the source on a personal level and can ask follow-ups and for advice. In contrast, when learning from a written document, one has only the text, which can be open to misinterpretation, and certainly can’t field your questions afterward.
Oral traditions control and confine the reach of a piece of knowledge, and this raises some interesting questions. In cultures that pride themselves on egalitarianism, is it moral or just that I as an individual get to decide what the masses can handle and what they can’t? If I create something mindblowing, should I drop that on an unsuspecting public or create a community that will view it in the right context? It probably depends on whether the technique in question is more like atomic energy–useful but hard to control and catastrophic in the right circumstances–or fire–a basic need that is relatively easy to control the bulk of the time.
Writing stuff down creates abstraction.
In Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write, he talks about what happened when the Greeks moved from an oral culture to a written culture–one of the rare examples of a culture adopting writing naturally, rather than having it thrust upon them. You can see the process happen through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was not literate, Plato could write but wasn’t a literate native, and Aristotle grew up in a world with the technology of writing. Similarly, their theory goes from concrete to abstract. Socrates asks famous people questions about concepts that seem concrete but are actually complex and slipper, concepts like “justice.” His student Plato knows how to write but still uses oral formats–stories and dialogues–to get his philosophical points across. He develops a more abstract theory of forms–the idea that all apples are apples because they access the form of the ideal apple–the platonic form. Then you get to Plato’s student Aristotle, and suddenly we aren’t talking about forms, but about abstract concepts like being and matter.
Similarly, in larp, we’ve started out writing down rules systems and play experiences, which seem concrete to me. Now we’re in a great age of naming subtle things about the roleplay experience from bleed (the mixing of player and character emotions) to steering (being nice to that new kid by the punch table even though your characters have no reason to talk) and other theories. I’d say these are useful abstractions because they give larpers vocabulary to talk about game nuance. There is also a lot of academic theory about larp that is impenetrable to the layman. And obviously we didn’t have that until people started studying larp and writing about it.
Writing a tradition down changes it.
“Gather round, children, and listen to me tell the story of how I journeyed to the brink of Mount Doom to throw the one ring into the lava flow. It was back in ’73, and you have to understand that I was feeling a little peckish on my first day in the field…”
When a tradition is oral, you have to experience it in whatever way the teller chooses. Maybe that involves a long, rambling start that provides lots of contextual information. Maybe that involves learning about the simplest things first, and only then learning about the complex things, if the speaker thinks that best. Oral traditions can provide a lot of deep context.
When a tradition is written, the audience has control of how they experience the narratives. You think my blog post is boring, so you skimmed to the end. I open up the instructional book on writing larps, and I skip from how to craft a compelling adventure narrative past the psychological safety section, and straight to the part that tells me how to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. As a reader, I can skip around important contextual information and the beginner’s exercises.
Written traditions also let you bypass the informative, but often very dull step of trial and error; instead of trying seven ways to make a mechanic for violence work, I can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. But this knowledge comes at the expense of a deeper contextual understanding of the work, and at the risk that I am simply blindly repeating what is known to work because it’s always been that way.
Writing down a tradition changes how the audience experiences it. I think the pan-Nordic scene is at an interesting place in its development, as the first wave of larpwrights tries to figure out how to transmit its deep knowledge to the next generation through such ventures as the larpwriter summer school. It’s coming up with pedagogical frameworks and a curriculum to teach the next generation how to do what it does, without having to suffer through 15-20 years of experimentation. And that requires codifying some of the concepts around larp design and putting that deep experiential knowledge into words, with all the consequences that entails.
* Disclaimer: Today I tread into the land of folklore studies, but I’m not a folklorist nor well-read in the field. I did bounce some ideas off of my father-in-law, who is a professor of an African oral tradition and who has taught folklore and told me about some of the common dilemmas, which appear in this post but chances are good that I’m not using language as precisely as a real folklorist would, and/or that I’m repeating ideas that are old-hat to folklorists. Your mileage may vary.
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