What larp dramaturgy is, and why you should care –

In the US and UK a dramaturge is someone who adopts theatre scripts for a given stage. That’s not the way I’ll be using the word here. I am instead using the word in roughly the same sense as the Norwegian “dramaturgi”, meaning the inner and outer structure of a play – or, in our case, a larp. The important word here is “structure”. Characters, briefing documents, rules, plots etc. are not, by themselves, a dramaturgy. It is how they fit together, and form a structure for the players’ improvisation, that makes a dramaturgy.

Why does this matter? Because playing ten orcs at a larp with one hundred elves is vastly different from playing ten orcs at a larp which is only about those ten orcs, or at a larp with thirty knights in the midst of their annual orc-hunt. All of these larps will be radically different depending on play styles, combat rules, play area and so on. The group of ten orcs and their players might be exactly the same – it is the dramaturgy, the structure of the larger context, that shapes the play experiences available to them. As such – issues like character design, world-building, rules, plot, or pre-larp drama exercises can only be honestly discussed in the context of dramaturgy.

They might look less ferocious if they realized the remaining 100 characters were knights on the annual orc-hunt
Little did they know that the room next door contained 30 knights preparing for an orc-hunt.

Larps are typically scriptless, lacking prewritten dialogue. Mostly, they are also open-ended, leaving a lot to the improvisation of the players. Both of these characteristics have interesting exceptions, that I hope to blog about later, but my point is this: a dramaturgy is the closest thing we have to a larp “script”, a foundation for play. And it does not consist of texts alone, but of all the different things – including character texts, character spreads, pre-larp information, gamesmaster actions during the larp – that shape the actions and experiences available to players.

So, a dramaturgy is the the inner and outer structure of a larp, as designed in order to facilitate role-playing.

Sources

I started writing about “dramaturgy” in 2005 (article [pdf]), in an effort to move the discussion away from the individual components – the “plots”, characters, rules etc. – and towards a more holistic understanding of larp design. Before that, Susanne Gräslund had written about “dramatics” for Amor Fati and several authors had begun to approach larp design holistically, though from different disciplinary angles, in “As Larp Grows Up” and “Beyond Role And Play“, the second and third Knutebooks. The photo is borrowed from danielleblue / CC BY-SA 2.0

2 thoughts on “What larp dramaturgy is, and why you should care –

  1. Excellent observations. I just wanted to add that continuity is essential to any long-running LARP, so it’s important to decide on the important elements and story arcs in advance.

  2. Hi Tara, and thanks for commenting!

    I have to admit I have almost no experience with long-running LARPs. The norm here in Norway is for larps to be a single event, held once. To the degree that we have “campigns”, they often come in the form of a five-day larp every year or two years, usually set to a different in-game place and time from the previous time and with only some overlap between characters. So, in practice, they’re single serving larps with some continuity. When writing in English, I fall back on my Norwegian habits, so “a larp” usually refers to a single event, as does the Norwegian “laiv”.

    But this blog has an international scope, so I hope you’ll feel free to comment on how different things discussed here apply (or don’t apply) to long-running LARPs.

    rgrds,
    .e.

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