Badass Larp Talk #13: Mind the Gap
I hate character histories.
OK, OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t actually mind when people lay out the lives of their characters, inventing whole networks of friends and family, love and loss, places been and promises to keep. There’s a ton of passion and invention in that sort of work, and it can really help flesh out a character and give them reasons to inhabit the worlds we create. That’s awesome, when you think about it. Truly, awesome.
What I hate are airtight histories. You know the type – the player with pages and pages of character backstory and motivation detailing everything that’s ever happened in that character’s life from birth until ten minutes ago. They know their character’s favorite food, the name of their first co-worker, the mascot of the high school they went to, the dress they wore to their first birthday party, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the work ethic behind such creations, but they’re closing the door on one of larp’s best features: improvising your own history on the fly.
(Note: Remember to be respectful of other players’ backstories, especially if your improvisation involves their character directly. Characters are very personal, after all, and telling other people to change theirs to suit yours can come off as very rude if not handled correctly. Ask politely, explain why you’re thinking the change would be positive for everyone, and most importantly be OK with getting “No” as an answer. While it might seem totally awesome to have your characters turn out to be cousins, they might have other ideas for the relationship, or have a clearly defined backstory with no room for a sudden cousin, and that’s fine too.)
You see this skill used a lot by veteran larpers – players who recognize an opportunity to increase the drama and character connection in a moment by tying in their character in a way they hadn’t defined before. (I’ve picked up siblings, rivals, long lost friends and more in this way – “Hey, you wanna be cousins?”) In his great game Houses of the Blooded, master game writer John Wick talks about this exact phenomenon – the idea that you can take advantage of a gap in your character’s backstory to vault yourself right into the action. In his example, he was playing a detective character, and hadn’t really connected to the character much, when a plot about a missing girl came up.
Suddenly he just knew that his character had lost someone too, a daughter – and abruptly a throw away character became someone real and compelling, He hadn’t thought anything about children before, hadn’t really done more than sketch a backstory to get himself going, but now the plot meant something much more to him, and in turn he got much more invested in the game and had a lot more fun. It was a great character turn – and it wouldn’t really have been possible if he’d been beholden to some sort of massive Sacred Comprehensive Backstory.
I recently had a moment like this myself – game on had just been called at Dystopia Rising when one of the staff members running that weekend approached me in character asked me if was a firstborn child. (Biblical plagues are always a hoot.) I paused. I’d only just recently begun playing the character, and I honestly hadn’t thought of his immediate family much at all. I knew my character was part of a wealthy (crime) family, out seeking his fortune in the world, and I knew he had a fierce mother at the head of his family, but I hadn’t thought much more about his relatives than that.
Right on the spot it hit me – he’s not the firstborn. Of course he’s not. His older sister is the heir apparent, and his two older brothers and another older sister work under her directly, taking care of the family business. There were other kids, a boy and a girl, both older as well, but one died young and the other one was killed by a rival family. He’s the baby of the family, so he gets away with a lot, but that also means he’s not going to inherit anything either, not with that many older siblings dividing up the business and a mess of aunts, uncles and cousins mixed in too. That’s why he’s come south to the town where the game is played, because for all his bluster about how big and important his family is, he wasn’t going to get much from them, and so he knows this is his spot, his chance to make a name for himself. And I knew that his Ma missed him, her baby boy, and writes after him often, which he pretends to be embarrassed by but secretly loves, of course.
All of this backstory creation happened in the space of a few seconds – I’m sure the NPC was a little baffled at how I spaced out, sorry Josh – but it really helped me open up my character. Now, if I’d had a detailed backstory, I’d have known his birth order and his siblings, but it would have been pretty flat detail. I’d have just said “Nope” and moved on, and that part of the story wouldn’t have come alive quite the same way. But since I hadn’t worked out what was going on ahead of time, I was able to take that storyline and run with it – even though he wasn’t a firstborn, he kept keen track of the plague and how to cure it, and then immediately ran off and wrote to his big sister to tell her what to look out for if it came her way. Even though the plague story didn’t affect me directly, I was hooked, and all because I’d just invested a ton into my family that I hadn’t known even moments before.
And that’s the real beauty of gaps in a character history – they leave you room to improvise in compelling ways, allow you to adapt your character to suit the stories you’re involved in or the people you meet. It takes a little practice, but once you know how to do it, it opens a lot of doors to a lot of awesome possibilities. So when you’re writing up a character background, feel free to put in plenty of detail and motivation and the like, but leave some room to improvise too. Let some things be decided during play, as needed. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how far this technique can take you.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Mind the gaps.
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!