New Voices in larp: Speed dating

This is the second of an unknown number of posts about techniques I’m trying to use in larps.

I hate the first fifteen minutes of each larp. Specifically, I hate that bit where you have to transition from this is what I’ve read about your character to this is you, as your character, in front of me: how will our written notes translate to our play?. It feels like there’s always some sort of fragile point of contact here: an intersection that needs to be carefully negotiated, a place where the whole larp experience could get derailed.

Another issue I have – less serious by far, but still something I’ve always wanted to address – is the feeling that in playing a one-off larp, with pre-written characters, I don’t really own the character I’m playing. The aspects of that character – their goals, personality, and relationships – are all determined by the larp-writer. I’ve seen some larps address this by giving the character some “blank spaces” to fill in: what’s your homeland like, how did you get this job? But these questions seem to be either inward-focused (in which case, no one else in the larp cares, and the questions are at least somewhat academic) or outward-focused (in which case, as a character I feel I can’t rock the boat too much or I’ll start impinging on others’ agency).

In my game The Lark Rises, I tried to address both these issues by using a kind of pre-game group discussion workshop that I’ve come to call “speed dating”. I’m aware that this name has been used for a number of similar workshops in other larps (and probably for just this technique), but I still think it’s worth getting down on screen.

Speed dating

Speed dating is a workshop technique to establish relationships between characters. It can be used to agree on shared history, a current relationship, or even just a general dynamic to be explored in play. Speed dating is always conducted out of character.

Speed dating is conducted in one or more rounds. In each round, the GM assigns every player to a table: each table has 2-5 players assigned to it in each round. Once each table is settled, they discuss (and try to answer amongst themselves) two or three assigned questions about themselves as a group. Sample questions might include:

Each round lasts about ten minutes (including time for the table to settle down), or until everyone seems to have discussed the relevant questions. Once all rounds have been competed, the workshop is over.

Speed dating helps you get into character in two ways. On the surface, it lets you sort out details about your relationships before the game that you might otherwise have to figure out on the fly (or break character to ask others about) during the game. But it also gives you a gentle introduction to your character and their relationships, and allows you to try out those relationships before you get into the game proper. You get a chance to associate the players around the table with you, with their characters, rather than being dumped into everything as soon as the game starts.

Preparing a good speed dating session

I haven’t had the chance to try this workshop out in too many larps yet, but from my experience there’s a few things you can do as a larp writer to make speed dating work. It’s worth noting that this technique is harder to “drop in” to your larp than a lot of other workshops: the preparation is very dependent on your characters and their relationships, so you can’t just throw it in to your general toolbox of larp warm-up techniques. You could probably add this to an existing larp with some work.

First, you need to work out how many speed dating “rounds” you want in your workshop. More rounds means more chance for everyone to mesh and explore their relationships, but also means you’re spending more time talking about your larp, rather than actually playing in your larp. I’ve had success giving each round of the workshop a theme: the first round may be about professional relationships, while the second could be focused on romance and family, for example. You’re always going to have a character with enough established relationships to last four or more rounds of speed dating, while more introverted (or antisocial) characters may be done after two or even one round – so you’re going to have to keep these archetypes in mind when determining the number of rounds to play through.

Player allocation – which player gets to sit at which table – is another complicated issue. If two players find themselves at the same table in multiple rounds, they’re going to feel a stronger relationship than if they just run into each other once during the workshop. But they may find themselves retreading common ground in their subsequent rounds, depending on how you word your questions or what you choose to focus on. If you make sure characters never stick together through multiple rounds, you also give everyone a chance to network with as many other characters as possible, which will hopefully mean more – and better – character interaction throughout the larp.

There’s also the question of what sort of questions to ask your players. Ask a vague question, or one where the answer is too cut-and-dried, and you may find your players bored or uninterested. Ask something too controversial, and you may find your players shifting some of the conflict you’ve carefully set up for the larp proper, into the pre-game. I feel the optimum balance is to have a mix of questions, some of which encourage players to think about how their characters interact, or what history they share, and some of which encourage players to think about issues or conflicts in the larp to come, but not actually act on them yet.

Finally, there’s the question of how to get this information to your players. In The Lark Rises, I provided my players with their assigned table numbers and questions before the game proper. This meant that people had a little time to reflect on those questions, and a handy reference for where they should go each round.

Keeping secrets

One avenue I haven’t explored, but which I’d like to play with at some point, is that of in-character secrets. There is a strong tradition in tabletop story-gaming of broadcasting secrets: that is, letting the players at the table know about your character’s secrets, even if the characters don’t know yet. The general philosophy is that secrets in roleplaying are made to be revealed, hopefully at the most dramatically-appropriate moment, and if other players know what secrets need to be revealed, they can help drive play towards those scenes (or just infuse the story with dramatic irony, as required).

I’ve had some success with this sort of technique in larps before (namely, in sharing secrets with affected parties before play), and it seems that this sort of workshop would be an ideal way to broach these secrets – and figure out how we should deal with them – before play starts. As above, though, it’s important that we don’t shift all the conflict into a conversation, but leave it for the game.