Give me Jesus or give me Death!

(published in panclou #7, 2003)

I've always wanted to play Hamlet. And Jesus, and Edward Scissorhands. It's not often that I get the chance, though. Usually, that's because the larpwrights want to make "realistic" games.

What does "realism" mean when it's used to describe art? Does it mean everything should be just like it is in reality, where every other person is a fisherman's wife and the rest are their husbands? Nosirreebob. It means reality with a point of view, subjective reality. Yeah, the term is vague at best, but it's nothing to be striving for - especially when the arts movement has been history for over a hundred years now.

What we need is romanticism, expressionism, maybe even surrealism. We need big emotions that are emphasized by the structure of the game, not downplayed for "realism". In expressionist larp you don't need to worry about the world making sense to the players, as longs as it makes sense to the characters, it's good enough. It feels right, even though it doesn't follow the same logic our world does.

This means you can lose the boring characters. If someone is a scientist, make that someone into an Einstein. If you have a religious warrior, write a Jean d'Arc. Fill your game with Hitlers, Queen Victorias, Freyas and Elvii. Make every character the ultimate something. Make mine Jesus, and I'll play in your game.

Be less realistic and more entertaining. Trust your feelings. Everybody wins.

All Greek to me

Isn't the world important? Yes, it is. The characters are a part of the world, after all. But that's not the reason why most larps focus on the world instead of the characters. That's also not the reason hardly any larps deal with the "real" world instead of a world of fantasy, or of the future, or of darkness. The reason for this, as for so many other things, lies within the writings of one Aristotle.

In his Poetics, Aristotle introduces three concepts that are important to any succesful drama - and to succesful larps, as well. These are hamartia, anagnorisis, and peripeteia. Hamartia is a fatal mistake that gets the character into trouble, such as Oedipus unknowingly killing his father. Anagnorisis is the moment of recognition, such as Oedipus realizing it was his father he killed. And peripeteia is a sudden turn of the events usually as a result of the anagnorisis, such as Oedipus blinding himself in remorse.

It's difficult to get all of these in a larp, but it is possible and there are some well-tried methods for this. For the purposes of this article, I'll focus on the anagnorisis. As I've written somewhere earlier, larps can typically deal with three things: The world, the characters or the events. (Usually they deal with all three to some extent.)

When eyes meet eyes

For example, a larp that has an obvious main plot where the world is but a stage is a larp about the events. A larp that tries to simulate a realistic society, would be a larp about the world. A larp that focuses on what the characters are and what they do, would then be a larp about the characters. These could be called dramatist/narrativist (events), simulationist (world), and eläytyjist/immersionist (characters) styles of roleplaying, but we don't need to get there.

Now, the easiest way of getting anagnorisis, the moment of recognition for all the characters, is to make it an anagnorisis of the world: Oh, this isn't a normal world because there are vampires. If you know about it before the game, it's not really an anagnorisis for the character, but still functions as such for the player: This world is different from my world. Even if all the characters don't get the anagnorisis during the game, their players will in the debrief. Everybody recognizes something new about the game world. (This is the reason so few games are set in the real real world.)

It's a bit less easy to create an anagnorisis of the events. That might require railroading, or writing an extensive plot-structure. Still, that's often done. A typical example of an event-based anagnorisis is revealing the murderer in the murder mystery. So that's what happened! It was Gnrl. Alert with the Mustard Enema on the Dining Table.

Dubious characters

The best and the most difficult to create is the anagnorisis of the character. For individual chars that's easy, but trying to produce it for all the characters is muy difficulto. And more importantly, the game often goes incredibly improbable when that is tried. And improbable, of course, is the same as not realistic.

This is very bad when it's obviously supposed to be a realistic game except that this is the most important day in each character's life. (…because that's more entertaining, and the GMs want to entertain even though they don't really know what they're doing.) Realistic games can handle one coincidence and only one. If that results in all the other oddities, that's fine - but that rarely seems to be the case.

In an expressionist game, however, the characters are not only more prone to anagnorises, but lots of stuff happening may well be natural to the game's reality. Because the game is about a subjective reality, not objective. Don't bother with archetypes, go for the real thing.

Problems all too realistic

As Markus Montola observes in his article "The two faces of immersion," Ground Zero is a prime example of larp that focuses on events. He quotes Juhana Pettersson as actually saying he felt the character got in the way of eläytyminen. This is, of course, absurd. And yet, in a sense, very real. Very expressive.

In GZ the expression happens through the events, and they affect the player directly. The character only distances the player from the actual experience. Maybe that means it would've worked even better in some other form than larp. Maybe not.

What larps do best, however is provide eläytyminen, and thus characters should never be dismissed. Through the roleplaying agreement, it is the character which allows the players to become a part of what's happening in the larp, to eläytyä.

The player needs to know what the character knows in order to eläytyä. If the set design of the larp is very expressionistic, the player needs to know what things represent for the character. This is a problem that is easily solved in realistic larps, but which becomes increasingly difficult in more abstract form of roleplaying.

Is it necessary for the player to know what the character sees, or is that yet another burden realistic larp tradition has given us? Perhaps the players could focus on the important things (whatever they may be in each particular larp) better if there was as little emphasis as possible on the unimportant things?


We need less larps about worlds, and about events. We need more larps about characters.

I promise you, if you let me play Jesus, and give me Ofelia (Joc Koljonen), Einstein (Eirik Fatland), Oscar Wilde (Jaakko Stenros) and Sauron (Martin Ericsson), all these in an interesting situation that makes sense for the characters, and I won't look at the decorations one time.

Whether it happens in a forest or the youth club house of your local congregation, it will be a great game for all of us. It'll be a great game for me.

Because I will be Jesus.

The Turku School