What's Your Through-Line?
We’ve seen a lot of larp designs at Sinking Ship Creations - as part of our production process, we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best larp designers in the world. But we also see a lot of larps in various stages of design. These range from playtests to pitches, from vague concepts to larps that just need to find their first set of participants. While we don’t claim to larp academics, we do have expertise in producing - and marketing - a larp. And when we start working with outside designers, our first question is always the same: what are your participants going to do in you larp?
This isn’t an original question. In 2018, before we produced The Mortality Machine and in preparation of Phantoms of Old New York (still in design, four years later), we attended a workshop run by Johanna Koljonen and Bjarke Pedersen of Participation Design Agency. Of the many storytelling techniques taught during the workshop, one in particular stood out - Johanna asked what the participants would actually do at the larp. When asked to list out the activities the players performed, we struggled beyond “walking” and “talking.” Since then, we’ve made it a point to identify our “verbs” for every larp, and made them the focus of our designs.
However, our style of larp differs in many ways from that of Participation Design; two differences in particular stand out. First, our style is heavily influenced by immersive theater, and more broadly, American acting traditions as established in the northeastern United States. From a design perspective, this includes an emphasis on context and motive that would come from a character (think about the multipage sheets you might find at an Intercon larp for example). Second, we’re in the United States, so we need money: we need more people to pay more cash to even be able to mount a production. So the focus of our design needed to shift from the focus on “actions” to something we could quickly communicate to potential customers.
We came up with something, it works, and we wanted to share it with you. For our larps, we create a through-line.
A through-line is a concept first developed by Konstatin Stanislavki as part of his acting system (the precursor to what we would call “Method Acting”). We found a definition we like by John Summons: “(a through-line) is a key idea or purpose of the play expressed as an action (usually a verb) which links all elements of the script (style, character, dialogue, action) and gives a coherence to the piece.” In larp, this should be a phrase that links theme and action, and gives some narrative context. It also serves as a slogan, a sort of marketing pitch that people can easily remember. For Scapegoat, the through-line was all over our marketing: “Someone’s gotta take the fall.” Combined with the title, this tells you everything you need to know about what you’ll do at the larp: consequences are coming, someone’s going to suffer them (i.e. “take the fall”) and it’s not particularly fair (hence the name Scapegoat). For our upcoming Project Ascension, we have “Nowhere to go but up.” The name of the larp implies a goal, but the slogan gives context for where your character starts, and also implies motive - Ascension isn’t necessarily a moral goal, but a necessary one.
So, designers - what are the through-lines of your larps? What’s the phrase you can quickly pitch that gives action, motive, and context? Having these will not only help you focus as a designer, but also help you excite participants about your larp, and begin to educate them as to how to play.