Punting: A Larp Problem
At Sinking Ship Creations, our primary design goal is for our participants to make difficult decisions - the more difficult the decision, the more intense the role-play. Without an element of chance and an emphasis on cooperation over competition, we use decision-making to create drama and tension. However, there is one great enemy to characters making a difficult decision in larp: punting.
In American football, a team will punt on 4th down, giving up the chance to run a play right now for better field position later. Because of this, it’s come to mean putting off a decision (and its consequences) until later. When faced with a difficult choice, larpers do this all the time: they try to put off the consequences until after the end of the larp, so that it exists outside the narrative bounds of the event.
An example: a decade ago, we ran a political larp which had a number of characters making and breaking deals and alliances. One character made what seemed to be a very unfavorable trade, giving up lands and treasure to take possession of an important MacGuffin by the end of the larp. Afterwards, the participant happily stated “Oh, I was lying. We’ll never deliver the goods, so I got something for nothing.” That participant punted the negative effects of the decision until after the events of the larp, so that they could state the character ignored the consequences.
From a game theory perspective, this is the right move: gain immediate advantage, and then put off the disadvantage to a time when it doesn’t really matter. We see this most often in “treaty” games, where two parties have to come to an agreement by the end of the larp, and they come up with a compromise which is bad long-term, but accomplishes short-term goals (something that mirrors real-world behavior). However, from a dramatic perspective, it’s unrewarding. If participants have an “out” to avoid consequences, then they lose the significance of the decisions they make.
Because of the effects of punting, our designs focus on decisions that have immediate consequences before the end of the larp. Scapegoat followed this principle: the main narrative asked who was going to get “scapegoated” in the final scene of the larp. The process was significant and permanent, and participants had the chance to react to the consequences of their actions. Project Ascension follows a similar design: in the final hour, all characters will meet one of three fates: escape, death or ascension. By creating a concrete time frame for consequences to occur, and making it within the bounds of the larp itself, larp designers eliminate the problem of punting without disrupting participants who want to play smart and find the optimal solutions to their goals.