“Cut!” From All for One. Photo by Tom Garnett.


Throwing out realism so we can have more fun

Cinedrama is a larp playstyle. It’s a cinematic way of thinking about larp that we first came up with for the Crooked House event Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph back in 2005, in which Heroes have a capital H. We also used it on All for One, our Three Musketeers event.

Yes, it is a silly name, but it allows us to subtitle events with “Presented in glorious Cinedrama“!

It’s a simple premise: our game isn’t about mirroring a world with sensible physical rules. In a Cinedrama game, the world acts in the same way that it does in the cinema; more specifically, in the cinema-world portrayed by B-movies, pulp action movies and action-adventure movies.

For example, in a Cinedrama game, if a Star says “Look!” and points past a Supporting Actor, then of course that actor will turn round, enabling the Star to make their escape or stun them with an artfully wielded baguette.

If a character has a set of papers giving away their secret identity, then of course those papers won’t be hidden terribly well, because someone needs to discover them so we can play out the Accusation Scene!

If someone is mortally wounded, then of course they won’t immediately expire, but will hang around until at least they can give the Tell Them… I Love Them speech or be saved by the Doctor Who Did This Operation Only Once Before And Lost The Patient And Still Gets Flashbacks.

Tropes, clichés, Everyone Knows How This Works — that’s Cinedrama.

On top of that, we layer other cinematic business. Some scenes will require you to suspend your disbelief, because there are things we’ll need to fix In Post. You’ll hear ‘Cut’ and ‘Roll Camera’ or ‘Action‘ to start and stop play. You should pay no attention to the scenery shifters in their brown-coats and flat caps. Maybe some sets that you want to visit are still under construction, so you’ll only be able to take part in that scene later on. And maybe the story won’t be played out in strictly linear fashion. Montages, compressed-time journeys, drawing red lines across maps to travel across the world — all are staples of Cinedrama.

The supporting cast — or extras, or ‘monsters’ as some other systems call them — will not be using quite the same rules and abilities as the stars. After all, they’re just set dressing, put there to make you — the Star — look good. Where would we be if every Evil Henchman was as heroic as you?

We create tailor-made rules systems to fit the event. All for One has examples of how we promote Cinedrama by creating rules systems that deliberately lean into the cinematic nature of the particular production we’re working on.

The emphasis is on (over-)acting and (over-)role-playing; on the suspension of disbelief; on willingly pretending you don’t know things so that others around you have the chance to shine, on having a fantastical adventure rather than on winning a game. In Nordic larp parlance, it’s very much playing to lift rather than playing to win.

Here’s an example. For our 1930s pulp action-adventure Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph, we’d decided that multiple languages would be a fun feature of the game, as we had an international cast of characters. However, very few of the players involved spoke multiple languages. How could we deal with this?

Well, we could adopt ridiculous accents. So if you spoke, say, with a French accent, it would be assumed you were speaking French. But if we did this, it meant that we wouldn’t be fitting into the pulp stereotype; in pulp, when speaking English, Germans need to sound stereotypically German, the Arabs need to sound stereotypically Arabic and so on.

So we dreamed up a very simple system. Any sentence that was supposed to represent French would be prefixed with the keywords “Zut alors!” Any sentence that was supposed to represent German would be prefixed with “Achtung!” “Effendi!” for Arabic. And so on. Terribly stereotypical, but pulp is stereotypical, and we were erring on the side of comedy.

This was introduced as a rule to our players. The key reason for including this was very simple — to allow them to create moments where the players entirely understood what was going on, but, for comedy purposes, their characters would not. I call this sort of technique Seeding Opportunity — providing fertile ground for moments to happen in. (See my article on moment-based design.)

This would only work in this style of game. For a deeply serious game based on secrets and lies, the player/character divide simply wouldn’t work. But for our purposes, it worked brilliantly.

Here I’ll quote an anecdote from one of our cast, Harry Harrold:

So when my bazaar salesman started a line with “Effendi” — the English-speaking customer couldn’t understand a word, but the spy who was posing as a translator could, and the conversation went something like:

Customer: “How much is this statuette? It looks jolly ancient”

Spy: “Effendi: How much for this?”

My salesman: “Effendi: I don’t know, my uncle’s mother in law’s family makes them by the dozen, how much will the idiot pay? Tell him it’s tenth dynasty … I’ll cut you in.”

Spy: “He says it’s very valuable. Tenth dynasty.”

Customer: “I say, marvellous …”

You see where it’s going. The customer’s player knowing exactly what I was saying, and the simple delight of three people performing their little hearts out to an audience of — oh, I dunno, maybe half a dozen at the time? It carried on for a while in the same vein. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told that story.

What we’ve found by encouraging this is that players feel free of the worries and shackles of ‘trying to be realistic’ and fall very much into the cinematic idiom. As a result, they are extremely generous with their responses, running with the improvisations of the other players, and they give themselves permission to laugh and have fun.

From All for One. Photo by Tom Garnett.

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He is Narrative Director at Ubisoft Stockholm. He is co-founder of Talespinners.