The Play of Fates
(or : how to make rail-roading legal)
This article aims to give the reader an understanding of fateplay method of LARP narration. It is assumed that the reader already is familiar with Nordic style Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP), as this is the basis of the Fateplay method. The author of this article was responsible for the "hatching" and marketing of the idea, and was one of the organisers of the "Web of the Moirai" – where the concept was tested for the first time. However, others have developed and are still developing the fateplay method.
For a more complete presentation of the method itself, as well as recent developments, one should consult Lars Wingaards Norwegian-language article on the subject, "Skjebnespillet som fortellerteknikk i levende rollespill". This article is largely based on Wingaards and is written as an introduction to the non-Scandinavian. It was somewhat revised and updated in 2000.
Fateplay (Norwegian: "Skjebnespill" or "Lagnadsspel") was developed during the work with the "Troyan War" LARP, an over-ambitious project aiming to bring Homers Illiad to life as a LARP. The problem faced by the organisers was simple: Although one could recreate the atmosphere of the Great Battles, as well as some of the characters, one could not recreate the complex and epic storyline which is the real attraction of the Illiad, or greek mythology in general. Any attempts of this would violate the "freedom of the player", a traditional larp axiom. The fateplay method was developed to allow the game to follow the storyline of the Illiad without loosing the elements of improvisation and surprise that many hold to be essential for LARP experience.
The "Troyan War" was cancelled and we were left with some well thought-through concepts and material left unused. So we came up with the "Web of the Moirai", a smaller (20 players, 3 days) larp using only the most experimental aspects of the Troyan War concept. The setting was the Thrace of the Orpheus mythology, and the story was spun around the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice. During this largely successful LARP, fateplay methods were tested in their purest form. Later, the "Children of Afasia" LARP organised by some of the people involved in the Web also implemented a full fateplay narrative model as well as another experimental feature: The removal of spoken language.
Both these LARPs were held around Oslo, Norway – the Web in the summer of 97 and Afasia in January-98. Since then, the use of the method has become widespread - though it is still rare. LARPs like "Knappnålshuvudet" and "Dance Macabre" have demonstrated new ways of using fateplay or fateplay-derived methods in larps.
"Ordinary" LARP, if there is such a thing, is dependent upon the "Plot" or "Quest" to work and develop a storyline. An individual "plot" may sound something like : "You shall avenge the death of your brother. You know that his murderer can be recognised by a scar on his left hand." When you find the player with the scar you are left with the mission of killing him (though in secret as you do not want to be punished for the crime). Plots may also be more advanced, or set up as chains of events (The murderer turns out to be the chief of a warrior tribe, and if he is killed a struggle for power among the younger men of the tribe is triggered). Plots secure that action will take place during the LARP and that the individual player has a feeling of a goal as well as the opportunity to be victorious or defeated by the end of the LARP. Its advantage over the fate is the large degree of freedom the player enjoys. Its disadvantage is the elements of secrecy, tactical-mindedness and riddle-solving that seriously hamper acting. (imagine a theatre play where all the actors are hiding in corners with expressionless faces, whispering during the entire play).
The Fate, on the other hand, is given in imperatives and not goals. A Fate may be something like "You shall fall in love with the woman who calls you "little man". On the third day of the play you shall challenge her husband to a duel the next morning. In this duel you will loose and die.". This does not make sense until we know that the goddess Hera has been instructed to call you "little man". Hera is the wife of Zeus, head god of the Greek pantheon. We now see a typical Greek tragedy evolving. Apart from fulfilling your Fate you are generally free to improvise your behaviour and actions, as well as interpret the character and the effects of the Fate upon her. There are however some essential rules as how to behave not to destroy the Fates of others; usually you are prohibited from killing or marrying another outside of your Fate description.
The individual Fate is the building block of fateplay. The various individual Fates go on to form "Storylines" (including the Fates of Hera and Zeus) and the various storylines compromise the master "Fate-Web" of a Play. The fate-web is the master story of a play, the storylines are the minor stories or sub-plots and the individual Fates are the "minimum knowledge" necessary for an individual player to fulfil her part of the play. Simple? No? Let"s go on to a more detailed example.
Let us imagine we are making a contemporary Fateplay for a small number of people, and want to base the story on that of Shakespeares "Hamlet". We decide to let the characters be central persons in the Shipping Business and call the play "Offshore", duration of one weekend. We then proceed to list up the main characters of the Hamlet Storyline:
Eric Windgraven Senior, the wise owner of "Bantam Shipping Ltd."
Melissa Windgraven, his wife
Eric Windgraven Junior, their son (the hero of our story)
Judas Windgraven, Seniors envious brother.
(The characters correspond to the Old King, the Queen, Hamlet and the New King of Shakespeares play). The Fate of Senior is simple enough: "You shall be killed by your brother on Friday. On Saturday morning you shall return as a ghost to tell your son about the murder and crave revenge.". The Fate of Melissa: "When your husband is dead you shall immediately marry his brother. On Sunday Dinner you drink of the cup your husband offers you. " The Fate of Judas: "On Friday you shall poison your brother. On Saturday evening you shall send your son to a mental asylum. On Sunday Dinner you shall poison Juniors wine. You shall drink of the cup he gives you, and then offer some to your wife." The Fate of Junior: "On Saturday you shall pretend to be mad. On Sunday morning you shall return. During Sunday dinner you shall give the cup your father gives you back to him, suspecting the wine is poisonous.". A separate Storyline may detail how Junior sends his companions to the asylum instead of himself.
You may now complain that this is not exactly "Hamlet". True, but for a Fate to work it must be simple and easy to memorise. The more complex Storylines (like the wine-poisoning stuff at the end of our play) have a nasty tendency to go awry and require the Fate-weavers (i.e. Gamesmasters) to do real-time corrections and re-instruct players then and there. This is to be avoided. The strength of a well-made Fateplay is that a smooth-flowing story arises in the game, while allowing actors large freedoms in the interpretations of their characters and the improvisation of their actions without apparent Gamesmaster tampering.
We now also see how easily classical stories may be made into Plays. The Children of Afasia was largely based on the "Lord of the Flies", whereas the "Web of the Moirai" included variations over the myths of Orpheus & Eurydice, Demeter & Persephone and Narscissos, to mention a few.
Is this LARP or what?
Fateplay is not LARP by itself, but a narrative method that may be used for LARPs, Verbal ("tabletop") roleplaying or theatre impro. In the first two cases, the fateplay method makes the form somewhat mot theatrical.It may also be employed in "stage fateplays" (a concept as yet un-tested), where the actors assemble in front of an audience and the "Day" unit of LARP Fate-Webs is replaced with the "scene" of ordinary theatre ("You shall challenge her husband to a duel in Scene 3"). In the case of a Stage Fateplay we have the opportunity to skip periods of time in the story.
Please notice that a LARP using fateplay method is also called a "fateplay". Thus, "the Web of the Moirai" was a fateplay using the fateplay narrative method. There used to be a debate as to whether LARP Fateplays were to be identified as LARPs at all, but the conlusion was "yes". Though the typical fateplay larp is galaxies away from boffer-battle-orgies or juveniles pretending to be vampires, the medium is still the same.
New Staging Methods
Speaking of fateplay in a LARP sense we come to the new forms of "staging" (i.e. pre-arranged pieces of acting) that have been made possible by fateplay and have come to be associated with it. These are: The Speech-choir, pre-arranged duels, changes of scene and "theme music".
As in the Ancient Greek theatre, a choir of several persons speaking the same words may appear. The choir may comment upon the actions of the players, engage in a dialog with them or declare poetry. As the timing of the scenes of the story is known by the organisers they may appear at any given time forming a speech-choir. In our above example, the organisers could appear at the final scene and give a synchronised lament for the dead. During the "Web of Moirai" the choir was used three times, and in at least one of them helped creating an unforgettable touching experience for the participants. At the "Children of Afasia" this method was, for obvious reasons, not used.
In a fateplay LARP most (if not all) combat is pre-arranged by the fates. One may thus discard the traditional "Boffer" weapons and use sharp weapons in pre-choreographed theatre-style duels that may or (more often) may not be fatal. The same principle may be used in other scenes of importance: the players may plan before the game how to act out a single situation or may write and memorise speeches for important events.
Changes of Scene:
At midnight on the last night of the "Web of the Moirai" the players were moved from the ordinary stage to a nearby swamp, for the occasion transformed to the Greek Kingdom of Death. Those players whose characters had business to do with Hades went in-character to the Kingdom. The rest stripped naked and played the dead souls who fluttered about Hades. Instructions on how the Kingdom of Death would work were given before the game. This feature was one of the most successful of the "Web of the Moirai", and is still shakily remembered by nostalgic players in warm pubs with cold beers.
As with the Speech-choir the organisers may have a minstrel (or a CD-player) with pre-planned music present at important scenes in the game, thus enhancing the atmosphere of the scenes.
With the early development of fateplay in Norway, there arose a need for a separate terminology to describe and discuss the method and its use. For purposes of this article, the terminology has been translated to English. Below is a list of terms in common usage by players in Norway today, the Norwegian original terms listed in (brackets). Unfortunately, the English translations don"t sound as good as the Norwegian originals. There is a reward out for the best new translations..
|English term||Norwegian term||Description|
|Fateplay||"Skjebnespill" (bokmål), "Lagnadsspel" (nynorsk)||the method itself|
|A Fateplay||(as above)||A single LARP, RPG or play using the method.|
|Fate||"Skjebne"||The instructions given to a single player, the part of the Fate-web concerning a single character.|
|The Fate-Web or the Web||"Skjebneveven"||The sum of all the Fates, the "Master story" of the Game. Also: The form employed by the Weavers to get an overview of the Fate-Web.|
|Storypoint||"Skjebnepunkt"||a single event determined by the Fates. (in our above example, the murder of Senior and the Dinner would be separate storypoints)|
|Storyline||"Skjebnelinje"||A story composed of several individual points and fates.|
|Fateweaver or weaver||"Skjebnevever"||A larpwright, a person who writes fates.|
|Trigger||"Utløser"||A happening that triggers an action mentioned in a storypoint. These fall into two categories: Dramatical triggers and Chronological triggers. Dramatical triggers are actions performed by other players (like the woman calling you "little man"), Chronological triggers are references to certain times (like "on the second day of the game..") .|
The fateplay method has given us an ocean of unexplored possibilities but also several new problems and obstacles. These need to be overcome for each new play organised. Neither writing a fateweb nor participating in a game are easy endeavours to undertake. As a weaver, you must be sure that all the fates are coherent and will work, you must make sure every single player feels as an important part of the Web. As a player you must have the initiative to enjoy yourself outside of the pre-organised happenings and the impulse to act out in grand detail everything part of the Fate. Neither are easy.
A plot-based LARP may easily survive minor errors in the plots or irrational actions by a player. A fateplay will not survive this, something that places a huge responsibility on all participants and makes the road to a successful play a hard one indeed.
These problems are gradually being overcome. The number of larpwrights experienced with fateplay is increasing, and the number of players who have played and enjoyed playing in a fateplay is much larger than it was when the first edition of this article was written back in '98. Innovative larps like Knappnålshuvudet and Dance Macabre have taken fateplay, or fateplay-inspired, methods a few steps further. Dance Macabre made their "fates" optional, which led to a mixture between "pure" fateplay and optional instructions. Knappnålshuvudet timed their fates to their general dramaturgy of individual development, and used the angels in connection with fates to strentghen the individual players experience. As the method continues to develop, the word "fate" is not allways appropriate.
The first edition of this article ended with the words "It is our hope that this article will bring the concept out from the small circle of Oslo LARPers who have so far enjoyed it, so that we in the future may see new developments, new experiences or (perhaps) even weirder innovations into the Science and Art of Live-Action Roleplaying.". That dream has come true.
Oslo, 2000 and Istanbul, 1998.