Surprise is not a Personality
One of the problems with a surprise is that it violates consent. LARP is based on consent.
So why do we have so many LARPs that try to have surprises? How can surprises be executed safely?
A good game is based on consent. Surprises can violate consent by changing the tone, theme, content, and level of agency. If a game will involve a surprise that will alter things players have consented to, then that needs to be clearly explained before players pay for the ticket. The explanation does not need to include the plot details, but provide enough information that player expectations can be reasonably well established.
Surprises Violate Consent
Hypothetical – Jill paid $1000 to go play a game about political scheming. Jill spent hours of their life prepping and planning political machinations. Jill reached out to other players to discuss boundaries and develop some goals. Jill was very excited to play this story out and see how the plans would be affected by the setting and other characters. Then halfway through the game when Jill was knee deep in political drama a new world ending crisis and the tone of the game shifted from “game of thrones” to “friendship is magic” and all the characters had to band together to power the love rock to shoot a laser of joy at the doom monster and save the world. What a twist.
For no-plan-mc-shows-up this might be AMAZING and EXCITING! But for Jill who planned and prepared, this was kind of a middle finger to the face.
Jill did not choose to play a “friendship is magic” game. The game was advertised to be about political scheming and then halfway through it changed. So hours of work and emotional investment were tossed out the window, and basically invalidated the first half of their game play. That is a betrayal and not something Jill agreed to.
There are other examples from the real world, though, which have more dire consequences, like suddenly being faced with common trauma triggers. Or whole premises that are so poorly communicated that player expectations are different even before the twist.
Consent is based on information: informed consent. By withholding information consent can not be informed and therefore is not true consent.
Violating Consent is Bad
Perhaps storytellers are accustomed to this “what a twist” model from movies and books. It’s almost expected that you pay to see a horror movie and it turns out to be a family drama (the real monster was their inability to talk about their dad’s passing). And in a passive art form the twist and surprise are more acceptable because we are conditioned to expect twists. Moreover, content warnings let you know if there will be violence, cursing, sex, etc, so there is some (limited) ability for consumers to self-select what movies they see. And since the movie is the same every time, communities that share trauma have resources to warn each other about potential issues. Plus, if something happens in a movie that I don’t want to see, I can close my eyes, walk away, and all I’ve lost is $25 and an hour or two of my life.
LARP is different.
LARP is an active art form with participants who are interacting in real time with the art, both creating and experiencing the narrative. And LARPers are paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to do it. Many folks travel across the country for these events, taking time off work and investing in the collaborative art form. Also, there is no rating system, no continuity between games about what needs to be listed as a content warning, no cohesion about how to express expectations, and the community is inclusive of many people who have to be careful about what content they interact with. Before we even start talking about surprises, self-selection is difficult in LARP. And the investment of the consumer is much higher than more common art forms like movies and television.
Surprises also change the stakes. (I have a whole slew of thoughts about why apocalypses are bad for games, which I won’t get into here.) The TL:DR is that when you show up for a game about high school drama and in the last day have to deal with one of the teachers leading a genocide, that’s a huge different in stakes. It’s like ordering a mild noodle dish and the last bite is a whole ghost chili. If a player did not consent to dealing with suddenly-this-is-a-game-about-genocide, then that’s bad and will have bad results. Anytime a game is designed to cause distress, that needs to be expressed clearly before the game so that all the players can be on the same page and establish a solid, safe play space to explore those intense themes.
So, if I’m halfway into a game and suddenly it’s something else, I can’t be safe. My consent has been violated by the people who are supposed to be protecting and supporting me; that’s not okay. If the foundation of a game is “there’s a monster at the end of this book” then they need to put that on the label. And I can hear the opposition in my head: “Without surprises the game won’t be fun.” To which I say, “Right, that’s why we should have surprises.” None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t have surprises, but we need to make sure that people are warned that there will be a surprise. Don’t give me a timeline of events that you are going to curtail a third of the way through. Don’t give me a theme and then change it halfway through. Don’t give me a content warning list and then when I’m trapped at the remote campgrounds on the other side of the country suddenly add “people in fursuits” to it. If there are going to be spiders, warn people that there will be spiders. If there will be a murder, warn people that there will be a murder. It’s not complicated. You don’t have to spell out the whole story to warn people that there will be “something” that happens to change the theme from political rivalry to planetary survival. Advertise the product you are selling and let people decide if they want it. I don’t need to know that on day 3 aliens will land to act as peacekeepers between the feuding Viking clans as part of their intergalactic peace mission. I need to know that on day 3 the clan’s infighting will be interrupted by an outside force.
Moreover, will the surprise remove player agency? If the aliens are going to come down on day three and force the clans to cease hostilities by pumping space ecstasy into the air and characters now have to talk about things from a place of love, then that is removing player agency. If the aliens are going to wipe everyone’s memories so they must deal with their problems without their memories of fighting each other, that removes player agency. And while that is interesting and might be fun, it’s also a violation of consent. If a surprise is going to remove player agency, then that needs to be broadcast in advance. Some people are going to love experiencing that sudden shift in perspective and some people will be hurt and betrayed. Not to mention, better game running provides agency and choice; giving players the ability to engage with game play they want to engage with rather than attempting to force characters to take actions that align with the game designer goals, but that’s a different post.