A little while ago, a friend of mine started a conversation in G+ about the Next Big Evolution in LARPing, without getting into specifics of what he thought that change might represent. The idea has been knocking around in my head since then, and I've come up with a number of different directions that boffer LARPing in the South could go. I'm not saying that these are good things - I'm trying to avoid value judgments here altogether, because it really is just a thought experiment. Also, these things may already be in evidence in other parts of the world - boffer LARPing in the South tends toward various kinds of heroic fantasy or heroic sf without a lot of attention given to the more avant-garde stuff, especially since the more avant-garde stuff is done in salon-LARP style.
It may be that I'm thinking too much "inside the box," but I think a safe starting point for exploration of ideas is to describe what we have right now, and then imagine a negation of each of those points. To that end, I might describe boffer LARPing as:
A combination of combat, puzzles and unscripted in-character interactionthat takes place primarily in state parks. A character's material possessions are represented in a simulationist manner: you have a pile of tags, gems, and coin reps instead of a Resources stat, or you have a directly-developed history of connections with PCs and NPCs rather than a Politics stat. (Then there's also a lot of back-end stuff I want to talk about.)
A game with combat emphasized at the expense of all other kinds of gameplay is admittedly, something that has been done in the past; it's pretty much how the whole hobby got started, and the introduction of puzzles and character interaction came along later. Let's face it: presented with two padded swords, almost any two people of my generation or generations near mine will pick them up and at least spar lightly. The same goes for NERF guns.
Because of my own ignorance, I don't know how much games like Amtgard and Dagorhir resemble competitive team sports. I can, in any case, imagine LARP combat formalized into something more like competitive fencing, with referee scorekeepers (or electronic scoring), leaderboards, and the like. I don't mean to take any credit for the idea - it's one I heard through the grapevine from another friend. This could certainly involve terrain complications just as paintball does, and it's remarkably less stupid than some sports people are playing these days. It's also a less-lethal version of Extreme Jousting. Alternately, the competition could be scored and timed completions of "dungeons," staffed by an NPC team or in split-module format.
Wildlands South and Shattered Isles were both pretty heavy on puzzles; Wildlands in particular makes puzzles and puzzle-solving a central part of its world-laws, as part of its extended lift of Earthdawn. (This isn't criticism. The WLS staff roster and playerbase had several names in common with the Earthdawn credits list.) I don't mean to say that WLS or SI started this - they're just the ones I know about. Puzzles have been a pretty steady component of gameplay throughout the years, whether we're talking about wooden block puzzles, riddles, decryption, or the like. DtD's and 2nd Dawn's (independently developed) Ritualism systems both rely on solving puzzles during play: dominoes for DtD and mazes for 2nd Dawn. DtD has also begun exploring research that is supported by puzzle completion and other kinds of skill challenges.
I can still imagine a game with more of its gameplay shifted into puzzle-solving, whether we're talking about abstract puzzles (such as DtD and 2nd Dawn use) or more direct things. This concept would be easiest to describe as Myst: the LARP, I guess. This really works best as a one-shot or short-run game, since a lot of the emphasis on traditional narrative and fighting the Bad Guys falls by the wayside in exchange for pure exploration of a space. The prep time involved in creating enough density of puzzles to entertain anywhere from ten to sixty players for a weekend (and this would work really well as a low-population game) means that you'd need a large number of full-time content creators working in disparate fields of puzzle creation.
The flow of this theoretical game goes something like this: On going into play, players begin exploring the site, looking around for anything that is out of place, odd, or represents an obvious puzzle. Maybe there are marshals to make rules-parsing easier, or maybe all of the puzzles are functionally self-marshaling. Some puzzles can be completed based on what's immediately obvious, while other puzzles require clues gained from puzzle completion, which might be in place to encourage character interaction. (A state park can work for this, since each cabin represents a discrete location for a puzzle, but if combat is taking a back seat, maybe all fights can be staged in one combat-approved room of a building.) As the weekend goes on, players learn more and more about the mysteries of the setting, through the context of the puzzles. The climax of the event is a series of timed puzzles or a series of skill challenges (probably de-emphasizing physical skill).
As mentioned above, the workload of content creation for solvable puzzles is a major challenge here. The committee behind such a game would need to develop shortcuts, I suspect, to generate a large number of puzzles with interwoven clues. It's a skill, certainly, and they'd get faster at it as they went; certainly there are people at MIT who more or less do this kind of thing every year, and manage to include through-line stories. The big advantage that this kind of game would enjoy is that, depending on how thoroughly boffer combat was de-emphasized, the game becomes much more accessible to those with physical disabilities, and more work can go into outlandish costumes and set design (since they don't need to be things you can fight in or around). Also, such a game could put a lot of emphasis on computer-based puzzles developed in Flash, and could release small amounts of content between events. Of course, that means getting a Flash developer to work for-the-love, which is not necessarily easy.
Unscripted In-Character Interaction
Where my first two game concepts focused on emphasizing one attribute above others, this idea focuses on radically minimizing the attribute. It would be possible, albeit very strange, to develop a LARP based on the same kinds of character-interaction mechanics currently found in indie tabletop design (such as Smallville), or relying more heavily on cut scenes. I imagine that such a game would feel less like a traditional game and more like a passion play. Players would be encouraged to approach all interactions from an author stance, rather than focusing on personal immersion and reflexive response - to state that another way, everyone is locked to a role, as if they are NPCs. The flow of the event is largely pre-determined, either explicitly or through inevitable occurrences scripted into each character's history. Such a game is especially hard for me to imagine in detail, as it dispenses with the central game elements. It would be hard for me to pinpoint what is fun in such a game. In some regards, this idea is like someone heard about salon LARPing and then designed what they thought they understood about that.
Eclipse has already had considerable success in staging events in venues that are unusual for boffer LARPing, including MJQ as The Floating Vagabond and Safety Wolf as a bad guy's lair. These are impressive experiences, to say the least. Now, this is the sort of idea that is laughable to salon LARPers - they've been playing in hotels and other convention centers for as long as there have been salon LARPs. For boffer LARPs, though, finding places that allow combat is still tough, and in some areas getting tougher. The dream of a dedicated LARP site has crossed the minds of... probably every boffer LARPer, ever. In some parts of the country, groups have even made it a reality, but the groups I'm involved with have not been fortunate in that way - ironically, we have several builders and electricians who could make the place a wonderland if such a site and budget existed.
A custom-built site, much like a sound stage, would open the door to immersion in a wide variety of other genres that we have yet to explore. State parks are unconvincing metropolises, for example. If that site belonged to the LARP that ran events there, they wouldn't be constrained to props that fit in the props truck. Building ruins, statuary, and the like all becomes more feasible; adventures could feel all the more truly like dungeon crawls or cyberpunk espionage. This is primarily a change in production quality and opening new genres to boffer LARP play, rather than radically changing the core style of LARP storytelling.
The ideas posted under "unscripted in-character interaction" above are what a student of the GNS model would identify as a hardline narrativist approach, I think. For another option, one might look to a more purely gamist approach, where more of the fiddly details of gameplay are smoothed over or converted into stat manipulation. The most obvious example takes a page from salon LARPs, where various stats describe the character's political capital and allow the character to exert that political influence in stat-based conflict. I will say that I am generally not a fan of this kind of explicit gamism in my boffer LARPs. I feel that the nature of boffer LARPing encourages 1:1 interaction with the world and the possessions of one's own character, though a limited amount of gamist handwaving goes into stats like Increased Wealth. Also, I am not exceptionally familiar with the Forest of Doors rules (of which I mean no criticism in this commentary), but my recollection is that they draw on more gamist elements with their Diplomacy skill and similar skills.
Still, trading in some simulationism for more gamism would bridge the gap into other genres - perhaps along the lines of the wuxia module run many moons ago in Shattered Isles, or a god-game that cast the PCs as the deities of various competing pantheons, struggling to protect their faithful. Since I can't really encourage boffer LARPs to turn to dice as a randomizing element in conflict resolution, I'd expect them to find another means of non-combat stat resolution when some of those new stats were at stake in a conflict.
The Back-End Stuff
Having said all of this, the big changes that I think will guide the "next-gen" LARPs are not really about how the players interface with the game. Instead, I think they'll wind up being about how the game's content gets created and introduced to the players.To me, the real next-gen LARP experience is about creating still more game content than any currently-running game can manage, from prop creation to text props to detailed briefings. This could not possibly be any less a criticism of existing games; it's just that a committee of dedicated volunteers can only whip up the time and energy to create a certain amount of supporting content. There's always a point at which things have to be glossed over.
I think that next-gen games will make greater usage of websites and other platforms for electronic interaction: Flash, mobile apps, you name it. To produce these game materials, they need to transition into something structured more like a software development company. Albeit, in this case, an unpaid one - hoping for a paid LARP staff is beyond anything I regard as feasible. Call it narrowness of vision if you like. At minimum, a Flash developer, a content designer, an artist, and someone on QA. QA might reasonably be able to double as Project Management on a small project; talent alone governs who else can double up to reduce the required number of warm bodies.
This kind of thing is already in evidence with ARGs, of course. Personally, I don't want the next-gen LARP to be something I need to play extensively between events in order to "keep up," so I guess what we're looking at is an ARG with a discrete duration, in a location removed from my daily life and work.
So, do I want these changes to come about in LARPing? Other than the permanent-LARP-site thing, not really. I would staunchly resist the ending of the current generation of LARPs. Even if a new kind of game were to open, I would still want the precisely-calibrated blend of combat, puzzles, and unscripted in-character interaction that the current generation of games offers, wrapped in a package weighted toward simulationism more than gamism or narrativism.. It's possible that games could reap benefits from modeling committee structure more completely on an indie studio, but that's my day job - that's a lot of people's day jobs - and running a game needs to be fun too, unless you can somehow turn it into a paid position.