Laban Movement Types

Brand and I do a lot of description in our RPG’s – not surprising as we both are writers and we play emotion centric games in which we often want to have things illustrated, but not verbalized in play. We use description cues in an NPC’s movement to give them characterization and depth. This is especially true of the two games we’ve been playing recently. One is a pseudo historical swashbuckling bodice-ripper done in a quasi-novella style and the other is our home brew So You Think You Can Dance game, in which- as you can imagine – character movement is particularly important thing to describe.

One of the tools we use to get at characterization through movement is a methodology of analysis I learned back in my theatre days so long, long ago. A dance dude by the name of Rudolf von Laban provided a system of language to describe and understand movement by breaking it down into a set of Basic Effort Actions made up of component binaries based on weight, space and time. According to him, movement was some degree of heavy or light, direct or flexible, sudden or sustained. In all combinations, this produces eight basic effort actions descriptively called Float, Thrust, Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press.

These terms are used to describe individual actions in Laban Movement Analysis, but they have been adopted by acting methodology to shorthand emotion through movement in theatre. Brand and I use them in RPG’s to shorthand the emotional state of a character, but we also use the ideas in them to shorthand their personalities as well. I thought one or two of you might find the model useful in your own games, so here’s a list:

Press (direct, sustained, heavy) is my favorite effort action, and I always start here when describing them. It’s heavy, so the movement has weight and bearing. It’s direct so it goes at a goal, and it’s sustained, so it is not as much quick or sharp as grinding ever forward. Press is a presence-y commanding push, a slow, relentless dominance of action, a grinding down under forward progress. Press is a bulldozer, press is a marching army, press is a dominant seduction. In our games, press people are great people – An emperor, a general, a calm, intense, ambitious person who is unafraid of grinding anything in his path to dust to get at what he wants.

Thrust (direct, sudden, heavy) is an easy one to describe. It has at it’s goal with speed, efficiency, control and deadly intent. It’s the final blow of a driving blade. A bullet to the brain. A knockout punch. In our games. Thrust characters are intense people. When they are good guys they’re often proud and capable and exceedingly restrained.

Slash (flexible, sudden, heavy) is a neighbour of Thrust. It’s heavy and fast, but where Thrust is controlled, Slash is wild. Slash is a back alley knife fight. Slash is a swashbuckling, bottle smashing, drunken brawl. In our games, Slashers are arrogant, audacious, sexy rakes with big reputations.

Wring (flexible, sustained, heavy) is the last of the heavy actions. It’s sustained like press, but it’s not direct. It’s flexible and twisting, like wringing a wet towel out. Wring is an inward churning individual. Wring could be a twisted malcontent. Wring is an strategic herder. In our games, wrings are often scheming villains, twisted and evil.

Glide (direct, sustained, light) is light, graceful, and directed. Gliding is a ballroom dancer. Gliding is an ice skater. Gliding is a courtesan on a gondola. Gliders in our games are socially adept, dangerous people who get you to do things you didn’t intend to do and yet somehow have you respecting them for it.

Float (flexible, sustained, light) is like Gliding without direction, Wring without Weight. Float is lazy cumulus clouds. Float is puppy love. Float is collateral damage waiting to happen. Floaters in our games are benevolent friends, hapless tarot fools skipping off cliffs, and sometimes the maddening few that can not be encumbered by you.

Flick (flexible, sudden, light) is like Float, but without the ease of sustained action, or Slash without the threat. Flick is lick of fire. Flick is toss of hair. Flick is an always distraction. Flickers in our games are most often maddening, mercurial creatures who must be cajoled, convinced or connived into commitment, or loyal, but somewhat inconsequential allies.

Dab (direct, sudden, light) is like Thrust without deadly intent. Dab is a bon mot. Dab is cutting remark. Dab is a Lady Macbeth. Dabbers in our games are devastating social creatures. They’re political powerhouses, and deft manipulators.

Let me know if you find this useful, or if you’re using anything like this in your own play or discussion around play. If you’re one of the folks (Jim, Emily, Jason, I’m looking at you) that has a late interest in theatre or improv that grew out of RPG’s I’d recommend you spend some time physically playing with the eight Basic Effort Actions. It’s a great movement exercise, and an enlightening emotional technique.

11 thoughts on “Laban Movement Types”

  1. Mo, you and Brand continue to prove yourselves to be two of the most interesting gamers out there. Thanks for sharing this – it is awesome.

  2. I’ve done a little bit of Laban study (one of the guys in our improv troupe did a ton of movement and space work as part of his BFA) but for some reason I’d never connected it to roleplaying. This is especially weird considering how physical a roleplayer I am, even in non-LARPs. And thinking about recent characters, this makes complete sense: Xander is a Glider, Taran is a Wringer…

    A potentially useful adjunct to this is to think about what will cause a character to shift from their dominant style. I played a character once who was predominantly a Flicker, but when his sister was threatened he would shift to Pressing.

    Great stuff!

    1. Totally, or conversely, to find easy ways to illustrate the change in a character over play as permanent changes come into effect. Gyel – an Exalted character I used to play transitioned from a wild Slash to a controlled Press over time, as she became more of a dedicated zealot.

      While I make transitions like that in my PCs without thinking of the actually Effort Action, it can be done more deliberately. When I GM and have much more on the go and less time in the head of each NPC, LMA can be a tool to add foreshadowing, colour, variety and/or protagonizing weight to the PC’s actions. If I turn a nemesis from a very vertical Thrust to a crouching Wring after the PC has put the beats to his area of influence, it could make for a more diverse, affectable, human NPC, make the PC more affecting & influential, as well as even foreshadow that the nemesis has taken the fight underground and is scheming revenge.

  3. So, reading and playing Unknown Armies for the first time, and I see this, and now i want to mash it up with Jaak Panksepp’s four primary emotions (Fear, Rage, Panic, Seeking) and call it a character sheet.

  4. blessings on you for a clearly elucidated summary of one of my favourite things to talk to my actors about. I’m currently directing “Cabaret” and will be using your summary to get the leads to use more appropriate physical response to express their intentions.

    1. Hi Marion

      It’s been a while since I have been in the theatre world and I miss it – so I am glad to know that I’ve helped out. Where is your production going on?

      Cheers!

      ~Mo

  5. Your description of the ‘press’ – ‘calm, intense, ambitious person’ has completely encapsulated a character I am playing at the moment and has provided me with a wonderfully visceral image I can run with. Thank you so much, greatly appreciated :)

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