What I Think About When I Think About Larp Design, Part I: The Total Larp

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The experience of your larp is shaped just as much by what happens before and after the event itself as by your game mechanics

Since live-action role-playing was invented, our focus for how to make larps better has been about optimizing game design: creating a “rules machine” that given the input of players and player choices will output the kind of experience you are aiming for.

Even as larps in my particular design tradition (Nordic Larp) became more about exploring narrative possibilities, relationships and character psychology – and less about gaming in a competitive sense – this mindset continued.

In addition to the design of game mechanics or rules, we started to think systematically about stuff like the design of playable characters and fictional cultures, and meta-techniques that allowed players access to information that the character’s didn’t necessarily have.

The Full Duration Of Your Larp Is Forever

But all of this development was still focused on the game’s run-time – the period during which the players portray their characters and the story progresses. (Or in other words, the time during which the participants are inside the magic circle of the rules and fiction of the larp).

The longer I’ve thought about safety and trust in larp, and also about different outcomes when the exact same game is run more than once, the more obvious it feels to me that designing the run-time is not enough. As for safety, rules compliance (whether people follow the rules) is obviously key, and that requires both understanding the rules, remembering them, trusting them, and a social environment where following them makes sense. And for the success of the larp, it’s the same: the players’ retention of game materials, use of the interaction mechanics and general ability to create together depends on how you’ve organized their preparation.

Behold this here ugly diagram, in which you can see your larp in its entirety! I have drawn it with my finger on an iPad, partly because I can’t afford one of those snazzy styluses, partly because it is also representative of the wobbly nature of game design. You make plans, you attempt the perfect circle, and then humans engage with your thing, and suddenly your grand structure looks like you drew it with your finger.



From Announcement To Afterlife

At “A”, you announce your game, and from that point on, people will be talking about your larp, and therefore affecting your player selection and your players’ expectations on your game, and therefore the way they hear and read everything you are communicating about your larp. The non-participants’ understanding of your larp can sometimes continue to shape your participants’ experience during the larp, and/or affect how they value and process their experience after the event.

In the purple section, you start communicating directly with your potential and actual players. You sell them on your idea, communicate your vision (for instance: what genre is this larp? What playstyle are you encouranging?) and probably start establishing some norms around things like the division of labour between organizer and player. This is very important: what is expected of your participants? What do they expect of you?

In all probability you are also communicating the design and much or at least some of the pre-established content (like the world of the fiction) at this stage. It follows that if you are still designing your game after you’ve started selling tickets (or accepting signups) you will probably run into difficulties communicating things in a timely manner.

Basically, your job is to communicate to the players everything they need to be able to play your game. You can choose to do this on location, or by gathering everyone for workshops in advance, or by emailing them long documents, or sending them short youtube films – whatever works for what you’re trying to achieve and the abilities of your players.

But anything you don’t tell them, they will either decide for themselves or come asking you about during the game. At the same time, the more you tell them, the less they are likely to remember. And if you are communicating action-based things, like rituals or safety procedures, they will probably need to actively practice them to be able to use them in the game. Designing the “teaching” of your larp in an optimal way, to empower the players to play it, is just as important as designing how it’s to be played.

The red curly bracket represents the time when the players are with you at the location of the event. Every minute you have with them is valuable real estate for sharing knowledge and practicing game procedures, but it is also important that the players get to interact with each other, so that they can actually be in a playful mindset once the playing starts. You have to design this period too.

If your player trust you enough to show up, that’s great, but you can absolutely blow that trust by appearing disorganized, terrified or unprofessional at this stage. Quite often, you have also not slept enough at this point, which makes having a pre-designed framework in place even more important.

Designing Beautiful Memories and an Awesome Legacy

After the larp, a bunch of things happen whether you have designed for it or not. The players leave their characters and the fictional world behind, negotiate between themselves what happened in the fiction, as well as how their real-world social relationships have changed thanks to the experience they have just shared. They might also reflect on the themes of the larp and/or formulate opinions about the quality of your game design and overall production. Some will feel a need for closeness, others will need to be alone, and some will want to blow off steam.

You don’t have to design anything of what happens after the larp, but I strongly recommend it for the following three reasons:

  1. Many people have unpredictable emotional reactions (positive or negative) even to cheerful, fun, trivial larps. That is normal and not in any way dangerous, but since participants will feel you are in someway responsible for their emotions, it’s nice to somehow acknowledge the existence and validity of these emotions.
  2. If your larp has any kind of educational agenda, or even just an important theme or meaning, it’s good to know that the learning happens not during the run-time but during the reflection period afterwards. If you can create a framework for this reflection and give the participants some tools for it, it will give both them and you a better yield on the time and effort invested in the playing itself.
  3. Since the afterlife or legacy of your game is pretty much defined in the period after playing stops but before the cohesion of the participant group breaks, you might as well invest some thought in how to have them leave your event happy. If you make larps professionally, this makes business sense; and if you make them as a hobby, respect for your craft as a larpmaker is the only payment you’ll get, so it’s just as important. (Don’t worry if designing a good after-larp process feels manipulative – I promise the players would rather feel happy about their experience than not).

So, to recap: the experience of your larp is shaped just as much by what happens before and after as by your game mechanics. Every stage in this process should be designed with just as much care as you’d put into the game design itself.

That concludes the timeline view of larp design. In the next installment, I’ll break larp design down in the sub-disciplines relevant to the design of safety systems!

PS. This diagram does not display the context of the blue lines – the wider larp culture around your event. Obviously its norms and traditions has an enormous influence on your design and the behaviours of your players! In particular if your players come from different larp cultures (or just different cultures) this is a completely fundamental design limitation for your project.

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