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The Holy Grail of Larp Design

What will it take for larp to go mainstream?

Photo by Jesse Stuart. Pictured: Christopher Malec and Daniel Tan.

A few years ago, we had the good fortune to have a workshop from Bjarke & Johanna of Participation Design Agency.. We learned a tremendous amount (much of which you see in the design of The Mortality Machine and Scapegoat) but one side conversation in particular stood out. As we took a break, Bjarke commented about a discussion he had with an executive from a well-known entertainment company. The gist? One could make millions of dollars in larp, if the participants just didn’t have to read anything or listen to a lecture.

Unfortunately, those two things are ubiquitous in larp.

This isn’t a knock against character sheets and workshops. We’ve worked with some amazing writers and we’ve attended extraordinary workshops. But these are barriers to entry. Imagine if you had to read a 1,500 word synopsis to see a play. Imagine you had a two-hour safety lecture before you saw a movie. It’s a big ask, and if you’re not fully committed to the play or movie, you’ll probably find something else to do with your time.

Further, it’s not entirely necessary for many designs. For example, consider safety workshops - we’ve experienced safety workshops that are longer than the safety brief you get before you go skydiving. If people need to pay attention to an extended safety briefing, you either a) have a really risky event on your hands or b) don't have other controls in place.

By other controls, we mean design elements that are part of the larp that do the sort of thing you’d explain in a workshop. Maybe it’s an in-character exchange, or maybe it’s a practice activity that’s part of play. When we did The Mortality Machine, we hid the instructions about how to turn the machine on in a checklist. The checklist included risk management steps, but the participants didn’t know that. They just had a checklist they had to follow to use an in-game item, and it just so happened that the checklist replaced a safety briefing.

Similarly, you don’t need a character sheet to give people information about their character - most video games do this through NPCs and exposition. We’re developing a larp that starts with a job interview, where you’re handed a resume… this is your resume, and it explains who you’re playing (or at least, who everyone thinks you are).

It’s not that character sheets and workshops are bad tools; it’s that they’re very comfortable tools. If you’re a larp designer, you’re probably familiar with one or both of them. This familiarity brings expertise, and this expertise lets designers create very complex and effective designs. But there are limits to these tools, as well as drawbacks, and we as designers should consider that it’s a lot to ask people sometimes. Giving yourself a design constraint - “this larp has no workshop” or “let’s see if I can reveal their characters during play” - can lead to innovation and a larp that’s accessible to more than just experienced larpers.

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