As designers, we spend a lot of time asking, “What makes a good larp?” The best answer we’ve heard is “a larp is good when it meets or exceeds expectations” - a simple statement that’s tricky to achieve. However, we don’t often ask, “What makes a good enough larp?” That is to say, if we categorize larps into larps that are good enough to play, and those that are not, what is that threshold? We have an answer, and from a design perspective, the answer is unfortunate: the thing that makes a larp worthwhile is probably not the design of the larp itself, but the people playing it.
The People Problem
Design does matter: making a larp is a skill, a craft, and an artistic endeavor, all at the same time. It’s something a designer can do well or do poorly, and the strength of the design will show in the quality of the larp. But a larp is not a novel or a painting; it doesn’t wait in a library or art gallery waiting to be experienced. It must be played… which means it needs people to play it. Those participants not only co-create the larp through their play, they also engage in the social activity of larping. To put it plainly: when you larp, you’re in a room (or a field or a castle or wherever you are) with a group of people, and your experience is dependent on how much you enjoy your time with those people.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that any design has to acknowledge the importance of the participants and do two things. The first is the focus of many designs: give those participants an opportunity for play that they’ll enjoy. This is an essential part of design (although we can debate the meaning of the word “enjoy”). The second thing is the problem: they have to attract participants who will enjoy being in a group together. Not only is this not really experience design (it’s closer to marketing or what we’re starting to call “engagement design”), but the task of attracting a group of people to play a larp often opposes our design goals.
The Creation of the Herd
We currently have a tried and tested method of attracting people to play in a larp - we tell larpers about it. A “larper” is someone who has played in larps before and intends to again. This is their hobby, and they want larps to play in. If there were only one larp in the world (or, as often happens, only one larp played by their community), they’ll attend that larp whenever they want to play. But when there is an abundance of larps, they have to make a choice about what to play. In our experience, larpers have three factors that determine what they choose to play:
A known quality. Larpers, like anyone else presented with options, tend to pick stuff they know (this is why Hollywood keeps putting out sequels and adaptations). Ideally, this would be word of mouth for larps that have already run successfully, or for production companies with a history of running good larps. It also explains why many larps are based on “known properties” (i.e. wizard schools, cyberpunk, fantasy): people know what to expect.
Costuming. A specific type of larper likes costuming, or more accurately, they like larps that have a strong aesthetic. While “costuming” is the catchphrase we use internally, it’s really a number of qualities; not just costuming, but scenography, location, lighting, and sound design… anything that creates immersion. It’s not important to every larp, but it’s important to some, and those people tend to be the ones who actively engage in social media. This online presence allows them to influence the third and most important factor that determines if a larper chooses to attend a larp…
Their friends are going. The push-pull fear of missing out and the promise of social interaction with their friends is, in our experience, the number one draw of a larp. If people know that they’ll have a familiar group of people, with whom they’ve larped before, felt comfortable with, and had fun, they’re going to want to do it again.
This last thing creates what we’ll call a “herd.” A herd is a group of larpers who tend to play in the same larps. At some point in the past, a group of people met each other, connected, and got used to playing together. They became friends and formed positive memories of larping with each other. If you’re familiar with a particular community, you can probably trace the formation of the herd… and know what they want.
For example, there’s a group of American larpers who often play in European blockbuster larps. The older larpers in that group met playing vampire larps about 15 years ago, moved onto one-shot larps played in private groups in Alabama and New Jersey, and most who have been playing for more than five years played in one of three larps (Armistice Arcane, Real Royalty or our own Project Ascension). At some point, they connected with the European larp scene, and now that herd regularly travels to Europe to play games. If you look at the larps this group attends, you see certain commonalities, and it’s possible to attract a couple of dozen people with high disposable income to your larp if you know what this herd wants.
And that’s the problem: if you give the herd what it wants, you’re designing for a very specific audience.
The Herd Is Inaccessible
We use the term “herd” because of the term “herd competence” (there are a number of references to the term in the book Larp Design, including an attribution of the term to Teresa Axner). According to the Nordic Larp Wiki, herd competence is “having a sufficient number of players with previous experience of larp makes it easier for also [sic] for beginners to get into the larp.” However, we disagree with this… the herd’s “competence” is not really expertise, but rather a practice… they’re not making it easier for beginners to learn how to larp, they’re making it easier for newcomers to learn the group’s practices… because most of the people already know them. This is mistaken for competence because the herd has an accepted way to larp that doesn’t have anything to do with your skill at role-play, but rather how you fit into pre-existing norms and mores.
Further, the way to join the herd is probably to make friends with someone already in the herd; most people start larping because a friend invited them. So the herd consists of people who already had established social connections, meaning it often tends to be more homogenous than the larger population. This isn’t inherently bad (we recently realized that our participants are mostly queer and consider this to be a very good thing), but it can lead to a lack of diversity. That lack of diversity isn’t just a matter of social connections, but often of tastes: think of the music you hear at a larp and how often you hear a song by the Cure (or even the Decemberists) versus how often you hear a song by Wu-Tang or Kendrick Lamar. If most of the herd is from a particular culture or subculture, their norms will dominate and make larps that cater to the herd inaccessible to others.
Remember, the herd is not bad, but it’s a design problem… or more accurately a challenge. If we want our larps to be played, we need to design to the herd; but in designing to herd, our designs become linked to it. But how do we address this challenge?
We Don’t Have A Good Answer
We’re part of the problem. We run larps that cost a lot of money and have our core group of participants… and we really like that group. They’re our friends and fun to play with… but in designing for them, we limit what we can do. Further, it’s risky to try to break free, because we’re not experienced in designing larps for different groups. Finally, with there being little reward to larp design other than engaging with your friends, why should we try to break free of the herd?
We don’t have good solutions to this problem, but we do acknowledge that change probably has to be incremental: there’s no simple solution. With that in mind, we would welcome the opportunity to hear your ideas… or even your arguments about why we’re wrong.