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  • Ryan Hart

Stop Writing Larps - Design them

Updated: Mar 20

We’re designers, not writers


Two larpers laughing in New York

Sinking Ship Creations produces a bunch of larps by other designers; when we start talking to people about their larps, we always start with the words, “Tell us about your larp,” and people will tell us about the setting, the characters, the plot of the larp… maybe the inspiration for design, or the aesthetic. And typically, we have to follow it up with another question:


“What do people do at this larp?”


Somehow, larp designers picked up a tendency to talk about their work like they were novelists. We say we “write” larps. We talk about the plot, setting and characters;  we summarize our larps like we’re making book jackets. But larps aren’t books. A person only has one thing they do with a book: they read them. But when we say we play a larp, what we really mean is we do a lot of different actions while pretending to be a made-up person in a made-up place. And while we spend a lot of time talking about the pretending, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about what we do. 


So what do we do at a larp?


The Book Jacket Problem

Intercon V, a larp convention, was held in Rhode Island recently. Here’s a link to the event catalog. Peruse it and ask yourself these questions after each of the blurbs:

  • Do I know what the genre of the larp is?

  • Do I know what the plot of the larp is?

  • Do I know anything about how to play the larp?


While exceptions exist, most of these blurbs do an excellent job of signaling the genre (e.g., “sci-fi” or “fantasy” or even “musical”). The longer ones tend to introduce setting elements and set up a core conflict. But generally, they don’t don’t talk about what you’ll do during the larp.  


We have two problems with this.


First, if you don’t tell people what they’ll be doing, they’ll make up their own expectations based on what you told them, which is generally the genre of the larp. They’ll associate it with other works within the genre, like TV shows they watched and books they’ve read. They’ll likely be drawn to the larp because of that genre (which might mean they’re more interested in costuming and aesthetics than action). This is fine, but now the expectation you’ve set for your larp is one of genre simulation, not role-play. But expectations aren’t everything and the role-play of your larp will make or break the experience for your participants. It’s the second problem we worry about more.


And here’s that problem: maybe you don’t talk about what your participants will do during the larp because you’re used to writing “book jackets.” But maybe you don’t talk about what your participants will do during the larp because you never really thought about it.


When that happens, you’re doing a larp about walking and talking.


Walking And Talking

A disclaimer: there’s nothing wrong with a larp about walking and talking. Some of the best larps we’ve experienced (and more than a few we designed) are just about people walking and talking. But if you do write a walking and talking larp, you should be aware of what it is, and what you’re making.


When we go to a venue to run a larp, we always tell people “It’s going to look like a bunch of people in costumes walking around talking.” To an outside observer, that’s what most larps look like (outside of boffer larps, which have play-fighting, or mechanics heavy larps, which look like rock-paper-scissors contests). If it’s a larp about fey aristocrats deciding the next monarch… that “deciding” is going to look like people dressed up as fey walking around and talking to each other. If it’s a larp about grungy criminals figuring out how to make a buck in a dystopian future… that “figuring out” is going to look like people dressed up as cyberpunk criminals walking around and talking to each other. The most common activity of most larps is “walking around and talking.”

The problem is when a designer doesn’t realize that. They’ve made characters and a setting and put out plot elements, but they think “the characters are deciding the next monarch” or “the characters are figuring out their next heist” and from a writer’s perspective, that’s what’s happening. But from a design perspective… they’re just talking. And further, that’s not how governments gain power. That’s not how heists are planned. If you want to take over a government, it involves planning and correspondence and writing stuff down and maybe even some intrigue like spying or stealing… but not just a bunch of people in a room for four hours saying “Welp, guess we have to make a decision.” That’s a larp trope… and a necessary one, for a larp to be playable… but the character’s activity doesn’t really match the participant’s activity. 


Walking and talking should be something that the participant does in between the important actions of the larp. Just like an action movie isn’t wall-to-wall action, or a courtroom drama is more than just court scenes, the walking and talking is an important thing that happens to set up and express the consequences of dramatic actions taken during a larp. Which should be what we’re designing.


Don’t Write Plot, Design Dramatic Scenes

When we ask, “What do people do at this larp?” we mean “If we’re watching this larp, what do we see other than walking and talking?” This should translate to a core activity by individual participants that combine to form dramatic scenes. When a designer knows this, they can answer the “What do people do?” question in less than five words. Here are some examples:

  • Project Ascension: Escape, Ascend, or Die.

  • Scapegoat: Travel, Vote, and Perform Rituals.

  • The Mortality Machine: Dance, Solve Mysteries, and Explore.


Sometimes these actions are obvious (dancing during The Mortality Machine, or performing rituals during Scapegoat). Other times, they might need some explaining (every activity in Project Ascension was something that would end in you running away before you get caught, or performing a physical action that revealed more about Ascension). Some are focused on a single act that occurs near the end of the larp (such as voting for who gets blamed at the end of Scapegoat or escaping the bar in Project Ascension)... these are highly visible activities that only happen once, but all the walking around and talking during the course of the larp is a lead-in to them. There are many design decisions to be made about core activities, but there are two commonalities:


  1. If they know what to look for, a spectator watching but not hearing the larp could identify when they see activities.

  2. Every participant has the opportunity to perform the activity. 


When there are clear activities that all individual participants will perform, these activities will “crash” into each other, creating drama and the opportunity for more role-play. A public vote is an example of this sort of activity: the finale of Armistice Arcane allowed everyone to cast a vote on how to resolve the conflict by writing their name in one of two books. These books were on opposite sides of a room, so a person had to enter the room, turn left or right, and write their name (and anyone could check to see who voted in a book). This core activity of “voting” was designed to maximize how individual actions interacted with each other, and by the end of the larp, that room was filled with conflict and dramatic scenes. The designers didn’t create a larp about “deciding between two fates,” as we can’t really see someone decide. The choice to make it a public vote turned this into an action the participants could watch and react to.


Screw the Plot; Tell Us What We’ll Do

While genre gives a participant an idea of what the larp will look like, action tells them what they’ll do. Rather than describe the narrative elements of your larp first - the factions, the history, the setting - tell the participants what they’ll be doing. If you’re not sure, ask yourself “What do I want to see in this larp that’s not just walking around and talking?” Come up with some cool scenes you can picture in your head, and ask “What are they doing?” The answer to that are your core activities: and if you’re describing activities instead of plot, then you’re designing, not writing.

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