There's a reason why we enjoy them... we've done them before.
Let’s start with this: there are lots of very good larp designers creating very good larps right now. Remember that, because this article isn’t an attack. If you find yourself getting defensive or disagreeing immediately, please do two things:
Remember that we’re not saying your favorite larp is bad.
Consider why you disagree… because if you have a good counter-argument, we want to hear it.
With that in mind, here’s the incendiary larp opinion of the day.
Our favorite larps aren’t innovative - in fact, they’re usually repetitive.
Are your hackles up? Then read on.
What’s Wrong With Our Favorite Larps?
The short answer: there’s nothing wrong with your favorite larp. But it’s also probably pretty repetitive… and there’s nothing wrong with that. Repetition is how art gets good: the idea gets polished and refined and you have more to offer your participants. But it also means you’re codifying, establishing techniques and design tools, and probably creating an orthodoxy (we’ll come back to that later).
Remember, we’re saying your “favorite” larps. These are the ones that stick with you and you talk about with your friends. You might pay hundreds of dollars to attend one of these larps. You might see them year after year at a convention. You might play them every month as part of a campaign. And because they’re popular, we not only play them often, but other designers emulate them… because they work.
But… larpers are a relatively small group of people, and we invest quite a bit into our passion. This means the larps that become popular are the larps that meet the expectations of larpers, and those expectations often come with strong larp opinions. And because of that, an invisible structure has formed around larps to meet these expectations. Here are some traits of this structure:
There’s pre-event communication: the group of participants needs to form in advance of the event.
The event usually requires some out-of-role onboarding so that the participants can either support the risk controls of the larp, engage with the narrative context of the larp, or both.
Usually, a character is provided, or character creation is done as a group prior to play.
Designers are focused on two things: developing mechanics of play, or developing narrative context.
The larp requires a formal or informal interaction after actual play.
These elements apply generally to larp; specific styles of larp have their own invisible rules. For example, freeform larps have an invisible requirement for metatechniques - participants expect a larp to have a way for them to communicate their out-of-role desires and concerns about play. However, many boffer larps don’t have these mechanics and attempts to introduce them go unused by participants. A need for catharsis is an unstated rule for many large-scale larps, as participants expect some sort of emotional pay-off.
When we say “your favorite larps are repetitive,” what we mean to say is that they follow these invisible structures and do so without design intent.
The Importance of Structure & Design Intent.
A piece of advice we heard almost two decades ago: if you don’t make a choice with your larp design, then someone else already made it for you. This speaks to design intent; the idea that as a larp designer, you make purposeful choices about the experience you’re creating. If you don’t make a purposeful choice, then that part of the design is assumed based on the larp culture you come from.. When a larp designer begins their work, they’re going to have to create or select the mechanics they use, create a setting, and establish what the participants will do during the larp. But they don’t have to establish the structure of the larp… the participants have a set of expectations about the structure based on what they’ve already played. In particular cultures, they’ll expect a workshop, character sheets, consent mechanics and a debrief. We can call these elements pre-expectations: things your participants expect before they ever encounter your larp.
But what do these pre-expectations do? What is the effect of having a workshop - what does that do to the experience? What if consent mechanics were completely invisible to participants without losing their efficacy? What if you learned about your pre-generated character without reading anything? The only way to know is to design them out and see what happens. But then you’re messing with people’s pre-expectations, and that’s a difficult thing to do if you’re going to be one of their “favorite” larps. And on a large scale, it’s a big risk.
It’s impossible to avoid pre-expectations, and impossible to make a meaningful design decision about all of them. But even when you decide to go along with a pre-expectation, it can be with a design intent and even innovation. Is a character sheet written in-role with unreliable information? Does your workshop have a hidden goal other than instruction and practice? Even if a designer decides to meet a pre-expectation unironically, the act of examination is still an act of design intent. Addressing pre-expectations is what we mean by innovation… and it’s not happening very often.
So what’s the problem?
When you polish & refine it, you also stop innovating. Again, this isn’t a bad thing: larp design involves craft, and our craft requires iteration. But we also see “new” ideas that are just successful existing ideas with new mechanics or narrative context: they changed how the larp plays, or the story, but haven’t innovated with regards to pre-expectations. And when that happens, pre-expectations become an orthodoxy. You start hearing phrases like “you need to…” and “that isn’t larp.” You’ve created a concept of what larp is and how it’s done based on pre-expectations, and not on actual design elements.
Here’s a good way to identify if a larp is innovative. Just ask yourself, did the larp designers:
Do something on purpose…
That is outside the norm…
That you’re not sure will work?
Innovation is intentional, innovation is new, and innovation is risky. If you look at a larp and go “Oh, I’m not sure about that, but that’s definitely a choice I haven’t seen before,” then it’s probably messing with your pre-expectations. If you can, we encourage you to give it a try… it might not be one of your favorites, but you might still like it.