CREATE A HUGE LARP
By Ryan Paddy
Assisted by Malcolm Harbrow & Hannah Jackson
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
It’s an old joke, but true at heart. When faced with a seemingly impossibly large or complicated task, you can break it down into smaller and more achievable pieces. This works best if different people are responsible for each part, thereby distributing the responsibility. You can also break a huge task down by having many deadlines along the way, rather than just one big deadline at the end.
This “divide and conquer” philosophy was used in the writing of the 160-character larp The Rose and the Dragon. From the outset the game was designed to be written in four somewhat independent sections, each with its own team of writers. This made it more like four medium sized games with 2 or 3 writers, each being an achievable task, rather than one huge one. Small teams of writers find it easier to collaborate than large ones.
We also decided to write the game using a series of one month “sprints”, a term from IT project management. Each sprint has its own deliverables and deadline, so you are always working towards a short term achievable goal rather than a large distant one. A month is a long enough time that the writers can plan their writing around other commitments like work and study.
Thus the proverbial elephant can be divided in two ways. Firstly into sections that different people handle, and secondly by spreading it out over a number of periods of time, each having its own deadline.
What’s covered here
This article provides a template for one way to write a huge one-off pregen larp. It is mostly about project management, but also contains a structured approach to writing pregen larps, specifically an approach that enables a project manager to maintain oversight of the overall writing progress in a series of stages or “sprints”. This sprint approach could be used for any pregen larp, regardless of size. There won’t be detailed advice on writing larps, that can be found in other articles.
- Establish a clear leadership team
- Divide the game into sections
- Recruit an established team of writers for each section
- Plan your writing effort in stages with their own deliverables and deadlines
- Have enough flexibility to cope with unexpected developments
A massive larp doesn’t start with a massive team, that comes later. Instead, at the beginning you need two leadership roles:
A Project Manager, who has the organisation and communication skills to manage a large team, while also knowing what goes into writing and running a larp.
A Director, who has a creative vision for what the game will be and the ability to work with a creative team to bring the idea to life.
A single person can perform both these roles, as was the case with The Rose and the Dragon. However, with a huge event this will stretch the spare time and capacities of that person. It’s better to have one person for each role, which will also provide a leadership backstop in case one of them is unable to continue with the project.
Both roles are fundamentally replaceable if someone drops out, as are all roles on the project, to make it less prone to catastrophic failure. However, it must always be clear who is doing these roles, so that these people have the cooperation of the team. The Project Manager and Director should lead from the front.
The Project Manager
The project manager, or PM, is the overall coordinator of the project. They design the writing process and set the deadlines, and they make sure the team is sticking to them. When things don’t go according to plan - and that’s normal - the PM adjusts the plan so that the project will still be a success. If it’s unclear whose responsibility something is, then it’s the PM’s job to find someone or do it themselves. The PM isn’t just overseeing writing, but every aspect of the project including marketing, formatting documents, set decoration, props, food and the rest of the logistics. They should try not to get caught up in writing characters themselves except in an emergency, as there is a lot else to keep them busy. This guide is largely aimed at the PM.
If the game will run within a larger event such as a convention, then the PM is the single point of contact for the convention organiser, who is called the “sponsor” in project management jargon. The PM needs to please the sponsor’s requirements, which may include a variety of things ranging from budget, venue use, marketing materials and creative considerations such as not repeating genres that have already been run recently. A certain amount of discussion between the PM and the sponsor is required, and the sponsor should be kept up to date with progress while developing the game. However, the sponsor should not be loaded up with problems that the PM can deal with themselves. Your role as PM’s is to take the elephant off the convention organiser’s plate, so you should try to avoid loading problems back onto the sponsor.
The role of the director is to provide a creative vision for the game and to work with the team throughout the project to ensure a high quality larp is written. The director designs the creative boundaries of the game: the genre, setting, mood and the large-scale situations at play. The final say in creative decisions rests with the director, however they should also give as much creative ownership as possible to the writers and should rarely exercise their veto. Writers need to own their sections of the game in order to fully invest in creating them.
As director you are the proof-reader and editor, and will jump in and help to design and write characters and documents where needed, while avoiding micromanaging the writers. You also perform the role of backup writer, filling gaps when the main writers are sick or otherwise unavailable.
Dividing your game
Your concept should be designed with multiple sections by the director with help from the PM, with the intent to have a team of writers working on each section. The nature of this division will depend on the genre and setting you’ve decided on, and the venue you have available. The sections should be relatively independent, so that each team can progress quickly on their section without constant discussions with the other writing teams. However the sections should also have significant overlap, otherwise it won’t feel like a single huge game.
It’s worth considering having a separate venue for each section of your larp, nearby to each other so that players can walk easily between them. It becomes difficult to find people in a big room when there are more than about 60 characters, especially as everyone is mingling and moving. Also, large rooms that can comfortably take more than 100 people aren’t always available, and smaller rooms can become unpleasantly crowded. By splitting your game, each section can have a venue with about 40 to 60 people in it. That’s a much more manageable number when looking for particular characters to interact with, but still enough to feel like a large game. This approach also means that if a player wants to interact with a character from another area, they can walk to that area’s venue and be fairly sure of finding them. The road between the venues can became another interesting place to roleplay with other characters who are travelling between venues. The entire location of your game really becomes one big venue, with sub-venues within it.
Pitching your concept
If you are running your game at a convention, you will need to pitch it to the convention organiser. Put together a document outlining your vision and approach to present to the sponsor. Be ready to have some discussion about your design and plans and make changes if necessary, remember that your aim is to please your sponsor by adding something to their convention that they will value. Whether you are running at a convention or not, you’ll need your pitch document to show to potential writers and other team members when you come to recruit them.
You will need several writing teams, one for each section of the game. Ideally you’re looking to recruit existing writing teams who have worked well together before. It’s best to recruit teams of writers who can meet regularly in person, as that will make their writing much faster and it will be easier for them to keep track of their team’s progress. Ask around about teams who work well together, and are able to meet deadlines. If your game is running at a convention, the convention organiser may be able to help advise who is available and reliable. You will want at least 1 writer per 20 characters that you intend to write. It’s best to recruit a few extra writers if possible, as it will speed things up and there will almost inevitably be people who can’t continue throughout the whole project.
Recruiting a lead set designer
Aside from the writing team, the other major role you’ll need a person to lead your set-dressing. Your set designer then needs to recruit more people in turn to help with building and setting up the set dressing for the event, as it’s a big task. If you are using multiple areas, it will be more efficient for the lead designer to recruit a separate person to be in charge of dressing each area. The set dressing team will need to be able to get together in person to build decorations.
Recruiting other team members
You may wish to have other people to help with various aspects of the game. Some of these people could be players, so long as you won’t be giving them spoilers. They could help with activities such as graphic design, food and drinks preparation, creating props and any other tasks that may be required for your particular larp.
Make a timetable for creating the game and let your team know about it. Here is an example timetable, which assumes you are starting in October and aiming to run your game in August. Each calendar month is a numbered “sprint” with a deadline on the last day of the month. The first is “Sprint 0” when preliminary preparations are made, by the end of which you should have your full team together.
0 - Oct - Team recruited, game concept created with title and blurb for marketing
1 - Nov - Create list of character names with one-paragraph concepts
2 - Dec - Half of integration done, at least 3 bullet points per character
3 - Jan - Integration completed, at least 6 bullet points per character
4 - Feb - Quarter of characters written
5 - Mar - Half of characters written
6 - Apr - Three quarters of characters written, player questionnaire finalised
7 - May - All of character sheets written, player questionnaire put online
8 - Jun - Finalise character sheets, write briefings, cast players who have registered
9 - Jul - Documents props written, character sheets and briefings formatted and sent to players
10 - Aug - Everything completed, all materials and checklists ready for play
Note that there is plenty of room in this sample timetable for slippage, in case your team doesn’t manage to stick to the schedule. Character sheets are intended to be sent out a month before the game. However, if things do slip then sending the characters a couple of weeks before the game isn’t a disaster. There are also two months for finalisation and formatting. In a worst-case scenario, these could be skipped and the character sheets could be sent out unfinalised and unformatted. Of course that will impact the quality of the event, but it’s better than no event at all.
This timetable assumes a process of “up front design” on the characters, where the character concepts are written up and the connections between them designed in advance, before any writing is done. One effect of this is to make the actual writing phase a lot easier, as the characters are already designed and you mostly just need to describe them in nice flowing prose. Also, this means that the teams make progress in lockstep. You all finish your character designs together, and then when it comes to connecting the characters, you know what the characters in other sections are. Finally, having all the plots and relationships for a character written down makes it easy to shift them around if a character has to be dropped, and much easier for a different writer to complete if necessary.
Remember that your writers and other team members are volunteers. They have work/study/lives that take precedent over the game, and they’re doing this for fun. Don’t lay on pressure. Just give gentle reminders about deadlines and try to help people to meet them. Appreciate your team, their happiness comes first.
The PM should establish early what their available budget for the event is, and create a spreadsheet planning how it will be spent. If you’re running at a convention, the sponsor will set your budget. If your game is stand-alone, the project manager will have to forecast the expected income for the event in order to be able to establish how big a budget they’ve got available.
Remember to include costs such as set dressing, food and drink, stationery, equipment hire, hiring live music and buying props. Ask other organisers what typical expenses and costs are. Leave yourself with some spare budget, in case of unexpected costs.
GETTING IT DONE
You’ll want a place to coordinate with your team remotely. A private internet forum is better suited than emails, as it’s easier to find old posts. If you’re using a forum, you can post the timetable in a topic welcoming everyone to the project and make the post an announcement so that it stays prominent. You can also create a topic for each section of the game, for discussion about the separate sections.
You will also want a place to collaboratively write your characters online, which forums are not suited to. A cloud internet solution is ideal for this, as it allows you to oversee progress to ensure deadlines are being met. Google Drive is the best known and most well-featured.
If you are using Google Drive, you may wish to create a new Gmail address first for the game, that can be used for official correspondence. While logged in as this user you can then create a folder in Google Drive that can be shared with all the team, including your own personal Gmail address. That way you can access the materials using your normal login, and your changes will be attributed to you in the document histories.
Having the documents owned by an independent Gmail account means that the project management can more easily be handed off to another person if necessary, as you won’t have all the documents and emails on your personal account.
Deciding your parameters
The project manager and director should decide the parameters for the overall larp. Although it is being written in several sections, and these may vary somewhat, you want the overall game to feel cohesive. The parameters may include the style of rules, whether minimalist or more complicated. Will you be using contingency envelopes and skill cards with number of uses? Will you use foam weapons? The parameters also include the overall mood, whether the feel of the game will be lighthearted or silly, naturalistic, cinematic and so forth.
Before you start on character writing, you’ll need to agree the style and length of the character sheets which should also be fairly consistent across the sections of the game. Some larps have explicit objectives for each character written on the sheets, while others provide a more general description of the character’s interests and encourage the players to determine the character’s aims. Some writers find it easier to keep each character sheet to a single side of paper, especially when writing a large game. This is also easier on the players, who have a lot to remember with so many other characters in the game. On the back of each sheet could go a briefing for the game, and for the section that the character is in. A single sheet of paper is easier to handle during a game than multiple pages. It’s useful for writers to know these things up front, so they can visualise the type of game they are writing. You’ll also want an idea of what the sections of the character sheet will be.
Managing the sprints
Starting each sprint at the beginning of a calendar month, and having the deadline on the last day of the month, will make the deadlines easy to remember. As you start each sprint, post a forum topic about that sprint with the deliverables and deadline as an announcement.
The sprint topic can be used for discussion about the deliverables and progress throughout the sprint. When the sprint ends, you can edit the topic for that sprint and make it no longer an announcement. Then you can create a new announcement topic for the next sprint.
The characters are the heart of a larp. They are the window through which the players experience the game, and the bulk of your effort will be around conceptualising, connecting, writing and fine-tuning them. While what makes a good character is outside the scope of this article, each character should be designed to grip the player’s imagination and to have plenty of material that the player can use to imagine what the character would want to do. You don’t have to list character goals, but the player should be able to infer them.
Each section of the game should have its own spreadsheet listing its characters. The writers for that section will take ownership of their character list. As PM you can prepare templates for the character lists, so that a common format is used between the sections, making comparison and collaboration easier.
Here is an example of a character list in Google Drive:
You can make your own copy of this spreadsheet by selecting “File | Make a copy…” from the menu. That will make a copy in your “My Drive” area, which you can edit and use for your game. This sheet can be used for designing the characters for one section of a large larp, or for designing all the characters in a smaller larp. This Google Drive spreadsheet has a number of tabs along the bottom.
The first tab of the spreadsheet has a row for each character. The columns contain the summary information about the characters. The “Progress” columns are used for marking off completion of the various stages of creating the characters, by entering “Started” when you’ve commenced work on that part of the character design and then “Done” when you’ve finished. You could add additional columns to contain more information about the characters - for example you may want a column to track what equipment or money the characters have.
The statuses you enter on the first tab are used to drive graphs on the following tabs that help the writers to keep track of their progress on their section, and enable the PM and director to track progress on the overall larp. Presenting progress graphically in these pie charts enables you to see at a glance how things are going. The final tab “Stats” is where the calculations for the graphs are done. This example spreadsheet is set up for exactly 40 characters. You should edit the target number of characters by changing the “Character count” value on the Stats tab from 40 to the number of characters in your game section.
Sprint 0 - Setup
The purpose of Sprint 0 is to get all your ducks in a row, ready to start your character development. This includes preparing your online documents and having everyone on the same page about what kind of larp you are writing and what everyone’s responsibilities are. You’ll want as many of the parameters of the larp clear as possible from the start, so everyone is working towards a common vision.
Sprint 1 - Character names and concepts
In the first month, the writers in each team will create the names and concepts for all the characters in their section of the game. It is important to finalise the names early. Changing character names requires them to be updated wherever they are used in other character concepts or sheets, which can cause rework and lead to mistakes.
The character concept is a single paragraph, outlining things like what kind of person the character is, what they are doing at the event, a few key publicly-known relations with other characters (family, friends) and so forth. It doesn’t need to detail every connection they have to other characters or all the things they’ll be involved with - that comes next. Don’t expect great character concepts to come to you immediately, it’s good to brainstorm lots of ideas and keep the stronger ones. Think deeply about character concepts at first, then take a break. You’ll find that more ideas will come to you later.
The concept can include a “group” that the character belongs to, something like a family, a gang or any other kind of faction. They may belong to more than one group. Grouping characters into factions is often a good shorthand for roughly the kind of person a character is and who they align with, at least publicly, and makes writing character relationships much easier. Also, playing a character who is part of a group immediately gives the player a set of other players they can interact with as soon as the game begins. They can then work their way out to interacting with characters that they are less well-connected to, or who they expect to be challenged by. The group is like a “home” that players can come back to, a comfortable base with reliable connections. Of course, this doesn’t mean that members of your group won’t betray you, but at least that betrayal will really mean something to you and to other characters.
Here is an example of a character list during conceptualisation:
The example game here is set in a dinner party to celebrate the character John’s graduation from university, and has 6 characters. For a real game, finished concepts would usually be longer and more detailed paragraphs with more insight into the personality and background of the characters. Note the progress columns marked “Started” and “Done”, for which there is special formatting so they stand out. If you look through the tabs, you’ll see how the gender balance and the concept progress is illustrated in graphs.
Sprints 2 and 3 - Integration
“Integration” or “plotting” is the process of connecting characters to each other. This can be a complicated process, but it should be presented in a simple fashion in order for the project manager and director to be able to oversee progress. The integration lays the groundwork for the writing, making it much easier when you come to do it.
For each important connection to other characters that each character has, write one bullet point. In Sprint 2, the goal is to write at least 3 bullet points for each character. For most characters, one of the these integration points should be to a character in another section of the larp (i.e. one being written by another writing team). This is where your online collaboration tool comes in. Writers from the various teams can add integration points against characters from other sections of the game. The writer should put their initials against that bullet point so it’s clear who wrote it. The writers for a section have veto over whether they accept these connections, they may wish to discuss the ideas with the other writers, using the forum for their section of the game, and possibly make changes.
An example of an integration bullet point might be “She is over-protective of her son John. Disapproves of John’s fiance, Jane, because Susan says Jane is only after John’s money. Approves of Susan because she’s from a good family, doesn’t realise that Susan is lying and wants John for herself.” The purpose of the integration point is to provide reasons to interact with other characters, challenges to be overcome, secrets to be uncovered, and so forth. This is often known as creating “plot”, although that term sounds rather pre-determined. I prefer to look at it as designing situations that could play out in various interesting ways.
For each integration point for a character there will almost always be corresponding integration points in the other characters that are mentioned. If it’s important enough to be an integration point, then the characters it relates to need to know about it. Otherwise it risks being a one-sided connection. The only exceptions are “blind” connections, where only one side knows about the issue. However, blind connections are often less powerful during play as they create one-sided interactions, so should be used sparingly. Usually, the other character should at least contain a hint that will make the blind connection meaningful when it is revealed.
In Sprint 2, fill out each character so they have at least 6 integration points in total. At least 1 or 2 of these connections will usually be with characters in other sections of the larp, depending on how much overlap you want. Remember that the more you connect to characters in other sections, the more the players will feel the need to travel to those sections during play and the less cohesive each section will feel.
Integration is one of the hardest parts of the process to get right, and it’s the foundation for all the writing that follows. That’s why it is spread across two sprints. In this sprint pay special attention to any characters who seem under-connected. The nature and depth of the connections will depend on your setting, it might be no more than a shared interest. However, every character should have at least a couple of connections that matter very deeply to them, or the player may feel disconnected from everyone else. It’s good for characters to have both allies and opponents, or they may feel either unsupported or unchallenged. Also, go through each character making sure that all the integration points are consistent with each other, and that the character at the other end of the connection has a corresponding point. There’s nothing worse than trying to have a feud with someone who doesn’t know who you are.
Here is an example of a character list during integration:
Sprint 4, 5, 6 and 7 - Character writing
In each of these sprints the writing team for each section will write one quarter of their characters. In these sprints you are taking the character concepts and integration bullet points from the previous sprints, and fleshing them out into nice readable and evocative prose, that will excite the player and get their creative juices flowing. You will still be coming up with a few ideas for how characters relate during these sprints, but most of that will have been already done during integration so it’s a matter of putting it into a nice readable form.
You are not writing “drafts” of the characters during these sprints, your output will be completed characters. By the end of each sprint, the characters you were working on should be playable. In other words, the writers should be happy that they could hand the characters to the players now and it would go okay. There will be time to polish them somewhat later, but that should be optional in case time runs short. There won’t be time to go back and rewrite lots of characters that are in an unplayable “draft” state.
During this period the project manager and director should come up with the questions for the player casting questionnaire. You need to know what the content of the characters is before doing this, but that should be apparent from the character concept and integration phases. Pay special attention to themes that not everyone would want to be involved with, make sure you ask about them. This includes romance, fighting and dark themes, none of which are everyone’s cup of tea. Some people want to play a happy game, and in a huge larp you can accommodate that.
You will also want casting lists for each section of the larp, with brief public descriptions of each character. The cast lists and the questionnaire will be put online at the end of sprint 7, ready for players to sign up.
If there is time to spare, the director and writing teams can start writing the briefings for the game. The most important part is the text that will go on the back of everyone’s character sheets, describing the setting and rules and possibly their section of the game. Beyond that, you could optionally write longer briefings for each section, and for the overall game, but don’t expect all players to necessarily read them.
The director will want to be checking all character sheets at the end of all sprints. It’s too late after these sprints are all over, there will be far too many characters for the director to check them all then. It is important in this stage for the Project Manager to track performance, and be ready to step in, recruit extra writers or reassign work if someone is falling seriously behind. While there is slack in the timetable, it is better to catch such problems early than let them snowball. Make sure everyone knows that they are expected to ask for help if they run into problems.
For the writers, monitor your team’s performance, be realistic about your abilities and follow through. If life intervenes (because it will, and people understand this), ask for help. Don’t hesitate to ask for help “for fear of letting everyone down”. The sooner you ask for help the easier it is to provide it. Your section of the game is your baby, and everyone will respect that, but you should be open to contributions and help when you need it.
Sprint 8 - Finalisation
This is your chance to put the final touches on your character sheets. Go over them all and make sure you’re happy with the writing, and that everything connects correctly.
Be systematic about consistency checking, go through every line in every character sheet. Make sure every other character sheet has the corresponding information. Inconsistencies are the bane of larp, a player’s whole experience can be broken if another character who is important to them doesn’t know who they are, or if their character is highly interested in something that nobody else knows or cares about. In a large larp, it’s especially easy for bits of “plot” to become orphaned. Take at least two passes to get this right. Ideally, ask the other teams and the director to look your character sheets over with fresh eyes.
You can also use this chance to finalise the briefings that will go on the back of character sheets, and to finish any more detailed briefings you are doing.
You’ll have people signing up now, so you may wish to start casting your signups and let them know which character they’ll be playing. You won’t be sending them their characters yet, because they’re not completely ready, but knowing roughly who their character is will allow them to begin planning costumes & props. If you publish a cast list early, people can get to know who is playing the other people in their character group and their section of the game.
Sprint 9 - Formatting
You have all the text in place, now it’s time to make it look good in the final format. Google Drive documents are pretty hopeless for formatting, they don’t give you much control over layout (even if using their tables, you can’t control spacing fully) and they render images very poorly. Microsoft Word or Open Office are better tools for this phase. Make sure you have some way to render PDF files from whatever tool you choose.
Start by getting the briefings for the back of the character sheets right. These will be reproduced across characters, so you don’t want to change them after you start making copies if you can help it.
Who does the formatting will depend on the skills, tools and time available to team members. It’s most efficient for the writers to format their own characters as that distributes the workload, but the PM or director may need to help.
While formatting you may find that some text has to be shortened to fit. After formatting into PDFs, run the characters back past the writers from each area to make sure they’re happy with the results.
Once all the sheets and briefings are formatted, you can email them as PDFs to the players who have been cast.
If you have spare time in this period or previously, start writing and formatting any in-character documents that will be props in the game.
Sprint 10 - Ready to run
Get everything ready. This includes all props, logistical materials, to-do lists and printed characters sheets in envelopes with the player and character name and any small props inside. You’ll also want an idea of what verbal briefings you’ll be giving before the game, and what the real world scheduling for the game and it’s before and after periods will look like.
A huge game requires dedication, but the result is epic and unforgettable and the experience of achieving it is very rewarding. By dividing the effort across enough people and time, and managing things carefully, really big events become achievable.
Love and mad props to all those willing to try the seemingly impossible!