Engines of Desire

I acquired Juhanna Pettersson’s Engines of Desire: Larp as the art of experience via a kickstarter, and I’m gradually working my way through it. Most of the book is reprints from old Knudebooks, and may already have been discussed here (under the “academic” tag) if they were interesting. But there’s some new stuff in it too, which I’ll go through in this thread.

Basics of character design

  • From the 2019 Knudebook Larp Design, which I still haven’t been able to get my hands on, so its new to me.
  • Lots of sensible, basic advice on “how to write a character”. Experienced larpwriters will know a lot of this already, but its useful to have it all written down in one place like this.
  • Key idea: “The character is the main interface between the player and the larp… the character situates the player in the larp’s social landscape… provides motivation and reasons for action [and] questions and dilemmas that enrich internal play”. (Many kiwi larps would also include some mechanical interface, like moves / abilities / powers, but these are just a different kind of play-enabling lever. Or should be).
  • what you need (in terms of length and detail) obviously depends on the specific larp.
  • basic rules: short is better than long. Stick to a small number of key details as the players won’t remember them.
  • players will change the character, deliberately (by emphasizing some aspects, or by plot triage) or inadvertently (by forgetting or misremembering things). Characters need to be designed with this in mind, ideally able to be played in different ways without breaking the larp.
  • Characters fundamentally need to enable players to access the themes of the larp. If your larp is about class conflict (a bad example for NZ), every character needs to have a class position. If its about a family full of dirty secrets, then everyone needs to be on the family tree and have something to hide.
  • a good rule when assessing character concepts is to ask whether a character can “do their thing” in the larp? If not, they may be better as an NPC or backstory element rather than a PC.
  • the usual warning against bad-arse loners, using Strider from LOTR as an example.
  • be careful about characters who remove or prevent play for others (example of anti-revolutionaries in a larp about starting revolution, or good apples in a dirty family who are solely there to provide contrast).
  • enabling vs disabling character personality traits: a character being shy or cowardly discourages interaction (bad-arse loner is another example of this). Disabling traits should be balanced with enabling ones.
  • Archetypes (e.g. the noble knight) are easy for players to grasp; internally contradictory characters (e.g. a cowardly hero) are good for introspective larps.
  • character motivations should all point to action within the larp. “make the characters want to do the things they need to do for the larp to work”.
  • groups can provide characters with easy social relations. Three Affiliations model from 1942 (which used work, friends, and family) is a good guide. Each of the group types should perform a very different social function to enable different sorts of play.
  • prewritten character relationships should be meaningful and create action. Note that these create fragility (e.g. when someone can’t make it), so suggests workshopping within groups as a possibility. Have at least 3 relationships per character to compensate for the usual high failure rate.
  • backgrounds are there to help the player understand the character and access the larp. They’re not a story, though it can be, if that serves that fundamental goal.
  • key background elements: essential events for the character’s identity and personality (e.g. if they’re a soldier, tell them about the war), and directly relevant details that are important or might come up during the larp (e.g. of a former servant invited to a party at the house they used to work at; in NZ we’d also add pre-seeded plot and secrets, stuff done with other characters etc).
  • Character information should be functional and limited to the essentials. Extraneous information is a distraction which undermines the larp. When writing, focus on utility and efficiency of communication rather than style.
  • pay attention to the expectations of your playerbase about character length and style.
  • There is a final note that There is More Than One Way To Do It.

Should note that due to an unexpectedly public Indiegogo update, you can currently get the whole book from Dropbox.

Basics of efficient larp production

  • Traditional method: the “Infinite Hours” model: “a fairly large team of volunteers puts in a massive amount of work to realize a labor of love. Leadership is focused on making the larp as amazing as possible through the brute expedient of work, work, and more work. People are motivated by the desire to make as much cool stuff as humanly possible.” Problem: people burn out (Pettersson has his own burnout story in “The Piss Room” earlier in the book).
  • Need more efficient methods. But efficient in terms of what? Organiser stress, to avoid burnout.
  • Note that this is not about larp quality, which is about your creative vision and design. This is about organiser wellbeing.
  • Paid vs unpaid labour: if nobody gets paid, you can demand more work from them. If only some people get paid (typically core organisers and skilled specialists) then there are big issues of fairness. In a fully professional model, the amount of work that can go into the larp is limited by the budget. Doesn’t explicitly advocate for any particular model here, but the rest of the article assumes organisers are being paid (the core ideas though seem applicable to stress reduction in volunteer larps).
  • efficient design: maximise meaningful larp action per hour of organiser work.
  • Analyse your larp from the perspective of efficiency. Not all larps can be efficiently produced (though here there begins a slippage into “efficiency = a decent hourly wage” for organisers).
  • Production team should specialise and have clear roles. This isn’t just about efficiency, but also stress: if everyone does everything, everyone is responsible for everything, and everyone stresses about everything. Clear roles means you only stress about the things you are meant to.
  • Specialisation means a need for coordination and management, to make sure that everything is being done.
  • Efficient production means stepping back from individual characters and looking at a system level. Don’t design characters, design interaction systems characters can use. Think in terms of groups and factions, not individuals. Recycle material within the larp (e.g. if there are three exclusive secret societies, they can all have the same rituals). Maximise player agency and encourage improvisation.
  • Minimise character writing. Reiterates comments from “Basics of character design” on efficient writing, but also suggests automated tools or workshops as a way of reducing or eliminating this labour. Avoid co-creating characters with players or tailoring them as this means extra work.
  • Transparent design can eliminate the work of character send out: just dump it all in a public directory on Google Drive and let the players find their own character.
  • Minimise setdressing by finding the right location. Focus props and setdressing on stuff that will be seen by large groups or experienced by everyone.
  • “Efficiency favors relatively homogenized design where all participants either have similar experiences or one of a very small set of different experiences.” Cycling player groups through repeating instances is a way of doing this.
  • Be prepared to cut things if they’re not mission-critical and not going to get done in time (in particular: kill anything that requires an organiser to stay up the night before the larp)
  • Acknowledges that this approach has costs. In extreme, any individual detail in a larp (some of which can be put back in with the time freed up, if you feel like it). Bigger criticism that it removes “all the things that make it fun to make larp”, which can lead to problems motivating volunteers (and key designers?)
  • The payoff: a sustainable larp community, where organisers move on to their next project, rather than saying “never again”?
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I’ve been thinking about the “efficient larp production” article. My major conclusion: the sort of larp I like to run (a “standard” theatre-style with pre-written characters) cannot be produced in the style advocated. That’s not to say the article is useless to me - the up-front goal of writing to minimise stress and avoid burnout is one we should keep in mind (and which I’ve talked about for the sorts of larps I write here), and a lot of the logistical advice works regardless. But basicly their solution is to write a very different sort of larp (and furthermore: a sort of larp I don’t actually like), and its very obviously driven by a professionalising larp culture where people need to be paid for their time. Which isn’t so relevant to me, or to our hobbyist community.


Know Yourself

  • From What Do We Do When We Play?, which I haven’t got a copy of.
  • 90’s (Nordic) conception of a “good player”: one who can take on any role and do it well. This obviously ignores player strengths and weaknesses, not to mention desires, likes and dislikes. Its a designer’s view, not a player’s one (see also: early larp manifestos which explicitly saw the player as a tool for the designer’s creative vision)
  • Key idea: knowing what you’re good at, and what you like and don’t like to do in a larp makes you a better participant. (This seems a bit obvious when you say it. But like lots of stuff in this book, saying it explicitly is useful).
  • How do you develop this useful self-knowledge? Play a lot of games, try some new things. But sometimes it won’t work out.
  • Things to avoid: trying the thing you know won’t work, in the hope that it will this time. The example being “maybe this time the sleep-deprivation will be OK” (“It will never be okay”).
  • Calibration tools can be used to work out what you like and how far you want to go (or just what bores you).
  • Recognise that not every larp is for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with not playing something because it is not your thing. (This can be difficult to recognise when the hype is strong).

I’ve been thinking about the “efficient larp production” article. My major conclusion: the sort of larp I like to run (a “standard” theatre-style with pre-written characters) cannot be produced in the style advocated. That’s not to say the article is useless to me - the up-front goal of writing to minimise stress and avoid burnout is one we should keep in mind (and which I’ve talked about for the sorts of larps I write here), and a lot of the logistical advice works regardless. But basicly their solution is to write a very different sort of larp

I feel like a valuable output here might be less “do all of these things to minimise labour time” and more like a calculator or checklist of the design/production options for larp and their effect on labour time.

With a list like that, you can deliberately opt for high-labour designs for certain aspects that matter for you for a given larp, while opting for low-labour options for things that aren’t a priority for that larp. Rather than just taking a “this is how we do it” approach to all larps you make.

For example you might want to make a modern era larp with very richly detailed and personalised characters. You might choose to engage with players to have collaborative character design in that larp knowing the associated costs, but avoid custom prop-making in the design to save time elsewhere. If you had an labour estimation tool, it could help you make those trade-offs early in the design.


The “efficient larp production” article is now on Nordic larp:

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