Historical larps and research

In another place, someone asked how much research people put in when writing historical larps. My answer is too big for that place, but also its one I’d like to stick around, so I’ll post it here instead.

The short version is “as much as I feel like”. How much that is depends on how well I know the period and how detailed I want to get. But there’s really two points to research for larps: getting the feel right (or rather, not obviously wrong; this is a matter of taste), and finding useful little nuggets that can be turned into plot. The latter is something I learned from Ars Magica, and its IMHO the important bit. History is full of stories, and weird little things that seem absurd now but were vitally important then, and they can be a great source of inspiration or just colour. The trick is not to get bogged down in research, which is one of my failure modes (I still haven’t actually written that asteroid mining game, or the NZ goldrush one…)

Looking at it by game (fortunately I write “Designer’s Notes” files for everything I publish listing my sources):

  • The Devil’s Brood: based on a film, but I read a handful of book chapters to flesh out key relationships and develop the extra characters.
  • The Gehenna Memo: read a book on The Secret Life of Bletchley Park for the historical bits (the rest was all Mythos and codebreaking fiction).
  • Longmuir Hall / Property & Propriety: were all researched via Google. Longmuir Hall had some stuff about slavery which was pulled from the web, and also involved digging into caselaw around fox hunting and trespass, which was also on the web. For P&P I dug into the history of enclosure and vaccination (mostly from Wikipedia, but also skimmed a few articles), and grabbed a lot of real history from some annual compendium to pad out the newspaper. This is a period I know well, but I also acquired a writer’s guide, Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, to check details.
  • The Rose and the Dragon: The biggie. Again, C13th feudalism is something I know well, and at the time I was playing (and playtesting) Ars Magica, which has well-researched sourcebooks on the basics. So, the basic structure of the village came and a lot of the detail came from that. I also researched early C13th English law on outlawry and trial by combat, and infamously dug into the economics of sheep farming and a bit of stuff about labour relations and the cloth industry for the sheeponomics plots. We also had to create a manorial roll to document some plot information, so I had to get an idea of what one of those looked like. When we had to add the troupe at the last minute, I did some digging into C13th theatre as well.
  • Greenstone Creek (unfinished): read a pile of books on the early gold rush on the West Coast, as well as The Luminaries and some other gold rush fiction. I even dug up Hunter’s Gold (though that’s set in Otago). And then I never finished the game. I should really go back to that one sometime…

The upshot of this: I think there’s general “get the feel right” research, there’s “looking for plots” research, and there’s directed stuff for specific plotlines. How much of the latter you need to do depends on how historical you want your game to feel.

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Um. For me, it’s lots. But that’s because historical research scratches another itch for me, and I often find that little details make for good stories. I think a rule of thumb would be that if I had a casual conversation with someone who was well versed in the field (like they’re a member of a particular culture, or they’re a historian of the period), I would expect them to know more than me, but I’d be able to participate in the conversation. So I would know the big events, and be able to make “I found this bit really interesting” comments and mean it, and be able to respond to their comments.

For historical games, or games with really detailed original settings, there’s also a big issue around setting debt. If you’ve done heaps of research, there’s always the temptation to Put It All In, which is hard on the players to absorb in the larp timeframe. So picking a few big things that you want people to get the feel of and being deliberately vague about some other parts of the period can be a good idea.


This is a really interesting thread! I’m currently fairly deep into research for an 8 hour game (possibly campaign) dealing with the Elizabethan (ish) underworld so I’m trying to decide how much depth and how much to go “whelp, this sounds correct”.


Historical fiction can also be an ok source of LARP research. Some authors are more reliable than others, but when writing LARPs I tend to be looking for “plot ideas to steal” more than 100% accuracy.

On the other hand it doesn’t hurt to double-check things with Google. You also need to take some care that you’re not perpetuating harmful myths, cliches and stereotypes


“Setting debt”. I like that phrase. It captures one of the things that puts me off a lot of games. Whereas using historical eras that are common in fiction lets you lighten the load a bit, and highlight the stuff which is important to the game without having to explain everything.