How to write a larp without stress

I normally attend two larp conventions a year (three this year), and every convention I see the same things: GMs stressing because they haven’t finished their game. Players stressing because they haven’t got their character sheets. Games with fantastic concepts obviously undermined by being a little rushed. Want to write a larp without inflicting all that on yourself and your players? Here’s how.

TL; DR: Start early and finish early

That’s the key lesson. Start early. Because the larp will take longer to write than you think it will, and it needs to be ready long before you think it does. So start early, finish early, and spend the extra time polishing rather than stressing.

Ideally, you should finish writing your larp before even offering to run it. That way its in the can and stress is minimised; nothing can go wrong short of you being hit by a bus. But everyone breaks that rule, including me. So:

The long version:

I’ll assume for this that you have a great concept for the Best Game Ever!!11!, and that you have some idea of when/where you want to run it (e.g. Chimera 2016). Also that you know how to write a larp, and that combining characters and plots to produce a great play experience is not problematic for you. Or that you’re at least willing to give it a go. I’m also assuming that you want to do a good job of it, rather than have your larp suffer from being rushed. And above all, that you want to avoid stress. The central way of doing this is time-management, and in order to solve that problem, we need to know two things: how long your larp will take to write, and when it has to be ready by.

How long will it take to write?

Short answer: longer than you think. Long answer: depends how big it is.

“The Rose and the Dragon”, the 160-player Chimera flagship I worked on in 2013, tried to be stress-free. It allowed a month for initial design and fleshing out the initial concept, two months for detailed design and turning that concept into plots and (very rough) character outlines, four months for writing the actual character sheets (at a rate of 5 sheets per GM per month), and two months at the end (which overlapped with the signup and casting process somewhat) for polishing, consistency-checking and making it pretty.

That’s a pretty generous timeline, which (in the grind phase) boiled down in practice to one weekend’s work a month. A smaller game - say, your average 20-player Chimera game - can probably compress the initial design phases down to a single month (flagships should probably allow at least two because of complexity). Most people can write more than 5 character sheets a month, too, but we’re not going to rely on that. Because the goal here is for you to write your larp without stress - which means leaving time for you to do other things (like, say, your job, or those university assignments, or paying due care and attention to your cat) rather than pretending that they don’t exist and that you can devote your entire time to larpwriting. It also allows time for things to go wrong, for you to get sick or to juggle other projects, like running larps you’ve already written. Or to just piss about and spend a month playing the latest version of $PreferredComputerGame.

Allow yourself extra time, then do the work. If you finish early, then that’s extra time to relax and polish and make your game really shine. And if you merely finish on time, congratulations, you’ve avoided stress.

When does it need to be ready by?

Lots of larp writers seem to operate on the basis that the due date for a larp is the day it runs, or maybe a day or two beforehand to allow for printing and stuffing it. This is wrong. The due date for a larp is the day you open for signups.

Why? Think about what you need to have for signups and its inevitable successor, casting: a number of players and a cast-list. Which suddenly constrains your writing - and specifically how you can respond to characters which don’t work. If you have time, you can set them aside to fester for a while in the hope of improving them, replace them with a character that works better, or just drop them entirely and shrink the larp. But once you’ve opened for signups and provided a cast-list, your numbers and characters are pretty much fixed - and once you’ve actually cast, you’re set in stone, because players will be making costuming decisions. Which means that if you haven’t finished writing your characters, and you discover that one of them doesn’t work, and you can’t solve it, then the player is basicly stuck with it. And their impression of the entire larp will be based on that.

Also think about the production process. While Chimera recruits players and allocates them to games, you still have to contact them, cast them, handle their queries, then panic when someone cast in a vital role decides to pull out. All of this takes time - as does printing and stuffing. Juggling that with writing a larp means you’ll do a bad job of both. So don’t juggle. Finish writing the larp early, so you can focus on production as a separate stage.

Putting it together

What does this mean in practice? Let’s look at a concrete example: Chimera. Chimera runs in mid August, but it has an 8 month production cycle. It calls for games in late January, right after Kapcon, and aims to have a full slate of games by late March. The games - usually including a cast-list - go up on the website in early May, with signups starting a week later. Players are allocated to games in early June, with first contact 8 weeks before the con, casting done 4 weeks before the con, and character sheets due out by 2 weeks before the con.

Using the timetable above, and assuming you’re willing to overlap consistency checking and prettification with signup, a 20-player game takes 5 months to write. The deadline is hungry shark week in mid-late May. So rolling that back, you need to start in December, a month before the call for games goes out. Which is pretty sensible when you think about it: it gives you a month, including a holiday period, to chew over your concept and see if it works before committing to it. For Phoenix (late August / early September) just add a month to the Chimera timetable. For Medusa (November), add three.

Hydra runs in April, but its hungry shark week is in mid-late January (again, right after KapCon), so you need to start your writing process about now. Which is great, because you’ll all be feeling inspired after Chimera, right?

For the game Cat and I just wrote, we were writing little plot summaries of who wanted what/knew what/did what around a given theme as we went to help us keep things straight in our heads (with some changes as we went, cause y’know.) It also meant when I had to drop out at short notice and Linda came in, we could send her a full description of what was happening in the game to help her get up to speed. It was a lot less stressful than keeping the game in my head and keeping track from memory.

That’s a good habit to get into, especially if you’re planing on publishing the game later. And also in a team effort it helps the other authors.

Not just the summaries (though they were, gawd, so useful when I was writing up a cheat sheet). We had spreadsheets of characters, and the plotlets they were involved in, and a colour code of how finished they were, and a similar one for props and who they went to, and another for printables… Documenting as you go really pays off for games of size: helps when working with a co-writer, helps keep track of it all in your head.

Try real damn hard to keep to your internal deadlines.

You’re always going to lose the player for at least one crucial character at little to no notice. It’s just the way the world works. Have a think about back-up plans.

I have recently got into the habit of writing a proplist, then a full printing guide and stuffing list when I’m near the end of the process. Its a useful discipline, which helps get things straight in my head. Also when I get everything ready for printing I zip it all up to a fat archive so I can send the game to someone if I’m hit by a bus (yes Quentin, I’ve done this for The Gehenna Memo already).

But that’s just gilding the lily. The biggest problem I see ATM is people simply failing to appreciate how damn long its going to take to write a game, or not accounting for the possibility that life will happen, and causing themselves and their players unnecessary stress as a result. Planning, people! It saves you hassle! It lets you be lazy!

Yeah, life happens. Getting your stuff done early means you’re a lot less vulnerable to someone on your team getting the flu, or announcing that they’re moving to another country, or having crunch time at work/uni. And sometimes (more often in larger games) you might get someone signing up in good faith and then realising that they’re just not enjoying themselves that much, and that will generally mean sharing out some of their stuff with other writers to compensate, because who wants to be unhappy in their hobby?