"Larp Design" book

The Knudepunkt 2019 book Larp Design, which had been unavailable for years, is finally available online. You can download it here:

There’s a list of the contents on the Nordic Larp wiki here:

I’ve been waiting for this one for years, so I guess I’ll start a readthrough.


The early articles are quite short, and mostly about defining terms, so I have no comments on them. Here’s the first really meaty one:


  • “Bespoke design” means designing from scratch, rather than using pre-existing rules systems. Dominant in Nordic larp because the preferred format is one-shots (rather than e.g. campaigns).
  • Design problems may not be strictly be a matter of game design. Example of the fishwife problem: lack of agency for female (compared to male) characters in fantasy larps, caused by writers and players internalising dated fantasy and historical tropes about gender roles. Partly solved by writing better characters with more agency, but players would still bring cultural norms with them. In modern Nordic larps, gender is designed, and roles chosen intentionally (e.g equal, “historical”, alien), with support for the players to portray them.
  • “Everything is a designable surface”: anything which affects participant behaviour or experience is part of the larp, and something that can be designed. This isn’t just the traditional elements of setting and characters and plot and physical set, but the pre- and post-larp, the player culture, and player trust and mood.
  • This seems intimidating, as the implication is that if _any_thing can be designed, then _every_thing must be designed to achieve the perfect play experience. In reality, designers can only control so much, and the article suggests they embrace the chaos. The practical question of what to design is a question of priotisation: what has the most impact on the experience of the players? What best supports the theme? What has the lowest impact on the health and sanity of the designers?
  • Its fine if your design is suboptimal: “larps usually pretty much work, even when they are poorly designed and terribly executed” (the players will try and make it work, and they can usually pull it off if you’ve given them enough to work with).
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  • Design starts with the idea: what you’re trying to do.
  • Should be able to explain the larp in a sentence or two, in the style of an ultra-short blurb.
  • Poses a series of questions to decide whether a larp idea is worth doing.
  • Has it been done before? (Corollaries: can you do it better? How is it different from previous versions?)
  • What is unique about it?
  • What themes are embdeeded in it?
  • How many layers does the idea have? (is there enough in there for the players to do?)
  • Who is excluded by the idea? This can happen from the themes engaged with - racism, sexism, homophobia - or from play style: a long-distance walking larp is going to exclude people who can’t walk long distance. Or it could be economic. Excluding people isn’t a redline, but the designer should be aware of who they are excluding, avoid excluding the same people every time, and (most importantly) be able to explain and justify their choices.
  • can you make the idea understandable? An important sanity check: if you can’t clearly pitch the idea to other designers, then it probably needs more work.
  • Does your ego get in the way of it?
  • Overall this seems to be a useful checklist, and the important takeaway is “be clear about what you’re trying to do”.


  • making the obvious point that you can learn design by studying the designs of others. You can do this by reading (you can learn a lot by reading a theatreform), but running is a bigger test. Not explicitly mentioned is that if the larp is large it will also teach project management, logistics, team communications, and a lot of other GM skills.
  • Chosing a game which has run successfully means less worries about success and marketing, and also not having to worry about imposter syndrome (its someone else’s design, so any mistakes are theirs).
  • “Rerunning” here also means hacking, writing additional characters and changing various things, though the author only does that in later reruns.
  • Suggestion to pick a larp that can be easily transferred to local conditions, with a design solid enough to survive your inevitable mistakes. Also one that you and (most of) your team have played.
  • Includes assorted suggestions about team management and communications with players.
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DESIGNING THE PRE-LARP PROCESS (Martine Helene Svanevik & Johanna Koljonen)

  • The intro to this part of the book starts by pointing out that “most of what happens during the runtime of your larp is shaped or determined by the decisions, choices, and experiences of your participants before it starts”. Which is obvious when you think about it - just think about how a larp where the players read the game materials and prepare costumes is different from one where they don’t.
  • “The player experience begins the first time a potential participant hears about your project”. That experience can be designed to select the appropriate players for the larp, communicate with them, and establish the appropriate play culture.
  • Designing the process also allows it to be planned and scheduled properly to fit with GM resources. It also allows player expectations to be set and managed, reducing the change of disappointment later if the larp turns out not to be what they expected, and for expectations on players (e.g. that they will read stuff or co-create) to be set.
  • The first phase is “player selection” (“selection” is a terrible term, but the idea of attracting players who want to play and are going to enjoy the larp is sound). To do this you need to be clear about your vision for the larp and have an idea of who it is for.
  • Hype is great for selling tickets and getting players to invest in the game, but can give people inflated expectations or a different idea of what the larp is about.
  • There’s some discussion on the pros and cons of announcing your event early before design is complete vs later when it is locked down, but this is basicly a question of time maangement between the competing tasks of communicating with players and designing the larp. There is a detailed checklist later in the article of what is needed before you launch
  • The second phase is “player communication”. This is about telling the players what the larp is about, how to play it, what they need to bring and do and what they need to do to prepare. It also goes the other way, as you need to know things about the players (from co-creation choices to logistical stuff like dietry preferences) as well.
  • Think about what the larp looks like from a player perspective, and what questions they might ask. Try and answer them. On the “collecting information” front, work out what you need and ask for it in one place, all at once. having to go back multiple times makes things more difficult and increases the change of non-response.
  • The third phase is “play culture”. If you don’t design this, the loudest players will do it for you by default.
  • Suggestion to be explicit, because play styles differ and different larp communities can understand different meanings for the same word. There’s an example of a larp which uses clear do’s and don’ts.
  • A big subtext throughout this article is that everything is harder when you have players from multiple larp-cultures, and it may be trying to discourage that? (IIRC this is from the time when some Big Name Nordic Larpers were beginning to condemn blockbusters and internationalisation)
  • Suggestion of pre-play (pre-game text-based IC interaction) as a way to help with co-creation and solidify setting and backstory, but notes that this is very time-intensive and therefore leads to a two-tier experience or narrative inequality between time-rich and time-poor players, with several other axes for exclusion as well. (This is interesting, because NZ larp campaigns have traditionally used online co-creation for faction-building and establishing character relationships, and I recognise some of the inequality problems from that).
  • If pre-play or co-creation are required, then this needs to be made clear to the players, both to select those interested and ensure they do the work.
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This is all super useful stuff for a workshop NZLARPS South Island is planning to run in the near future on “How to Write a Game” :+1:

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This particular book is meant to be practical advice rather than theory, and while some of it is for a very different context, I think there’ll be more useful stuff further in.


  • starts with a reminder that GMs don’t get to decide the course of events in a larp, and that what actually happens arises from the interactions of the players. GMs should therefore think of possibilities rather than a fixed story.
  • Things GMs decide: structure, length, pacing and tempo.
  • Common structures: schedules, situations, themes, processes, plotlines / dramatic arcs.
  • Schedules can come naturally from settings e.g. a magic school.
  • Good situations have built-in narrative structure, clear social roles, and familiar social scripts. They use egs of “stuck in an elevator” or “high school prom”; classic NZ larps would throw in “murder mystery” or “diplomatic meeting”
  • Processes are things like court hearings. They provide pacing and structure, but you need free time for free interaction outside the process.
  • Plotlines use some degree of scripting. They can be linear, where the broad events are scripted but how the characters respond to them is up to the players, or open - effectively a starting situation with narrative freedom about the ending (lots of NZ larps fall into this category).
  • Dramatic arcs are similar to linear plotlines, with a beginning, one or more turning points, and an end, and may use an explicit act structure. Different rules or themes may apply in each act.
  • pacing is more important in a long larp (where people need downtime and slow time) but some techniques are useful in short larps. Example techniques include schedules, scripted events, fate play, plot triggers. There are examples of each. NZ larps are most familiar with scripted events (sometimes introduced via NPCs) or plot triggers (contingency envelopes are one version, but also needing a Mcguffin to open another plotline. In computer game terms, a plot trigger is like needing a key to open a door).
  • Structure can be built from the top down (by schedules and scripted events), or the bottom up via character motivation, goals, and conflict (having systems and environments to explore is also used as an example here). Most games use a mix.
  • Structure is there to give the players something to do next (whenever “next” is). General rule that less goals and conflict = more need for a schedule to keep people busy.
  • The usual warning: scripting and schedules give GM control, but needs to be balanced against player desire for narrative freedom. Also need to balance between too much and too little content


  • Starts with a primer on the pros and cons of secrecy and transparency, and when you might want each. TL;DR: secrecy gives mystery and exploration, transparency lets players steer for drama.
  • Distinguishes between two types of transparency. Transparency of expectations is the big picture of what is and isn’t going to be in the larp. Genre is the most basic level, but it could also include content warnings. This sort of transparency lets the characters react in-genre, tell (and discover) stories, and decide whether its a game they want to play at all. Transparency of information is the details: who killed the king, where the bloody knife is etc. Secrecy here creates an information economy (the article uses US “secrets and powers” larps as an example, but its a standard feature in NZ as well). Transparency, as noted above, lets people steer for drama.
  • These two types of transparency give a two-axis model. High-ToE / high-ToI is the Nordic collaborative model. High-ToE / low-ToI is standard theatre-style (which the article recognises is “probably the most common form of larp design around the world”). High-ToE / low-ToI is basicly improv theatre (possibly also Workshoppy Bullshit, in that details improvised in-play are by definition not transparent?).
  • Low-ToE / low-ToI is the “surprise genre shift”, which “can create major breaches of trust”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an example of this which has worked, and there’s a short article immediately after this one in the book about GMs who thought they were doing something cool and instead just pissed off their players by breaking their context. So the takeway here is DO NOT DO THIS. It is not nearly as cool as you think it is.
  • The obvious implication here is that ToE is very, very important (it enables appropriate play, which is why surprise genre-twist games are hazardous)
  • While talking about the need for designers to make conscious design decisions about transparency, uses “what happens if a secret comes out too early or never comes out” as an example. There’s a serious design question here about critical secrets, so you need to think about what information is truly vital for th elarp to reach a conclusion. But usually, its not critical. Sometimes, the answer is “the murderer gets away with it”. Sometimes, its “someone will find it in the next rerun” (there are bits of The Gehenna Memo that players haven’t found in runs I’ve seen). And sometimes, the players deliberately bring things out early because they want more time to explore the consequences of that revelation. And that’s a totally valid choice, and one they get to make.
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  • Some theory at the beginning to distinguish between “plot” (as in plotting; what GMs write), “story” (as in storytelling; what happens during the larp), and “narrative” (as an account; what people say happened afterwards).
  • How is this helpful?
  • There follows a grab-bag of tools and techniques, much of which should be readily recognisable from an NZ perspective.
  • Worldbuilding hints: present the setting like a pyramid, necessary details first. People should only need the top layer to participate, while extra detail can be used by more interested participants.
  • Backstory is there to explain a starting situation, give an immediate direction, or seed plot. It should always suggest action or resolution, otherwise its irrelevant.
  • Brind is very big on consistent metaphysics, and the GMs operating by the same rules as the players. This isn’t just about being “fair”: consistent rules empower the players and let them understand the world and act appropriately.
  • Plot structures: One Big Plot is bad, because it excludes most players. Multiple parallel plots is also bad, because players will connect them, resulting in confusion.
  • Players want agency, so plot needs to allow them to make some sort of meaningful choices.
  • Discussion of linear vs branching vs responsive / sandbox plot. This is a scale of increasing player (plot) agency requiring increasing GM resources.
  • Plots can be structured using a timeline of preplanned events (as triggers or challenges), but notes that plot does not survive contact with the players, so plans need to be flexible and redundant.
  • There’s a very quick guide to characters (there’s another article on this later). Key point: characters - whether PCs or NPCs - need to have access to and interest in at least some of the plots, so they have something to do. Backstories should be relevant: if its not going to be in the larp, then it has no meaning.
  • The baseline plot: “what happens if the players do nothing?” This should be satisfying, and satisfying for the players to change if they want to.
  • A few ways to test for weaknesses: think about whether the players have enough agency and what choices they can realisticly make. Make sure NPC-NPC interactions are not effectively cut scenes or plays. Consider how different players (GNS) will interact with the plot. Then apply the “Dark Lord” test and think about what a super-villain would do: does the plot still “work” in the face of extreme behaviour? (e.g. What if some jerk just kills a key NPC early on?)
  • Plot will not survive contact with the players, but that’s what’s meant to happen, and GMs should accept it. There’s some comments here about the possibility of nudging stuff back on track, or of runtime intervention (easy in a responsive game), but also that in a well-designed game it’ll probably be fine, as the players will be trying to tell their stories and make them coherent and it may just be easier to let them. This raises interesting questions about GMing philosophy - Brind is very hands off - but its beyond the scope of the article.

I wish you stopped calling everything related to improv theatre ‘workshoppy bullshit’. I know you don’t like it and that’s absolutely fine. But some people do find those approaches valuable. It makes no sense to discourage them constantly in this way. The NZ larp scene is small enough as it is, it’d be nice if there were actually room for everyone.

I don’t use the term to refer to improv threatre. Improv theatre techniques are a useful part of the larp arsenal. Its not even about workshop techniques in general. I use it to refer to a specific design failure of hiding under-design by calling it a workshop.

Workshops can be a useful design technique. Effective workshops provide a strong framework for the game (Brick and Water), or flesh out a genre (Will That Be All, Arsenic and Lies), or are used to supplement other information or rehearse and cement relationships. The key point here is that the designer has put some thought into it, into how the larp works and what information the players need to provide to make it work, and the workshop is focused on getting that information.

But there’s a lot of larps around where the word “workshop” is used to hide the fact that the designer has nothing more than a vague idea and isn’t bringing much to the party, where they basicly give the players a blank page and say “here you go, design a game to fit my brilliant idea”. And that is half-arsed, poor design, not doing the job properly. I chiefly see these games online, though - not in the local community (largely due to the historical difference in design tradition).

For fans of the workshop tradition, I’d encourage them to design well. There’s a couple of articles in this book which are relevant: Lizzie Stark’s “How to design a workshop” has a useful section on co-creation, and the need for focus. And there’s a later article by Mo Holkar on “Co-creative design with players” which I haven’t got to yet.

EMERGENT STORIES AND DIRECTED NARRATIVES (Troels Barkholt-Spangsbo & Jesper Heebøll Arbjørn)

  • Player agency vs designer input is a central tension in larp design, and balance points vary wildly by larp culture. Important to have clear communication of expectations so players know what they will be expected to do and to avoid culture clash.
  • Different lenses that can be applied when examining a larp’s structure: narrative vs theme; central narrative vs central situation; collective narratives vs personal narratives (these all really seem to collapse into the two basic design trends described in different ways).
  • Major tension is the trends int he title: emergent stories vs directed narratives.
  • An emergent stories design provides a framework (via rules, metatechniques, genre expectations, scenography, props, and in-play calibration) for players to improvise their own stories
  • Directed narratives use pre-planned plots fed to the players in some way (e.g. character backgrounds, NPCs), providing coherence and a dramatic arc.
  • Directed narratives may only need to affect some key players to give structure, and can be non-intrusive. Examples of specific techniques follow those in “How to structure a larp”. The NZ campaign model of GM-directed plot with an NPC crew is seen as relatively non-intrusive, though it notes that it does not generate story for every participant.
  • Intrusive techniques include fateplay (“do this thing at this time”), explicit GM direction, and scripted scenes. Weirdly, it sees pre-seeded plot as requiring these (or requiring scripted story beats), rather than just a way of pointing the players in an interesting direction and letting them take it from there.
  • The two general approaches can obviously be combined, and most larps use both.
  • Whichever approach is used, the players are ultimately going to be making key story decisions, and GMs need to accept this loss of control and let them do it.


  • Sandbox: the GMs create a world, the players make the stories within it. This requires a lot of players, and is not always satisfying, with boredom, playing with people they already know, and feeling unsupported as common failure modes.
  • Playground: effectvely a sandbox where there’s actually something to do, using interactive tools to explore and build story in-play.
  • A playground needs equipment, and there’s a typology of activities (tasks and “things to do”) vs storymaking (which can be diagetic or non-diagetic)
  • “Storymaking”: when a player uses their OOC preferences, understanding of genre, narrative convention etc to direct character decisions towards story. A specialised form of steering. The act that they steer towards can be diagetic (in the fiction) or non-digetic.
  • Non-diagetic storymaking tools: explicit GM advisors, black boxes / meta rooms (allowing players to play out flashbacks or flash-forwards GMs or each other), calibration breaks (allowing discussion with other players about preferred direction).
  • Diagetic tools: mcguffins (examples are a drug in Just A Little Lovin’ and a magic pool in La Sirena Varada) with player-determined effects allowing significant changes in story direction; player-created news-stories about external events.
  • Tasks (referred to as “events” in other articles) are things like a ball, lesson, or collaborative player activity. They have their own internal narrative logic which suggests play (if you’re going to a ball you probably need to find a dance partner or chaperone), provide opportunities for further co-creation, and can be used to seed further story (an instructor can send you on a fetch plot or quest, or can suggest things which might be interesting in the lesson). GMs need to think about what a task encourages or allows players to do.
  • “Things to do” are small solo or collective diversions like crafts or playing cards which ease boredom while providing opportunities for conversation. Good in and of themselves, but also can be used as a front for introducing new story elements (so to introduce new story with someone, invite them to play croquet…)
  • In NZ, Scandal & Society uses activities to structure play in a natural way, and it works really well.

I always find it fascinating the enormous breadth of “things that we do that we call larp”.

Some of them I look at and say “I can see times when I would enjoy that”.
Some of them I immediately try to incorporate into my own stuff.
Some of it (looking at you, highly experimental flour larp, and any venue that doesn’t include running water!) and I am very sure I do not want. And being sure you do not want is sometimes as informative as knowing what you do want.

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