Larp Design Conference 2016 videos

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These are videos from the talks at the larp Design Conference run in Poland this year. I may post commentary on some of them once I’ve watched them, but there’s stuff about character writing, marketing and rerunnability.


Charles Bo Nielsen - Character writing:

  • 1st 15 minutes is everything we know about writing characters.
  • Character dissection: what you emphasise on the character sheet sets expectations of play
  • Write gender neutral, and then add gender as a layer later (pros: avoids bias in roles from writers; cons: more work)
  • 15 minutes of questions at the end: mind-mapping, symmetrical designs, lots of discussions about how you can write gender-neutral characters in highly gendered European languages.

Edin Jankovic Šumar - Getting Shit done the art of actually writing characters

  • really about industralising character production for huge larps in the 100+ player range.
  • suggests seperating writing background from factions from relationships. This poses design problems for those who like plots, relationships and character to form a cohesive whole.
  • Speed & Ease emphasises the value of having a dedicated project manager for huge games, someone whose job it is to organise the writers rather than write themselves. “The Big Picture is a full-time job”. We used this approach in “The Rose and the Dragon”, and it worked well; Ryan has a how-to here.
  • A single person can not edit a game this size themselves, or hold it all in their heads unaided.

Dominik Dracan Dembinski - Designing conflict beyond the pentagram

  • Focuses on how to preload inter-factional conflict into large larps, but not have it go hot immediately.
  • Assumes “play to win”: the factions want to “win” the larp.
  • Implicit assumption of a balanced, symmetrical design, with equal chances for all factions.
  • for multiple factions, its common to use a “pentagram” for faction relationships: 5 factions, each with 2 allies and 2 enemies. This delays open conflict because the structure favours defenders over aggressors. Conflict can be triggered by the arrival of a 6th faction.
  • can work nicely in 3d as a 6-vertex cube, with positive, negative and impossible relationships. Might be able to be used for other polyhedrons.
  • also looks at 3 and 4 faction designs and their consequences.
  • structure can be used within factions as well to produce “fractal design”. (e.g. you have 5 factions each of 5 people, with both the factions and individuals within them having relationships arranged pentagram style)

Graham Walmsley - Forgotten areas of history for larps

  • Graham Walmsley talks about historical games. Specifically games about people we’ve forgotten about: German POWs in WWI, Lumberjills, queer culture in the 1930’s UK, Terps, Will That Be All, Marinara (unmentioned: The Forgotten, Maroons…)
  • Lots of these games are “American Freeforms”: small, scene-based, using Jeep techniques. Often card-based for monetisation reasons (I hate this BTW because its a PITA for GMs). Its a different sort of thing from the larps usually played in NZ.
  • talks about different sorts of historical games: ones that illustrate forgotten people, forgotten attitudes, forgotten relationships.
  • wants people to look at history and write games about what fascinates them.


Simon Brind - Using lies to tell the truth Players agency on epic scale

  • TL;DR: This is about building player agency into larps by changing your GM style. While it never uses the language of tabletop indie games, you can see huge similarities with e.g. the PbtA agenda and principles (see Dungeon World)
  • Talking about fest larp: huge player-driven games e.g. Odyssey and Empire.
  • Stop world-building. Don’t exhaustively describe the world, because it is a waste of time and destroys the ability of the players to co-create the setting.
  • Instead, design metaphysics: the setting’s inner logic. Game causality needs to make sense. Metaphysics shapes how the story works and gives narrative consistency; it makes the story make sense. And it shifts player responses to failure from “the GMs are railroading us” to “what did we do wrong?”
  • Suggests designing your story without a critical path, because the players won’t follow it. If you have setpieces, player agency will ruin them. Railroading is a design choice, but if you’re not doing that, let go.
  • Use of plants to report subtly to GMs about player actions so GMs can prepare. Too unweildy for big games, so need to make sure players know how to initiate action with the GMs and have their actions “seen”. But make sure you pay attention to quieter players too,
  • GMs need to know when the players have done something which will materially affect the plot. But keep in mind that reports are unreliable and could be nth-hand player-created BS.
  • Treat your NPCs as players in terms of agency; let them do what makes sense, and follow the results.
  • The Dark Lord test: “what would the Dark Lord do with this?” - effectively considering plot possibilities.
  • Runtime GMing as “combat narratology”. Which probably would have been a better name for the talk.

2017 Knutepunkt Book

More thoughts about this: one of the traditional modes for a campaign is that of traditional tabletop: the GM comes up with a setting and an epic story over however many episodes, with key scenes and a huge climax. The traditional failure mode for this style is railroading - the characters do something unanticipated, and the GM has to get them “back on track”. The deeper failure mode is the players losing interest in the GM’s story because its not their story; their characters evolve their own stories which pull them somewhere different, rather than to the GM’s epic finale. I think we’ve seen that failure mode in some local campaigns, with players dropping out of final episodes because they don’t like where the story is going, and others having to steer hard to stay involved.

One of the tabletop responses to this comes from indie gaming, and its basicly to empower the players to co-create not just the setting, but also the narrative. Instead of exhaustively defining the world and nailing down every chamber-pot, you have a rough sketch, leave gaps, and explicitly ask the players to do it for you. And instead of having a pre-planned story arc, you have a vague initial situation and a few leading questions for the players, who get to make up who the antagonists are and their motivations. We’ve seen larps which have done this locally as well, notably Kingdom and The World That Is. They’ve worked well, but they’re small. Obviously with bigger games you’re going to have problems with prompting everyone, coherence and limited GM attention, but the narrative principle of “play to find out what happens” is the take-away here.

The metaphysics suggestion is good. One of my favourite tabletop rpgs is Ars Magica, a crunchy early '90’s game about medieval wizards. One of the reasons I like it is because it explicitly provides a consistent set of rules for magic, letting the players know exactly what they need to do in order to achieve a specific effect and freeing them to be proactive. The GM can then simply present them with problems and let them figure out how to solve them and what consequences they are willing to bear. Its easy to see how this can work in a larp.

I’m not sure what the current crop of campaigns are doing for narrative design. Anyone want to chip in?


Mikołaj Wicher - Running NPCs at larp with player generated content

  • Some practical advice about running a crew-room, in the context of games where events are player-rather than GM initiated.
  • College of Wizardry or New World Magischola allowed the players to initiate plot by talking to the GMs.
  • Gather info pre-event on what sorts of things players want to happen.
  • Events get put onto “call-sheets” (stolen from film-making), laying out what needs to happen when. The process cna be automated with mail-merge.
  • Players need to know how they can initiate an event in-game. GMs need to be prepared to suggest changes up-front and curate for safety.
  • Everything goes on a call-sheet. If its not on one, it doesn’t happen. Crew-room gets a whiteboard with event details, times, and who are filling the roles, including which crew member is responsible for the event. GMs need to delegate and avoid micromanagement.
  • The crew need to know how the system works; need workshops on basic skills (e.g. makeup; costuming; SFX like smoke and lights); need to be trusted and feel empowered.
  • make sure to take care of crew safety, including fatigue and mental health as well as physical issues. Make sure people rest.
  • Q&A includes discussion of follow-up scenes and connecting plots

Bartek Zioło - Designing a blockbuster larp for non larpers Case study of The Witcher School

  • Witcher School is a weekend-long 110-player game based on the “Witcher” computer games and officially backed by the game publishers. 75% of participants had never larped before, but 70% of them came back to future runs and 80% tried other larps. Blockbusters make great recruitment tools!
  • Marketing: calling it an “adventure” sells tickets; “larp” doesn’t (initially).
  • Don’t use anti-immersion mechanics (e.g. hit points) as they are not attractive to newcomers. Use gesture/shout-based “magic”, and NPC’s briefed on reacting to it.
  • Teach people something (how to fight with a sword). This also provides a scheduling framework for the game, so new players know what to do.
  • Low barriers to entry: Witcher School provided costumes and props as well as accomodation and food.
  • Meet the expectations set by your material (in a Potter game, there must be magic and lessons; in BSG there must be Cylons. In the Witcher apparently there must be sex, or at least people giving you cards)
  • Provide clear in-game help: group mentors to tell them what to do, known locations to go to for medical attention or emergencies.
  • Let players make the decisions (even if it doesn’t make sense in-setting).
  • Photograph it all, because hot photos sell tickets.
  • Explain everything in a pre-game workshop, because new larpers don’t know the meta-rules of larp.
  • Let the players add to the story and initiate scenes.


Claus Raasted - Rerunnability

  • Think about the specific requirements of your larp: location, players, timing, team, budget, SFX. These all create dependencies. Rerunnability means firstly knowing these dependencies, and possibly minimising them. You should think about these things for any larp, but they are particularly salient if you plan to re-run.
  • Think about characters: are they prewritten, player-written, or a mix?
  • Think about story and secrets: will they be the same or changed to avoid spoilers.
  • Think about workload: running a larp is a lot of work and burns people out. Can you minimise workload?
  • Transparency - not having secrets - solves the spoiler issue. Sandbox style (rather than a plot train) solves the story issue and makes it feel new each time.
  • Making a larp newcomer friendly makes it easy to recruit and retain new players.
  • CoW and Fairweather manor use campaign-style continuing storylines (in that the effects of earlier larps affect later ones).
  • Flexible characters with large scope for player interpretation also provide novelty.
  • Providing different types of characters means different play experiences and novelty for repeat players.
  • Logistics: re-using venues is a lot easier than learning the ins and outs of a new venue every run.
  • Having the same core team for every run means everyone knows their jobs.
  • Write things down, so you know what to do next time.
  • Rerunning a game means PR is more important. Bad stories about your larp can destroy your future audience.
  • Write a design document, explaining structure, schedule, player logistics. This is aimed at the players, but it also helps the organisers.
  • Document the first run, so it can advertise all the future ones.
  • Claus designs one-offs for re-runs both for accessibility and to avoid the inherent problems of campaigns.

Jonathan Thurtell International Kulture Klub - Learning from our differences

  • An intro to “what is UK larp”. UK larpers are tribal, define what they do by system or setting, not style of larp.
  • Divides UK larp into “mainstream” (contact & MET-style) vs “indy” (including UK freeformers). Indy larps are where the innovation happens, but are a niche within the UK simply in terms of community size. In the UK, Nordic larp is very much a niche within the indy category, and have a reputation for elitism which is a barrier to entry.
  • Nordic larp is the opposite of mainstream UK larps on a number of axes eg rules, immersion, competitiveness.
  • UK larp is the way it is because of foundation effect - it was started by people wanting to do D&D for real.
  • Thinks the UK scene needs change. UK larp probably quite receptive to lighter rules (this has been a design trend for a while), and highly receptive to better immersion.