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What is larp?

Spinning off from the previous post, what is the difference between ‘larp’ and similar but ‘not-larp’ activities?

- “Two people read a script and then play out that scene as fictional characters, following that script”

I think most people would accept this is drama / theatre, not larp.

now consider:

- “Two people agree the general direction of the scene but not the exact words, and then play out that scene as fictional characters following that script”

In my view, this is still theatre, not larp.  In some theatre traditions, this is an established norm. For example, in Shakespeare’s time comedy characters would improvise their dialogue rather than rely on the playwright. To use another example, if one stage actor forgets a line, other actors will improvise to keep the play going around it. When this happens in a stage play, it’s still theatre and not larp.

Despite this, the Nordic larp tradition has been evolving in this direction, particularly with the fashion for ‘act breaks,’ which creates opportunity for this kind of scene planning.  (e.g. Inside Hamlet, Demeter).

now consider:
- “Two people agree the starting point of a scene (‘who the characters are, why they are here, what they want’ to use the key questions for Babylon 5) but not the resolution (‘where are you going?’). They then play out that scene as fictional characters, and let the ficiton unfold naturally (‘let the dice fall where they may’ as the ‘knights of the dinner table’ comic puts it).

To my mind, this is larp (or role-play at least; larp requires elements such as embodiment). It is not theatre. However, in and of itself this would also include certain improv drama traditions (comedelle de la arta (sp) being the version of this in Shakespeare’s time). The difference between such improv drama and larp is that larp focuses on building a diegesis (a shared fictional setting / sub-creation), where as improv drama will disregard it to create drama. That is, role-play is defined by actually playing a character role in a fictional setting, not just using the character as a puppet to create drama. It may even look the same at first glance, the essential essence (the internal psyche of the characters) is missing.

What appears to have been happening in recent years is the concept larp becoming diluted, partly deliberately as part of a tactical move to raise the value of the term ‘larp’ by applying it more widely.

Since I believe (consistent with academics in the creative literature discipline) that a well-constructed diegesis will produce stronger drama as an emergent property than manual design by players (or, evolution vs intelligent design) I think the move towards scripting scenes is ultimately a developmental blind alley; a dead-end that doesn’t really lead to improved development. The more practice that goes into construction of diegesis (‘exercising the power of sub-creation’), the better we get at doing so. Second-order design (designing a setting that produces narrative) is more worthwhile than first-order design (trying to design narrative directly), whether that's a GM railroading, or players railroading their chararaters.

This battle has already been fought in creative writing studies and is ongoing, but the simulationists are winning (as far as I understand it; granted I only studied creative writing to undergrad level, so possibly someone deeper in the subject knows better). We can also see this in the film industry, with the rise of ‘cinematic universes’ across films. Post-Tolkien (who gives us the term 'sub-creation'), plenty of modern writers understand they are building worlds, not just writing stories. It’s a lack of interface with modern literature studies / creative wiring studies that means larpers are going the other way, along with a rejection of diegesis being an error caused by the rejection of gamism (coherent diegesis supports both gamism and simulationism, but rejecting gamism is not a reason to reject diegesis).

There is a point of debate I have not touched on here over whether larp should be considered a distinct category, or a sub-category/type of theatre. That doesn’t really affect the position here – the logic still applies over whether the larp is a sub-category or not. I personally prefer to place it as a sub-category of ‘ludic role-playing,’ alongside other activities where people play character roles in a fictional setting; that is, a sibling to MUDs rather than to theatre; I’m still reflecting on this. However, this distinction made here woul move some activites that some people are calling larps (wrongly, since they literally do not involve roleplay) into being a sub-category of theatre.

There is another point of debate about whether the presence of (or focus towards) an external audience (or an imagined one, in the case of rehearsal) makes the difference between larp and theatre. I have considered that in the past, but currently I’m leaning towards the difference discussed here, between following a ‘script’ or lack thereof.

Brain Web

90s VHS interactive games

I got reminded about the 'VHS interactive board games' from back in the 90s (I played Atmosphere at the time, but there were plenty of others). With hindsight, it's interesting to view them as trying to push the transmedia / interaction at a point when the techology wasn't quite ready for it, and that idea of physical playing pieces interacting with technology coming back round now.
Essentially there were board games with a video counting down a timer, with interruptions from an onscreen character and a 'game wins, you lose' situation if the timer runs out. IIRC, they looks like they should have been designed as co-op (vs. the game, like pandemic), but game design (and perhaps US tastes) were such at the time they still had 'someone wins' with often limited player interaction.
For those who need more Vader in their life after Rogue One, here is the footage from the Star Wars interactive game.
(also interesting see how the timers in the game were actually rigged - they claim to be 60 minutes, but actually count down fast and are closer to 50. Interesting to consider as a dramatic technique.)
Brain Web

a larp by any other name would smell just as sweet

Lately there been another discussion on whether high profile larps should be called larps (promoting and adding value to that term) or another term, perhaps situated it as a type of theatre. Some people prefer to apply to the term 'larp' broadly to rasie it's value, but that is also eroding it's meaning (if they succeed, it will become a largely meainingless buzz word, like 'immersive').

Coming at this from a slightly different angle, I've been in discussions on this topic earlier this year in which people referred to such high profile event as 'College of Wizardy' as not-larps; shorthand for 'on the spectrum of cosplay to larp, they are closer ot the cosplay end than other events'

The crucial point is that role-play (tabletop and live) refers to playing characters in a shared diegetic space, with (some attempt at) causality and coherence. Events with the playstyle such as CoW (or indeed Inside Hamlet) explicitly do not even attempt to achieve causality and coherence (and actively violate it). For this reason, formally they are not actual role play events. (which does not mean they are 'bad' or 'not fun'). In Tolkien's terms, they are not exercising the power of sub-creation.

Causality : cause and effect appropiate to the setting applies.

Coherent : logical and consistent.

On a related note, to my mind this is why adult roleplay is of a fundemental different quality to child's pretend play - (young/most) children lack the power of sub-creation, the ability to imagine internally consistent coherent worlds. In pretend play, the setting is constantly in flux, in a way it is not with adult character role-play. For this reason, these are different things, not the same thing of different sizes.

Larp as a medium has a natural predisposition to support this, because it makes use of physicality and 'distributed processing'. For example, court intrigue is extremely different to simulate in tabletop (the GM has to track every character's knowledge, beliefs, goals, etc. and their off-screen interactions with each other) but much easier to do in larp (each player just plays their character, and events unfold naturally).  Design that disregards causality is actually working against the strength of the form.

(Note: I'm dealing with definations here, not how you should advertise or explain your event).

For that reason, I think it's correct to not refer such events that purposely disregard casuality and coherence as larps, and instead using some other term. 'Interactive theatre' would be good, but now has other meanings attached to it. I might suggest 'first person theatre' or 'live action pretend play'.

Brain Web

Fastaval 2016, part 2

Friday evening:
- played Legends of Camelot, a very open-ended scenario. Interesting mechanic of picking conflicts (e.g. freedom v. duty, old gods vs new) and then placing characters of that axis (a la the political compass test). It did define the genre (heighened / shakespearian) but not the setting (is it 'historical' 6th century camelot or high medieval camelot?) Good, but not great. I would critque it for being 2 hours of set up for 2.5 hours of play.

- in the morning I demo'ed Midsummer again (another player brought a copy after playing)
- I got another play session in on Artemis. This time they had added a slight hidden agenda element (the captain and crew wanted 'profit with a clear conscience' but the engineer who controlled all the power wanted 'profit regardless'; the mirror of this for the other ship).
- I then played the story game 'Dancing across the Universe,' about a generational starship. Some good ideas ad interesting mechanics, but the non-gamers (or, non-board gamers) struggled with it. It also had the issue of trying to discuss a matter to reach a decision where some 'resources' are not directly in-fiction, so it's unclear how to refer to them. Need a slightly longer (but partly that was down to the player group. I'd also praise it for including religion, something I suspect many (nordic) designers would have overlooked.
- See Me Now. A scenario about school friends going up and exploring genderqueer elements (based on the suggested scenes, it seemed to expect to include trans significantly, but also included sexuality).  Again, I'd critique the excessive (2 hour) set up, and personally dislike playing very young children (the characters start at age 6-7). Characters only get 3 scenes to represent 20 years of life, so I think would have benefitted from less characters having more scenes (it's written for 4-6; we played with 4, but I think 3 would have been better). One interesting twist in our group was a Russian player decided to play a 'straight women having multiple honest short term relationships' feeling that was transgressive/'queer'. I felt the scenario needed more alibi to play on the opressive element (e.g. parent telling a character not play with the toys of the wrong gender, school teasing, etc.); it didn't have enough of alibi-building, which contributed to play turning into a dreamland where everything is accepted without social consequences (and players only wanting to play supportive scenes, and no one really wanting to explore the trans angle).

- there is one scenario slot for tabletop and story games at Fastaval but few people do it on sunday. I've played in this slot in the past but this year I spent the time socialising and arranging another game of Midsummer.
- Later today after dinner is the gala reception and awarding of the Otto awards, then the bus back to CPH on monday.

So, in total I got in 8 scenaros for me this year (Artemis included), plus 3 demo slots of my own game. That's more than most aim to get in at Fastaval and on-par for me so quite happy (even with skipping one due to illness and not playing on sunday). This is one reason I come to Fastaval rather than other scenario convnetions, that's it's possible to get so many games in (travelling for 3-4 scenarios does not seem worthwhile)

Good news is my card game Midsummer has been shortlisted / nominated for the best board game award. I think the best scenario I played this year was Old Friends, and I'm glad it' been shortlisted for multiple Otto awards.

Fastaval has been doing what is possible mid-event to take the nut issue more seriously, and I've gradually been feeling better. I'm aware one other person needed medication for a different allergy as well.

Brain Web

Fastaval 2016, part 1

I'm currently in Denmark for Fastaval, the national 'semi-live' / freeform convention which runs weds-mon over easter each year.

General update on how its going:
- After getting here via the fastabus from CPH on weds, I got into a session of the spaceship simulator artemis off the reserve queue, with two ships (10 players in total) playing / competing a heavily custom mission.
- Thursday morning I played Jason Moringstar's 'Old Friend' game about a seance / possession / ghost hunting. Very good, despite playing it with 4 players (was aimed for 5) and I feel it would also work as a 2 player game.
- Thursday afternoon I demo'ed my hidden role card game Midsummer (two tables of 5 players each) which was well recieved. This is my entry for Fastaval this year, nd I also went to the designer's reception.
- Thursday evening I played 'Death of Playwright,' playing out scenes from Shakespeare's life guided by some of his characters.
- Friday Morning, I would have played Glitch Iteration, but wasn't feeling well and slept instead.
- Friday afternoon,  I played Franenstein's Creatures, which needed a lot more development. Credit to the presenter for trying to fix the scenario which helped a lot. Fortunately it was very short, with 45 mins playtime


I'v got another scenario this evening, and a full load with  another demo of Midsummer and three more scenarios to play tomorrow.

I've also completed the 'build a board game' contest; get given a bad published game, and design a new game with the components while here.

The low point for me is fastaval massively increaing the amount of nuts this year (selling big bags in the cafe), and a failure to remove the open bowl from the designer's reception when I asked causing me to leave early. I've been graduallly getting sicker over the last 24 hours because of this, and it's hard to get Danes to take the issue seriously. I would consider this a 'very good' year so far at Fastaval, if it wasn't for this issue.

Brain Web


5.5 of 7 months into my time here:

Academic update:
- my hypertext paper got rejected (only heard this week). Obviously this is disappointing; possibly it reflects my urgency to submit it so early into my time here. I'll do more work on it and resubmit
- My theory paper is going slowly but gradually progressing.
- still waiting to hear on my gamergate paper, submitted to a conference.
- my good news is I've got another 6 months of funding to progress on my research.

Other projects/events:
- A couple of weeks ago I co-organised my new Nordic Larp Price of Inspiration . We are reasonably happy with it, but will work on sharpening some points for a planning rerun in Finland in November (no date set yet).
- After that I played 'end of the line,' the first 'official' larp from White Wolf. Lot of good intense relationship play.
- I went to the Solmukohta conference in the helsinki-stockholm ferry. As usual, lot of good programme items and atmosphere.
- I've finished editting the deluxe edition of my Green Book. It's avaiable here: and should be on in a couple of months.

Future term projects:

- Off to Demark next week for the freeform convention Fastaval, presenting my card game Midsummer.
- Moving back to the UK in early May, then going to France in Mid-May to play a larp about the 1918 Ottomon court crumbling. Restarting work at the end of May.
- No further plans to write another original larp at the moment. Instead, We'll be focusing on revising and rerunning Price of Inspiration.
- We been approached about co-organising an international rerun of a larp about a christian cult (no supernatural elements), possibly aiming for early next year. Again, it's written and run before.
- I'm remote mentoring one of my friends in organising a German Langugage run of Pan in Germany, later this year.

Brain Web

Tallinn larp festival

Tallinn larp festival

Last weekend I went over to the Tallinn larp festival. (Tallinn is 2.5 hours on the ferry from Helsinki). Tallinn itself is well worth a visit, with cheap prices, great food, lots of tourist locations and a medieval ‘old town.’

It’s a ‘budget’ festival, with four scenario slots, basic food provided and the option to crash at the location for 25 euro. (personally we stayed in a hostel in the centre instead).

Scenarios I played:

  • The evaluation room. A prototype/sketch/’prologue playtest’ of the forthcoming Nordic apr the solution. A somewhat surreal psychological experiment, where characters are not told what they are assessed on. An interesting approach, but I felt it was a little longer than it should have been for what it was, and that it needed a bit more structure initially (as per my ‘tight-to-loose’ design rhetoric).

  • Switch – politicians of the future. More of a workshop exercise than a larp, arguing multiple positions on a topic. Would have been better if grounded in serious issues rather than comedy proposals, and with a a little bit more character added (e.g. the political compass test matrix.

  • I ran my old depression scenario Black Dog with 4 players.

  • White Death. Glad to have played this big Nordic classic. A non-verbal black box scenario about humans squabbling over dreams, food and faith before gradually dying in the cold and becoming ‘white ones’ (ghosts? Angels?). Not my usual style of play, but I really enjoyed this.

This was the first year of the festival, and I hope it runs again. I’d recommend it to locals interested in this style, and to people who can combine it with tourism in Tallinn. If I somehow end up in Finland when it runs, I’d go again.
Brain Web

Larp : Legion


A week ago I went to Czech for Legion, a larp about soldiers and hangers-on on the Czech legions marching across Siberia at the end of the first world war, being hounded by Trotsky’s red Russians who had turned on them.  The pretty amazing photo are going round facebook at the moment.

Legion was one of the best larps I’ve played. Some comments:

  • The larp was almost ‘pay and play’ with made-to-fit costume and blank firing guns provided. That part really worked, in a way it hasn’t with larps that advertised themselves as such.

  • This was an ‘endurance larp;’ we walked 28km over two days in snow.  Normally I think it better for players to be physically comfortable to give more energy to the play, but this worked really well. General fatigue eroding the will the go on was a part of the experience, and marching on through the snow with enough content to keep internal thought bubbing over was really strong. It did bring home to me my own health issues, since there is no way they can not bleed into play in a game like this.

  • Some players felt the background/brieing was too long, but there was nothing in there I would have liked to cut. Knowing about the bias view of history and having a vague knowledge of old folk heroes helped locate the characters firmly as Czechs. Personally I struggled with too many contacts there was no way I was going to mentally hold 17 character relations in my head.  A smaller number of strong relations would have worked better.

  • There was enough interpersonal plot to play on, and a good casting process to fit people to characters.

  • The plot writing style was the ‘train’ approach. Characters are on a fixed track and have to stop at each station on the line. However, they have a great deal of freedom what they do while at each station, so player agency is high.

  • Players were issued their character’s ‘diary’ which included suggestions for what to do at each station. In my case, these were very open suggestions, such as a topic to discuss. This seemed to work well, and did push plots to move rather than being stagnant. (admittedly, this removes agency if a character is deliberately trying to stagnate a plotline. e.g. to bury a past scandal). Some players left it was too railroaded, so possibly their diaries were more directive than mine.

  • One big player difference that arises in larps like this is between players that have done national (military) service (which some Nordic countries have for men, and optional for women) and those like me which haven’t.

The organisers are doing more runs and have asked us to avoid spoilers, so I’m avoiding saying too much about the actual plot.

I could write a lot more, and I hope others do more formal articles about this larp. There are 5 czech language reruns planned this year (and 6 already last year), and not confirmed plans of another international run in the future.

Brain Web


4 of 7 months into my time here in Tampere. January has been a tough month here, with extreme cold (-27 at the lowest point) even by Finnish standards.

Current status:

  • My hypertext experiment paper (paper 2 in my thesis) is still going through a review process

  • My gamergate paper got rejected by one journal, but is now resubmitted as a conference paper

  • My theory paper (paper 1) has been progressing slowly, but I’m going to focus on it this week and present it as work-in-progress to the group next week.

  • I completed the progress report for the funding body and applied for a further 6 months of funding which I’m waiting to hear on.

I’ve had trips away for the last two weekends, and staying in Helsinki for the few days inbetween. Seperate blog posts to follow. Currently writing this on the way back to Tampere.

Everything is on course for the larp I’m co-organising in just under 5 weeks time.

Plan for February:

  • Finish the theory paper and have a first attempt to submit it.

  • Deal with the response to the response to my hypertext paper when it comes through.

  • Finish the larp writing.

  • Prepare to present my academic work at Solmokhota.

  • Write an ‘example turn’ doc for my card game Midsummer. This is mainly for the Fastaval judges who assess the game just off the written materials, but I expect to also put it up as a free download alongside the rulebook.

  • (low priority if I get time) Reformat my three scenario books and other related material into one big hardback book.

I’ve been invited on a Finnish larper social cruise next weekend, and will spend a few days doing tourism later in the month when my brother visits Finland.
Brain Web

academic update

Two months into my scholarship here in Tampere.

- While here, I came up with the idea of using a choose-your-own-adventure story set in Westeros to research player-character identification experimentally. I've now submitted the paper based on this experiment to a journal. I'm pleased to have found statistically significant findings.
- I've also developed a second paper, a thematic analysis of constructions of 'gamer' by gamergate. This is something of a side project and not part of my thesis itself. I've also submitted this to a journal.

So, two papers from scratch in two months. I'm waiting to hear back if they get accepted (and what scale of revisions are needed), but very happy with that.

I've got one further grant application submitted and pending, and if that doesn't happen I've got another small one to work on applying for, which I'll try to do in December.

Plan for December:
- revisit the theory based paper I mentioned previously, to develop it further. Hopefully doing this will generate further hypothesis to test for other papers to work on next term
- write a single Solmokhota article; a retrospective on my series of psychodrama games over the last 5 years

I've submitted a proposal for a short programme item for Solmokhota, to present the research I've done while here.

Side project:

- The larp I'm co-designing is coming on well. We are fully booked, with a lot of repeat players from my previous larps. I need to get the character writing work finished off in December as well, but it's over half complete already.  Team meeting next week to work on the project together.