Being a Monk – Building a Cathedral

Being a Monk – Building a Cathedral

Быть Монахом (Being а Monk) was a larp simulating the life of a Benedictine monastery in the Pyrenees during Holy Week of 1202. The organizers were inspired not only by history and art, but also by their personal experience. The Duende larp held in 2010 in the Urals, where this larp’s organizers were players and part of the monastery team, proved that life in a monastery could provide interesting play. Another source of inspiration was the experience of pilgrimage on the Spanish Way of Saint James (Camino de Santiago). Thus an idea of a larp about a monastery on a pilgrim route was born.

Unity of Place and Time

Brother James preaching to the birds (Play, Irina Abzalova)

Brother James preaching to the birds (Play, Irina Abzalova)

The core idea of the larp was to:

  • show the monastery structure as a hermetic microcosm;
  • make possible a unique and rich gameplay on religious subjects which are seldom touched;
  • make the monastery represent a moment in the history of the whole European religion; the Church’s decline and crisis at the beginning of the 13th century.

The larp was focused on the idea of an individual within the structure, not on the structure itself – that is why the larp is titled Being a Monk, rather than, for instance, “The Monastery”. The Middle Ages were obsessed with the questions of essence and existence, and the existential aspect was crucial to the larp.

Why 1202? The idea of the Church on the edge of change was an important issue for us. The Franciscans and Dominicans were just about to appear, but their presence in the larp would make the answer too simple. The question was where the Western Christian world would go. Thus, the Benedictine monastery became the symbol of the Catholic Church; its inner problems, the distemper of all Christians; and the participants’ answers defined the subsequent destiny of the Church.

Why the Pyrenees? It was important that the monastery was situated on a pilgrimage route, and the Camino de Santiago was chosen. Vivid Basque culture created another plotline, throwing together Christians and pagans.

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose

The key sources of inspiration were Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Postscript to The Name of the Rose. However, the larp was based not on the books themselves, but on their sources: on the archetypal plots and conflicts. A monastery (though in another region than Eco’s), theological treatises, historical facts and legends, Benedictine regulations – it all formed the larp according to the spirit of the sources.

The process of building of Saint James’s Cathedral was a plot-defining event of the entire larp. The major conflict of the larp was a struggle (an ideological one rather than military) between Catholics and several groups of heretics and pagans. All those groups aimed to build the Cathedral according to their ideology. The construction combined an actual building process with the inclusion of the symbols corresponding to the sides of the conflict.

An integrated and hermetic universe was an important part of the game. The monastery was planned as a closed system with no participants outside, and as a self-contained system of in-game knowledge. Not everyone is an expert in the Middle Ages, so there had to be a set of information adequately comprehensive, yet concise. The monastery had to be an entire microcosm for everyone who lived in it. The organizers selected a limited set of in-game information available to any character, and that information was collected in the Library available before the larp and later in-game. Any references to other texts and sources were “prohibited” off-game. Thus the participants could be sure that they had access to everything they could need for fully developed play.

Spirit and Body

Burning a witch (Play, Alexandra Koval)

Burning a witch (Play, Alexandra Koval)

Asceticism, both physical and mental, was another significant part of the game. It did not use any specific larp techniques, but rather authentic monastic practices that have been working very well for many centuries. Among them there was a daily session in which each character spoke about his sins in front of his brothers, as well as an obligatory confession.

The monk’s day was divided into “hours”, and his daily schedule included five prayer services, even nightly ones. Lenten fare was used to influence the physical bodies of the participants. Large pre-game introductory texts of liturgy, history and game rules aimed to submerge the participants in the text traditions of those times, as well as serving as part of the asceticism. Even the larp’s length of three full days was chosen on purpose to immerse the participants into the monastery’s rhythm of life, as the rhythm was a defining element.

Gender issues are unavoidable in such a strongly male-centric game world. Many female larpers wanted to have this unique experience of being a male monk. There is quite an old tradition of crossplay in Russian larp community (mostly with female larpers portraying male characters), but, although the number of crossplaying participants is usually strictly limited, in this case we allowed all interested female players to play monks.

The larp had 19 sets of rules, several simulated crafts and spiritual/heresy regulations known only to some of the participants. The most important rules were devoted to:


These rules contained the doctrines of each of the conflicting groups. Following their dogmas, the characters could gain spiritual power. Obtaining spiritual experience was one of the most important game points for some of the characters. The most advanced characters were especially active in the ideological struggle for the Cathedral. Those who, however, had no interest in this field, were free to avoid this part of the larp.

Crafts/Cathedral construction

These rules connected the Cathedral with spirituality. Three main arts – mosaics, stained glass and murals – were a collective work of the majority of the monks. At a fixed hour, all participants created the concept of a future work, filling the template with symbols, which was an important opportunity for heretics to show what they were thinking. For example, by the end of the larp all the frescos in the Cathedral had turned out heretical (gnostic).

Imagining the Cathedral

Rendering of the draft project (Pre-game, Vasily Zakharov)

Rendering of the draft project (Pre-game, Vasily Zakharov)

We should mention that there are many differences between Russian and Nordic larp traditions. Nordic 360° illusion means “everything or nothing” – if you can’t show something for real, don’t even try. Most Russian larpers consider this a needless limitation. They are ready to accept a certain (and rather substantial) extent of conventionality if it suits a particular larp.

The construction of the Cathedral was therefore first and foremost a symbolic action, and there’s a huge difference between playing in the real cathedral and building a cathedral with your own hands. We thus needed something that could actually be constructed during the larp and by the participants themselves.

Things that inspired us were gothic architecture itself, and the novels The Spire by William Golding and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, both of which were, in their turn, inspired by Salisbury Cathedral in England.

Our limitations when making the project of the Cathedral were the following:

  • The in-game building was to house and protect from rain all the participants (about 100 people) during the Easter mass at the end of the larp.
  • The style and structure of a gothic cathedral needed to be recognizable.
  • It was to be constructed by the participants and NPCs without any help from professional builders.
  • The time allowed for construction was 3 days before the larp plus 3 days during the larp.
  • The use of modern tools was to be minimized during the larp.
  • It was OK not to finish the building, as in reality cathedrals took centuries to build.
  • By the end of the larp the Cathedral was to be decorated inside with frescoes, stained glass windows, mosaics, sculptures and handmade candles.

We decided to construct the building from 25 mm wooden planks, and to cover the walls with cloth and the roof with tarpaulin.

Southern transept (Post-larp, Olga Vasilyeva)

Southern transept (Post-larp, Olga Vasilyeva)

This approach is typical for Russian larps, but this particular project was different from the others not only because of the size of the building, but because it was really much more complicated than anything done by Russian larpers before.

Our main limitation was scarcity of time and people, so the task had to be simplified as much as possible. We therefore decided not to make a second floor in the building, and to play only on the ground.

Initially the 3D-model of Salisbury cathedral was taken from Google Earth and used as a reference. Then 1-millimeter precise project was created in Trimble SketchUp. A professional engineer was called upon to verify the project’s feasibility and safety, and his suggestions were adopted.

Finally, a three-nave basilica with a transept and a tower above the crossing was projected (see the plan). The final dimensions of the building were: 19 meters in length, 8 meters wide and 9 meters high.

In order to speed up the process we decided to assemble the roofs, facades and the tower on the ground and then raise them up as a whole using ropes and poles – yeah, not historically correct for sure, but definitely dramatic. The projected lift weight of the tower (with the spire) was about 111 kg.

Raising the Walls

There was an in-game architect who overlooked the whole process and could take a look (in his personal room where other participants couldn’t see him) at the 3D-model on his laptop. Looking at the model he made sketches by hand on pieces of paper and gave those sketches to the building foremen who oversaw the construction. Foremen further distributed the tasks to workers who performed them using the sketches, and the architect monitored that everything was cut and assembled correctly.

The participants who were actually building the Cathedral therefore didn’t need any specific knowledge or skill except for the ability to climb a stepladder while wearing a frock and using an electric screwdriver. Those who didn’t know how to do it were taught on-site. In this way, everyone whose characters wanted to work got the chance to do so.

To make the building process look more authentic during the larp we invented historical designations for all the materials and instruments we were going to use. We pretended planks were stone blocks, the electric screwdriver was called a brace, etc.


The crucifix, completed (Play, Olga Vasilyeva)

The crucifix, completed (Play, Olga Vasilyeva)

All the interior decoration of the Cathedral was created during the larp. The participant who played the head of fresco painters was a professional painter (the only professional of all of us!) The statues of the Virgin and St. James were made of parts of a torso mannequin and a head mannequin with the addition of some insulating foam, plasticine and paint.

The crucifix was made of plasticine and painted; the crosses above the Cathedral and the baldachin above the crucifix were covered with copper and brass foil respectively. The floor mosaic at the crossing was made of mosaic pieces for bathrooms, on a plywood base. The simple campanile was constructed near the Cathedral and was fitted with brass bells 3 to 20 cm in size, brought by some of the participants from their homes.

The culmination of the larp was to be at the Easter mass at night, so the stained glass windows didn’t seem like a good idea for that: but we desperately wanted to make something with the same visual effect. In the end we suspended a bright hand-made stained glass lamp in the centre of the Cathedral, highlighting the entire building in colorful shades.

As a final note, we should say that we used about 3 m³ of timber, and the budget of the construction was about 2500 euros – thanks to the fact that almost all the expensive tools were borrowed from our friends for free. The photos pretty much say the rest.

Still working at night (Pre-game, Irina Abzalova)

Still working at night (Pre-game, Irina Abzalova)

Being а Monk

Credits: Anastasiya “Domenica” Sarkisyan, Liudmila “Var” Vitkevich, Alexander “Gray” Orlov (Design & Production); Vasily “Jolaf” Zakharov (Cathedral design and construction management).

Date: May 6–10, 2015

Location: Rented summer houses near Moscow, Russia

Duration: 3 days (plus 3 days pre-construction)

Participants: 80

Organizers and Helpers: 20 NPCs and staff

Budget: 8,000 € (30% location rental, 30% Cathedral construction, 30% other stuff)

Participation Fee: 80 € (in advance) to 110 € (last moment)

Game Mechanics: Adapted ritualistics, Spirituality, Crafts, Construction of the Cathedral

Website: (in Russian)
Cathedral report: (in Russian, with lots of photos and videos)

This article was initially published in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2015 published by Rollespilsakademiet and edited by Charles Bo Nielsen, Erik Sonne Georg, et al.

Cover photo: Service (Play, Nataliia Lavrenova).

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Alexander "Gray" Orlov is a Russian larp-player and game-master of central region. Co-organizer of historical and fantasy larps such as “Second Age” (2010) and “Being a Monk” (2015). Philosopher, theologist.
Vasily "Jolaf" Zakharov, born and living in Moscow, is a larp player and organizer since 20 years. Co-organizer of "Exodus" (2016) and "Ticket to Atlantis" (2014). Helps creating electronics for larp in Ostranna Creative Group. Software engineer.