Pre-production in larps – A Practical Guide

Pre-production in larps – A Practical Guide

This article on larp pre-­production is based on my experience as both a video game designer and larp designer. The concepts described are based on good practices in the video game industry, but are definitely applicable to larps and other games in general.

How can we define pre-­production? In the broadest sense, pre-­production is everything that we need to do before we can start making content for the game. You can think of pre-­production as an exploratory and preparatory phase. This is where you ask questions and look for answers; where you get creative and explore different ideas.

Pre-­production is much broader than just creating the concept for your larp. It’s also testing the concept to see if it’s actually feasible, and gathering all the building blocks needed to make a successful game.

Imagine that your larp is a building. Pre-­production is not only sketching the floor plans, but also trying out different materials to test their strength and to see how they work with each other; and then gathering all the materials needed. It’s also asking yourself questions like what is the purpose of the building, how many people will it hold, and so on. Before you start laying bricks, you need to answer a lot of questions –­ and that’s what pre-­production is for.

Why Should I Pre-­produce?

Designing complex game mechanics, such as alchemy, and then testing them is a great use of the pre-production phase. Photo courtesy of LubLarp.

Designing complex game mechanics, such as alchemy, and then testing them is a great use of the pre-production phase. Photo courtesy of LubLarp.

Pre-­production is a fun process. It’s the part of making a game where you can get really creative, experiment and test your ideas. It’s also the part when you lay your groundwork for further development. Good pre-­production will bear fruit and let you make a good game with less effort. Inadequate pre-­production will add a lot of work and sleepless hours to your project –­ and that’s in the best-case scenario.

But do you really need to pre-­produce larps? Yes, because either we want it or not, we all do it. It’s a natural part of the development process. In many cases, pre-­production is very short, based on intuition, done unconsciously, and intertwined with the production phase: but it’s still there. Thus we shouldn’t shun pre-­production, but instead embrace it. Mastering the pre-­production process and doing it consciously simply gives you a greater chance to succeed.

What Pre-­production Isn’t

Pre-­production is all about exploring your idea. This exploration comes at a cost, however. During pre-­production, you’ll make mistakes and even throw out most of your work. That is an entirely acceptable part of the design process. Making mistakes at pre-­production is cheap, but you need to follow the basic rule:

Don’t make content for the game during pre-­production.

Imagine you skipped pre-­production and started writing characters. Halfway through, you realized that several characters don’t fit the theme and mood of the larp. Do you scrap those characters? Rewrite them? But that’s several pages and many hours of work! If only you had written down the concepts for each character and checked if they fit the theme and mood before you started proper writing. Scrapping a character concept before writing a 5-­page character sheet would be so much better…

The example above contains an extra lesson: don’t assume that the things you do during pre-­production will end up in the finished game. Things in pre-­production change constantly, and you need to accept that. Good ideas are thrown away to make room for better ones, or because they don’t fit with the rest of the larp.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t write drafts, design mechanics, or do other things you normally do when creating a larp. But you have to remember that your goal at pre-­production is to verify ideas. You should think of it as prototyping.

Prototyping

Prototyping is the act of creating makeshift game elements (for example character roles, game mechanics and systems) to test a concept. In some cases, a prototype will be a template or model that you can replicate, or learn from.

Prototyping might sound unfamiliar to many larp designers. In fact, it has been used in larp design for some time now –­ perhaps not as intensively as it should have been. Real-life examples of prototyping in larps include:

  • Writing a draft character to create a template (character sheet) for all other characters
  • Pitching the game to your target audience (for example using a design document), observing their reaction and gathering feedback, and then re­writing the design document.
  • Showing specific game elements or mechanics to outsiders to see if they understand them easily
  • Testing complicated mechanics (such as combat) in difficult conditions (e.g. with a large number of players present), to see if they work smoothly
  • Testing out props, special effects or makeup before implementing them in the game
  • Running an improvised larp during a creative session, to test an idea
  • Running stand­alone workshops, before implementing them in another larp
  • Testing a single scene/act taken out of a game that lasts multiple scenes/acts
  • Running a scaled­ down version of your larp (e.g. 10 instead of 50 participants)
  • Running a pilot game for a series of larps

As you see, prototyping is any situation where you make a mock version of the final design just to test it out.

Prototyping is rarely elegant and you need to accept that. It’s often done hastily, with very rough drafts, unbalanced systems, story full of plot holes, and a lot of important parts missing. You prototype to move from theory to practice as fast as you can, because that’s the best way to learn about your game.

Prototyping can be (and often is) a repeatable process. You make the prototype, test it, get feedback, and move on to another part of the game; or repeat the process to get better results.

You can, for example, quickly make a mock version of your game mechanics without balancing the numbers, and then test the game mechanics to see if they make any sense. Only when they do, you move to the next phase:­ balancing the numbers. If they don’t, you tweak the mechanics or scrap them and look for alternatives.

Such prototyping is an example of iteration in the pre-­production phase.

Iteration

If the vision of the game gets blurry, materials created during pre-production will help you get back on the track. Photo courtesy of LubLarp.

If the vision of the game gets blurry, materials created during pre-production will help you get back on the track. Photo courtesy of LubLarp.

Iteration is a technique of developing and delivering incremental components to reach the desired vision of the larp. A single iteration results in a conveniently sized but complete chunk of the game. Multiple iterations recurse (repeat the process while basing on previous iterations) to compose a complete larp.

Iteration in practice requires dividing the whole project into feasible chunks of work that can be completed in a reasonable, set amount of time. After each iteration, you should have a working (but not necessarily finished or ideal) piece of the game that you can evaluate in some way. Further iterations will build and improve upon the former.

One important advantage of iteration is that when the deadline comes, you won’t have any important features missing. Some of them might be unfinished or half­-baked, but the game as a whole should at least be playable. And achieving playability as quickly as possible should be one of your primary goals.

A great example of iteration in larp design is the seven phases of character creation, which is a part of the seven-step model described in the Solmukohta 2016 book, Larp Realia[1]Seven Phases for Character Creation, Anders Gredal Berner, Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted Herløvsen. Larp Realia, p.73.. The idea behind the technique is to make sure that all characters have gone through phase one of character creation process before starting phase two, and so on.

Test­ Run

The Holy Grail of pre-­production is the creation of the ultimate prototype ­– a first playable version of your game, that can be run for people outside your design group. It won’t be a finished and polished game –­ rather, a rough draft with all the core elements and characteristics you want to test in place. Running the first playable version for people outside your group is the best way to resolve questions left unanswered during pre-­production.

Making a playable version of the whole game is important, because sooner or later you’ll reach a point, where you can only improve the game by making subsequent runs, analyzing feedback and implementing changes.

Experimental Larp

If you take the technique of prototyping to the extreme, you’ll come up with the idea of a whole larp created for the purpose of testing new ideas and concepts.

Experimental larps aren’t exactly new, but the name “experimental” is often a misnomer –­ larps are often considered experimental when they introduce an innovative, bold (perhaps transgressive) technique or piece of design. But introducing a new technique isn’t everything –­ the core purpose of an experimental larp is to test a piece of design and verify if it’s worthy or not. If a new technique is introduced not for testing purposes, but, for example, to shock or disturb the player, or for artistic self­-expression, then the larp isn’t, strictly speaking, an experiment.

This also means that a good experimental larp should possess means to evaluate the quality of the innovative piece of design. This might be done with thorough observation of the game, a good debriefing, player interviews, surveys and other techniques for gathering feedback after the game.

When designing an experimental game, you should consider removing as many unknown factors as possible. Make the game with familiar players, in a familiar environment, with familiar mechanics. The only unknown factors in your larp should be the techniques you want to test. Be aware that testing many new features in a single experiment might prove difficult, because this increases the amount of unknown elements in the game.

What Else to Do in Pre-­production

So far, we’ve covered such big concepts as prototyping, iterative design, test­-running the game and making experimental larps. Those are certainly important tools and ideas, but there are a lot of other things that can be done in pre-­production, such as:

  • Doing the required research, including reading on game theory
  • Searching for inspirations and references
  • Analyzing past games with similar design elements
  • Figuring out what is the core of the game, and what is superficial
  • Scouting for prospective locations
  • Designing and testing core game mechanics
  • Designing groups (factions)
  • Drafting relations between characters
  • Experimenting with character sheet design
  • Writing a draft character
  • Checking if the game concept is feasible

The Goals of Pre-­production

In the broadest sense, at the end of pre-­production, you should have a good understanding of how your game works, what is needed to finish your larp, and what the production will look like.

You should also:

  • Have a clear vision of what the game should be
  • Have an understanding how the finished game should look like, and what features it should have
  • Answer as many questions about the core design of the game as possible
  • Identify priorities –­ what is core to your game, and what isn’t
  • Have answers for core questions: eg. if the location is crucial for the game, you’ll need at least one promising, prospective location that can host your game
  • Have a sensible estimate of the resources needed to finish the project
  • Evaluate what resources you can commit to the project
  • Be able to set specific tasks and milestones for the production phase
  • Have templates (like character sheets) and models you can replicate
  • Figure out efficient procedures and the workflow for your team
  • Have it all written down in a design document that will help your team, especially all the newcomers to your project

Killing the Project

Mapping out characters and their relations is a great way to check if everyone is connected to the story. Photo courtesy of LubLarp.

Mapping out characters and their relations is a great way to check if everyone is connected to the story. Photo courtesy of LubLarp.

In some cases, you’ll have a hard time deciding whether to commit assets (time, money, workforce) to producing the game. Sometimes you’ll lose motivation. The end of pre-­production is your last call to kill the project, if you think making it isn’t feasible. Don’t be afraid to do it –­ killing larps at this point is perfectly fine. You’ll probably regret all the assets you’ve committed to the pre-­production process: but think how much you actually save by not making a sub­par larp, or cancelling the game in the middle of production. The better you become at pre-­production, the less larps you’ll need to kill; or, at least, you’ll reach the decision to kill the game faster.

Moving to the Production Phase

Only when you successfully end pre-­production can you start making the game. The production phase covers all the necessary work needed to complete the larp: recruiting players, writing characters, crafting props, etc.

During production, you should avoid changing the project, experimenting with the design and devising new features. Instead, you should stick to what you’ve learned during pre-­production and keep yourself focused on the vision of the game that you came up with earlier. Create only the elements that support the core design of the game. Everything excessive should be scrapped.

After scrapping all the unnecessary or faulty elements of the game, if you were using iteration to develop a first playable version, you can iterate further on all the promising bits of the game, to smoothly move from pre-­production to production.

Summary

As I have shown earlier, pre-­production is an essential, preparatory step in larp design, that is best done consciously. It shouldn’t be intertwined with actual production, because pre-­production is based on rough prototyping as quickly as possible, and a lot of ideas and chunks of work done in pre-­production are discarded along the way. This is because the role of pre-­production isn’t making the game, but gathering knowledge about the game you’re going to make. With the use of iteration, you can quickly assemble a draft version of the larp; that draft should be test­run to gather feedback unobtainable in any other way. In extreme cases, you can design an experimental larp to test new techniques in a familiar environment. At the end of pre-­production, you should have a good understanding of your game and know everything needed for production. This is also the time where you should decide to produce the game or kill the project. During proper production, you should avoid adding new ideas to the game. Instead, concentrate on implementing the things you’ve came up with during pre-­production.

Following these guidelines, you should able to divide your work into two phases (pre-­production and production), set your goals for each phase and consciously plan and carry out all tasks needed to complete those goals.

Cover photo: “Pandora’s Box” was a larp created entirely during two days of LubLarp workshops. You can learn a lot from running a quickly-assembled game. (Photo courtesy of LubLarp)

References   [ + ]

1. Seven Phases for Character Creation, Anders Gredal Berner, Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted Herløvsen. Larp Realia, p.73.

Authors

Pawel Jasinski
Pawel Jasinski is a video game designer working for the Polish studio ATGames. He created his first larp in 2004. Years of experience in creating larps, pen and paper RPGs, and board games paved the way for his career in video game development.
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