Balkan Larp: A Sprouting Blossom in the Garden of Larp

Balkan Larp: A Sprouting Blossom in the Garden of Larp

This piece is written by Niclas Hell, and recounts his and Johan Fors’ common experiences. Johan and Niclas are Swedish edu-larp designers who visited the Portal 5 convention in Zagreb, Croatia, held March 03-05, 2017. Portal is a larp convention organized in Eastern Europe each year. So far, Portal has been held in Croatia and Hungary.In 2018, it is scheduled for Bulgaria. Johan and Niclas are booked to give lectures at Portal 6.

Matija picked me up at the airport. He smiled and waved with a sign saying ”NICLAS HELL & MADS LUNAU” among the taxi drivers picking people up from the Amsterdam arrivals. After rearranging the sword in his back seat (”HEMA is my hobby”), we were off to the convention in a Zagreb about 15 precious degrees warmer than Stockholm.

”About four years ago, our larp scene was basically dead,” Matija explains during the ride. ”In the 90’s, we had about a hundred people coming to a large event each year, and then for a while, we had a bunch of events with fifty, seventy people each year, all fantasy larp. It went downhill. A few years ago, we had only one or two smaller events and some vampire larpers, but those keep to themselves.” He contextualizes the situation of the larp scene in Croatia with the economic crisis. Larp isn’t necessarily expensive — a standard Croatian fantasy larp costs the equivalent of 10-25 Euros — but people started moving out. Even some of the new Croatian larpwrights moved to Ireland to find jobs. These factors might have added to the larp decline some years ago.

”So we decided to change that,” he adds with a grin.

two larpers at a conference

Johan and Niclas at Portal 5. Photo by Irena Hartmann.

Terrible Croatians Terrible Creations

Portal 5 was mainly hosted by the Terrible Creations team. This larp design collective made their first game a few years ago: the Famiglia Bonifacio. This larp awakened something in Croatia. It’s a mafia game running for three hours for 30 people about violence, crime, and backstabbing. Every Croatian larper I meet has played this larp, and the general consensus is that it is a great game. It’s the Croatian blockbuster if there ever was one, inspired by Nordic larp themes and game design. It has let dozens — maybe hundreds — of people in Croatia try larp, or reevaluate what larp can be.

The success of the Famiglia Bonifacio with newbies and seasoned fantasy larpers alike made the organizers realize there was a market for this kind of product. They are currently in the process of starting a business, after a few successful corporate jobs and lots of playtesting of party larp and edu-larp products. They paid a large portion of the cost for Portal 5, including my plane ticket, from their own pockets.[1]Niclas’ plane tickets and accommodation were paid for by Portal, because they invited him to speak about edu-larp at the conference. However, this article was spontaneously thought out and written without hints or nudges from the people at Portal. The quotes have been cleared with the quoted, and the people depicted have been asked beforehand. Nothing else has been communicated between Niclas, Johan, and the Portal people about this text.

”We brought you guys here so that we can learn from you, talk to you, befriend you, and know what we’ve missed. Where we can improve,” says Miroslav Wranka, one of the Terrible Creations people. The goals seem to be creating an active dialogue with other parts of the larp world; educating and inspiring the local larpers; and hosting a quality larp convention. ”Hopefully, you’ll learn some things too,” Wranka tells me. I don’t know who he thinks we are, but we surely did.

Four larpers sit on a bench, one with sword and shield

Terrible Creations in full regalia. Photo by Matej Čelar.

The Larps

We decide to ditch the idea of playing a teaser version of the Famiglia Bonifacio in a black box for six people, since we want to do the real thing some day. Instead, we play a party larp for bachelorette parties called Witches! It’s a simple, fun piece based on a Zagreb legend about the evil Black Queen, a historical person accused of being an actual witch. ”That’s what you get for being an assertive woman in the Middle Ages.” The goal is to find the right potion, and the only way to find it is through trial and error – by mixing drinking them. Needless to say, a considerable amount of the “witch apothecary” consists of off-game alcoholic drinks.

The game slots did not have the focus of giving participants a digest of the best chamber larps, but rather to playtest Terrible Creations games intended for sale. To put it another way, we played most of the Croatian chamber larps made over the last few years, as Terrible Creations are the only active and the most prolific chamber larp designers in Croatia so far.

After the games, I expected a little debrief, but we had a longer discussion about the game design. The Witches game ended with a discussion about how to resolve specific game issues for target groups, with Lucija and Matija listening and apparently taking mental notes for the future. I adhere to the “No criticism after the game” principle, but this was quite obviously a game test, and the designers asked for all kinds of comments. The whole convention seemed fitted to give Terrible Creations the maximum outcome of knowledge, game testing, networking, and advertising. I can’t help but admire their dedication to the cause.

Balkan Style and the Politics of Identity

Chris Panagiotopoulos speaking into a microphone

Chris Panagiotopoulos speaking at Portal 5. Photo by Miroslav Wranka.

A short time before Portal, some lecture slots were still open. That’s when they found Chris Panagiotopoulos, the Balkan revolutionary of larp. He took the remaining slots and hosted a number of different program points from his Greek point of view. His gospel of larp was about what he calls Balkan-style larp. Chris claims that the Balkans make a unique form of larp, coherent throughout the peninsula. He tries to rally the other countries for common larp campaigns or at least better exchange opportunities.

Most of us went to the bar Valhalla after the lectures, with us Nordics swallowing the blatant cultural appropriation. It seemed to be a joint where larpers often gathered for a beer in Zagreb. A participant even wore a Valhalla shirt every day to the convention. One night at Valhalla, I ask Chris about his theories:

NH: So, if Nordic style is relationships, 360, and play to lose, and American larp is gamism, symbolic environments, and rules… What is Balkan larp?

CP: We have a unique model for organizing our larp community. Most of your larps are “one shots.”’ Almost all of our larps are campaign-style fantasy larps. You play the same character every larp and develop it, kind of like a tabletop campaign. And everyone works with that in mind. There are rules for reviving your wounded characters, and actually killing a character is very uncommon. Instead, what you try to do is gain long-term control of the others’ camp or resources. Becoming more powerful in the campaign is the goal; it’s all about power play. You may even go to other organizers’ larps and play the same character. It’s all part of the Balkan contract of how we do larp.

NH: You’re talking about a German style of larp, too. I haven’t considered German larp to be a specific style before. How do you mean?

CP: The Germans’ most visible larps are the large larps organized more like a framework for creating your own experience than the Nordic-style individual drama directed by the game texts. The Germans make large fantasy festival-style games where you go to create an interesting story about your group. You wouldn’t go alone to that kind of larp; it wouldn’t make as much sense. The same thing goes for the Balkans.

NH: You could say that American and Nordic larp focuses on the individual drama, while German and Balkan larp focuses on groups and common experiences, then?

CP: Exactly.

NH: So what’s the difference between German style and Balkan style larp, then?

CP: The strong focus on campaign play, and that you might even play basically the same group in other settings. It might even work in post-apocalyptic larp, which is also organized in several Balkan countries. You’d go to different countries and keep playing the same character in all post-apocalyptic larps.

NH: As a Nordic larp designer, I’d argue we’ve had that kind of fantasy campaign play for about 25 years in the Nordic countries. To me, it seems like your definition of Balkan larp is more a question of community than actual game design, and I’m inclined to think that game design is what decides what style your larp is. How does your community make your larp style different?

CP: It affects the whole larp. I’m arguing that we should enable all Balkan larpers to go to each others’ larps. In some Balkan countries, there is only a single middle-size larp every year, and some people in Serbia, FYROM, and other partially-inactive countries are starting to spill over to our larp campaigns. I think that’s a good thing, since our larps are very common – and hence the Balkan style. If I could go from Greece to Bulgaria and develop my character at their larps, the number of available larps would rise from a couple a year into a dozen in a bunch of different countries. The fact that this is even possible, rather than the very diverse scene of the Nordics, makes it a unique way of doing larp at every level.

Come for the Lectures. Stay for the Fizzy Powder Lemonade

One of the invited lecturers was the Czech consultant Lujza Kotryová. Her company went from two people designing larps and struggling to get by, to a consulting firm of ten people. I talked to Lujza over a fizzy lemonade drink made by mixing some chemical powder with water, which was offered by the organizers during the conference. I chose the green powder for this particular occasion.

Lujza Kotryová smiling in a chair

Lujza Kotryová at Portal 5. Photo by Irena Hartmann.

NH: So, how come you could grow from two to ten people?

LK: We developed a business model where, instead of offering a fixed product, we consider what the company actually needs. Sometimes, that’s a larp. Sometimes, that’s gamification. Sometimes, it’s just [consultation] services for development work. Sometimes, they ask us for gamification because it’s cool to do gamification now, but after meeting with them, we get them to realize that’s not what they actually need at this time.

NH: That sounds like a great idea. Your lecture was kind of an eye-opener for me. I’ve seldom really thought about what the companies I work for actually need, as crazy as it sounds. But wasn’t the point from the start to make larps? Have you abandoned that dream?

LK: No! But as we realized larps was not actually what everyone needed all the time, we also started making much more money. Now we can afford to pay around 10 full-time employees and also to invest into development of new products. So we are still doing it, although larps are not the most lucrative part of our business. Gamification and other playful solutions are the main part of our work.

This kind of personal reflection around people’s own professional situation is significant for the lecture schedule. The people invited are professionals working with larp and games from different angles. Professional insights at larp conventions are usually passed over a cup of coffee, while lectures often take a formal, theoretical tone at other conventions and conferences. All the talks by designers, bosses, principals, and teachers gave insights to the different worlds of larp. My own talk was among the most theoretical, quoting philosophers and Eirik Fatland. Though I enjoy gaining that kind of knowledge, the personal touch was a nice middle road between practical sewing workshops and Aristotle and Larp: a New Perspective on The Poetics. Questions were plentiful after most lectures simply because participants became genuinely interested in the people talking.

So They Have This Little Convention in Croatia. So What?

First of all, larp is growing. Perhaps it’s not growing as a grassroots movement in Scandinavia anymore, but it is widening, claiming new areas. In a few years’ time, the center of larp may not be firmly based in the communities we know. We’ve seen the Czech and the Polish go global. We’ve seen the Italians make some extremely interesting games, and the Russians are breaking up the prejudice about metal-swords-and-Vikings as we speak. And that’s just naming a few. The Balkan scene(s) has the embryo of a common community: they are developing their larp, they are growing, and they are reaching out for partners.

The next time your friends are talking about some larp happening in Bulgaria, you will know a few things about the larp scene in Bulgaria. It’s a shame you didn’t already, because you sure knew about that rerun in Denmark. These people are doing original stuff. And you ought to know about that.

Cover photo: Boffer axes, witches, and metatechniques. Photo by Johan Fors.

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1Niclas’ plane tickets and accommodation were paid for by Portal, because they invited him to speak about edu-larp at the conference. However, this article was spontaneously thought out and written without hints or nudges from the people at Portal. The quotes have been cleared with the quoted, and the people depicted have been asked beforehand. Nothing else has been communicated between Niclas, Johan, and the Portal people about this text.


Johan Fors is a game designer from Stockholm, Sweden, working at Lin Education. He creates transmedial stories, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and larps. He specializes in digital stories and local history, as in his project Berättelsemaskinen.
Niclas Hell is a freelance edularp designer from Stockholm, Sweden. He works with museums, NGOs, agencies and companies to create custom educational larps and story-driven games.