Larp is a medium that helps us co-create intricate shared fictions through subjective understandings of the story world around us. Meanwhile, large story franchises – the Marvel Universe, the Potterverse, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, etc. – both steadily add content to their story universes and also canonize (and copyright) this content. Larping in a franchise or adjacent to a franchise means that players can rapidly build competence and familiarity with the material. Yet franchises encourage fans to establish canons and traditions that occasionally contradict the flexibility of the larp medium. This essay addresses tensions related to larps that aspire to create larger story universes and/or draw on the fandom related to larger franchises. I argue that larp organizers and designers must attend to how their events interact with fandom behaviors, especially the impulse to 1) canonize specific practices, characters, and events, and 2) manufacture second-order knowledge and products related to the game. Both fan practices, while in many cases beneficial to the larp, have the potential to unintentionally supplant designer principles and goals. It will be helpful for us to figure out how to wield this double-edged sword of mass culture for larps in the future.
Transmedia and Franchises
In our current socio-historical moment, immersive story worlds connected to billion-dollar global franchises such as the Potterverse let us live and breathe the fiction thanks to those dollars purchasing ubiquity and high-quality design. By “ubiquity,” I mean that it becomes hard to avoid knowing at least something about a particular franchise, given that the material is everywhere and being discussed by a critical mass of people. By “high-quality design,” I mean that the money involved has given the universe an undeniable “look” that becomes part and parcel to its brand and affordances. Design has re-asserted its authority in the corporate world (Rhodes, 2015), as franchises abide by the truism that Harry Potter isn’t the same without robes and wands or Star Wars isn’t the same without lightsabers and Death Stars. Merchandising then ensures such objects can be purchased on the open market. These franchises engage us precisely because they catch our attention, provide an easily accessible basis of the premise (i.e., Harry Potter is about wizards trying to get through school while also investigating Voldemort’s potential return), and can be found everywhere. The last point would deem them “transmedia.”
Transmedia, or the instantiation and narration of events in a story world across multiple media platforms, pervade today’s globalized society. Coined by Henry Jenkins in his widely cited book Convergence Culture (2006), “transmedia” describes a climate of media production in which franchises seed fan participation: “The circulation of media content––across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders––depends heavily on consumers’ active participation” (Jenkins 3). These consumers, or “fans,” are prompted to seek more information about and connect the dots between the content of a G.I. Joe movie, a G.I. Joe comic book, and a G.I. Joe action figure. The business model is simple: get a niche audience to emotionally invest in your content on at least one platform, and then support these devoted fans as they promote this fictional universe and consume related products. Much as we would like to dismiss transmedia as purely cynical, however, the fan practices of promotion and consumption cultivated by the business model (and transmedia’s ease of accessibility) affect our storytelling practices in fundamental ways.
Arran Gare (2016) has argued recently that most of our societal rewards now stem from a “dematerialized economy,” and that our habitus, our whole way of life, encourages us to divorce ourselves from reality as much as possible. Fans spend huge portions of their lives laboring on behalf of immersive story worlds, largely uncompensated for their efforts (De Kosnik, 2013). Fans write fan fiction (“fanfic”) about their favorite characters, much of which is readable for free on http://archiveofourown.org or Tumblr. They crowdsource and maintain Wikis and “story bibles” that are then referenced by the producers of the content, who are in turn pressured to keep continuity with previous “facts” in the story worlds. Pierre Lévy observes that this “circuit” formed between authors, readers, spectators, producers, creators and interpreters blurs the distinction between them all, as they each work to support the others (Lévy, quoted in Jenkins, 2006, 95). In the end, genre fiction and transmedia story worlds guide us to a pleasurable divorce from reality: they give us clear characters to follow, a language to communicate, and a pre-established set of expectations about the world that give us easy entry into a complex fictional world. When transmedia spreads to larp as a platform, however, the complexity of that world, its corresponding fandom, and the practices that fandom engenders all strain against the possibilities that larp affords.
Larp is above all an ephemeral medium, heavily reliant on the narrative and social emergence that happens when you get actual humans together in a space (Montola, 2012). The first-person audience (Sandberg, 2004) of the form ensures that each player experience within a larp is radically subjective, may not correspond with agreed-upon “facts” about the world, and is not readily reproducible. Yet we also have within us the impulse to make larp a canonical medium, i.e. one that builds worlds with their own intricate history and weight. Although the 360° illusion so popular in larp theory is but a myth – “a complete environment alone does not generate better role-playing” (Koljonen, 2007) – the guiding principle that one should larp in a well-conceived, deeply structured aesthetic world is endemic to most larp cultures.
We have a couple of practices that we regularly use to establish “world facts” in our ephemeral medium. We articulate them in large PDFs and books, writing dozens or even hundreds of pages of text normally not readily available during role-play that we hope some people have committed to memory. We create visual media, physical artifacts, fictional maps, acoustic environments – anything to give players a foothold on what the fictional world would look, feel, and sound like. We also form small groups on social media and strategize. In Inside Hamlet (Ericsson, Pedersen and Koljonen, 2015), for example, I was given the character of Colonel Perdue, commander of the Stormguard. Given that we wanted to make them “seem real,” we had a four-person Facebook group in which we co-created fictional aspects of the Stormguard that were to come up during play, including our own insignia patches and musical anthem. These aspects formed part of what Moyra Turkington calls our “socket” (Turkington, 2006), or the “place where people plug themselves into a game and give and take their focus and energy to and from.” We invested, and received returns on that investment. We gladly invented this ephemera to secure our character immersion and help others with theirs, but we also did not expect for this material to survive the run: it was for the Stormguard’s use in Run 1, and we let the Stormguard in Run 2 come up with its own material. We assumed that none of our own world building should impose any further on other runs as a matter of etiquette, that our fictional “facts” would remain an artifact of our play, rather than as aspects of the game that future players must attend to.
The act of “attending to” anything in a larp is not neutral. As J Li and Jason Morningstar (2016) recently argue it costs player energy and cognitive load to keep the fiction in focus. “Players need their working memory to fictionalize,” they write. “Structure plot so that each person only has 4-5 things to keep track of” (19). The same could be said of a story world. If I need to know off the top of my head that engineers are categorically unable to revive the ship’s computer, or even the name of that one CoW House with the unspeakable drinks (Sendivogius), then I am often committing working memory to internalize that information. If a fact about a game is recorded on some Facebook thread or some fan Wiki and I cannot readily access it in character, there is a question as to whether or not that ephemera will even exist in the duration of the larp. Transmedia from major franchises actually help us secure more fiction in our brains, as we have engaged with that story universe before and have more of its nuances stored in our long-term memory. Yet much of that readily-available fiction vanishes when creating even a re-skinned version of a franchise: new words must be remembered, new fictional events attended to, and new casts of characters with their own personalities met and judged. If a larper has to keep a “story bible” in their head as they try to navigate to find food in a place unfamiliar to the player while also navigating their complex relationship with a half-hydra, chances are that the story universe information will be forgotten.
The Case of the Wizardry-verse and the Magimundi
In 2014, the wildly successful Polish-Danish blockbuster larp College of Wizardry (CoW, Nielsen, Dembinski and Raasted et al. 2014) took the larp community by storm with its high concept and low bar for entry: players get to play wizards in a Harry Potter-esque school for several days in Czocha Castle, co-creating immersive fiction as they compete for the coveted House Cup. The “-esque” suffix in “Harry Potter-esque” is important. The organizers had to attend to Warner Brothers’ request to separate their story universe from that of the famous wizard school series due to copyright following the first 3 runs (CoW1-3). The transition from the Potterverse to the College of Wizardry-verse for CoW4 and on (or, for that matter, the Magimundi for the American adaptation New World Magischola (NWM, Brown and Morrow, 2016) proved a model lesson in filing the serial numbers off of a well-known franchise. “Muggles” became “mundanes,” Hogwarts was wiped off the map, and suddenly necromancy took on an increasingly central role as a story device.
On the one hand, a player from CoW1 in the fan-expanded Potterverse reported that having all the names, creatures, places, and events already established in the world as canon “[made] it possible to play almost without preparation and without having to remember background text, if only you knew your HP.” On the other hand, players of the post-Potterverse CoW and NWM runs remarked how much space had been established for them. Peter Svensson writes that “the emphasis on diversity and acceptance is something where NWM [and CoW] shone. I’m a gay man. The Harry Potter books could only hint at the existence of people like me. But NWM firmly established that this is a world where I exist. Where people like me are and have been part of the historical record.” The framing of our fictional lives matters. Content and expectations around the immersive story world let players know what is and isn’t possible to see happen during play.
Nevertheless, fan culture also sets expectations, with CoW and NWM taking center stage as larps adapted from the propositions of the larger Potterverse. One fandom expectation example is the concept of the OTP (One True Pairing), a term from fanfic meaning one’s emotional commitment to two franchise characters being destined to be together. In Harry Potter, for example, popular OTPs include Sirius Black and Prof. Snape, Harry and Hermione, and so forth. This is fine in fanfic, but becomes an issue when one as a player wishes to have an OTP-type experience in a larp. At the end of CoW and NWM, there is a dance that involves characters showing up in pairs or groups. Players who privately reported expecting something resembling a OTP experience were often sorely disappointed that the relationship did not go the way they (as a player) had imagined it, and were unable to fateplayhttp://fate.laiv.org/fate/en_fate_ef.htm or “play to lose”https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Playing_to_Lose as a means of controlling the situation. Larps promise living out one’s fantasies, but the expectations that come with those fantasies must be managed around the natural emergence within the game. Fandom does not necessarily prepare us for this.
Another example from CoW and NWM involved canonization. During a pre-game video call with NPCs from a previous run who would participate in my run of NWM, I mentioned in passing that I might be able to step in and do some music at the dance, in keeping with organizer expectations for us to use the affordances of the playspace. One former NPC was shocked: “But… but… DJ Dizzywands!” they stammered, thinking it inconceivable that anyone but the designated NPC whom they enjoyed from a previous run could possibly help run the dance. Although DJ Dizzywands –– played by Austin Shepard in a smashing wizard’s cloak –– did not exist in any of the game materials, he had become canonized as part of the NWM experience.
Finally, both CoW and NWM are exploring the marketing of merchandise, as one does with a franchise: control of one’s product across platforms creates multiple financial outlets for fans to show their support. The problem arises when the making and marketing of merchandise confuses relevant information about the game with fandom. A NWM player lamented to me about the constant upselling of the game through products such as T-shirts, wands, and supplemental world materials, such that one of their friends dropped out of the game “when the ‘game’ became no longer apparent amidst a marketing machine.” Second-order products, such as fan art or homemade merchandise, suddenly fall into the gray area of having to be “endorsed” or not by the larp, and can help further canonization of specific aspects of the game that may or may not remotely resemble someone else’s first-person audience experience. While larp is a means of expression and a catalyst for other forms of expression, expressing oneself through material means about a larp also has transmedia fan assumptions underlying it.
Responses to Transmedia
Larp communities have been responding to franchises for decades, and in various ways inventing interesting strategies to the dilemmas around fandom. To escape the tyrannical ubiquity of J.R.R. Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds, for example, Mike Pohjola created what he calls “folk fantasy” to re-localize and re-nationalize globalized transmedia products. “Could we retell our own myths and say something relevant to our time?” he asks (Pohjola 51). Täällä Kirjokannen alla (2011) was a larp derived from specifically Finnish folk legends, which ultimately served as a means of reinvigorating a local storytelling culture. In this capacity, neither overt, garish nationalism nor fandom serves as a proper response to the material: larpers had to negotiate their own national myths and the fact that deep, immersive story universes ultimately came from somewhere, while also being cautious against the exclusionary idea that these folk legends are “superior” to others. The larp embraced specificity over ubiquity, and emergent qualities of these narratives rather than relying on fandom and franchise familiarity to drive play. Eliot Wieslander’s Mellan himmel och hav (2002) and the Danish team behind Totem (Schønnemann Andreasen and thurøe et al., 2007) both heavily relied on workshops and co-present co-creationi.e., players actually in the space working through their characters, rather than on social media to formulate ways to make science-fiction stories and stories of indigenous societies respectively neither cliché nor too abstract for the players to grasp.
One can also turn to rules and regulation as part of the design. The common practice of using social media groups to structure in-game relations can also prompt player-characters to start play via post and even prompt the organizers to moderate or intervene such play. Having a clear policy about pre-game play and the in-game larp consequences allows organizers to not have to attend to every piece of fanfic or “what-if” scenario created by the players. Establishing that no single player has rights over a specific character in the fiction is also important: these characters are roles, not canonical figures, unless designed that way. Merchandise should above all serve play or memories of play, and memes and merchandise that point to specific moments in-game should generally have the run title (NWM2, CoW4, Inside Hamlet Run 2, etc.) somehow associated with it, so as not to create the impression that this is an eternal moment of the “classic” version of the game. Better still, organizers can connect multiple images of the same character or comparable situation across multiple runs, so as to engage with the dynamic of cosplay, in which one celebrates the labor of performance across multiple different representations of emergence (Scott, 2015). Such strategies assist prospective players in imagining themselves into their roles, rather than championing and canonizing the ephemeral acts of the past players.
Although franchise story worlds function through ubiquity and high-quality design, most larps do not. Our internal fictions, however cool, largely dissipate beyond war stories and actual-play reports. Few know our larp worlds, and fewer still keep track of all their details. This is fine, for it removes the pressure to establish anything we’ve done beyond the ephemerality of play. However, as we lay down track in our story worlds, we should be mindful of our impulses to canonize the configuration and results of our play across multiple runs of a game not designated a campaign. Canonization creates more laws, facts, and general overhead for other players to deal with later on, and it serves to cheapen future experiences by according social capital only to those who played the “classic” earlier runs. Especially in a climate in which Kickstarters and global simultaneous ticket release dates determine who gets into which larps, the players who had the benefit of a fast Internet connection should not get to pre-determine storyworld aspects of the game for other runs beyond what the organizers and designers have already established. Each larp run in a non-campaign larp benefits from its “reset” switch. Furthermore, fan-created ephemera about the game can comment on it and its world, but should not be confused with the material of the larp itself, which remains yet-to-be-determined.
As larp moves into becoming a platform for well-worn fan properties – albeit re-invented without the burden of their original franchise – we must now figure out the contradictory balance between being a good fan and a good larper. A good fan knows the story world inside and out, perhaps contributing their own small portion of it in keeping with the general spirit of the fiction. A good larper knows that the rules, design, objects, and setting of a larp are but playthings for their imagination and the co-creative space of their fellow players. They understand the intent and spirit of a component, and use it for emergent play as it develops. A good fan, however, also speculates and chooses favorites from among the various fictional options available. A good larper, at least for the time being, leaves much up to chance encounters in play, leading sometimes to bittersweet results after months of preparation. Pre-playing as the good fan can sabotage the good larper; the vast storyworld overhead becoming instead a ballast as pre-game role-playing and the established canon of previous runs take on more importance than an individual run itself. Moreover, seeing certain players as the only ones able to inhabit the “classic” versions of characters inhibits the emergent properties of a larp’s design in favor of establishing a rarefied high court of “key” larpers and their social politics. Merchandising of franchise-related materials pulls in much-needed revenue, but also puts fetish objects at the center of organizer attention, the proverbial act of “selling the T-shirt” perhaps overtaking the event itself.
Now: much of this argumentation could constitute my overly precious attempt to preserve some particular larp aesthetic in the face of imminent commercialization, such as through Disney’s impending licensed Star Wars larp attractions or expansions of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, but I find the corporation cooptation of the larp artform much less a threat than the colonization of our minds by fandom. Larp is a medium through which we can say anything we want, provided negotiation with the design, the organizers, and one’s co-players. We must therefore be agentic and proactive with respect to our designs, adopting Bjarke Pedersen’s (2016) ethos that not only is design everything, but that what we call “tradition” is its opposite. When we unintentionally encourage players to use fandom interests to patrol other players, then that is, indeed, the fandom tradition sneaking into our larp design. Whatever Jedi Knights or their analogues happen to do or be in our larps, they must follow the design of the larp first and the dictates of the franchise second. Whatever strict adaptation one wants to make of the Doctor Who universe, the larp should include the points of departure in its initial write-up, lest competing fandoms overtake the preparation and implementation of the game. Whatever character you thought you played well in one run of the larp, the next person will have an entirely different interpretation and that will be perfectly fine. As we calibrate our play with each other, let us know that our impulses to create fan Wikis, fanfic, speculation about what characters will and won’t do, fan-favorite actors and portrayals, and second-order merchandise have an overall effect on the larp in question and larp culture in general. Worldbuilding is an act we can undertake together, but let us recognize our fellow players first before the franchise.
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This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories which was edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand and released as part of documentation for the Knutepunkt 2017 conference.
Cover photo: The heads of New World Magischola, Nibelungen, and College of Wizardry speak before those assembled at The Challenge. Photos by Made by Iulian Dinu, Nicky Sochor and Brent Rombouts for Dziobak. Photo has been cropped.