Review of Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences

Review of Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences

In 2006, I was 18 years old, and I organized my first larp: a three day fantasy larp set in the ongoing campaign of Gyllene Hjorten (Eng. The Golden Deer). All things considered, it went well, for the most part thanks to the players, who made sure they had fun. We did make one mistake that I still remember. We had failed to foresee that once the group of evil soldiers got their hands on the magical ring everyone was looking for, they might leave the area. This made sense for their characters to do. We, the designers, had failed to provide a reason for them to stay on site. We were lucky and this happened on the last night of the game, which meant it did not disrupt the larp too much. If Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences had been around at the time, could we have avoided this mistake? 

The Larp Design book is gorgeous, with a striking cover and clean design. It is also massive with its 428 pages. Edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell and Elin Nilsen, it contains a collection of essays about designing Nordic-style larp. With 66 authors from 10 different countries, it is an impressive feat. The stated goal is that the essays should be practical and useful for beginners as well as experienced designers. 

The content is divided into five parts: 

  1. The Foundations of Larp Design, where the basics of larp design are introduced.
  2. Designing What Happens Before Runtime, which contains advice on things such as communication before an event and how to run workshops.
  3. Designing the Runtime. This part makes up the bulk of the book and deals with a wide breadth of topics from character design to questions of signaling consent.
  4. After Runtime. This is a short section covering post-play activities and how to gather player feedback.
  5. How to Export Nordic Larp. The final part is also very short, covering Nordic larp in other larp and art traditions.

Front cover of the Larp Design book with an artistic background

The book starts off with an introduction to the foundations of larp design. It then goes on to outline how to design what happens before, during, and after the runtime of a larp. The final part is a discussion of how Nordic larp can interact with other larp traditions, and how to collaborate with other art forms.

The essays range from offering concrete advice to providing perspectives to consider. An example of the former is the essay on “How to Schedule the Participants’ Time on Site” by Alma Elofsson. How long are people able to stay still and listen? About 30 minutes. How often do you need to serve coffee to Nordic players? The answer is every 3 to 4 hours. While these questions might seem trivial, when they are botched, it can drag down an otherwise excellent larp experience.

An example of an essay exploring perspectives on a more complex issue is “Designing for Queer and Trans Players” by Eleanor Saitta and Sebastian F. K. Svegaard. Here, the authors offer up questions to consider to make your larp more inclusive to queer and trans players, rather than offering clear cut answers to those questions. For example, they explore how statements like “this larp will not feature homophobia or transphobia” can be troublesome. While signaling inclusion, it also risks erasing the erasing the identities they are meant to include. It does so by removing the structures that created those identities to begin with. These questions are complex and this essay offer a starting point for thinking about them.

Together the two examples above show the breath of questions explored in this book. There is so much great stuff in this book that it is difficult to decide what to highlight. Nevertheless, I would like to bring up three of my personal favorites. The first is “Basic Concepts in Larp Design” by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola. This is a succinct and elegant summary of the subject and its terminology. As part of the introductory chapter of the book and to the field as a whole, it is indispensable. For those that have read the existing literature surrounding Nordic larp, such as the Knutepunkt books, much of this will be familiar. However, for someone just getting acquainted with larp design, inter-immersion, steering, and herd competence, may be new concepts. Readers can see the entire glossary for the book here.

The second one is “Functional Design” by Kaisa Kangas. This essay states that “a functional larp design is one where the players have meaningful things to do during the larp, and where those things serve a purpose in the larp as a whole” (p. 143) whereby Kangas manages to capture the crux of larp design in one sentence. How can designers make sure that the things that the characters do in the fiction are actually doable in the larp? How can they balance playability vs. plausibility? The essay explores these questions with the help of a well-selected set of examples.

Finally, I very much enjoyed “Spatial Design for Larps” by Søren Ebbehøj, Signe Løndahl Hertel, and Jonas Trier-Knudsen. This essay opened my eyes in a new way to how the space in which a larp is set shapes play. For example, they suggest that using a smaller space will catalyze tensions and facilitate play focused on relationships and interpersonal conflict. And this comes with the added benefit of saving money on rent. What is there not to like?

A number of practical anecdotes are mixed in with the essays. In these, larp designers tell a story and make a judgment on whether they “nailed it” or “failed it.” Most of these are absolute gold, especially the ones describing failures. For the novice, there is plenty to learn there, and I am sure there are many veteran larp designers smiling at how they themselves made the same mistakes.

The Larp Design book in front of a bookshelf

There are a few minor things to grumble about. There are some unfortunate typos, and I find the sans-serif font in the section introductions difficult to read. My main criticism of this book is that, at least at the time of writing, it is very difficult to get a hold of. To fulfill its full potential this book needs to reach people outside of those that attended the Knudepunkt 2019 conference. Otherwise it risks primarily preaching to the choir. The good news is that according to the editors, while the book is currently out of print, it will be made available in 2020. To be kept up to date on release information, sign up by clicking this link

Is anything missing? To my mind, there are two things. The first one is an essay about writing larp scripts. In an age when more and more larps are run more than once, and often by different people, advice on how to efficiently document the organizing materials for a game would be useful. The second thing I miss is a discussion about running a series of connected larps. Others will certainly find other things they would have liked to see included — with that said, this book covers a lot, and leaves few stones unturned.

Larp Design sets out to be a practical book and it hits the mark. For absolute beginners, it might be a little bit too much to chew off. I imagine it would be a lot to take in for someone with no practical design experience. That said, I do think this is a book that has plenty to offer for anyone interested in larp design, from the beginner to the experienced. I sincerely hope it will be more easily available. That way, future 18 year-olds might realize how to make the evil soldiers stay on-site.

Credits

Editors: Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell and Elin Nilsen

Complete list of contributors

Cover artist: Anne Serup Grove

Country: Denmark

Language: English

Published: 2019

Publisher: Landsforeningen Bifrost

Pages: 428

References

Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, eds. 2019. Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences. Copenhagen, Denmark: Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Authors

Johan Dahlberg
Johan Dahlberg is a Swedish larper and larp designer. He holds a PhD in molecular medicine, and he loves a good story.
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