Writing Live Action Online Games

Writing Live Action Online Games

This article was written in the Fall of 2020.

Larps that take place online (Live Action Online Games, aka LAOGs/laogs, virtual larps, digital larps, or online larps) have several huge advantages. If you happen to be living through a global pandemic they let you keep playing without endangering others, and even in more normal times they let physically distant people share experiences in a way we never could have before the internet. They also have the potential to be accessible (and inaccessible) in completely different ways than physical larps.

Game Structure

Online games have different logistical challenges than face-to-face games. Some game structures work better than others.

  • The game will be more immersive if your tech limitations are part of the world in the game (diegetic). If your game is about people calling old friends who live in different states on a video call and you use a real video call over the net, it will be easier to suspend disbelief than if your game is about people who are standing in the same room but your players must talk via video calls.
  • Only so many folks can gracefully talk to each other at a time in a group. There are many ways to deal with this limitation, but it’s not realistic to expect 20 people to share a single video call and all have meaningful conversations.
    • A circle game, where you have 5 or fewer players all sharing a single conversation in a single space (such as one shared video call) can work well. More than that becomes unwieldy.
    • An even smaller circle makes conversation easier. One-on-one conversations work great. You could write a game with only two characters or with one persistent character talking to a horde of others one at a time.
    • You can have more players in your game if your game structure is organized to split them into smaller private conversations for most of the game. An example would be a game using a speed dating format so that the vast majority of the game is sets of two people talking separately. Note: only some technological tools will support this kind of breaking apart and reforming of groups.
    • If you want more people in a single game, you can break the group apart by separating how people can interact. For example, if only some players can talk in a voice chat that everyone hears, and other players listen but only write in a text chat, it will help folks share the conversational space. The key here is that players do not need to talk over others or interrupt to take part.
    • Another way to have more people in a game is to use technology that allows them to self-segregate into smaller conversations. For example, Discord will let you make a server with multiple (voice or text) channels that people can freely move between. Remo allows you to have multiple small “tables” that participants can move between. There are also some chat applications like Gather.town (free up to 25 people) that control who you can interact with based on distance in a virtual space.
Discord group shot from Death in Venice, screenshot by Steve Hatherley

Discord group shot from Death in Venice, screenshot by Steve Hatherley

Running Face-to-Face Larps as Laogs

Some games meant to be run face-to-face can be adapted to work online.

  • Small games that primarily take place in one circle (eg. everyone is in the same car on a road trip) require more suspension of disbelief, but can function just fine.
  • Larger games require tools (like Remo, Discord, or Gather.town) that let players self segregate into small groups. The separate “spaces” you create with technology can represent different areas of your virtual game space. Really large games may still have problems with players being unable to find each other or find space for private conversations, but this problem is less awful than if they were all forced into a single video call.
Custom gather.town map for The Barbecue, by Quinn D and Faye Levin-O'Leary

Custom gather.town map for The Barbecue, by Quinn D and Faye Levin-O’Leary

Things That are Harder or Very Different Online

Some things are hard to transition to a virtual space.

  • Workshops that were designed for face-to-face interaction don’t work well online. You will either need to find another way to accomplish what the workshop does, or redesign it to function with the constraints of how online interaction happens.
    • Some workshops that require physical positioning or touch (for example Sound Ball or Throwing Swords from Improv for Gamers) may be impossible to translate into an online format. Others that don’t require physical interaction (for example Describe in Detail) may be easy to translate.
    • If you can’t translate a workshop to work online, try to figure out what purpose it’s serving in the game and see if you can find or design something else that will serve that same purpose online.
  • If your game has logistics that don’t need to be done “in the game space,” do them before or after the game. Find ways to do things like pre-casting or have character-building workshops handled by the players before the game.
  • Safety tools need to be redesigned to function in a virtual space. Depending on the tools you want to use and the technology you’re using, you will probably need to build a new version that works. You obviously need to do this ahead of time and explain to your players how the modified tool is going to work.
    • For example, we have run OK-check-in using the chat channel attached to a video chat like Zoom or Google Meet. To check in, a player or facilitator sends a message like “Ok @quinn?” to a chat channel, which Quinn would respond to in the chat so it wouldn’t interrupt the spoken part of the game.
Meet at the Tavern - Savalion the Knight, screenshot by Simon Rogers

Meet at the Tavern – Savalion the Knight, screenshot by Simon Rogers

Some things are much, much worse in a virtual game than face-to-face.

  • If a player is trapped alone for a long time they are going to be miserable. In a real game this can sometimes be ameliorated by watching others play (even if this is only out-of-character fun), but if you are alone in a video chat you don’t have a lot to work with.
  • Don’t make your players fight with each other to talk or wait a really long time with nothing to do. Some players will handle this better than others, but it’s not usually fun.
  • Whatever technology you use to interact will have problems. Have contingency plans for how to deal with those problems so they don’t just stop your game dead.
  • Players who habitually overtalk can cause huge problems. Either design defensively, or be careful who you invite to play your game: doing both is better. This is not to say that big talkers can’t enjoy online games without making people miserable, but you may need to sit down and talk to them beforehand about the limitations of your game’s communication technology.
  • People can only sit in front of a computer for so long. Games that are longer than about 3 hours will need substantial breaks. In general it’s probably better to just keep your game at 3 hours or less.

Accessibility

Accessibility has totally different challenges online. Physical mobility is less of a problem in online games, but other things like having a blind player or players who have hearing issues can be even more challenging to cope with than they are face-to-face. How accessible your game is will be highly dependent on the technology you choose to run the game.

Please keep in mind that some people have a much more difficult time understanding what’s being said when your game includes multiple people talking at the same time. This can be even tougher online, since all the sounds are coming from exactly the same place (your computer speakers or headphones). Either design your game to avoid multiple conversations in the same space or include a content warning so folks who can’t handle this can avoid playing. If your game avoids too much crosstalk it can be more accessible for some people than a face-to-face larp, because they will have much more control of their sound setup and volume.

Together Forever, screenshot by Simon Rogers

Together Forever, screenshot by Simon Rogers

Conclusion

Online larps require different communication tools and design strategies to allow players and facilitators to effectively communicate. But if we use design and technology carefully our online games can bring together people from across the world and explore all sorts of exciting stories and experiences just as well as physical larps do. In the future when 2020 is only an unpleasant memory, we will still have these tools to use when we play with our distant friends.

Cover photo: Custom Remo floorplan for Under the Faerie Hill, artwork by Alison Joy Schafer and Julie Diewald.

Editing by: Elina Gouliou

Authors

Quinn has over a decade of experience writing, running, and participating in roleplaying events in a variety of formats and styles. In addition to multiple staff positions at the Intercon larp convention, on the New England Interactive Literature board of directors and Peaky Midwest, Quinn is co-founder and convention organizer of the Be-Con larp convention. Quinn values larp for its ability to build empathy, educate, explore human existence and create social bonds. Quinn's recent focus has been on emotional content, identity exploration and empathy building in a visceral and safe manner. In addition to nordiclarp.org, Quinn has previously been published in the Wyrd Con 2015 and Knutpunkt 2018 books. Outside of roleplaying events, Quinn enjoys making things, spending time with friends, and volunteering time for a local community health clinic.
Eva Schiffer is an American larpwright and tabletop rpg designer. She has been writing games for more than 10 years and playing for more than 20. She has been the primary organizer for Peaky Midwest since 2014.
%d bloggers like this: