Navigating Online Larp

Navigating Online Larp

While online larps have been around for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new crop from a wide variety of designers and larp traditions and has seen a huge influx of players looking to fill the gap left by the cancellation of most in-person larps. We’re enjoying large numbers of new larps running and re-running, with designers trying innovative and exciting things in the field, but also making mistakes that those who have been running larps online since the beginning have corrected for years ago. Some players are finding the format accessible and powerful, while others find it difficult to invest in either the event itself or the buildup beforehand.

Qualia by Mia Devald Kyhn and Adrian Hvidbjerg Poulsen, using Spatial Chat with Discord for text. Screenshot by Charlie Haldén.

Qualia by Mia Devald Kyhn and Adrian Hvidbjerg Poulsen, using Spatial Chat with Discord for text. Screenshot by Charlie Haldén.

I’ve played several larps online since in-person events became untenable, mostly from the international European and local British larp traditions, and mostly the designers’ first forays into this kind of digital events. The formats have been very varied – some across one or several sessions in the same weekend, one running fortnightly for months, some using text, audio, and video to communicate, others using two or even just one of those mediums. Amongst that wide selection, some trends have started to emerge.

The first is that online larps can absolutely be a huge success. It’s true that they lack some components of physical larps, but many players, including a lot who were initially skeptical, have found that online larps are capable of producing a depth of emotion comparable to their real-world counterparts. I have sat in front of my computer with tears streaming down my face at both video and text conversations, and felt my heart rate rise based on sound effects alone when lying with my eyes closed and headphones on in a dark room.

Tenement 67 by Bobbit Worm Games, using Discord video and text chat. Screenshot by Hazel Dixon.

Tenement 67 by Bobbit Worm Games, using Discord video and text chat. Screenshot by Hazel Dixon.

There is also, to me, a clear dividing line between online larp and online tabletop gaming, though the difference can be less distinct than it might be for in-person play. I’ve played one online larp where I was fully embodying my character for the duration of play, without having to make any out-of-character actions or imagine anything in my surroundings that wasn’t there, and that felt absolutely like larping. On the other hand, the more my character is supposed to be doing things that I myself am not physically doing, the more it feels like I’m playing a tabletop RPG in costume. As always when we’re in uncertain territory, the best way to avoid disappointment is to communicate as clearly as possible what experience the designers are intending to provide and hoping the players will participate in.

Tips for Players

If you’re a player venturing into online larp for the first time, you might have to try a few things to find out what works for you, and just like in in-person larps you’ll enjoy some events more than others even if the format is identical. There’s no obligation to do something you don’t think you’ll enjoy, but plenty of players have been surprised by how much they got out of online larp. Here are some things to think about that might help you get ahead when you’re starting out.

Preparing Your Gear

A lot of video larps will ask you to set-dress the area behind you so you appear to be somewhere appropriate to help the immersion of your co-players, and it’s great to do that. It can also really help to set-dress the area in front of you that only you will see. After all, you’ll be looking past your monitor at that area for hours at a time, and seeing post-it notes with your work to do list will probably jolt you out of the larp.

When it comes to costume, it’s definitely worth dressing in a way that matches your character, but you get to choose between the immersion of fully wearing what your character would wear and the comfort of sitting in pyjama bottoms for the whole larp. Since you’ll be getting into costume in your own home and with typically much later start times than for physical larps, consider getting more adventurous than usual with your hair and makeup. What you’re wearing around your head and shoulders will make the biggest impression, but your hands will show up on video too, as well as serving as part of your larp world, so don’t neglect them in your costume.

Death in Venice by Freeform Games, using Discord video chat. Screenshot by Simon Rogers.

Death in Venice by Freeform Games, using Discord video chat. Screenshot by Simon Rogers.

Run a tech test ahead of time, including checking out your camera angles and audio gear if you’ll need them. Using a laptop or desktop will often give you a more reliable connection than a phone or tablet, though make sure you aren’t running too many other programs in the background. Headphones will help avoid feedback, but make sure they’re comfortable to wear for a long time. More light will do wonders for your image quality, but use a shade to avoid shining a bright lamp directly into your eyes. See if your video slows down while anyone else who shares your connection uses the internet, and if you need to figure out some scheduling options. Get onto the software the larp will run on and familiarise yourself with it if you can.

Getting Yourself Ready to Play

Especially when you’re venturing into online larp for the first time, consider playing with people you already know. While playing with strangers is great fun, it’s much harder to learn a person’s physical cues and communication styles through digital channels, and since you’ll be adapting to a new format that has plenty of hurdles it might help to give yourself the advantage of playing with people you already know how to read when you start out.

You can prepare in other ways as well, a lot of which are very similar to how you might prepare for an in-person larp. For example, familiarise yourself with your character, discuss how you want to play with the people you expect to interact with most closely, put together a playlist, etc. Do whatever helps you feel as comfortable as possible with larping, the part of the activity you know and understand, so you can focus your energy on adapting your larping to a digital environment.

If you have a lot of video conferences for your work, you might be reluctant to sign up for even more of them in your free time. Consider voice or text only larps or, if you want to go for a video larp anyway, think about larping in a different space to where you work, treating the larp as a special event (booking time off work before and after like you would with an in-person larp, maybe taking time to make some pieces of your costume), hyping the larp with your friends in advance to build anticipation, and choosing larps that don’t run too solidly all in one block.

Starting the Larp

Once you start playing, give the larp a while to get going while everyone finds their feet and learns the communication methods you’re using. Larpers are well trained to adapt how they express themselves and understand one another, but most of us are having to apply that training in new situations and you might encounter awkwardness for the first little while.

Take Me With You by Omen Star, using Zoom and Snap Filter. Screenshot by Kol Ford.

Take Me With You by Omen Star, using Zoom and Snap Filter. Screenshot by Kol Ford.

Pay attention to the larp’s mechanisms during any workshops so you know how to get the most out of the experience. Knowing when, where, and how to join conversations, ask questions, or signal safety concerns can make or break your experience. This is likely to be different for each larp and platform and may not be intuitive.

During Run-time

Then… larp. It’s the same activity you’ve done before in person, just using technology as an intermediary. Be conscious of the format you’re using and bring your character to your co-players in ways they can understand and respond to — facial expressions and hand gestures for video, voice for audio, emojis or adjectives or cat gifs for text.

And as in any larp, pay attention to your body’s needs. Eat and drink when you need to. Take your meds. Get plenty of sleep. Know what you’re going to do if things get emotionally draining, even if you don’t expect them to.

One of the most interesting new communication avenues available to you is text channels that you can use alongside play. Every online larp I’ve played has had some form of in- or out-of-character communication by text, and it’s great for quick, non-disruptive check-ins, flexible as a negotiation tool, and useful as a safety mechanism. It’s also very powerful for play in its own right, and creates opportunities that don’t exist in person for parallel conversations, back-channel dealings, and heart-wrenching confessions.

After the Larp

After play is done, be prepared for debriefs and afterparties to feel rather different. The after-larp glow can fade much more quickly when you aren’t physically surrounded by the people who shared in a powerful experience with you, and the energy shift between play and socialising is very different in online larp. Think in advance about how you might take care of yourself after the larp ends, be it a special meal, a bubble bath, or a cuddle with your cat, and consider arranging to talk to the people you played with most closely a few hours or days after you’ve returned to normal life.

If you normally take a day off work after a larp to recuperate, there’s a good chance you’ll want to do that for an online larp, even though you aren’t running around in the course of play.

Tips for Designers

The digital larp design space has some extremely experienced designers working in it and I can’t pretend to be one of them! But a few things I’ve observed from a player’s point of view translate into actionable tips that could be useful to consider for people designing digital larps.

Format and Technology

When you get an idea for a digital larp, consider the format you want to use. Video larp is the immediate first choice for a lot of people as it seems most similar to in-person larp, but voice- and text-only larp can both be extremely effective. What atmosphere could you create using sound and silence when audio is the only connection your players have to the game world? Is there space for you to explore how people interact in text and display their personalities in text? What happens when you cross larp, a form that asks you to embody your character, with a format that doesn’t require players’ bodies to be visible? How can you match the format to the idea?

Meet at the Tavern by Omen Star, using Discord video chat. Screenshot by Kol Ford.

Meet at the Tavern by Omen Star, using Discord video chat. Screenshot by Kol Ford.

Consider your tech setup to match that format carefully. There are many categories where you might find pros and cons, such as available functionality, ease of use, processor or bandwidth requirements, player familiarity, etc. And as widespread homeworking continues, the features each platform offers are changing regularly, so you might want to check back as your design develops.

Accessibility should play into platform choice as well, and it’s worth keeping in mind that running your larp online isn’t a silver bullet for including people who struggle to access in-person larps. It can be great for those who find travel or the energy investment of physical larp challenging, but it has different demands on communication styles, attention spans, and physical access that can absolutely exclude others. Check your technology, make conscious design decisions, and continue asking the people you want to include in your larp how you can accommodate their needs.

After you’ve chosen your platform, you’ll need to figure out how to set it up. Look at how you can encourage people to play in small, manageable groups, up to around six or seven players, either by making that a structural requirement of the larp or by creating softer behavioural or mechanical incentives for splitting up. Some platforms are designed to allow mingling and changing groups easily, while others might give you more features if you’re willing to accept a more rigid group structure.

Getting Players to Jump In

One aspect that can be easy to overlook amongst the practicalities of setup is thinking about what you can do to help players look forward to your larp as an exciting event. A lot of digital larps this year have been produced on short timelines and it’s great to get to play not long after signing up, but limited information until shortly before the larp and an absence of hype and communal anticipation can make the already unfamiliar prospect of an online larp feel alienating to some players and cause anxiety or a high rate of dropouts.

Muerte de Reemplazo by Amalia Valero, using Spatial Chat. Screenshot by Amalia Valero.

Muerte de Reemplazo by Amalia Valero, using Spatial Chat. Screenshot by Amalia Valero.

Once play begins, no matter how elegant your design, interactions between players are going to be less natural. This is especially true at the beginning of the larp, so your opening act might benefit from having facilitators play a much more active role than usual in mediating communication between characters. The “just put a bunch of larpers in a room together and tell them to larp” strategy of larp design doesn’t work online yet, although maybe it will once the player community has more experience with the format. Having NPCs leading early discussions and inviting people to speak can help a lot in video and voice larps, and giving an idea of what interactions should happen where is great for text larps.

The unintuitiveness of digital conversations also makes it harder to make smalltalk on video calls, and it can lead to awkward silences where players struggle to know what to talk about unless the pre-written characters include detailed motivations and conflicts that will drive play on their own, or play is very tightly directed. Providing new in-fiction stimulus to react to can help direct conversations, so if the larp has plot secrets it might be worth revealing the first ones earlier than you might at an in-person larp, as well as giving suggestions on how the players could react to engage with those secrets further.

Similarly, the rumour mill doesn’t work anywhere near as efficiently online unless players put in quite a lot of effort into it. Side channels help, like having text alongside video, but there’s much less passive information absorption and dispersal than when your players are in the same place, so look at ways to divulge any plot-critical information to more players than you might at an in-person event.

The Aftermath

Finally, consider the design of what happens after the larp. If you plan a debrief to help your players derole or process bleed, how will you create emotional space between them and their characters when there’s a strong chance they’re still sitting in the same physical place they were occupying during play? How can you capture the post-larp energy and transfer it to an afterparty when the players aren’t physically together? Can you take advantage of the remote nature of the larp to invite players to come together again after a few days when they have had time to recover from the larp?

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to think about as we adapt how we design and play larps to our current constraints, but with luck the community as a whole can see that as exciting rather than offputting.

Yes, I wish we were able to larp in person, and no, I don’t think online larps are a complete replacement for physical larps. But right now they’re an option I’m extremely glad to have, and their low financial and time commitment are certainly going to let me larp more in 2021 and beyond even as in-person events begin to reappear.

Cover photo: Oniros by Paula Jiménez & Pepe Roma, using Discord and Snap Camera. Screenshot by Pepe Roma.

Editing by: Elina Gouliou

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Joanna Piancastelli (b. 1988) is a UK-based larp designer who specialises in bringing narrative experience design techniques to familiar genre stories, aiming for safety, inclusivity and accessibility in all her events. She has written and organised larps from small black box scenarios to large on-location productions, and as a participant she seeks out larps across a wide variety of traditions to learn from as many designers as possible.