Larp Hacking

Larp Hacking

There is no right or wrong, only fun and boring

Hackers, 1995

When players of older characters at a Jane Austen inspired larp realise they are little more than NPCs for the younger characters, they go off piste and engineer their own romance plot. Through extremes of in-character behaviour, they force the younger characters to take on the roles of antagonists for them, thus inverting the power dynamics of the piece. This is done in a way that does not adversely affect the play of others.

Larp hacking is when players subvert or change the design of a larp while the larp is running. At its most gentle, hacking a larp is when players find ways to push the limits of the design, or use the design of the larp in ways that the original designers did not expect. At the far end of the scale it is a revolt by players to rescue a larp from abject failure. When done for constructive reasons, subverting the design of the larp can be a useful way to improve or save an experience. Hacking a larp involves changing the overall play experience rather than simply tweaking a character. It is the output of calibration rather than gentle steering.[1]Steering is a conscious decision to change the character within the auspices of the design of the larp, whereas larp hacking plays with the structure. See Stenros, Jaakko. Playfulness, play, and games: A constructionist ludology approach. (2015). Larp hacking is called hacking because it involves changing a part of the design or structure of a larp without the designers’ involvement or consent, pushing the limits of the design, or using the design of the larp in ways that the original designers did not expect.

How to hack a larp

There is no single way to hack a larp, but it is useful to think about larp hacking as a three step process with little opportunity for testing and iterating.

Step 1 – Analysis

The approaches you take to hack will differ depending on why you’re doing it. It is more or less impossible to hack a larp successfully if you don’t understand what is not working, and why. This calls for some reflection.

Here are some of the reasons you might need to hack:

  • The larp is not working for me
  • The larp is not working for a small group of (identified) players
  • The larp is not working for anyone
  • The larp is working, but I want to push the limits

Imagine that a player has identified that the bulk of the larp seems to be taking place in the secure laboratory building, but as a mere janitor they are not allowed inside. The larp design imagined that there would be enough people outside of the laboratory for play to exist there as well, but for whatever reason, one player with a broom is now left sweeping up in the dark. Our imagined player is not a Turkuist,[2]Someone who follows the tenets of the Turku Manifesto. so they are not entirely happy with the situation.

Just saying “the larp is not working for me” or “I am not enjoying myself” is not enough. “I am not enjoying this larp because I am unable to complete this particular function that the larp is supposed to offer, but does not” is better. Most constructive would be an analysis with an implicit solution: “If my character had access to the laboratory and the players there, this larp would be fun.”

As a part of the analysis it is really useful to check in with other players. It is significantly easier to change a larp with a group. Often we’ll assume that we are the only player who is struggling, only to discover after the larp is over that we were one of many silently wishing there was someone to talk to.

Step 2 – Design

Larp hacking is arguably a form of larp design, except it is done by players, typically during the run-time of the larp. It uses many of the same skills and approaches as larp design. Once you understand what problem you are trying to fix, it is possible to come up with solutions. It might be possible to change part of the offgame structures of the larp. Our janitor player may, for example, create a security clearance badge to allow them passage into the lab. It may also be possible to hack from within the diegesis, e.g. by sneaking into the lab without the clearance and (when asked) state that janitors have always had access.

Suggested approaches:

  • Creatively use or subvert the limits of the playing space. For example, climb through the air vents instead of facing the guards.
  • Introduce another element consistent with the setting, which hasn’t been used in the design. For example introducing feminism to a historical larp, which does not already have it.
  • Creatively use / subvert the rules set by the designers. For example by breaking ingame rules in ways you do not think were intended to happen.
  • Create new sub-groups or interactions between sets of players on the fly, or invent reasons for groups that are meant to compete to collaborate, if competition is blocking play. For example by creating an excuse for members of two warring factions to be trapped alone together without their weapons and work out how to escape.
  • Take the story of the larp in a direction that the designers had not considered. For example by crafting a new plotline for yourself and other players interested in getting involved.
  • Insert background material that was not in the larp from the start. For example by introducing new objects and giving them traditional or magical importance, or creating a new religion.

Step 3 – Analysis (again)

Your proposed hack is constrained by time, by impact, and by agency. It is like tuning the engine of a bus driving down the main road carrying 150 passengers. Stop the bus. Sit down. Think. Consider your solution carefully.

Time

Hacking a larp is done against the clock. The earlier in the game you are, the more likely you are to succeed. As a running experience the larp is fluid and your opportunity to implement a change tends to come with a narrow time window. Much like the fictional cyberspace cowboy trying to crack through black ICE,[3]Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE) is a term used in cyberpunk literature to refer to security programs which protect computerised data from being accessed by hackers. Black ICE refers to ICE that are capable of killing the intruder. if you leave it too long, the chance will be lost.

Agency and Opportunity

Your agency in-game is limited to what you can either do as your character, or what you can negotiate with players you can get hold of and get enthusiastic about your idea. You might have a great plan but if you lack the in-game agency to execute it, you need the off-game support from other players to make it happen.

Impact

Larp hacking is a creative use of space, but it is a shared space. Before you subvert it, consider your co-players. If the impact of your hack is significant and widespread,[4]See Sarah Lynne Bowman, The Larp Domino Effect it runs the risk of adversely affecting the experience of others. It could ruin their immersion, spoil their fun, or break their larp. Consider: Will your hack shut down play for others? Will it derail the plot? Will it break parts of the design that are working? We owe it to our fellow players to ask these questions before implementing a hack.

Step 4 – Implementation

You have a hack, you have thought it through, and now it is time to put it into action. Usually the method of implementation is baked into the design of the hack. In most cases it is a case of JFDI (“Just Do it.”), although sometimes the pace and timing is important. An elegant hack can be a beautiful piece of design, made all the more clever because it is done from within the larp itself.

Conclusion

Sometimes a larp does not work, either for us as individual players or for a number of participants. When a larp goes off-rail, it is not necessarily anybody’s fault, not the designers and not any particular players – it just happens because larps are prone to emergent chaos. For various reasons we may not want to rely on organisers to resolve these issues. Perhaps they are unable or unwilling to compromise their design. Perhaps we don’t want to discuss it with them, either through a lack of trust, or more likely because we see them as fellow larpers under an inordinate amount of pressure and choose not to burden them with our faux-world problems.

There are plenty of strategies available for larpers when things are not working but most of these approaches are techniques that work within the structures of the larp. Sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes in order to play the game, you need to change the rules.


References

References
1Steering is a conscious decision to change the character within the auspices of the design of the larp, whereas larp hacking plays with the structure. See Stenros, Jaakko. Playfulness, play, and games: A constructionist ludology approach. (2015).
2Someone who follows the tenets of the Turku Manifesto.
3Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE) is a term used in cyberpunk literature to refer to security programs which protect computerised data from being accessed by hackers. Black ICE refers to ICE that are capable of killing the intruder.
4See Sarah Lynne Bowman, The Larp Domino Effect

Authors

Martine Svanevik
Martine Svanevik is a Norwegian larper, fiction writer, narrative and game designer. A co-founder of Avalon Larp Studio, her work has featured in both AAA games and indie productions. She’s been playing and making larps since 1999.
Simon Brind
Simon Brind is a PhD candidate at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE, UK. He is researching moments of narrative crisis in participatory fiction. He has been playing and writing larps since 1985 and hopes one day to get it right. He believes in the primacy of player agency. He lives in London, England.
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