Basics of Efficient Larp Production

Basics of Efficient Larp Production

This article was originally published in Juhana Pettersson’s collection of larp essays, Engines of Desire. The book is available here: https://www.nordicrpg.fi/store/tuote/engines-of-desire-print-edition/

[This article is also available in Spanish, at: http://vivologia.es/fundamentos-de-la-produccion-eficiente-de-vivos/
Thank you to Vivologia for translating it!]

When I started organizing larps, there was only one way to run a production. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call it the Infinite Hours model. Under this model, a fairly large team of volunteers puts in a massive amount of work to realize a labor of love. Leadership is focused on making the larp as amazing as possible through the brute expedient of work, work, and more work. People are motivated by the desire to make as much cool stuff as humanly possible.

In productions like these, ambition rules. Some of the greatest larps of the Nordic tradition have been made like this. If you count work hours and calculate what they would have cost if anybody got paid, you get incredibly high figures. Because of this, larps made under the Infinite Hours models often punch far above their weight in production quality.

Infinite Hours can lead to great work but they also have a cost. Under this model, people burn out. Organizers don’t sleep. Stress accumulates and makes people leave the scene entirely rather than subject themselves to another round of self-sacrifice.

I’ve made larp like this too. Almost every veteran organizer in the Nordic larp scene has.

The goal of this article is to lay out an alternate mode of production. I call it efficient larp production; and it’s important to ask, efficient in terms of what?

This is not about saving money. Rather, I’ll lay out a production method by which organizer stress is minimized and the effectiveness of a single work hour is maximized. The purpose of making the work more efficient is to allow for more rest, sleep, and leisure. The goal is that by the time the larp is over, organizers feel energized and happy, not worn out.

You can make great larps using the Infinite Hours model and terrible larps using the efficient model, or vice versa. How good a larp you create depends on your creative vision and design, not the choice of production model. This is about the wellbeing of the people who make larp, not the quality of the work. That’s a separate discussion.

photo of a trailer with a bag hanging off of it

A detail from Death By a Thousand Cuts, created using the guidelines in this article. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Labor

There are three principal ways to structure the labor of a larp production. Counterintuitively, if nobody gets paid you can demand much more from them. Often they also demand much more from themselves. If people are paid, either all or some, questions of fairness and distribution of workload tend to arise because the project takes on the character of professional, paid work.

The all-volunteer model is the most traditional way to make Nordic larp. Full volunteer teams are often large, as people excited by the project join in. Project leads often work extremely hard for long periods of time, taking on hands-on work on top of coordination. It’s not uncommon for people to drop out during production because of stress so new volunteers come in to replace them. This can happen at all levels of the production.

Under the semi-volunteer model some organizers get paid while others work as volunteers. At the professional end of larp organizing this is quite common. Participation Design Agency, the makers of larps such as Baphomet and Inside Hamlet, has made productions like this. I’ve also used this model in larps like Enlightenment in Blood and Tuhannen viilon kuolema (Death By a Thousand Cuts).

Typically, in a semi-volunteer model organizers who work on the larp over a long period of time get paid, as well as those with specialized skills not available on a volunteer basis. Unpaid volunteers are used especially during the actual runtime of the larp event. The model is similar to that used at film and music festivals in many countries.

The challenge of running a semi-volunteer production is to ensure that everyone feels fairly treated. The people who get paid should carry the responsibility and the stress while the volunteers should get to participate in an interesting, meaningful way. This means that it’s harder to justify having volunteers shoulder the kind of extreme workloads you encounter in all-volunteer productions.

Finally, in a professional model everyone gets paid. The realities of bespoke Nordic larp design are such that this is very hard to do, because even big productions have small budgets. Perhaps this will change if subsidizing larp production by the state or cultural foundations becomes more common.

In a fully professional work model, the available resource pool in terms of people and work hours is the smallest. Since people are paid for their work, and work must be fairly compensated, the amount of work everyone does must remain reasonable. An increase in workload must come out of the budget, and the budget is always limited.

a person in a suit standing next to another seated person with pieces of art behind them

A wealthy character at an art gallery in Death By a Thousand Cuts. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Bang For Buck

A design choice is efficient if it produces the maximum amount of meaningful larp action with the minimum amount of organizer work. This can be understood quite broadly: A beautiful prop that everyone in the larp sees which energizes their commitment to the setting is equally as good as a great innovation in character design that makes them motivate players to new heights of spontaneity at half the pagecount. What matters is that most choices made in the production follow the basic calculation of bang for buck. Or if not buck, then work hours and stress.

You need to start each larp production by doing an analysis of the idea from the perspective of efficiency. Does the overall larp idea seem like it’s possible to realize within the model presented in this article? It’s important to note that the answer may well be no. Some larp ideas are possible to organize efficiently, others are not. Some larps can only be made with Infinite Hours. For example, if the concept involves a large number of individual, distinctly different, custom-tailored player experiences, it’s probably impossible to make under the aegis of efficiency.

Maximizing the efficiency of an organizer work hour makes it possible to organize big larps with small teams. This is especially helpful for those organizers who are trying to make larps professionally and aspire to a sensible hourly wage. There are two ways to be paid properly for the work you do as a professional organizer: Higher pay and less work. Since the economics of larp organizing often mean that money is tight, it makes sense to see if hours can come down instead.

Specialization

“In our production, everyone does a little bit of everything.”

This is the absolute worst way to organize larp production.

Each individual organizer has resources that are spent at varying rates. Time, mental capacity, stress. Time is the easiest of these to measure and allocate but running out of mental capacity and accruing too much stress leads to burnout and long-term mental health problems.

The reason I strongly prefer larp organizations where everyone has a clear job title is that it makes it much easier to manage stress. If everyone does a little bit of everything, everyone is also responsible for everything. Everyone must stress about everything.

In contrast, in a team composed of specialized organizers, everyone is only responsible for their own sector. If everyone has food, the cook can sigh in relief and doesn’t have to think about whether the workshops are running properly. This way, an individual only has to stress about the work they control and understand.

A team of specialized organizers is only possible with the help of coordinators whose job is to make sure everything gets done by someone. These roles are typically those of producer, creative lead, or similar. Ideally, the coordinator delegates instead of doing practical work themselves.

In ideal circumstances, a larp organizer has wide autonomy to take care of their own responsibility while trusting others in the organizing team to do their part. Coordinators take care of problems and deficiencies in work allocation. This results in an efficient management of stress, since the number of things you have to stress about is minimized.

photo of a person holding a serving tray with champagne glasses while someone checks their phone in the background

Death By a Thousand Cuts was a simulation of Finnish class society in the shadow of climate catastrophe. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

System Thinking

Efficient larp organizing requires systems thinking. Ideally, you don’t engage with the larp at all on the level of an individual playable character. Rather, you design interaction systems that provide the desired types of experiences for as many characters as possible. If an idea benefits only several characters, it should be discarded.

There are several tactics that can be employed to keep your thinking on the system level:

Always think of characters in terms of groups, not individuals

You can set a minimum group size, such as six for a smaller larp or ten for a bigger larp, to make sure you don’t accidentally start fiddling with individualized content.

Recycle

You can use the same idea over and over again as long as it’s not experienced repeatedly by the same players. For example, the larp has three secret societies. In the fiction they are different but no player will be in more than one of them. This means you can use the same rituals for all three. It might make the fiction incoherent from a top-level vantage point, but that’s not where the players are experiencing the larp from. The chaos and co-creation of larp will give each society a different texture even if they’re the same on paper.

Design interaction engines instead of plots

A plot is a handcrafted sequence of events. It’s very labor-intensive and thus bad for efficient larp design. An interaction engine is a mechanism in the larp that creates action. A single well-designed engine can create massive amounts of playable content in the larp thus freeing the organizers from writing bespoke content.

I learned this framework from working with Bjarke Pedersen. In the larp Baphomet, there’s a necklace. If you wear it, you are the god Baphomet and people will react to you according to specific interaction rules. The necklace roams the larp, worn by different people, generating action. It’s very simple but results in a vast variety of action.

Empower players

This is not the same as outsourcing elements of organizing to players. Rather, you want to give the players as much creative agency as possible so that they engage with your design in a robust, active way. This means that all content that you create naturally reaches more people who use it more thoroughly. Typical design choices that encourage this are transparency and a robust fiction that won’t break if the players start improvising.

Once you see the entire larp as a system, it’s easier to grasp which parts can be junked, which copied and repeated, and which must be handcrafted. Systems thinking has the additional advantage of helping you recognize blind spots in the larp’s design. For example, let’s say that you’re making a larp about love. If you design character experiences individually, it’s easy to get sidetracked and accidentally make a character who’s not connected to the theme of love. Designing on a system level helps avoid this because love is present as a systemic element.

photo of people in black working near a table with snacks, with one listening to headphones

We built a live radio station for Death By a Thousand Cuts, called Murder Radio. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Personal Touch

All design that requires one-on-one consultation between an organizer and a player must be cut if at all possible. Ideally, an organizer relates to players and characters as groups, not individuals, during the preparatory stages of a larp production. This changes during runtime when taking care of individual needs becomes important for each player to have a good experience.

For example, a character creation process where a player makes their character together with an organizer is unacceptable because it requires the organizer to custom-tailor content for an individual player. This is extremely work-intensive and thus inefficient. In contrast, a process where the players create characters in organizer-run workshops is fine because a single organizer can handle a large group of participants.

The time between signup and runtime is when players have the largest amount of individual demands on the organizers. In my experience, 5% of players are responsible for 95% of questions and other requests for organizer time. To discourage this, I’ve found it best to try to cultivate a strong understanding of the larp’s vision and fiction among the participants, so that they feel comfortable making their own choices without having to consult an organizer.

Note that as with all the guidelines presented in this article, there are always special cases. In my own experience, working with participants with disabilities to help them have a good experience is a sensible use of organizer time even if it’s only for one person.

Writing

The number of words that have been written for a larp is never, ever an indicator of quality. More text doesn’t make a larp better.

Indeed, the opposite is true. Players are human beings and because of this they have limited cognitive capacity. Their ability to retain information from text is bound by their human nature. This means that the goal with larp writing must be to communicate as much as possible with as few words as possible. Information must be clear, concise, and immediately understandable. This way, players grasp it quickly, and organizers avoid the work of producing unnecessary textual mass.

Personally, using the character software tool Larpweaver revolutionized my larpwriting because it makes it possible to have complex characters with much less text than before. It automatizes a lot of tedious labor. However, Larpweaver also requires an unorthodox approach to how characters are designed so it may not suit everyone.

Other methods for reducing writing labor are character-building workshops where the labor of character-making is transferred to the players, and larp design that’s not very character based and thus doesn’t require long character texts.

In my experience, transparent design often makes it possible to eliminate labor that’s not strictly writing but adjacent to it. An example is character sendout, a truly tedious task that can be removed if you can dump the character texts into a Google Drive folder and allow players access to all of them.

Photo of a Volkswagen Westfalia van parked on a city street with an open door.

A portable venue used for Death By a Thousand Cuts. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Physical Production

When considering efficiency in a larp’s physical production, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean compromising quality and comfort. Rather, it’s a question of how to allocate resources effectively so that the maximum number of players get to enjoy each feature.

Using existing locations, props, and infrastructure is probably the greatest single trick to efficient physical production. If you find the right castle for your magic school, you don’t have to spend so much time decorating it. What you need is already there. This is one of the areas where consideration of the larp’s concept and the realities of production most overlap. It’s a recurring topic among larp organizers: “I’ve found this great location. Now I only need to come up with a larp that works there.” That’s efficient larp production!

Efficiency favors relatively homogenized design where all participants either have similar experiences or one of a very small set of different experiences. In terms of physical design this means favoring props and scenography for big scenes and large groups of people. Beautifully decorated meeting halls, big showy props, and dramatic lighting are all examples of efficiency.

In the Finnish larp Proteus, the production team built a combat simulation in an airplane hangar, a spectacular set piece with smoke, lights, cars, and guns. The story of the game was built so that all characters got to experience it in small groups. The simulation was a repeating instance. This way a labor-intensive showpiece benefited the maximum number of participants.

Note that there are circumstances where it does make sense to put effort into physical production even if it only benefits a small number of players. Efficiency is not an absolute. One example is the dietary restrictions of individual players. Catering to them may be time-consuming, but it’s also necessary for the purposes of making the larp accessible.

people discussing a topic around a table, some seated, some standing, with a surfboard behind them

Airbnb is a great place to find interestingly furnished venues for urban larp. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Kill Your Darlings

Imagine this scenario: The night before the larp, the creative lead sleeps only an hour because they’ve stayed awake sculpting a cool prop by hand.

Never do this. Unless the task at hand is literally a matter of success or failure for the larp, you should cut features that require giving up sleep immediately before the larp’s runtime. Rested organizers are better organizers.

Killing your darlings is important at all stages of larp development, but especially so in the late stage of the production when it becomes clear how far your resources stretch. And remember, sleep and stress are resources. You should aim to have an efficient, rested crew during runtime; and sometimes that requires cutting away cool things at the last minute.

In my experience, the cool thing is often a custom-built technological solution that would be so awesome if it worked. At some point, you have to decide that you will live without it instead of wasting resources on troubleshooting that will lead to nowhere. Indeed, existing off-the-shelf technological solutions are nearly always better than unique prototypes, because of their reliability.

Here it’s important to remember that the players won’t miss features they never knew about. If you didn’t tell them there would be a scale model of a spaceship in the main atrium, they won’t be disappointed that it was never finished.

Casualties

There are some things you lose in the search for efficiency. A lot of larpmaking is driven by a love for detail, cool props, and interesting individual characters. If you want to go to the extremes of efficiency, there’s no place for those things. You only design what you need, nothing more.

Personally, I’ve never gone quite that far. Once the production machine is running efficiently, sometimes you’ll find the time to add a few little details, fun easter eggs that only benefit a few players. The important thing is to do these with your surplus energy, not by cutting from your own wellbeing.

When talking about efficient larp production, a common protest to the ideas presented here is that efficiency removes all the things that make it fun to make larp. If you’re running a larp production with volunteers, this is something to keep in mind: Why are these people helping you? Ideally, you can organize the work so that they can create the features that make it all worthwhile for them while cutting elements they’re less passionate about.

Happily, if you do this right, the larp benefits, as people are often at their creative best when making something they believe in. As a coordinator, you may sometimes have to cut one of your own favorite features so that a volunteer can have theirs.

A person grabbing another person's arm while a third person watches in shock

Death By a Thousand Cuts ended in murder. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Sustainability

My hope is that over the long term, efficient larp organizing makes it possible to sustain a larp community where people don’t get permanently burned out. Instead, they’ll hopefully be able to continue organizing for years to come. Similarly, for some of us this model makes it possible to make larp professionally, thus leading to more larps that people can play.

Another word for efficiency might be sustainability. The goal is that after a larp production is over, the organizers feel good, perhaps a bit tired, but still basically ready to do it again. This way, experience accrues in the community, great projects get made and people feel good about working on larps.

Perhaps even so good that at the afterparty of one project they’ll already start thinking about the next one!

Cover photo: We invited our funder Finnish Cultural Foundation to participate in the larp by providing a venue and one of their staff for a scene. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen. Image has been cropped. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Authors

Juhana Pettersson (b. 1980) is a Finnish novelist and designer of larps and roleplaying games. His best known larps are End of the Line, Halat hisar, Luminescence, and Parliament of Shadows.
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