This article describes how Confraria das Ideias (a larp group from Brazil) uses music as a game design element. The text is based on own experiences and learning, especially in the larps Blind, Deaf and Dumb (2017) and The Last Night (2019), with practical examples, future ideas, and sharing different ways to use music in the larp.
Since the late 1990s, the group has been making free-style and one-shot larps, each with different themes, proposals and stories. The games are held in public spaces such as libraries, cultural centers and theaters, all free of charge to participants and funded by public and private funds earmarked for cultural projects. (see Falcão 2014)
Over the years, Confraria das Ideias has utilized music in larps in different ways, recognizing its importance in the trajectories of the larps produced.
Music is able to bring old memories to the fore and make you experience feelings such as passion, sadness, anger and joy. It is present in the performing arts and derived from its earliest movements, from Greek tragedy to modern cinema, passing through the most artistic expressions and – also – in larp.
“Music, more than any other art, has an extensive neuropsychological representation, with direct access to affectivity, impulse control, emotions and motivation. It can stimulate non-verbal memory through secondary associative areas which allow direct access to the system of integrated perceptions linked to associative areas of cerebral confluence that unify the various sensations.” (Weigsding 2015)
Since the first larps, the group realized that the soundtrack had great influence on immersion and, with some scenography, served as a foundation for the stories proposed in the characters and in the plot to manifest themselves in a more fluid way. But, over the years, this use of music in larp grew and started to gain important space in the stages of creation and execution of larp.
When the Magic Begins: Music as a Soundtrack in Larp
It all starts with an idea for a new larp. It is discussed by the group, improved gradually. Characters are written, while the scenographic proposal is created along with the plot. Design elements, mechanics and props are developed. The larp is publicized and people express an interest in participating. The day arrives, the scenography is set up for a few hours; costumes are distributed, and the entire reception is prepared.
Then, the participants begin to arrive and prepare. Once everyone are together, the guidelines for the game are communicated.
After this the proposed immersion for larp takes place, and the participants are positioned on the stage – waiting for the combined signal to start. Until that moment, the larp does not yet exist.
And that is when, as if by magic, larp manifests itself. A song appears in the room, especially selected for the moment. It is the trigger indicating to everyone that the veil of reality, of everyday life, is on the ground and that from there their characters come to life for a new world of discovery, mystery, drama and adventure.
It is magic! For a spectator, it seems that everything prepared up to that moment comes to life instantly, with the first chords of the intro music. As a kind of trance, characters take on the bodies of the players, moving them through space.
Music works not only as an initial snap, but as a catalyst for this proposed new world. It plays a dramatic role, sometimes as a diegetic element, sometimes not. It helps to set the tone of the story, to break the limiting personal barriers that block actions: it frees action and imagination, aware that they will find support and reinforcement in other participants.
The control of the songs happens in a prepared sound table, and basic equipment comprised of a notebook and sound output, strategically placed at the scene.
The complexity depends on the design of the larp, which may require constant changes in music and sound effects or just a single track throughout the game.
Paulo Renault, one of the founding members of the Confraria, producer and responsible for preparing and conducting the sound mixer, uses the Virtual DJ software to conduct the tracks during larps, says:
“Among the ways of giving rhythm to the larp, the sound, through music or sound effects, is something that plays in deep layers of the player. The use of equipment such as a mixer allows mixing effects and sounds, creating an immersive outdoor atmosphere for the game.”
As in the larp State of Grace (1997, 2011) where the soundtrack is composed of Gregorian chants in a constant loop, helping to transform the atmosphere of a traditional São Paulo mansion into a French monastery of the Middle Ages.
Or as in the larp Neon Dragon Express (2018, 2019), where the theme is a cyberpunk adventure. The soundtrack is composed of electronic and industrial songs that are played interspersed with pre-recorded ads and various reports that are inserted by the organizers according to the narrative of the game.
In both cases, music exerts a strong power in the participants’ imagination, quickly placing their minds and hearts on the theme planned for the larp.
In the larp Extraordinary Stories (2009, 2014, 2015, 2020), inspired by the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and set in a masquerade ball in the 19th century, the soundtrack also has the mission of helping the sensation the passage of time. In addition it marks important moments such as dancing in the main hall with the waltzes of Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube Waltz, Kaiser-Walzer and Rathausball-Tänze in addition to using a dramatic and apotheotic melody for the final moments of history, with Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell (soundtrack by Requiem for a Dream, version with violins).
The choice of songs to compose the track are contextualized and planned in the production stages; but it is important to pay close attention to the operation of the sound board. After all, the execution of the tracks ends up directly reflecting on the game’s actions, but it can also be influenced by them.
When the design of the larp requires this type of complexity in the operation, the organization needs to keep an eye on the larp’s events. From this perspective, they decide to change the pre-selected tracks and sound effects, in search of a better immersion and correspondence with the game, and also end up influencing the rhythm of the larp.
One might say that the music helps materialize the larp, with its execution bringing in the concepts of the game planned previously.
It is closely linked to the design of the game not only in its content and sequence of execution, but also in the format that it presents itself. One example is the larp Club D (2016) which has as its setting a mansion of the highest society, where it was decided to replace the sound table with a pair of professional guitarists, thus seeking the atmosphere of refinement that live classical music provides.
A New Trick, Another View
As a larp designer you can propose an experience that uses, as a tool, or a collection of songs where the lyrics provide insights for the players during the larp session.
The idea is to use the songs to evoke emotions, memories and feelings in the participants, as a way to employ bleed to create larps with more introspective themes.
“At its most positive, bleed experiences can produce moments of catharsis: when the player and character emotions are synced in a powerful moment of emotional expression. Most often, these experiences manifest in great displays of joy, love, anger, or grief; in-game crying is often associated with bleed.” (Bowman 2015)
The first larp with this perspective sought to capture the aura of the album Tommy (1969) of the band The Who and create a game that was born from a very personal reflection on the album.
This became the larp Blind, Deaf and Dumb, about a group of young people who over the years need to deal with the frustration, trauma, disenchantment and misunderstandings of adult life.
This time, the songs came to have a direct influence on the larp’s narrative. As a designer, it was necessary to dissect track by track of the disc, and from this analysis make the content reflect on the dynamics of larp.
This is not a literal transcription of the album into larp, even though it is present all the time from production to the execution of the game, but rather a source of inspiration for something new.
The larp was divided into acts, which represented the passage of the years. The players were workshopped to interpret music as part of the mechanics indicating not only the beginning and the end of each act, but also insights for the characters, who had plots created from excerpts of the lyrics of the songs.
This way, a character that had in his background, an abuse suffered by his uncle, would be impacted immediately upon hearing the song “Uncle Earn” where the theme was addressed.
This type of approach with music bringing emotional issues to the characters ends up also dealing with the affective memory that the songs exercise in the players. It has more impact on those who already knew the disc, but is capable of promoting different sensations in all the participants regardless.
“Recursively, the proposal sought to make the players’ experiences affect the sensations of the characters. The idea of a group of friends who, in the midst of disagreements, meet some times in the 47-year period was a metaphor for friendships that are absent due to setbacks in everyday life. A recurring finding by the players was that, even within the fictional environment of the larp, it was friendships distanced from the daily reality of the players that caused feelings to emerge on the characters.” (Iuama and Miklos 2019)
The larp starts with a group of friends gathered in 1969 to celebrate their last year in high school. When playing the “Tommy” album and lighting a candle, the mechanics of time travel, marked by music, begin.
The larp was set up on a theater stage. Therefore, the participants were instructed to address the backstage whenever they heard the music play, naturally, each in their own time, as if they were saying goodbye. There, they received a change of clothes and a card indicating when the next act will take place and some relevant facts about what happened in the character’s life. In addition, pre-recorded audio about events in the history of Brazil that were emblematic for the period. For example, the track Do You Think It’s Alright? was used to introduce the act where the characters returned from the “Diretas Já” marches – a movement that sought the end of the violent Military Dictatorship that devastated Brazil.
The return to the play was marked by the next song on the album, with the participants instructed to gradually return to the stage, which contained some updates of scenography to match the time.
The track We’re not gonna take it comes as a refusal to this whole trajectory full of secrets and annoyances, and the characters are invited by the stanza “See me, Feel me”, to look at themselves and return to the initial moment of larp, in 1969, with the same costumes and initial positions, and the provocation that their experience was a future that could still be changed, leading the participants to smiles and tears.
The choice to use the music to structure the larp brought the need for a guide sheet to help operating the sound table:
The Materiality of Music as a Magical Element
The materiality of the music can be used in its design, bringing benefits to the player’s immersion.
The digital format and streaming allowed the distribution of music in quantity and speed never imagined, but the relationship of object with the music, the album, the touch to feel the vinyl records or the huge inserts that exhibited art were lost representing the songs.
“(…) materiality (and ‘possibilities’) are realities that are always perceived – mediated, therefore – by human actors, as social and cultural subjects. Thus, there is a complex dialectical interaction between the cultural dimension and the properties of objects (here, specifically, the musical material), which conditions the way in which a subject and an object interact, in a given context.” (Boia 2008)
Imbued with this nostalgic feeling, a larp was imagined where players had the opportunity to experience these sensations.
With the larp The Last Night, the Confraria das Ideias proposed to create a game about nostalgia, conflict between generations and the different ways in which these generations dealt with music.
The idea of having an old radio station as a scenario sought to allow participants to discover a little bit of this tangibility of music. Immerse yourself in an era: from the touch when handling vinyl records, discovering their sounds and shape; to occupy the space of the stage, use microphones, play out the script and perform radio soap operas; bring the programme to life.
Thus, the participants had control of the larp’s own soundtrack in real time.
In the main plot, half of the participants received characters who, in 2019, discover an old radio station that was destroyed in the early 1960s by a terrible fire. The rest received characters who were the ghosts of the people who worked at the radio station, and who were stuck reliving the last night, in an eternal loop.
For the idea to work, the sound table was set up inside the radio station itself, so that the participants themselves could operate it, including releasing the microphones for live musical numbers. The players were able to choose to sing live or use playback.
The audio was broadcast live across the larp venue (stage, aisle and dressing rooms), as well as being broadcast live to YouTube to simulate the radio.
Everything that the participants chose to put on the program also became the larp’s soundtrack.
With the characters in charge of the programming, they were given the power to command the tone of the larp, alternating moments that went from comic to dramatic, allowing musical discoveries and sharing their own repertoire.
Thomaz Barbeiro, professor of history and member of Confraria das Ideias, was one of those responsible for researching the material:
“For me, as a historian and passionate about culture, the search for vinyls for the composition of “The Last Night” is, above all, an instigating work with sources and, consequently, the satisfaction of being able to take some of the critical work of historical science into a larp, a game that adds fun and learning about you, the other, about the present time and the past you want”.
Some players used the vinyl record player for the first time in their life during the larp. The touch made the experience more real, contributing to the immersion.
With fun and memorable moments, the larp came to an end, but the magic remained present: the participants did not leave the scene even after the game ended, extending the fun for a few more hours in improvised sessions of songs, novels and new random fictitious commercials.
To transfer this experience to other larps, the designer needs to plan the technical part carefully (in-game equipment connected to the sound system) and provide the material (discs, CDs, musical instruments) for the players to use. Imagine a larp where a character can put a song in a dramatic moment, and it reverberates throughout the scene? Allowing players to directly interfere with the soundtrack can benefit your larp.
Is it Possible to Use this Magic of the Musical Larp to Change the World?
By tradition and intention, Confraria das Ideias does not abstain from speaking in its work on important social issues, always seeking a dialogue for reflection and learning. And social inequality is one of the most challenging problems in Brazil (and in the rest of the world), amplified by the rise of the extreme right with an oppressive, homophobic, ultranationalist discourse, causing serious social damage and disruption in the name of its perverse economic agenda.
In this context, art through larp comes to question this model, launch a discussion and shed light on the subject.
Thinking about these issues, the idea arose of using music in a larp in order to represent social conflicts, and provoke an empathic vision.
Rhapsody Paulistana is a larp currently in production in which the players will investigate using the format of the great musicals in game mechanics, in order to engage with the genre and still provoke the participants to leave the comfort zone.
Luiz Prado, producer of larps – with a repertoire of immersive games – and a member of the Confraria das Ideias has for some time been investigating how to encourage participants to use their whole body more when composing and representing their characters in larps:
“A song can grab us by the hand and offer trips to infinite lands. We all already feel that when we hear a song that really gets us. When the song is used in larp, it is a kind of turbo for the transformation in the character and the arrival at the game world. The right music, added to the right disposition, throws the head player into a somersault without any protection in the experience”.
Rhapsody Paulistana goes in that direction, by provoking the senses further, by the observation and support in the game of the neighbor, and in how well-defined movements can be powerful communication tools in the larp.
Can magic create a safe environment that allows people to risk trying something? What tools will the organization need to bring to make this experience enjoyable and unforgettable for everyone? In addition to the obvious challenge of creating the game mechanics, one of the biggest desires is to keep larp accessible to all people, even those who don’t know how to sing or dance.
The idea is to use songs and dances as these tools, as part of the mechanics to obtain narrative turns, in addition to developing the game’s plot.
A pre-larp workshop will probably be needed to help participants to naturally utilize the mechanics throughout the larp.
It is a provocation, seeking to challenge the limits of each one, and yet collaboratively build a dense narrative.
Music comes in as a magical element to unite differences. From the erudite to the popular, create a plot that confronts social issues, put the conflicts in focus by the musical style and promote a strong reflection of social inclusion. The players can do this with a strong emotional charge, as well as a repertoire that provokes a discussion that can go beyond the larp itself.
From Magician to Magician
A larp is an open work, which is built collectively. Regardless of how you choose for music to affect your game, it is important that not only the organizational team is fully prepared and involved with the game’s proposal. Communicating the intention of the work well is a way for everyone to contribute to the game.
Music plays a strong role in immersion, in the dramatic load and in the rhythm of the larps. It will invariably affect people emotionally, so take the time to discuss at the end of each larp. Hosting well is key to ending the game well.
While designing your larp, take time to reflect on these issues. And more: What is the best alternative to strengthen the experience you are proposing with larp? Make music part of the game? Live music? Loop soundtrack? Sounds that are mixed, controlled and played in real time according to the moment of the game? Having no music at all, and using only noise and sound effects?
Whether present in the game diegetically, pre-recorded or live, do not underestimate the power of using music in the design of your larp. Songs – popular or classical – have an influence on participants (including organizers). Being aware of this and recognizing this magic that surrounds us is quite enriching.
These choices should be made while you are designing your larp, when you have a more mature idea of how you want your larp to be. There is no ready formula for right or wrong, but different ways of interacting with music.
There are a few clichés: larps with a medieval theme using live folk music, larps that take place in a bar using a pre-recorded track from the time the story takes place, etc. We encourage larp designers to use the examples provided to extrapolate the use of music, think of alternatives, create soundtracks in which the lyrics appear as an insight to players, soundtracks that have markings during the larp, or deliver to participants a way for them to make their own larp soundtrack. You might also make a mix of all this. After all, there are no ready-made rules, just good ideas to enhance your larp’s emotions and experiences.
And, at the end of the larp when the music stops, each one will leave behind those fantastic characters, but never the lived experience, which will warmly perpetuate itself in their hearts.
Boia, Pedro dos Santos. 2008. Capturing the Materiality of Music in Sociological Analysis. Institute of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, University of Porto, Jun 2008.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2015. “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified March 2, 2015.
Falcão, Luiz. 2014. “New tastes in Brazilian larp”. The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp.
Iuama, Tadeu, and Jorge Miklos. 2019. “Citizen and ecological communication: Experience of contemporary cultural resistance based on the performance of larp at the Youth Cultural Center of São Paulo”. Electronic journal of the Master’s Program in Communication at College Cásper Líbero Jun, 2019.
Weigsding, Jessica Adriane. 2015. “The influence of music on human behavior.” MUDI files v 18, n 2, p 47–62. State University of Maringá.
Mansell, Clint. 2000. ‘Lux Aeterna’. Nonesuch Records.
Strauss, Johann II. 1866, ‘The Blue Danube’, Op. 314.
Strauss, Johann II. 1889. ‘Kaiser-Walzer’, Op. 437.
Strauss, Johann II. 1890. ‘Rathausball-Tänze’, Op. 438.
The Who. 1969. Tommy. Recorded 19 September 1968 – 7 March 1969, Track / Decca.
Cover photo: Photo by Thomaz Barbeiro, larp Club D (2016)
This article is published in the companion book Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Godoy, Leandro. “The Use of Music as a Magical Element for the Larp Experience.” In Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021.