Pandemic Larp Improvisation

Pandemic Larp Improvisation

Larp organizers have learned a thing or two about organizing scenarios. How have we applied those skills during the COVID-19 pandemic?

If nothing else, larping means engagement. Players invest themselves in bringing made-up characters to life, mapping a fictional world onto our real world. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic of the past several years, engagement became a scarce commodity.

Every organization, be it schools or businesses or governments, wanted to re-engage with its constituency who, through pandemic isolation and general neoliberal precarity, had understandably become detached from society and lacked the necessary motivation to do most activities of institutional benefit. You know: all of us.

Ironically, just as we ourselves as larpers could no longer gather – since our events are natural super-spreaders of any number of diseases, including COVID-19 – my own larp expertise began to be called upon as an asset and skillset. I started getting messages from Fortune 500 companies and major news outlets about this thing called “larp,” which could then be leveraged to win back – you guessed it – engagement from their customers, students, and volunteers.

My tales of pandemic-era collaborations in non-larp and larp-adjacent contexts highlight both the very special medium (of larp) with which we work, as well as the limitations of such collaborations.

Image of players in costume in an online video conference

Screenshot of the crucial Zoom call in which University of Cincinnati students role-played cardinals electing a pope.

Temptemus Papam

The 1492 Papal Election was an absolute shitshow, and I ran it as an online larp for a history class at my university.

The conversation began in fall 2020 when Dr. Susan Longfield-Karr in the History department at the University of Cincinnati reached out to me as Director of the UC Game Lab about running a “papal election larp” called Temptemus Papam that famous SF author and historian Ada Palmer ran at University of Chicago in 2018. I took one look at the materials as a larpwright and was overwhelmed: over 50 character sheets 6-12 pages in length, with many different overlapping subsystems for combat, intrigue, religious favors, economics, and inheritance. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages lay before me, all during a time when my own patience for this much reading was stretched to its natural limits. I agreed to do the project on one condition: I would need to substantively pare down the material and scope of the game, in addition to adapting it to a remote experience rather than an in-person one. Dr. Longfield-Karr agreed. The UC Papal Election Game was born.

We transformed Temptemus Papam into a correspondence game, like the old play-by-mail Diplomacy runs. Over the course of 8 weeks, player-characters would exchange virtual letters with each other while sending “orders” for any character action to me. Every week, a video would be posted online with updates and the results of the previous week’s orders, giving the players a sense of agency and impact. All of these videos and the letters would be stored in a shared online folder, from which the passive players taking on the roles of historians could assemble the history of this particular election based on player-generated “primary documents.”

Dr. Longfield-Karr and I tapped into 2 different funds available to us and hired ourselves a larp team: history student Matthew Photides made hundreds upon hundreds of shared folders to deposit letter correspondence, Erich Pfingstag made the videos, and Felicity Moran assisted with student communication. We had intrigue, kidnapping attempts, and even a few cat-and-mouse murders as letters flew.

Several faculty playing NPCs got very involved in their characters, leading me to believe that participant safety is equally important for non-players. Two Zoom meetings let us first conduct the papal election, and then inaugurate the new pope, who turned out to be Rodrigo Borgia, the very person actually elected pope in 1492.

Image of a computer directory with character names

One of the many shared online folders containing letter correspondence in the UC Papal Election Game.

D&D Speed Dating

Shared-folder correspondence was only one form of online larping I organized. Another was in the long-standing virtual community Second Life, as part of the event SLarpFest organized by Celia Pearce and Jenn Frank in 2021 at the IndieCade island. The game I ran was Marc Majcher’s First Impressions, a Dungeons & Dragons-style speed-dating larp from his book Twenty-Four Game Poems.

The premise of the game is simple: a group of fantasy adventurers go on a series of “dates” to determine whom they’d like to include in their questing party. Players get to embody fairly basic fantasy stereotypes while also deepening their own relationships with each other –– often role-players whom they’ve just met. In-person at conventions, I can run the game for 8 people in about an hour. The reason why I run it at conventions is also the reason why it worked well in Second Life: it’s short and it helps people navigate an awkward social situation. Most of our players knew either Second Life or larp, but almost no one knew both well. They’d switch partners maybe 3 or 4 times, with me calling them back to the tavern each time.

Players felt safe enough to experiment with their avatars and their roleplay without too much worry about the stakes or consequences. First Impressions in fact served as a “warm-up” larp for other, more intimate and serious SLarpFest games: Angel Falls, a funeral larp inspired by Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) by Pearce, Frank, and Annika Waern, Athena Peters’ Regency matchmaking game Romancing Jan, and The Sleepover by Julia B. Ellingboe and Kat Jones from the Honey and Hot Wax anthology, which deals with teen queerness and sexuality.

All of us at SLarpFest were veteran larp organizers, and thus understood the relationship of comfort, safety, and community-building even in an online space: seemingly “silly” games like First Impressions build the trust necessary to take further role-play risks. Many of us have been running games on Discord, Zoom, and now Second Life for several pandemic rules, and our previous in-person larp experience directly applies to building necessary trust and competence in online spheres.

Ongoing and Upwards

Organizing continues! Jones and I have joined the writing team for JEWEL, a 2-day interactive experience for Jewish teens in Cincinnati. We’re using the larp design toolbox to help plan an event in which the participants experience Moses’ teachings and then mourn at his funeral. JEWEL is intended to reconnect Jewish youth with the social-justice meanings and embodied nature of their beliefs. But it is also an opportunity. JEWEL lets us take part in an exciting new world of event planning, in which larp activities can be integrated into broader community events with large constituencies and deeper pockets.

“Larping exists in various other activities besides larps,” wrote J. Tuomas Harviainen in his 2011 article “The Larping that is Not Larp.” This persistent fact is solace during a time in which we’ve all become radically separated from one another and larps themselves are endangered by logistical and pandemic-level uncertainties. Our own generation of larpwrights are now, voluntarily or not, performing what Rudi Dutschke called “the long march through the institutions”: the incorporation of larping into whatever organizations we serve, with whomever will take a chance on our vibrant and evolving form.

These organizations have, at last, discovered that engagement isn’t to be taken for granted. We as larpwrights can now choose to engage, too.

References

Harviainen, J. Tuomas. 2011. ”The Larping that is Not Larp.” In Think Larp: Academic Writings from KP2011, edited by Thomas D. Henriksen, Christian Bierlich, Kasper Friis Hansen, and Valdemar Kølle. Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespilsakademiet.

Cover photo: SLarpFest attendees hang out in the tavern on the IndieCade island in Second Life. Photo by Celia Pearce. Image has been cropped.

This article is published in the Knutpunkt 2022 magazine Distance of Touch and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Torner, Evan. 2022. “Pandemic Larp Improvisation.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt 2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 78-82. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.

 

Authors

Evan Torner (b. 1982) is an American professor of German who began doing larp theory and design a decade ago. He co-founded the Analog Game Studies journal and the Golden Cobra Challenge. Photo by Jenni Toivanen.
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