With: Sandy Bailly, Brian Bors, Debbie, Raúl Peña Fernández, Evie Hartman, Steve Hatherley, Sydney Mikosch, Will Osmond, Inge-Mette Petersen, Gerrit Reininghaus, Amalia Valero, and Wibora Wildfeuer
The pandemic was catastrophic for physical larp but also acted as the catalyst for the development of online larp.
Larp has been heavily affected by the pandemic. For a long time physical larps weren’t an option so people started trying online experiences. It felt like we were taking a (digital) road trip to see what was possible, tourists in this thing called online larp.
And what a trip it has been already! Obviously, online larps existed way before the pandemic hit, but it still felt like witnessing a creative revolution. With little to no experience in running games online in the case of most, designers started experimenting and creating new games.
Even the name seemed to be up for discussion. The artform has been called “laog” (live action online game), digital larp and online larp, among other things.
Game For a Year
The experiments resulted in a wide range of games. For example, games were created with a playtime ranging from one hour to months (continuously). You could be sitting behind a laptop, or walking around, or be guided through the story through music, or lie on the ground in something akin to guided meditation. It could be video, with or without sound, or text only or voice only, or a combination of these options.
The creators of the larp could send emails before the larp, or use websites, or send letters or complete packages to your home address. The themes could be anything: serial high-fantasy, dystopian future, or current day slice of life. It could deal with very serious matters, or could be comedy and slapstick. The player could be the same as the character so what you see is what you get, or players could be represented by an avatar with a fake background. You could create art, or cook and eat together, or take a bath, make music, solve puzzles, and write fiction.
It made for a wide range of options available for interested players.
Lessons For Designers And Players
It was a lot of experimenting, and not everything worked. The players learned how to dress up when your costume is only visible for the top half and from the front. Some people would stay behind their laptop unless there is explicit room to take a break, so bio breaks needed to be specifically added. It’s not easy seeing if someone is ok if they’re only visible on a screen, or not visible at all, so safety became more important. And having an online larp with 25 people in the same call for a longer period of time is not the best option, so designers created smaller groups.
The tech and internet wouldn’t always work properly, and drop offs needed to be taken into account. And not all technology could be used by everybody, so people were limited in what to use.
Of course, technology created part of the experience and took a huge leap during the pandemic as well. The amount of new apps becoming available, or existing apps changing or adding new features, meant a whole lot of new options. Discord, Teams, Zoom and Jitsi were used to create online worlds. Proximity chat apps like Gather and SpatialChat were used to mimic the feeling of walking around and talking to other players. Adding a virtual background became a thing. Snapchat was used to alter player appearance.
Online larp has come a long way the last couple of years. So let’s see some of the sights we have witnessed along the way!
Sightseeing 1: Start From Home
From offline to online.
Gerrit Reininghaus started with online larps when he moved to Central America because no other options were available. He started by translating physical larps like Winterhorn to the online larp format.
Converting from off- to online is something that happened a lot at the start of the pandemic. Debbie joined the online version of the larp Empire. When the pandemic started, they were playing tabletop roleplaying games but found it lacked the connection with the character. They also missed the interaction with the players from Empire.
The bards from Empire, basically the musicians who would perform during Empire in the live games before the pandemic, created online evenings for song and story time. Everybody could join, in costume, and act like they would normally do at the physical larp around the campfire. A couple of people could sing or tell a story, using Twitch, and the audience could listen or comment using text.
Regular evenings would have 20 to 30 performers. It was a great reminder of what the characters were about, although it was less playing a character and more hanging around. People did get creative and did things that wouldn’t have been available during the physical larp. For instance, a performance with a green screen and puppets, including recordings of the puppets which were played during the song.
Steve Hatherley turned the physical games he designed into online games at the start of the pandemic. He discovered that the usage of bots is an advantage for running games.
Murder mystery was already a usable format for online so it didn’t need must adjustment. People were starting to get together using Zoom and freeform games could be played the same way. It did have limits for the amount of people that could play and the length of the game. Normally a weekend game with 60 to 70 people was possible but the online format meant adjusting this to a maximum of 25 people. The duration had to be capped at a couple of hours.
Debbie also joined the Glasgow Vampire larp, their first time larping online. It was a physical larp campaign turned online, mostly using only voice and a picture of the character but no video. Separate channels represented physical rooms.
The channels contained a description of the location and made it possible to play in a wide range of places. For Debbie, online made it possible to join the game because they don’t live near the physical game location. It was easier to join the campaign as an online player.
After adapting physical larps for online play, Reininghaus started thinking about the real possibilities of online. One of the online larps Reininghaus created, Make Up Moments, was first run in 2018 and uses the camera as a mirror. It’s for up to four players, and lasts one to two hours. Players put on makeup while talking to other players, in preparation for a big event.
Players see themselves in a mirror and other players can see them through the video. It ends with a selfie shared with others. This is something that wouldn’t have been possible in a physical larp, and there are other technical and safety possibilities to explore as well. Reininghaus says he enjoys the accessibility, being able to do things you couldn’t or wouldn’t do offline. It’s empowering.
Online turned out to be a safe environment where you can get a larp experience.
Sightseeing 2: The Space Between Us
Designed to be replayed.
The Space Between Us is, without a doubt, the most run online one shot larp during the pandemic. The designer Wibora Wildfeuer created a complete design document which made it easy for others to run the game, and they have.
With translations into many languages, people playing it multiple times, the estimate is that it’s been run over 50 times. Wildfeuer herself ran it 17 times. Sydney Mikosch ran the larp 15 times, and described the experience as shutting your mind off for a couple of hours and being in another world with other people. They found it to be a very immersive larp, offering the possibility to create an experience together that sticks.
Wildfeuer didn’t have any experience with online larps before the pandemic and played just a couple before she created The Space Between Us. She guesses that its success can be attributed to replayability and the pandemic.
“It wasn’t written for Covid on purpose, but it has themes that coincide with Covid. Everybody wanted to larp, and it mirrors all the stuff that was happening in real life.” The basic story has five family members, each in their own spaceship, trying to find a new Earth. The players don’t have to prepare except by reading their pre-written character which includes a separate secret role and the setting background. The larp contains a couple of different scenes and starts out without much interference by the organizer. Just the characters interacting with each other.
Wildfeuer designed the larp so that players as well as characters interact only via video. The larp is limited to five players and has a fixed amount of scenes. This created a structure and a setting where each player got the same amount of play time, but wasn’t on screen the whole larp. Wildfeuer explained that she designed the characters as a family to make sure that the players felt a close connection, so the larp is mainly about the relationships and their past.
You can learn more about Wibora Wildfeuer’s work here: Instagram.com/wiborawildfeuer
The Space Between Us is available here: wiborawildfeuer.itch.io
Sightseeing 3: I’ll Have What They’re Having
It’s special to have dinner together eating the same food, face to face or online. I’ll Have What They’re Having was a larp where you are eating together online, created by Sandy Bailly. The dinner wasn’t brought to your table, you still had to cook it yourself, but all players were having the same dinner and were eating together. As member of the larp’s crew Amalia Valero explained, it had a physical component while still being a digital larp.
The larp was a slice of life story with prewritten characters for 16 players set in a near future dystopia. You couldn’t eat in a physical restaurant so you had dinner online with the food being brought to your home. The players got the recipes in advance and could cook the food between the in-game acts
You formed a duo with another player and had dinner together with another duo. The people in the group swapped so you would have dinner with different people each time. It used Discord with different channels to simulate different restaurants.
The recipes gave people an option to try some new things. Players Will Osmond and Sydney Mikosch both still cook the food that was part of the larp. Osmond considers it a great experience, going beyond the obvious. Mikosch thought it was great fun to cook the food with the recipes provided during the breaks, and says cooking it now still brings up memories from the larp.
Bailly got the idea for the larp while watching the tv-series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. Its stories revolve around food, and seemed really larpable. Eating food together forms a connection between people, even when you’re not at the same location. The food you were eating could always be a subject to talk about. Unintentionally, it turned out as a feelgood larp.
The breaks were used to cook food, but also made sure that screen fatigue wasn’t a thing, with enough time between two dishes.
The result was a low key slice of life larp, which brought people together and let them co-create the story. Just eating food together and having a good time.
Sightseeing 4: Hack From the Damn
Hack the planet.
Hack From The Damn was an online larp based on the idea that in the near future quantum computers allow quantum hacking. It centered around a broker server where four different collectives could join an auction every week to bid on jobs and then have the rest of the week to prepare and run the jobs by hacking a server.
The mechanics for hacking were based on the board game Space Alert, and were basically a puzzle that needed to be solved in 10 minutes. The jobs generated cryptocurrency and a better reputation when they succeeded, and cost money and reputation if they didn’t. The collectives could also interact with each other, the client who provided the job, or just hang out on the server.
The larp used Discord, with different channels for the different groups and clients. It had 2 bots, to keep track of the money and skills for every player, and to run the actual hack. Github was used to set up the challenge with a random generator. People communicated through text chat and voice on Discord. Google Drive was used to share all documentation.
Brian Bors came up with the idea and started the larp after the first lockdown began. All physical larps he was running or playing shut down so he had nothing to do all of the sudden. He started asking people to form a larp team before having an explicit design. This resulted in a huge organizer team since other people didn’t have much to do either.
The setting and rule system were created in a couple of days, with the expectancy to run the larp for a couple of weeks. Instead, the larp ended after six months.
Both players and organizers worked together creating the bots, the story, the background and the jobs, making short films and writing characters. After a couple of weeks the game was set up and the first auction and jobs were run. It wasn’t part of the design to let the game continue 24/7. There was just the idea that the servers didn’t have to be shut off after the auction and the hack. The result was that the players continued playing when they wanted. The game ran continuously from April 2020 to June 2020, then introduced breaks until it definitively ended in September 2020.
Bors said that the game was a joy to run and play, but wouldn’t set up something like this again. The fact that the game ran continuously for so long made it too heavy for the organizers.
Sightseeing 5: So Much To See, So Little Time
An explosion of creativity.
As with any road trip, there is so much more to see but not enough time to see it all.
Each Tavern Quest game is titled according to the same format: Meet At the Dungeon, Meet at the Space Station, Meet at the Shipwreck and so on. They have different formats but the same design and tech. The story and characters are different for every meet, so characters can be meeting in a dungeon, or a tavern, or a space station. The play time is a couple of hours, and it’s run on Discord, with the different channels being used for different rooms. It’s a lighthearted drama where, as player Will Osmond explains, you try to do the worst thing possible and want to create as much chaos as you can.
The Loop is a weekend long larp where you play a character, or a catfish that is played by a character. It is a contest where characters are voted to leave a couple of times during the larp and then can reveal if they were who they said they were. It is text based, played on Discord. Player Amalia Valero commented that: “People are completely free to play whatever they want, not limited by their bodies.”
After Dark is about people sitting behind their webcam trying to communicate with each other without making noise, since it seems that noise is what attracts monsters that roam the streets. It can be played with for instance Zoom, and lasts a couple of hours. The relationships in the larp are a family, so it’s easy to feel a deep connection with the other players.
Together Forever has different formats but is basically a weekend larp on Discord. You create a character, the relationships are created by the organizers, and you have a date in a near future dystopian future where you can’t meet other people in person so you have to meet online. An AI will decide who you should be matched up with. Inge-Mette Petersen played most of the formats and thinks the larp is easier to play online than offline. It’s a co-creative world where ideas from the players are incorporated into the story.
Zoe’s Christmas Task Force For Personal Betterment / Zoe’s Easter Egg Experience
A weekend larp inspired by TV series like The Gilmore Girls. It’s a romcom. People find love, get married, break up, get sick. It used Discord and had channels to represent all the different locations: the bar, character’s houses, the park and so on.
The Road Ahead
Beautiful things to come!
Now that we’ve seen the sights along the road that brought us so far, it’s time to look ahead at what we might expect in our future travels.
We can start with the question of what are we going to call the opposite of online larp? Offline larp? In person larp? Physical larp? Or bluntly flesh larp, as suggested by Will Osmond.
In person, offline games are back on the table and up and running again, which has already resulted in declining interest in online larp. There are fewer online larps available, fewer players want to play online larps and fewer new larps being created. Online larp designer Gerrit Reininghaus expects online play to continue because the financial advantages and the option to play internationally are such obvious advantages. Designer Sandy Bailly suggests it will experience a resurgence in winter when there are less physical larps.
The Advantages of Online
Online larps still have the same advantages as before, being more accessible for people with physical issues, affordable, easy and environmentally friendly because players don’t have to travel. You can meet players from all over the world.
Osmond thinks that relationships during online play can be very intense, more so when the story is congruent with sitting behind a screen. Using channels or other options only available in a digital space also means that it’s easier to switch between conversations, leave chats when things get overwhelming while still being able to continue to play.
Digital representation can make it easier to create a world and digital effects can be used. It can be just as immersive, or immersive in a different way, as in-person larp. Sydney Mikosch discovered that the online larpers seemed to have formed a strong community and think it will keep going. It can be fun to just play a more lighthearted short online game, when you want to socialize with other people. As Amalia Valero pointed out, online larp tells stories you can’t tell in a physical medium: “It’s not going to be the huge thing it was during the pandemic, but it is its own medium and will tell its own story.”
One interesting avenue of exploration is hybrid larps, where parts of the larp are in person and parts are online. The in-game experience can be divided between in person and online, as seen in the German larp Healing, where some participants played online and others in person.
The same larp can have an online and an offline version, such as in the case of Together Forever. It started as an online larp, but has a physical run coming up in 2023.
Some things work better online than offline. Switching rooms, finding people, creating a spotlight for everyone, watching people without them watching you, turning your screen upside down, using bots to count money, creating spaces that are accessible for specific groups, asking for play and a ‘dear diary’ mechanic where you can explain to other players what your character is feeling.
The technology which will also advance. Evie Hartman is working on a website to compare the different options available (gvguide.com) and is also working on ways to compare the 150+ different (proximity) chat options available. According to Hartman, the spatial chat options are not yet perfect but they’re getting there. The experience from the past couple of years is that platforms can be changed if people want it. She wants us to be louder as a community so we can help change the platforms. As she explained it: “Things developed for games will develop because people think it’s fun.”
Hartman thinks that the tallest mountain top to climb will be Augmented Reality (AR), when it becomes possible for instance to find objects in AR and not have to look for cards or other representations of those objects.
Online larps were an option before the pandemic, the pandemic caused lots of new stories and options to be added to the online experience and now we’ll see where the artform goes next.
Cover photo: Players using backgrounds to great effect in The Space Between Us. Image by Amalia Valero.
This article is published in the Knutpunkt 2022 magazine Distance of Touch and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Otting, Ylva. 2022. “The Online Larp Road Trip.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt 2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 100-104. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.