Slow Larp Manifesto

Slow Larp Manifesto

Opening Remarks

There are larps that are not action-heavy, that don’t try to offer maximum amounts of drama or complicated plots. These larps are designed to encourage players to ponder. They tell different stories than the hero’s dramatic journey. These larps rely on quiet downtime, deep immersion, and the gradual, iterated unraveling of character relations — all those small things that often get lost in big drama.

Lack of action or drama in a larp is often regarded as a design fault. We think Slow Larp should be recognized as a valid design choice that deserves more attention.

This manifesto is intended to promote serious and respectful discussion. While it is written in a generalizing, even provocative manner, we recognize that its subject matter is nuanced and open to various conflicting interpretations. The authors all share a background in Finnish and Nordic larp traditions and acknowledge that this fundamentally shapes our understanding of the subject.

What is Slow Larp?

These are the main attributes of Slow Larp. The points raised here will be explored in more detail later.

1. Less is more. Slow Larp is all about the negative space of larp: the quiet moments, the small gestures, the downtime.

2. Immersion over action. Slow Larp aims for immersion into character that is strong enough to evoke real feelings. With strong immersion, the smallest elements can become meaningful. What is often called “downtime” becomes not just lack of action, but a time of reflection, of making memories, of longing, grieving, falling in love.

3. Subtlety in play style, setting, and design. Slow Larp focuses on human-sized drama. By design, Slow Larp is more about small slices of life, status quo, and everyday stillness than about epic, life-changing drama. Slow Larp explores what it is like to simply exist as these particular characters in this particular setting. Characters are played in a naturalistic way and players trust each other to catch subtle hints about their emotions and intentions.

4. Offering potential for emergent play instead of ready-made plots. The idea of Slow Larp is to explore and iterate rather than play a plotline ”from start to finish.” Instead of plots—”what must happen”—Slow Larp offers players ”potentials”—possibilities for play. Potentials are designed elements that have the ability (the potential) to induce play, a way of offering meaningful content without forcing a chronological, designer-driven narrative on the players.

5. Slow Larp revolves around a limited set of thematic elements. These carefully chosen themes—such as “loyalty”, “environmental crisis”, or “what is a family?”—are woven into both the macro structure of the larp as well as in every character. When everyone plays on the same themes, everything happening in the larp has the potential to be meaningful for every character. Themes act as potentials and create playable content. They suggest topics to discuss and things to do, and they can create tension between characters who approach the same theme from different viewpoints.

6. Slow Larp is built on iteration and layers. Players explore the themes of the larp, their own characters, and their characters’ relationships through repeated interactions. Conversations are started, halted, and picked up again. Conflicts are not resolved in one scene and then forgotten. Instead of solving a conflict to achieve a certain goal, the unresolved conflict itself can be the main content of play. Through iteration, new insights can emerge.

7. Players create Slow Larp. Slow Larp requires time and effort from its players and is not for everyone. It is the player’s duty to navigate the game in a way that feels meaningful to them and to seek play that allows for and increases immersion. This often requires extensive preparation before the game, both to find personal relevance in the shared themes and to establish contacts and create enough trust between the players to make immersive play feel safe. Careful preparation also helps to ensure that immersion into character doesn’t lead into disruptively individualistic play.

How to Design a Slow Larp

Here are some suggestions based on our observations both as players and game designers on how to approach the creation of a Slow Larp. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list but a starting point for reflections about what the idea of slowness might look like in practice.

8. Design your larp around a limited set of themes. These are the central ideas and questions your larp explores. Ideas like “found family” or questions like “What is courage?” or “What gives life meaning?” are good examples of thematic elements that create infinite possibilities for play and reflection while funneling action in a common direction.

Everything in your larp should be designed to support the selected themes. The themes should be made visible in the macro structure of your larp—explicitly in the design document and implicitly in all diegetic materials—and integrated into every character. They are a major source of playable content and dictate the overall mood of the larp. Focusing your larp’s design on a few carefully chosen thematic elements and communicating these clearly helps in making sure the larp stays cohesive, without the need to force plot-like structures or excessive meta instructions on your players. Strong themes are also a way to bring focus to player-created content.

Avoid giving your players direct answers to the thematic questions and instead encourage reflection, exploring and curiosity. Try not to limit the ways in which your players are allowed to explore the chosen themes, unless they threaten to derail the whole larp. Discussions and workshops beforehand are a good way of making sure the focus of your larp stays clear.

Choose the themes to work together with the desired ambiance of your larp. Note that a slow design approach doesn’t have to limit the milieu of the larp to naturalistic, contemporary settings, but these often suit Slow Larp best.

9. Favor mundane and robust settings. Slow Larp settings should emphasize continuity and familiar everyday life over exceptional situations in temporary places. The illusion that the fictional world will continue after the runtime is what allows players to immerse themselves in slow and iterative play. Tight-knit communities with familiar routines offer a natural setting for exploring complex character relationships in the continuum of everyday life.

While a Slow Larp can be set in any time and place, keep in mind that the more background fiction and meta information your players have to memorize, the less mental energy they will have left for exploration and spontaneous play. The same applies to set design: suspension of disbelief always takes energy, as does being mindful of fragile props. A strong degree of realism helps with immersion and subtle roleplaying, as it allows players to reference our collective understanding of the world and convey meaning with even the smallest gestures. Aim for your location and props to offer a near 360° illusion and to be robust enough for your players to interact with without too many limitations.

The setting should always support the play, not hijack the attention of the players by being too unrealistic for immersion. This doesn’t necessarily imply that speculative elements (e.g. futuristic technology, magic, fantastic creatures) have no place in Slow Larp, but care should be taken that the wondrous does not drown out the everyday.

10. Offer your players potentials instead of plots. A “potential” is a designed element in the larp that has the ability (the potential) to induce play. Almost anything can function as a potential: thematically relevant world-building, an existing conflict between two characters, an NPC-character, a prop, a piece of news delivered during runtime, an ingame activity…

What makes potentials different from plots and meta instructions is that a potential is something a player can choose to ignore if it doesn’t seem to offer them anything. The larp as a whole benefits from players interacting with the offered potentials, but it will not crumble if some of them are ignored. Plots that must happen—and rely on player actions to do so—are usually incompatible with a Slow Larp design that encourages character immersion, iterative exploration, and focusing on player-found meanings.

While almost anything can function as a potential, they should always be closely linked with the larp’s chosen themes. Potentials should funnel and focus play towards these themes and towards shared experiences. Only very rarely should they stay secret or known by just a single character.

11. Give it time. Time is at the center of Slow Larp. The slow passage of time allows players to revisit and re-examine thoughts and ideas, to witness and reflect upon gradual changes in themselves and their environment, to notice how their experiences progressively change the way their characters think and feel. The best way to allow this to happen is to have a long, often continuous runtime.

Long runtime together with the illusion of continuity helps to eliminate the common feeling of “being in a hurry” during a larp. With a long runtime, players will have time to do almost anything they wish, and they can better choose the right moments to do those things, instead of being forced to act immediately for fear of losing the chance forever.

When designing for a long runtime, it is important to give players some structure to help them organize their time, while being mindful of not restricting them too much. Structures that come in the form of daily routines familiar to the characters are often a good choice, especially in larps that center around an established community. The routines should fit the setting and themes of the larp and have some pre-designed activities for the characters to participate in. But they should also give the players some leeway to seek out personally meaningful play, and plenty of downtime in between activities to encourage emergent play and reflection.

Designing larps with a long runtime and a lot of downtime or ”negative space” can feel intimidating. Preplanning content for every minute might seem like an easy way to make sure that everyone has something to do during the larp. But the aim of Slow Larp design is not to give players a lot of things to do; it is to facilitate immersion—experiencing what it feels like to be this other person in this other setting—and reflection—coming away from the larp with new insights.

There is no true substitute for time when aiming for deep familiarity between characters, between the characters and their surroundings, and between a player and their own character. However, if for practical reasons actual runtime is limited, these connections can—to a certain extent—be simulated and supported with careful groundwork (with active participation from the players) beforehand, and/or with workshops at the location. To ensure that players get an equal and consistent experience, this preparatory work should be viewed as an essential part of the whole, not as optional.

12. Support and trust your players. When players are expected to be in charge of their own experience, the larp designer must support that effort. Developing the experience together with players can require much more work than designing a pay-to-play larp with pre-written plots and fully-developed characters. It should never be confused with “sandbox” design, where players are often expected to navigate the larp and create play without much help from the organisers.

Be open from the beginning about the design choices of your larp and what they demand from your players. Communicate the desired play style clearly on your website or through other channels, especially if your player base is international. Encourage questions, reflection, and being okay with incompleteness—this will help familiarize your players with the iterative style of play which is central to Slow Larp.

Have your players participate in the creation of their own characters, their characters’ relationships, and the ingame world. Offer platforms and spaces for the players to discuss the larp with the designers and with each other. Do this weeks or preferably months before the larp. Meetings and workshops where the players get to know each other, develop their characters, and discuss the themes of the larp can help create the sense of familiarity that Slow Larp aims for. These meetings and discussions can transform the group of designers and players of a single larp into a temporary mini-community, which helps foster an atmosphere of safety and mutual accountability.

All this demands time, effort, and engagement from your players—resources not all of them will have in equal amounts. Like expensive “pay-to-play” larps, Slow Larp as a genre is not equally accessible to all. Instead of money, players are expected to invest their time and effort in creating the best possible foundation for the larp. If a player is not pulling their weight, the whole design or community might suffer, especially in smaller larps. For this reason, player selection is often necessary. Emphasis should be put on choosing enough players who are capable of and enthusiastic in participating in extensive preparation and creating content for themselves and others.

Since much of the emerging experience of a Slow Larp is up to the players—and to some extent chance—the quality of the design can be hard to test beforehand. This can be terrifying for a designer, but here also open communication helps to manage everyone’s expectations.  Trusting your players to do their part is essential. They need your guidance when navigating your larp, but in the end they are the ones creating the experience for themselves.

How to Enjoy Slow Larp

Designing for slowness is only half of creating a Slow Larp—the rest is up to the players. Here are some ideas on how to get the most out of Slow Larp as a player.

13. Create a well-rounded character. “Becoming” and then “being” your character are crucial elements of Slow Larp. The preparation process for a Slow Larp emphasizes becoming familiar with the inner life of your character as well as with their connections to other characters. Ideally you will be able to co-create your character with the larp’s designers, but no matter if the character is mostly pre-written or self-created, becoming familiar with them takes time and care.

Often it is easier to engage in subtle play and to find natural ways of reacting when the character in some key ways resembles yourself. Preparation is partly about choosing which different ways of being you want to explore in any given larp. Do you want to challenge yourself to be more active, physical, courageous or aggressive? Is your character filled with love or compassion? Are they naïve or ignorant? When you have these pillars of their personality down, communal preparation—and the larp itself—is about exploring how other characters react to these ways of being in different contexts.

Try your best to reserve enough time and mental resources for the communal preparation phase. It is crucial for generating a sense of community and tight relationships. Often there is shared history to be planned together with other players. Try to come up with ways to foster a feeling of deep familiarity. For some players, long storylines with specific years and dates might be important, but often it is better to focus on creating a few emotionally laden details and memories.

In a typical Slow Larp, there is little need for visually impressive costumes and character props. Often normal everyday wear chosen with the character’s personality in mind is enough. This frees you to focus more on finding an emotional repertoire for your character: their expressions, gestures and mimetics. A good way of doing this is thinking of memorable moments from your character’s past and playing them out in solo mode to generate emotive memories to use during runtime. How did the character breathe when they were surprised? What did it feel like when they made a fist and their nails pressed into their palm? These personal ways of reacting bring your character to life during the larp. Repetition helps make them more automatic for unexpected situations.

14. Be prepared to create your own experience. Slow Larp is closer to “sandbox” than “amusement park” design in that while the designers provide you with a framework, it is ultimately up to you to find personally meaningful play inside that frame. Preparing well is part of this process, but your responsibility as an active participant does not end when the larp starts.

A Slow Larp will usually have a certain amount of pre-planned content that will give structure to the larp and offer potentials for play. But what happens inside this framework is not decided beforehand. There are no character-related plots that must be advanced—like a secret that must come to light, or a betrayal that must happen. Most of what your character does during the runtime is freely improvised based on your preparations, the offered potentials, and what emerges organically from the characters interacting with their environment and each other. The ability to improvise fluently comes largely from being familiar with your character’s thoughts and reactions, but also from having listened to your co-players’ wishes beforehand. Incorporating these into your character encourages immersive play that lifts others. Aim at being so embedded inside the skin of your character that their reactions come to you naturally, without thinking.

Don’t be afraid of ”downtime” or even occasional boredom. All players have downtime and it offers a chance to either start creating play together or letting it rise naturally from the moment. Don’t stress about ”being active” or ”achieving” or ”completing” stuff. Embrace simple chores like cooking or crafting, sitting and talking. Doing “nothing at all” can be very enjoyable. Slow Larp is more about being than doing. Immerse yourself in the setting and the character. Wait to see what happens, and just be that other self in their everyday life. React to the world and its other inhabitants as your character would—that is essential and enough.

15. Be open to exploring emergent themes, ideas, and feelings. While the main themes to be explored in a well-designed Slow Larp are known to everyone in advance, what each individual player will end up focusing on might come as a surprise—even to that player. Be open to this emergent content. It might lead you to new and unexpectedly profound experiences.

Pay attention to thoughts and sensations that arise during the game, be they large or small, and try to integrate them into your play. If you are feeling frustrated, maybe your character is, too. If your shoes chafe, make that a part of your character’s day. Strive to find meaning in character interactions that are not spelled out in your character sheet or other pre-larp materials. Be curious about the other characters and don’t be afraid of steering yourself towards those interactions that feel exciting and meaningful. Be influenced by other players’ choices and paths during the game, but also stop to take the time to ask yourself how your character feels about what is going on around them.

In contrast with many other genres, a Slow Larp will not have a clear list of predefined objectives for your character to achieve, or a straightforward character arc to play out. Instead, you start with the knowledge of who your character is and what they want—or think they want—and a firm grasp on the inner workings of their emotional landscape. Your understanding of your character will deepen during the larp, but you will often have to feel your way gradually towards what constitutes the most essential content for you to play on. It might not always be what you expect.

During the larp, completely new directions might emerge that will become relevant for you. Because there is nothing your character absolutely needs to do, you are free to explore these new directions without having to worry about neglecting an important plot line elsewhere.

16. Play subtly. What exactly constitutes “subtle play” varies from culture to culture. For one player, subtle play might mean conveying your character’s emotions with small facial expressions. For another, a full-blown shouting match could still be subtle, as long as it feels authentic.

Subtle play in Slow Larp means playing in a way that feels natural and genuine. Characters behave and talk in a way that would not be out-of-place in everyday situations outside the larp. Conversations are not built of theatrical one-liners, but remain meandering and ambiguous. Let your character’s reactions arise naturally from who they are and what they feel in that particular moment. Trust your co-players to understand subtle hints about your character’s thoughts and feelings. Instead of proclaiming, “You have betrayed me and I hate you!”, let this sentiment seep into your character’s every word and gesture: Will their words turn cold and poisonous? How will their body-language change? What actions could they take that will let the other character know how they feel?

Instead of choosing an action with the most dramatic effect, in a Slow Larp it is usually best to steer towards the most meaningful effect. What this means in practice inevitably varies from situation to situation and character to character. With good character immersion, these choices become nearly automatic. If you do find yourself having to make a choice, think of what your character would most naturally do, or what action will lead to the most meaningful play for you.

17. Be okay with incompleteness. Subtle play also usually means a less formalistic dramatic arc for your character. The concept of a story arc is deeply ingrained in us by our culture’s long history of dramatic fiction. It might take some practice to leave that concept behind. When you give up the idea of a rigidly-defined plot with a clear start and finish, you gain more room for exploration and sideways movement.

In a Slow Larp, not every thread needs to be tied during runtime. If your character’s story is left open-ended at the close of the runtime, you can continue processing it and find even more relevance and meaning post-larp. In real life, events don’t always come together like pieces of a puzzle, nor is this necessary in a larp.

It is natural to second-guess the choices you have made during the run of a larp. There are usually so many opportunities and possibilities that something is always left undone or unsaid. By choosing one activity you inevitably miss out on another. An important part of Slow Larp is being okay with this, of understanding that the things you end up doing make up the unique whole of your experience. You can ascribe your own meaning to the events, interactions, and feelings you experienced during the larp. Because there are fewer dramatic markers (no coup, no zombie invasion, no final battle), you have more freedom and also more responsibility to make up your own interpretation of what were the most essential experiences for you. Because there are no static plot lines, there are few if any things you absolutely have to accomplish for your larp experience to be complete.

18. Know what you want and don’t want. Like any other genre, Slow Larp is not a good fit for everyone. Players who like to hold immersion for a long time and enjoy being profoundly immersed in their character benefit from Slow Larp design. Players who like philosophical pondering might enjoy a Slow Larp for its thematic content. Players who prefer a reactive playstyle over an active one may find the more relaxed pacing of a Slow Larp more comfortable for them.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for an adrenaline-fuelled experience, where dramatic actions follow each other in quick succession, other genres may better suit your preferences. It is not useful to persist in trying to fit into a play style that does not come naturally to you, or that you have no interest in exploring. Looking for dramatic adventures where there are none to be found may, in the worst case, turn out to be detrimental to the experience of others.

Still, many players are versatile and like variety, and so will sometimes choose a Slow Larp and other times a more plot-oriented or action-filled one. Be curious and find out what genres and styles of play work best for you.

In Closing

Much of the trouble in seeking out or running a Slow Larp successfully comes from our lack of shared vocabulary around them. How can you find out about or discuss something that doesn’t have a name?

We want Slow Larp to become a well-defined genre in its own right. We want larp designers and players to be able to talk about this genre, about its defining elements, its strengths and its weaknesses. We want people participating in Slow Larps to know what to expect in regard to design elements and stylistic choices, the better to enjoy the rich layers and rainbow palettes of emotions Slow Larps can offer.

With this manifesto, we want to give Slow Larp a name.

This article was published in the Knutepunkt companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Kannasvuo, Sara, Ruska Kevätkoski, Elli Leppä. 2021. “Slow Larp Manifesto.” 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.

Photo by Samar Patil on Pexels.

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Sara Kannasvuo is a Finnish larper, larp designer and a creative professional interested especially in conceptual and transformative larps.
Ruska Kevätkoski (b. 1983) is a Finnish larper and organizer who makes enthusiastic noises about transformative and slow larping, equality, and community-based practices.
Elli Leppä (b. 1980) is a Finnish larper and poet with a particular interest in transformative larping and playing emotionally close to home.