This Larp Sucked – and Everyone Should Get to Read About It

This Larp Sucked – and Everyone Should Get to Read About It

Writing about larps is hard. They are ephemeral co-creations that exist both in a measurable, physical reality, and in the participants’ imagination. The participants’ experiences are not just different receptions of the same work as in passive art, but they include objectively different content. Oftentimes, no one, not even the organisers, has seen the entire piece. Finally, participants process these experiences extensively, after runtime, alone and as a group, whether on the spot through debriefs and after-party discussions — leading to ”the post-game lie” (Waern 2013) or weeks later, through in-group online chats and photo uploads. 

These challenges have been eloquently discussed by Nordic larpers for over 15 years, with people alternatively referring to public larp feedback as reviews, criticism, or critiques. However, these categories may not always translate well to certain countries (Ahlroth 2008). In a series of educational articles, North American larpers used passive art definitions to define what would be larp critique vs. criticism vs. review (Roberts & Stark 2017a, 2017b, 2017c, 2017d). A critique focuses on one particular aspect of a larp and frames it in its artistic context, and it is more aimed at scholars. Criticism would be rather aimed at providing feedback to the designers/organisers (I’ll use “organisers” for short). A review would talk more about the writer’s own global experience at the event and be aimed at potential future players. In the latest Nordic article on the topic, Kangas (2022) mentions larp critique in the title, but also extensively covers challenges of reviews, pointing out the lack of both. And yet, in spite of these well thought-through pieces, in 2024, there is still no comprehensive repository for larp feedback that would be:

  • public and easily accessible (neither requiring sign-up to a closed Facebook group or Discord, nor having to search for each individual larper’s blog)
  • in English (international larps have a global audience)
  • online (not everyone can afford to travel to Solmukohta to hear feedback in person)
  • free from organiser control.

There are no print larp magazines with global reach, and there is not enough space in a single Knutebook per year to review a significant portion of the scene. The Nordic Larp website (nordiclarp.org) is receiving more submissions (see below), but it is still nowhere near a RottenTomatoes / GoodReads / TripAdvisor / Google Reviews of larp. The last two are indeed not art review websites: in my opinion, a larp event cannot just be a work of art, it is also a real-life physical experience, often paid for, and should also be reviewed as such. 

If you end up being beaten by a cast member at an immersive theatre experience that advertised “no physical contact”, poisoned by a chef in a restaurant, or if your AirBnB had bed bugs, your review would probably mention it. All three can happen in a larp, and could therefore be in the scope of any public larp feedback. Most larp organisers are not paid professionals, and this should be taken into account, but neither are many AirBnB hosts. The monetary transaction to an unknown party can make larp a different activity than just “doing art with friends”.

One of the reasons there is so little public larp feedback is that these articles may have unintendedly discouraged some players from writing any. First by emphasising intrinsic challenges overtly, second by using passive art criticism as a benchmark. For example, the requirement to put things in context of the artform bans any first time larpers from writing a critique – and might discourage them from writing a review. Even an old fart like myself cannot be bothered with carefully referencing other games in his reviews or thinking about his reader’s cultural environment, and thus the messy walls of text stay in friends-only Facebook posts. As Kangas (2022) writes, larp criticism is a “thankless process”, and the final straw is the fear of retaliation. No novelist can prevent reviewers from reading their next book once it’s published. A larp organiser can totally ban a reviewer for life.

But why would anyone want to review larp events anyway?

For both Ahlroth and Kangas, the main ethical conundrum around larp reviews is that, to fully experience the larp, the reviewer needs to participate, hence will be a co-creator, the “violinist reviewing the orchestra’s performance”. Kangas also discussed the effects of active decisions from one participant that may not even have been part of the larp’s initial design (e.g. steering). But both authors concluded that larp critique is really required for larp to be taken seriously as an art form.

I do not care whether larp gets taken seriously as an art form. What I do care about is participants – they matter more than the games. Right now the discourse is controlled by only one type of participant: organisers. From pre-game online material to sign-up/casting process, to highly curated audiovisual content (sometimes posed, off-game photos, or highly edited video clips), organisers control most channels. Even talks at Solmukohta about specific larps are usually given by the organisers themselves. When players are invited to speak, they are usually sandwiched between two organiser speeches in which the organisers get to introduce and reframe the testimonies. 

In private conversations with organisers and unrecorded Knutepunkt presentations by larp scholars, I have heard about structured before/after assessments in two famous Nordic larps that were intended to be transformative. One was found to be no more effective than a dance class, and the other one was sometimes actually detrimental to the values the larp intended to foster. The organisers just did not include this key player feedback in their post-game communication. For a scene that prides itself on transparency and free speech, there sure is a strong culture of omertà.

But I don’t want to be trashed as an organiser!

First, this is not about you. If you want private feedback as an organiser, read Waern’s (2017) great article on this very topic. This is about players. I have been both a player and an organiser. As a player, I have given candid feedback to larp organisers, in person, by private email, and in public blog posts. As an organiser, my larps have been both praised and trashed by their players, to my face while still at the game site, in private emails, and online. I know full well that organising larps can be extremely taxing physically, mentally, and financially. Any negative feedback about something you have invested so much of yourself in can feel extremely painful. 

Does that mean organisers should get away with everything? With lying in their pre-game communication? With unethical behaviour during runtime? There will always be people who comment negatively on events, so it might as well be people who were actually there. Looking back at 10 years of Knutebook articles, it seems acceptable for authors to comment at length on larps that they did not attend, that were run in countries that they have never visited, and that were played in languages that they do not speak. Would we accept all three from a book or opera critic? Sometimes these authors have not even talked to any of the larp’s actual players: they based their articles only on curated audiovisual documentation and on the organisers’ word.

To level the playing field, player feedback should be available on a platform where it could be useful for both organisers and future players, who can then decide if they want to participate in reruns or in new events run by the same team. Consent is only truly consent when it is informed.

Some organisers have said that if such a central repository existed, they would stop organising. I do not want anyone to quit, but the current situation of hidden backchannels to obtain candid reviews reinforces cliqueishness, in-crowd phenomena that excludes newcomers. This is far from the oft-professed Nordic goal of inclusivity and learning as a community.

But it’s not objective!

There are several ways to document things that actually happened. Both Waern (2013) and Kangas (2022) describe ways of taking notes during breaks in the runtime, while Axiel Cazeneuve describes how they mentally put themselves in “recording mode” during runtime and write everything down afterwards (Cazeneuve & Freudenthal 2021). But technology can also help. Tiny cameras are now affordable, and they can be used to unobtrusively photograph or film an entire short game if other participants provide informed consent.

Years ago, I time-lapsed Le Masque de Boba Fett (Switzerland 2015, Eng. Boba Fett’s Mask), a Star Wars larp, with a tiny GoPro, from arrival on site to post game chats. The photos not only made for fun memories, but they also showed me how much I drank, and how alcohol affected my experience – positively in this case. I was also wearing a research-grade medical device that tracked my movement, blood pressure, heart rate, and sweating. This allowed me to confirm that tense scenes (even when immobile) triggered objectively measurable stress responses, but that my pre-game period was actually even more tense than runtime (B. 2016). 

Nowadays, consumer-grade smartwatches can refine this data collection through unobtrusive experience sampling. I am not saying that all reviewers should always revisit hours of play on a screen without the magic of imagination, nor that they should wear wireless electroencephalograms. But both handwritten notes and recording devices can help verify whether fast-paced action was actually as constant as advertised – or whether most of the game actually consisted in boredom/quiet reflection?

Even without any technology, if people leave the game before its planned end, it is an objective event that I want to hear about as a potential player of a rerun, especially if any of these were ragequits. Objectivity can also be positive: these Star Wars larp photos showed me details I had no memory of. And even if photos do not quite look like how you remember a scene, that very difference is part of the effect of the larp. What made it different from the raw visual?

Non-anglophone examples of public larp feedback

Before it was killed by the rise of social networks, the website Au Fil du Jeu (Eng. In the Course of the Game; Aufildujeu.ch) acted as a main portal for the French-speaking Swiss larp scene. Organisers would announce their games, and participants would often write post-game feedback under the initial post. While post-event debates sometimes got heated, they were extremely useful to me, a newcomer in the Swiss larp scene. Was it really a big deal for me that some non-player characters were unkillable, or that there wasn’t enough roasted boar for every player? Maybe not, but it allowed me to learn about the local organisers and their game styles.

In France, the largest larp review site is L’univers du huis clos (Eng. Chamber Larp Universe), a repository of more than 170 larp scripts. People who have downloaded and played a script sometimes write public feedback in the comments section of its page. Some reviews are very short, others provide details about how actual runs went, but they remain mostly written by organisers rather than players. 

For a more thorough journalistic review site, the French website Electro-GN (Eng. Electro-larp) provides both larp previews by organisers, and reviews of games by players. As many of these larps are rerun regularly, reading about how the organisers’ vision actually panned out is extremely valuable. These reviews help me assess the odds of having a satisfactory experience after taking a day off from work and 8 hours of travel to a remote game site to co-create with people I have never met.

The Czech website Larpová Databáse (Eng. Larp Database) is a larger review repository, in which larpers can comment on games. I do not find the 1-10 rating feature informative, but the most reviewed game, De la Bête (Czech Republic 2014, Eng. Of the Beast), has 192 written comments of various lengths from individual players. Now compare this to Parliament of Shadows (Belgium 2017), a high profile international larp with so few public reviews that the most sobering one is available only in Polish and on a Polish website (Skuza, 2017).

So, are such sites reserved to larpers from fiery Romance or Slavic debating cultures? Can people raised with protestant moderation under Jante’s law do it in English for the whole world to see?

Elements I would appreciate in a larp review

First of all, there is a lot of excellent advice in English out there. The recommendations that Waern (2013) provides for larp historians are also useful for reviewers:

  • PLAY!
  • Talk to both players and designers (and game masters)
  • Collect multiple views on key events
  • Collect media

Unlike Waern, I am not looking for neutral larp history. I do want to know what you, as a player, liked, what you did not like, and why was that. I do want to hear whether the larp was run as advertised. Kangas provides additional tips and tricks, such as using a pen name or providing group feedback. Stark and Roberts proposed a structure for larp critique, but it could be useful for any larp feedback: “Theme, Setting, Tone, Pre-game activities, Structure, Techniques/Rules/Mechanics, Facilitation/GM Role, Post-larp activities”. They also advise to show compassion, assume the best and avoid snark. However, I think some snark is OK, especially if the organisers treated you badly.

It seems like the Nordic Larp website has also noticed that meeting art critique standards may be one of the reasons they have not been receiving much reviews, and thus they decided to call this public feedback “larp documentation”, specifying:

Does it have to be a critique/criticism/review? No. We are very happy to publish those, for sure, but what we mostly want is straightforward accounts of people’s experiences. We don’t need you to say what you thought was wrong about the larp, or to suggest how to improve it, or so analyse it within some critical framework. Just what it was like, and how it was for you, will be perfect.

Should I write a long narrative about my character’s journey? A documentation piece is not a long account of your character’s narrative arc, but rather discussion about your overall experience and your reflections about it. Ideally, you will be able to provide some details about the basics about the larp setting, themes, and organisation, along with a brief account of your experience, and any takeaways. Bonus points if you can connect the larp to other texts, larps, or theories in the discourse, but this is not required. (Nordic Larp 2023)

Since participants matter more than the games, I would also love to read about player well-being.

Corporeal well-being

A book may give you paper cuts and move you emotionally, but a larp will by definition affect your body, potentially up to bodily harm. Players’ pre-game health affects their experience and could be relevant to it. I started The Monitor Celestra (Sweden 2013) with gut issues and cut my scalp open on a doorway – literal pre-game bleed. An eye infection at Conquest of Mythodea (Germany 2004) required immediate antibiotic treatment, making me miss a full day of game. To avoid sweat dripping into my eye, I could not wear the silicone mask that fully covered my entire head and neck, and therefore had to change character, which affected my experience.

Quite often, organiser choices affect players’ physical well-being, so it makes sense to write about those experiences in a review. One example is hygiene: were there enough bathrooms for everyone? Could people change their sanitary products and contact lenses in the bathrooms? Also, did you get accurate information about the conditions where you would be living and playing? For example, pre-game information about De la Bête mentioned that I would sleep in a castle, but not that it would be so dusty that my black costume would become grey every day. It was honestly not a big deal, but it could be relevant for future players. When discussing health related issues, you should obviously only share what you are comfortable with, what is relevant to your experience at the game, and you should always respect the privacy of other participants.

Emotional well-being

In Fat Man Down (Denmark 2009), a 2-4 hour jeepform/freeform scenario originally designed for the Fastaval festival, players consent to roleplaying scenes from the life of a fat man and the people making his life miserable. Just before going in character, players are told by the organiser (without the player of the “fat man” hearing) that his use of the safeword should be ignored. Meanwhile, the player of the “fat man” is given the real safe word and will therefore get to observe the other players breaking a game rule. 

This constitutes bait and switch as the players did not consent to participate in an experiment testing their willingness to break agreed-upon rules and to potentially abuse a co-player. In a scientific setting, this type of “forced insight” experiment, without the oversight of an external ethics committee, would get the organisers fired or disbarred. But in the Nordic larp scene, several larpers have told me: “Sure it’s a bit unethical, but it’s an innovative design! It’s great art, so it’s OK!” Parts of the Nordic freeform/larp scenes may have moved on from this “provocation first, people second” approach, but how many players have signed up for this game without even having the option to read player feedback?

People often joke about Type II fun and extreme emotional sports, but do larpers sign up to get abused? I need to see whether limits are clearly announced on a larp’s website, but I would also like to hear whether they were actually respected. Not just by the organisers, but also by supporting casts and co-players. And if all of the above was perfectly healthy and safe, well, that’s a great thing to know for future players too!

Financial well-being

Since the advent of international blockbuster larps, sign-up fees have been getting closer to the median monthly income of several European countries. It would be only fair to get some accurate information about the larp before spending such an amount of money (plus costume and transportation). Furthermore, personal time investment for larps that rely heavily on co-creation by the players can mean allocating weeks into online pre-play. Before investing these resources, it would be great to be able to check whether the game is a good fit for the player, and not have to rely solely on the organiser’s website. An ageing population of players may have more money, but also less free time. Between raising children and minding their carbon footprint, a lot of people are ready to larp less – if they can larp better.

Creative well-being

Once all of the above have been considered, I want to hear about the game itself, but not just in a neutral, descriptive manner. Did the themes come to life as communicated? How? Did cheesy aliens with green antennae crash the Dangerous Liaisons larp that was announced as historically accurate? Did the much-touted lavish set and prop design live up to the hype? 

If your own character’s plot was not satisfactory, what happened? Do you think it was because of your own playing, a confusing character text, or other players refusing to play to lift? Or did an interdimensional demon portal “main plot train” run over the intimate love stories that were supposed to be the core of your experience? Conversely, if you had ecstatic, life-changing scenes, how did they happen? Did they resonate with your own, pre-game interests, or did you discover an entire new side of your personality? And what about the other players? Did they seem bored or did they seem to get more out of the larp than you did? Any of this information could be useful. And the best part is that you do not have to actually include any of it for your public written feedback to be more valid and useful than the current silence.

Just do it. Please.

Two of the Nordic Larp website’s latest player “documentation pieces” perfectly illustrate the value of ignoring the strict requirements of artistic critique. In his “documentation” of Gothic (Denmark 2023), Juhana Pettersson (2023) discusses his past personal interest in the topic, takes a behind-the-scenes look at specific aspects of the design, and describes some key scenes and his feelings about it all. Simon Brind’s (2023) documentation of the erotic horror larp House of Craving (Denmark 2019) is self-described as “a gonzoid attempt to make sense of what the fuck just happened”, but both pieces are really useful.

These two are great examples of reviews/testimonies/public larp feedback, and we need more (including on the very same games, even the very same runs) to hear more perspectives. We especially need reviews by people who are less known in the Nordic larp scene and may suffer from impostor syndrome.

If none of the advice above helps, you can always start by just writing down three things you liked, three things you didn’t, and then explain why you did or did not like them. That would already be better than the current situation. Other future participants would thank you, and again, they, like you, matter more than the games.

References

Ahlroth, Jussi. 2008. “Leave the Cat in the Box: Some Remarks on the Possibilities of Role-Playing Game Criticism.” In Playground Worlds, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola. Jyvaskyla, Finland: Ropecon ry.  

B., Thomas. 2016. “Your Brain on Larp: Questions and Tools for Neuroludology.” Presentation at Solmukohta.

Brind, Simon. 2023. “A Trip Beyond the House of Craving.” Nordiclarp.org, Oct 26.

Cazeneuve, Axiel, and Michael Freudenthal. 2021. “Immersion en GN pour l’analyser ? La recherche en jeu de rôle grandeur nature (Eng. Immersion in larp to analyze it? Research in live action roleplay).” BEta Larp, October 23-24. Michael Freudenthal, Oct. 24.

Electro-GN (Eng. Electro-larp). 2024. Electro-GN.com.

Kangas, Kaisa. 2022. “Possible, Impossible Larp Critique.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt https://leavingmundania.com/2017/05/30/why-larp-critique-is-awesome/2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.

L’univers du huis clos (Eng. Chamber Larp Universe). 2023. Murder-party.org

Larpová Databáse (Eng. Larp Database). 2021. Larpovadatabaze.cz.

Nordic Larp. 2023. Facebook post on Nordic Larp Page. , ref Nov 22, 2023

Pettersson, Juhana. 2023. “The Immortal Legacy.” Nordiclarp.org, Oct 11.

Roberts, Alex, and Lizzie Stark. 2017a. “Notes Toward Larp Critique: Exploring Critique, Criticism, and Review.” Leaving Mundania, April 19.

Roberts, Alex, and Lizzie Stark. 2017b. “Why Larp Critique Is Awesome.” Leaving Mundania, May 30.

Roberts, Alex, and Lizzie Stark. 2017c. “How to Write Good Larp Critique.” Leaving Mundania, July 16.

Roberts, Alex, and Lizzie Stark. 2017d. “Practical Tips for Writing Larp Critique.” Leaving Mundania, July 31.

Skuza, Andrzej. 2017. “Relacja z LARPa Parliament of Shadows – przewaga cieni nad parlamentem (Eng. “Report from the larp Parliament of Shadows – the advantage of the shadows over the parliament”).” Graj Kolektyw, December 4.

Waern, Annika. 2013. “How Can We Know What Actually Happened in a Larp? Nordic Larp Talks. YouTube, April 22.

Waern, Annika. 2019. “How to Gather Feedback from Players.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, 373-388. Copenhagen, Denmark: Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Ludography

Conquest of Mythodea. 2004. Live Adventure Event GmbH, Germany.

De la Bête. 2014. Rolling, Czech Republic.

Fat Man Down. 2009. Frederik Berg Østergaard, Denmark.

Gothic. 2023. Avalon Larp Studio, Denmark.

House of Craving. 2019. Participation Design Agency, Denmark.

Le Masque de Boba Fett. 2015. Nugerôle, Switzerland.

Parliament of Shadows. 2017. Participation Design Agency in collaboration with Oneiros and White Wolf Entertainment, Belgium.

The Monitor Celestra. 2013. Alternatliv, Bardo and Berättelsefrämjandet, Sweden.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

B., Thomas. 2024. “This Larp Sucked – and Everyone Should Get to Read About It.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas et al. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay. Image has been cropped.

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Authors

Thomas B. is a French roleplayer who lives in Switzerland. He wrote for Backstab, Casus Belli, Larpzeit International, Roolipelaaja, multiple Knutebooks, Radio Rôliste and the In Nomine Satanis / Magna Veritas RPG line. His 1997 larp script La croisière s’accuse (a Love Boat murder mystery) is still being run to this day. He later co-designed the larps In Cauda Venenum, Technocculte, Shadowrun and Afroasiatik. He stopped making his English-language larp reviews public in 2014. This article is an exception.