Designing the Designer

Designing the Designer

“Everything is a designable surface”, as the larp designer, writer and theorist Johanna Koljonen (2019) says.  This means that every single aspect of larp can be designed for particular effect: scenography, characters, workshops, communications, costumes… Even the absence of design can be designed. You can make the conscious design choice to leave a particular aspect of the larp open to the chaos of emergent play.

In many larp productions, the designer of the larp is visible to the participants. Perhaps they post about the larp on Facebook, run workshops or chat with players arriving at the venue.

If we take Koljonen’s maxim seriously, we have to conclude that the person of the designer is also a designable surface: how they dress, talk, come across. Is the designer stressed and angry or relaxed and reassuring?

The Second Run

In 2021, we made two runs of the larp Redemption (Finland 2021) and in 2022 we did two runs of another larp, 3 AM Forever (Denmark 2022). I was working with different teams but there was a subtle yet noticeable phenomenon in both larps: the first run had a nervous edge and the second run was more relaxed. This is one of those qualities that’s hard to quantify but when you run a lot of larps, you learn how to read the energy of the crowd. Running the larp twice back to back makes it possible to subjectively compare the vibe of two sets of players.

So what could cause such a difference?

For the players, the run they played was their first experience of the larp. Although there were minor adjustments, neither larp underwent substantial revision between runs. It was just the same larp, played twice.

However, one thing was different. Me. Us. The organizers. Talking with participants preparing to play the first run of both larps, I was nervous. We’d never run the larp before! Would it work? Of course I tried to keep cool but humans are often very good at picking up subtle social cues, especially in groups undergoing an intense process of socialization.

At the workshop of the second run of both larps, I felt relaxed, buoyed by the knowledge and experience gained from already running the event once before.

I started to wonder: was the nervous edge of the first run caused by the nervousness felt by us, the organizers? Did the players pick up on our emotional state and mirror it, the way humans often do?

Designable Surfaces

What are the different areas that can be designed for in terms of how the participant interacts with and experiences the designer?

Examples are social media, workshops and runtime, and discussing the larp after the event, for example at conventions or on messaging apps. There’s also a difference whether the organizer who’s interacting with a participant is someone tasked to do that, or a team member whose main function is something else.

Social media. In many larp productions, the first interactions are online. Social media posts, answering questions on Discord and Facebook. Maintaining a friendly persona is easier when communications are not immediate. If a prospective participant gets on your nerves, you can take a break, breathe, and then respond instead of going with your first reflexive take.

It’s a good idea to agree in advance who speaks with the voice of the larp in public, online spaces. This can be done by one person only, or several, depending on your chosen communications strategy. What matters is that everyone who speaks to participants projects a friendly persona and knows what they’re talking about. You should avoid disagreeing with each other in public as that damages the credibility of all communications very quickly.

The tone of online communications also matters. Going full corporate can backfire because it makes the larp feel sterile and unfriendly, not the communal experience so many larps strive to be. The question of the right tone varies by the individual but I usually try to go for a personable but somewhat official persona.

To be official, it helps not to reply to messages late at night and to keep the language and syntax correct instead of casual. You should avoid sharing personal emotions unless they’re positive ones related to organizing the larp: “I’m so excited to meet you all on site!”

To be personable, you can share carefully curated personal emotions related to the running of the larp: “I love seeing player creativity bring the larp to life!” You can empathize with individual players in a positive way and share updates from the larp team’s process: “We’re meeting with the team today!”

You have to find a way to use your own personality in a manner that feels natural to you, otherwise you risk sounding fake and alienating. If your communication feels forced to you, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate it.

On location. I recently played in the larp Gothic (Denmark 2023). The venue was a mansion in the Danish countryside and each run had only ten players. t. When we came to the venue, there were organizers busy making the larp run but always also someone whose job it was  to talk to us. To sit down with us in a relaxed manner, asking after how the journey to the larp went. The workshops all followed this pattern, leveraging the larp’s limited number of players to make each interaction friendly.

This is an example of designing the designer.

When players arrive, they often feel nervous and jittery. They haven’t yet settled into the flow of the larp and they’re worried about all kinds of things, from their own play to food or accommodations. It’s enormously helpful if there are relaxed organizers present.

Chatting with the players is an organizer task. It should fall on those team members who have slept properly and maybe even enjoy talking to players. Meanwhile, the stressed-out scenographer should be allowed to build in peace.

Workshops are an obvious area where organizer presentation matters a lot. The energy projected by those running the workshop carries over to the larp. It’s important to feel that the experience is in safe hands, that you can trust the people you’re with and that everyone is friends here.

In situations like that, designing the designer means sending out the team member who can put on the most convincing facade of reassurance to talk to the players.

After runtime. The period after the larp event is the trickiest one in terms of designing the designer because of the question of how to set boundaries. When does the responsibility of the larp designer end?


It’s easy to be idealistic when designing the designer: we should always be accessible to participants, respond to every need and be available for emotional support forever even after the larp has ended.

The problem with this approach is the limited nature of the human being. If we demand everything of ourselves, we risk exhaustion and burnout. Because of this, part of the process of designing how you come across is about boundaries.

Before the larp, perhaps you’re only reachable via a specified channel, such as an organizer email address. You won’t do larp business on Messenger in the middle of the night.

During the larp, perhaps issues related to the wellbeing of individual participants are handled by a dedicated safety person. This way, the stresses of running the larp won’t cloud handling the needs of individual participants.

All of these design choices are about the wellbeing of the organizer. That too is part of how to design the designer. The best way to appear relaxed and cool in front of the players is not when you learn to fake it, but when you’re genuinely not suffering from intense stress. When you feel good, your participants feel good.


Johanna Koljonen (2019): Essay: An Introduction to Bespoke Larp Design. In Larp Design, edited by Johanna Koljonen, et al. Bifrost.


3 AM Forever (2022): Denmark. Juhana Pettersson, Bjarke Pedersen, Troels Barkholt-Spangsbo & Johanna Koljonen.

Gothic (2023): Denmark. Avalon Larp Studios.

Redemption (2021): Finland. Maria Pettersson, Juhana Pettersson & Massi Hannula.

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

Pettersson, Juhana. 2024. “Designing the Designer.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo: Photo by John Hain. Image has been compressed.

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Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish writer and roleplaying game and larp designer. His best-known larps are Luminescence, Halat hisar, End of the Line, Enlightenment in Blood, Parliament of Shadows, Redemption and Saturnalia. He has published over a dozen books, including the collection of essays about Nordic larp Engines of Desire. He currently works at Renegade Game Studios as the Lead Developer for World of Darkness releases.