Experience vs. Imagination – Effects of Player Age

Experience vs. Imagination – Effects of Player Age

Larp is a broad-ranging hobby, covering a plethora of subjects and every situation and scenario under the sun, with participants aged from 8 to 80. It is often stated that imagination is the limit – that anyone can play any role – but is that the reality?

We rely on the alibi of larp to allow us to play different roles, the acceptance that the reality of the characters and the setting may diverge from our perceptions. Young can play old and a school can be a spaceship, because we agree it is so.

However, while in a fantasy larp the difference from our reality applies equally to all characters and their players, for larps set in the recent past this disconnect may be less clear-cut. One player’s fictional reality may be something that other players have actually lived through. In these larps, the player’s age and/or experiences may alter their experience and thus the actions of their character.

Are age and generational experience something players and designers need to take into account, and if so, what impact do such factors have on play experience?

Emotions and knowledge

The 1980s and 1990s serve as the backdrop for a number of larps. In some, like Just a Little Lovin’ (aka JaLL, Norway 2011), which is set in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the era is an integral part of the game narrative.

For many designers and players, these years are just a retro era that provides a cool setting, something they have heard of from older members of their family, seen in TV shows like Stranger Things (USA 2016), or played in tabletop role-playing gamess like Tales from the Loop (Sweden 2017). But older players may have actually lived through these events, so their significance and the emotional associations older players have with them may greatly vary from those of younger players. Such associations may alter the play experience, leading to a bleed-in of personal experiences and emotions that in turn shape the character’s responses.

A personal example from the UK run of JaLL: a 20-something co-player said the music of the early 1980s was cool and retro, but to me it was the music of my teenage years. It brought back personal memories and emotions of the era and its events and wasn’t just a piece of atmospheric set dressing. Another example is The Sisyphus (UK 2018), set in the early 1980s during the Falklands War. Many Brits experienced the conflict first-hand – I was a teenager and recall the news coverage – but for younger co-players, or those from overseas, it was a more abstract idea. My personal experience, my familiarity with the themes and events of the conflict coloured my perceptions of some aspects of the larp.

In both JaLL and The Sisyphus I had prior knowledge of and an emotional connection to the setting that went beyond the material provided by the larp designers. In some regards that helped deepen my immersion – I didn’t need to imagine my response to these events and could draw on personal experiences to shape my character’s actions.

However, the players’ personal connections to the events – e.g. knowing how they played out in the real world – can also be a distraction to the actual game. From a player perspective, the ideal would be to play only off what the character knows. But separating what the character knows (e.g. from briefing notes or workshops) and what the player knows (from personal experience) may not be a straightforward process. It’s also worth noting that strong emotional resonance with the setting of a larp isn’t limited solely to older players, but deeply personal associations are often more difficult to prepare for.

Designing a larp set in a near-contemporary setting may require some consideration of the impact on players who actually lived through that era. Conversely, some larps may seek to exploit this personal connection. One example is the larp Reunion (UK 2023), which is set in both the late 1990s and modern day, with middle-aged players and characters. In such cases, the challenge may be to create an even experience between those players who lived through this particular period and those for whom it is a more abstract piece of history.


Cassette band on red background

Photo by Daniel Schludi.

The social and technological changes even within the 21st century can also lead to wildly different perceptions and experiences among players. Players in their 20s and 30s have had easy access to such modern technologies as mobile communications, the internet, and digital music their whole lives, which is not necessarily the case for older players. Going back even 25 years involves a massive shift in the availability of these technologies, making some near-contemporary larp settings almost an alien world to younger players. By contrast, older players may still recall those days and the challenges and activities associated with them, such as postal orders or cheques to send money, collect phone calls, dial-up modems, and library index cards.

If these kinds of older technologies are to feature in a larp, designers may need to take steps to bridge the knowledge gap between younger and older players. Much like workshops explaining the social etiquette in a 1920s high society larp, there might need to be workshops for using the now obsolete technologies in retro-modern larps. A good example of this is Midsummer Disco (Germany 2023), set in the eighties, which had workshops explaining how to use some technologies of the era, such as how to use a cassette player – and how to rewind cassettes with a pencil!


Player’s age has yet another impact on their play experience through their physical abilities. In school larps, such as College of Wizardry (Poland 2014), many play characters that are significantly younger than themselves. When larps have major physical elements such as sports matches, the players’ physical abilities may become a factor to consider. Can all such obstacles be cleared by imagination?

In some larps, such as Legion: Siberian Story (Czech Republic 2014), this is clearly not an option. The physicality of marching and fighting in hostile conditions is an integral part of Legion and the physical reality of the player is the physical reality of the character (a significant challenge for this 50+ year old).

But in other larps, imagination can be used to circumvent physical reality. In Avalon (Poland 2018), teenage characters raced to the top of a hill, fighting monsters, to capture a flag. Many of my younger co-players ran up the hill, but as a fifty-year-old player less physically capable of that feat, I instead slowly ambled up the hill. My 17-year-old character would have raced up that hill, and when asked about it later, no one disputed it when he said he had. Similarly, at Sahara (Tunisia 2020), some players did not participate in a long desert march but instead travelled to the next location via modern transport. It was agreed by all that these characters hadn’t vanished and miraculously reappeared, but had always been there with the others.


We should acknowledge that age can be a factor in play, be it because of differences in knowledge and experience or in the physical capabilities of the players. The ideal that anyone can play any role is a good aspiration, but it may not always be attainable. As a broad generalisation, it would be good to accept that older players may have more real-world experience to draw on in near-contemporary settings, whereas younger players may often be more physically capable. The ideal larp will blend the two, allowing players of all ages to combine their knowledge and experience into something greater than the individual parts.


Avalon Larp Studio. Avalon. Poland, 2018.

Carcossa Dreams. The Sisyphus. UK, 2018.

Chaos League. Sahara. Tunisia, 2020.

Dziobak Larp Studios. College of Wizardry. Poland, 2014.

Edland, Tor Kjetil and Hanne Grasmo. Just A Little Lovin’. Norway, 2011.

Hintze, Nils. Based on the art of Simon Stålenhag. Tales from the Loop. Sweden: Free League Publishing, 2017.

On Location. Reunion. UK, 2023.

Poltergeist LARP. Midsummer Disco. Germany, 2023.

Rolling. Legion: Siberian Story. Czech Republic, 2014.


Duffer Brothers, Netflix. Stranger Things. USA, 2016.

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

Hartford, Chris. 2024. “Experience vs Imagination – Effects of Player Age.” 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 Volodymyr Hryshchenko. Image has been cropped.

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Chris Hartford (b. 1968) is a British larper and gamer in his mid-fifties. He has worked in the tabletop role-playing games field since the early 1990s, notably on BattleTech but also Dark Ages: Vampire, Heavy Gear and Crimson Skies. He began larping in the 1980s, D&D games leading to fantasy larps in the Sherwood Forest of his native Nottinghamshire. He returned to larp in 2017 after a long break, playing or crewing many larps in the following years as well as helping with character and story writing for several.