Out of Nothing, Something

Out of Nothing, Something

The Muses of antiquity live on Mount Helicon (a mythological place, but also a real mountain in Greece). Perhaps because of this, the mountain’s name has come to symbolize creativity and inspiration. Helicon is also the name of a larp created by Maria Pettersson and Katrine Wind, run in Denmark for the first time in January, 2024.

The larp is about a group of friends who enacted a ritual in their student days, binding the Muses to themselves, granting themselves the genius to become superstars in their own fields. As their stars rise, they also deprive the world of inspiration, hogging it all. The binding of the Muses also means that these immortal beings have now become imprisoned into the service of mere mortals, individuals who may treat them kindly or badly depending on their whim.

In Helicon, the Inspired come together for an annual ritual strengthening the ritual of binding. They also want to spend a weekend together with the only people who really understand them, their fellow Inspired. After all, they’re the only ones to really know the secret of their success.

I played one of the two Inspired of Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. I was a war reporter while my sibling was a playwright, both of us feeding from the genius granted by the Muse.

Incidentally, Mt. Helicon is also where Narcissus looked at his own reflection in the water and saw his own beauty. This may be somewhat narcissistic of me but when I was playing Helicon (in the second run, in February 2024), I was quite taken by the creative invention and ability of our ensemble. There’s a specific kind of beauty in larp when the spontaneous emergence of each players’ actions collectively creates a wonderfully coherent whole.

Photo of person smiling at someone.

Photo by Bjørn-Morten Gundersen.


The themes of Helicon make a certain amount of recursive self-commentary unavoidable. After all, if I play an Inspired of Tragedy, how likely is it that my character’s narrative arc bends toward an unhappy, perhaps even sad ending?

I didn’t plan it that way but that’s exactly what happened. Me and my sibling, both for our own reasons, found that following the genius of Tragedy was destroying us and we yearned to be free. In the case of my character, the toll of documenting the suffering caused by war all across the world was becoming too much and while I believed it to be my moral duty to continue the work, it was also breaking me apart.

Thus at the end, I begged for freedom even as many other Inspired sought to hold onto their Muses, the divine spirits granting them deathless genius. Of course, that plea was not heard. Instead, the Muse of Tragedy decided to keep us trapped in our self-inflicted hell. That was a choice made by the player of the Muse Melpomene, not something dictated by anything in the workshops or our characters. It was an example of a dramatically appropriate, satisfying arc emerging from our collective ensemble play, fueled and inspired by the design of the larp. Nobody planned it like that but it still happened.

There’s a trick to larp design that, when it works, looks like magic. You leave space for the spontaneous creativity of the players and they bring the larp’s core themes to life without explicit instruction or a script. If you’re an experienced larp designer, you probably know how to make this happen. This observation may even feel banal because it’s such a basic element of how larp works.

Indeed, the trick is an illusion. The designer knows that the magic of the larp flows from careful design work. When that work is done elegantly enough, play feels free and unconstrained, specific choices and themes flowing with seeming emergence and settling into just the right configuration for the themes of the larp to become manifest.

If you haven’t peeked behind the curtain and seen enough larp to know how this is done, you might ask questions like these:

How do the players know what to say?

How do they know to do the right things?

How can it work when everybody is playing spontaneously?

If you’ve played in a larp, you know the answer: It works the same as it does in real life. We all go through our days unrehearsed, whether in the context of everyday reality or a fictional event.

When the larp’s design works as intended, our improvisation and imagination has been prepped so that we together as an ensemble explore a shared creative space, producing desired types of scenes and interactions. 

The Creative Ensemble

In their article Ensemble Play, Anni Tolvanen and Jamie MacDonald (2020) talk about larp as a creative ensemble similar to a band or an orchestra playing music together. To successfully participate in an ensemble, there’s one skill above all: Listening. You have to be able to listen to what’s going on in the ensemble to be able to participate in a meaningful and harmonious way.

Many of the most basic workshop exercises we commonly do in Nordic larps are very effective in building the ensemble. Even simple warm-ups teach us to understand each other as a group, to pay attention and to read our co-players and their desires. When we do a round of all the players in the workshop, with each describing what they need for their larp to be successful or what they’re worried about, we help each other to lift the whole ensemble.

Humans are social herd animals and we’re typically quite sensitive to the moods and shifts of the group. The larp ensemble uses this quality to its advantage, allowing us to support each other creatively and to bounce off each other’s ideas in an interesting way.

Photo of a person seated in black with sunglasses on.

Taylor Montgomery. Photo by Bjørn-Morten Gundersen.

When this works for you in a larp, it feels like spontaneous play magically gives you what you need. One such moment for me in Helicon was in a flashback scene where our characters were discussing the idea of binding the Muses. A few believed while others, like me, went along for a lark. There was a somewhat silly, half-serious process for distributing who gets which muse, where I and another person ended up competing for the Muse of Tragedy.

The crowd called for both of us to show our “unhappy face”. We both did, to general laughter and merriment all around. Mine was judged better, so I got Tragedy and the other person got Comedy.

In the scene, this sequence emerged spontaneously, yet it had an immense impact on my larp. My character had made this life-altering choice without understanding the consequences or seriously considering the implications. In play, both my character and the character who got the Muse of Comedy were desperately unhappy, yet unable to change their course.

In the same scene, it turned out that there was one less Muse than there were friends in our group of students. The character of my sibling was a sensitive, sad soul, and he was left without a Muse. As a result, I offered: “Don’t worry, we’ll share the one I got!”

This was also something that emerged spontaneously, and led to meaningful play later. In each case, the magic is a combination of design choices priming us for certain themes (my character had an affair with the Muse of Comedy, guiding me to think of Comedy as the light in the darkness of an existence defined by Tragedy) and ensemble play where we each watch for what the others are going for and try to support it.


The themes Helicon explores are almost a caricature of classical profundity: Immortality, art, creation, destiny, genius, responsibility, and so on. Making a larp focused on such themes is not easy, and Helicon does it through designed emergence. Instead of overtly designing scenes or metatechniques around philosophical discussion, the seeds are planted in the way the characters are written and the muses described.

The problem with many themes and subjects in larp is that to be able to successfully co-create (i.e. to participate fully in the larp), the players need to feel comfortable and empowered with the material. I explored this topic in my article The Necessary Zombie, where the titular zombie is the familiar and known element which the player can rely on, creatively speaking, while also exploring newer and more unfamiliar territory.

In the case of Helicon, the supernatural framework of mythology created this familiarity, helping participants to engage with more difficult themes.

When I read my character, I didn’t think I’d be able to use very much from my own life. The war reporter who had become something of a monster in his personal life, someone from an aristocratic background who used moral need to justify the captivity of his Muse, was a much more dramatic figure than a Finnish creative arts professional like me.

We were encouraged to bring examples of artworks or other creations to show during the larp. At first, I figured I’d bring photos from wars, dying children and so forth. After reviewing potential candidates, I quickly changed my mind. Not because of what other people would think, but because of how I suspected they’d push me out of the fiction. Around the time of the larp, war had been very much on my mind. I’d followed the crimes of the Israeli apartheid system for two decades and the ongoing genocide in Gaza felt very immediate. Something like that was too painful to bring to a larp.

Instead, I chose to use pictures by the famous war photographer Robert Capa. I avoided images of combat or the dead and the dying, focusing instead on images of people who had survived.

Photo of people sitting on a couch talking.

The author as Thomas Montgomery. Photo by Anni Tolvanen.

The character worked well for me because I’ve read a lot of books by war reporters over the years and had some idea of how to fake war talk, the way you do in a larp. For my character, the goal was to end all war by bringing its horrors to light through journalism. I talked about these topics a lot during the larp, because they were central to my character’s personality, flaws and philosophical outlook.

It was only afterwards that I realized that I’d used a lot of things I myself believe about war. I believe wars can end. I don’t believe war is an inherent part of the human experience. Nation states have to work hard at making propaganda to dehumanize the enemy to the point that people are willing to murder them at scale. I’m essentially an optimist when it comes to the human spirit, and this optimism makes me believe that war is one of the great evils of human existence and must be opposed everywhere and always. We must resist the narratives that make us believe that somehow, this time mass murder is justified.

It felt strange to realize that I’d used pieces of myself in the character after all, because in many ways the character was not someone I’d aspire to be.


At one point, the players gathered together for a group photo. First all together, and then a photo with only the Inspired. As we were posing, the Muse players were lounging about, waiting for their Muses-only photo.

We were at the venue’s gorgeous dining hall, with its classical decor and Greek-style statues. Looking around, seeing three, four, five Muses hanging about in poses of casual repose, I caught myself thinking that of course this is what a place haunted by the Muses would look like. These are the Muses, children of Zeus.

We were off-game but the casually gorgeous visuals and the easy panache displayed by the players of the Muses made it feel plausible anyway.

The larp is set in “the vintage era”, a vague thematic milieu used by several other larps as well, such as Baphomet (2015). The vintage era is perhaps from the 1890’s to the 1940’s, allowing for both glamorous costuming and ignoring modern communications technology such as cell phones.

Different larps use the concept in their own ways but in Helicon, what was particularly important was the deliberate, purposeful vagueness of the setting which makes it impossible to discuss external details. We barely know which country we’re in (the U.K.), and things like politics, technology or current events are shrouded in fog.

This has the result that discussions naturally move towards in-game events or the big, broad themes suggested by the larp’s central conceit: art, philosophy, immortality, morality, creativity, often connected to in-game events in surprisingly concrete ways.

The Inspired don’t age, the blessings of the Muses keeping them forever young. For some, this meant an eternity to spend in pursuit of their creative genius. Since I was a war reporter, from my point of view, it meant endless years watching people die. The subject may have been lofty but the relevance was still immediate.

The deliberate haziness of the vintage era means we can’t discuss the price of bread or the latest political scandal so instead we’re forced to tackle the fundamental meaning of the creative arts. Nobody is pushing us to talk about profundities. It just occurs naturally as a result of the setup and the way the setting has been framed.

Helicon had the thematic precision of a classic five-player Fastaval scenario, keeping it unusually tight despite its larger player base. The vintage era is a good example of a design choice keeping the focus subtly constrained: It has the effect of guiding conversation, but discreetly, without making a thing of it. This in part creates the illusion where the desired play and themes emerge seemingly of their own volition.

Photo of two people gazing at each other smiling.

Photo by Bjørn-Morten Gundersen.

Champagne Flute Logistics

When a larp has a strong ensemble, its social nuances become easier to read. This was my experience at Helicon: It was easier to grasp when it was okay to join a scene and when to butt out, what characters I’d interacted with only a little were feeling on the other side of a room or what kind of actions would best support the play of someone else.

Similarly, I felt supported by the other players in the sense that it felt like they could read what was going on with my character and support it in turn. Because of this, I had moments when the larp’s emergent action spontaneously served up just what I needed for my character’s journey.

As the larp was building up to its final climactic scenes, we were participating in a collective ritual. It involved ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, portrayed by elderflower cordial in a champagne flute. Appropriately filled glasses were discreetly placed around the ritual space so that you could pick one up when you needed it.

I was standing with my back to a piece of antique furniture with several of the glasses. When the time came, I realized I and a nearby co-player should do a bit of discreet distribution duty to keep the ritual running. Similarly, later in the same ritual, as I was kneeling on the floor in the throes of poignant emotion, I also took a couple of glasses from nearby players and placed them out of the way so we wouldn’t accidentally break them.

These were simple, automatic acts. We all do these things when we participate in a larp. We’re deep in our own drama, but if there’s a chance to discreetly facilitate someone else’s drama in some small way, we do it. We hold a door so that someone can storm off dramatically or pick up a cool hat that fell off from a co-player’s head in a fight scene and make sure it’s not damaged.

I find certain joy from being able to do something like this, something small to help things along, because it speaks to the power of the ensemble to keep the collective larp experience functioning as beautifully as possible. Because we all do these things for each other, the experience is that much better for all of us.

Through the magic of ensemble play and careful, elegant design, we feel that we’re acting freely in the moment and yet we experience coherent, meaningful play. When it works, it feels like we as players have been inspired by the Muses. 

Disclosure: I’m married to one of Helicon’s two designers, Maria Pettersson.


Designers: Katrine Wind and Maria Pettersson, Narrators, Inc.

Participation Fee: €630

Players: 29

Second Run: February 16-18, 2024

Location: Broholm Castle, Gudme, Denmark

Music: Anni Tolvanen 

Photography: Bjørn-Morten Vang Gundersen, Anni Tolvanen 

Safety:  Klara Rotvig 

Website: Katrine Kavli 

Graphics: Maria Manner

Sparring and Ideas: Emil Greve, Elina Gouliou, and Markus Montola

Character Writing Assistance: Søren Hjorth

Website Proofreading: Malk Williams


Baphomet (2015): Bjarke Pedersen and Linda Udby. Denmark.

Helicon (2024): Maria Pettersson and Katrine Wind. Denmark.


Juhana Pettersson (2011): The Necessary Zombie. In Claus Raasted (ed.). Talk Larp. Denmark; Knudepunkt 2011.

Anni Tolvanen and James Lórien Macdonald (2020): Ensemble Play. In Eleanor Saitta, Johanna Koljonen, Jukka Särkijärvi, Anne Serup Grove, Pauliina Männistö, & Mia Makkonen (eds.). What Do We Do When We Play? Helsinki; Solmukohta 2020.

Cover photo: Image by Bjørn-Morten Gundersen. Photo had been cropped.

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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. www.juhanapettersson.com