Rules, Trust, and Care: the Nordic Larper’s Risk Management Toolkit

Rules, Trust, and Care: the Nordic Larper’s Risk Management Toolkit

In 2018, I brought a friend to A Nice Evening with the Family (Sweden 2018). I was concerned, because he had very little experience with role-playing games, let alone with a very emotionally intense game. Despite my efforts to discourage him, he insisted that he wanted to join. The morning after the larp finished, he was a crying mess and it took him quite some effort to convince me that he would be fine and that I should not regret having brought him over. The next time we spoke, he told me that several friends had confronted him about this new hobby that left him shaken for several days. 

It was his first larp. Since then, he has chosen to become a crying mess several times. It does not look like he will stop any time soon. What might look reckless from the outside is actually a well planned process: he knows his limits, but when he ventures to cross them, he is aware of the scars he may bring back, and prepares as well as he can to alleviate the consequences. This is the same process he goes through when he goes rock-climbing, an activity arguably more dangerous, which does not raise such concerns.

As larp has evolved, pushing for new limits of intense play, we have developed a wealth of expertise to larp more safely. However, this is not limited to larp: as humankind’s ability to cause catastrophes has increased, so has our ability to avoid causing them. Pharmaceutical companies, nuclear power plants, financial institutions, airplane manufacturers all have had to change their ways of working (enforced by legislation, obviously) not to bring about tragedy. The most critical part of it is the object of this article: how to come to terms with the fact that risks cannot be eliminated, and how to manage them instead.

In practice, there is nothing revolutionary about risk management. It is just a systematization of common sense. This article will hardly reveal anything new. However, I will hopefully provide a new perspective that will help to view larp safety in a new way, and shine light on how powerful the tools are that we already have at our disposal.


Attempting to find a definition of “safe” that everyone will agree on is futile. Any communication relying on the word “safe” will be misleadingly dangerous. Any financial adviser, surgeon, engineer, or martial arts or scuba diving instructor worth their salt will never claim that something is safe. Instead, they will try to clearly explain what the negative consequences might be, and let their client make an informed decision. Similarly, a larp organizer that promises that their larp is safe, implying that no harm will happen to any participant, is promising something that they have no control over.

Risk, on the other hand, is a word most people can agree on. There may be disagreement if a certain risk is worth worrying over or not, but if somebody says “This rusty nail is a risk” or “There is a risk that we will run out of money”, everybody understands it the same way: something bad may happen.

Risk means that harm, more or less severe, has a certain likelihood of happening.


Harm is something that we do not wish to happen. Harm is the ultimate negative consequence of a series of events. Falling off a cliff is not harm, but getting injured as a consequence of a fall is. Being yelled at is not harm, but becoming emotionally distressed is. Hazards are the direct sources of harm: fire, physical impact, toxic chemicals, and verbal abuse are examples of hazards.

In larp, there are many things that we do not wish to happen: trauma (physical or mental) and property damage are the first that come to mind, but other things can be also regarded as harm: damage to reputation, loss of friendship, or even boredom. From a risk-management perspective, they are all the same, and you must decide what to focus on.

In Nordic larp, the focus has been centred on psychological harm. Psychological harm is a slippery concept, and to my knowledge there is no conclusive source to refer to. Because of that, most of the examples I will use throughout this article will be about physical harm, which is much easier to agree on. Hopefully, it will become clear that the same techniques that can be used to manage one can be applied to manage the other.


Harm presents itself in varying degrees of severity. We think of a bruise as less serious than a broken rib, which is itself less serious than the loss of a limb. Often though things are not so clear-cut, and determining the severity of harm is context-dependent, subjective, and hence challenging.

Generally speaking, severity should correlate to how longer-term prospects are negatively impacted. For example, in a medical context, severity is assigned depending on the consequences to patients, from a minor nuisance to permanent disability or death; broken bones are usually considered minor injuries, since the prognosis for total recovery is often excellent. Financial risk could be quantified not just in terms of how much money might be lost, but how likely it is to be able to recover from such loss; structural risks could be related to the ease of repairing a building; environmental risk measured by how likely it is that the previous situation can be recovered, etc.

As many have experienced, larp can cause serious emotional harm. However, let us admit that larp is, by definition, a simulation, and hence the severity of emotional harm is going to be always lower that being exposed to the real situation: a larp about prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, as harrowing as it may be, will hardly ever be an experience as horrifying as being imprisoned at the actual camp. In a way, larp is an exercise in risk management, eliminating most sources of harm when mimicking extreme real-life situations.


Severity is not the only thing that matters about harm. A meteorite crashing on your larp location would certainly be catastrophic, but it is so unlikely that it is not worth considering. On the other hand, a mosquito is normally considered a minor source of harm, but it becomes a concern if it happens constantly: having a bunch of larpers going back home covered in bites after spending a weekend by an infested swamp is something that everyone would want to avoid.

The likelihood of harm can be understood either in terms of how probable it is or how frequently it will happen. Such probabilities are difficult to estimate accurately. In any case, knowing that the probability of falling off the staircase at your larp is 1.3% is not very useful compared to “I would be surprised if no one trips here over the weekend”. As with severity, organizations normally simply assign terms in a scale, corresponding to qualitative likelihoods. One common example is to have five levels of likelihood: improbable (not expected to ever happen), remote (it would be very exceptional if it happens, but it is not impossible), occasional (rare, but given enough time, it will happen), probable (nobody will be surprised if it happens), and frequent (it would be surprising if it did not happen).

A quick introduction to risk management

Risk management, as daunting as it may sound, is a fairly straightforward process which consists of three steps: analysing the risks, deciding whether to accept the risks or not, and mitigating the risks. 

Analysing risk

The starting point to manage risks is to analyse them: finding as many things as possible that can go wrong and figuring out how severe and likely they are.

Risk analysis requires honesty to be useful. It is hard to admit that we are putting people in danger, but dismissing a risk without careful consideration is a recipe for disaster. Airplanes rarely crash because of saboteurs, and drug dealers are not planning to hurt their customers when they cut their product with rat poison: behind all these cases, there is somebody who believes everything will be fine. Crooks are a piece of cake to catch and stop in time compared to reckless optimists who take everyone down with them.

In any case, identifying risks is never easy. Reality always finds ways to surprise us, no matter how thorough our analysis was. So, how much effort should you spend analysing risks? The unsatisfactory answer is “as much as reasonably possible”. One way to evaluate your analysis is to think about how you would view it in the future if something goes wrong. Was it reasonable not to reach out for an expert? Was it reasonable that you did not check out your larp location in advance? Was it reasonable to conclude that no serious mental distress could be expected? All of this is context dependent. If you have doubts, maybe you can try to run your analysis by somebody else.

Analysing the risks that lie beyond the limits may seem impossible, but it is not: we may not know how things may go wrong, but at least we know what wrong means. In other words, we know the severity, but not the likelihood. The safest approach is to assume that the likelihood is higher than you expect.

Accepting risk (or not)

After identifying and determining the severity and likelihood of a risk, a natural question arises: can we live with it? Some risks are obviously intolerable, and some are so trivial that it is even hard to consider them as risks. But quite often this is not clear at all.

Deciding when we can accept a risk is a tricky question. Even after bad things have already happened, people often disagree on whether the risk was worth taking. Even the same person might have doubts about it. So, how to decide about something that may not even happen?

The methods used in risk management (risk matrices being the primary example) help us very little here: they have been designed to leave a paper trail which can be used as evidence. They are too bureaucratic to use in larps, but most importantly they are not much of a moral reference we can adhere to. Sadly, nobody can give you any easy answers here.

Whatever you consider as your criteria, they should fulfil two conditions. First, a criterion has to be systematic: if you find yourself adding exceptions one after the other, it is probably not a very good criterion. Secondly, it must be easy for anybody to understand the criteria and agree that they are reasonable.

One criterion that you could use is the following: a risk is acceptable if, even when harm happens, we expect nobody to regret having been part of the larp.

This implies that the organization did everything within reason to analyse and mitigate the risks, all participants understood and accepted those risks, and whatever harm happened was either predicted and handled as well as possible, and nobody can be blamed for having been reckless. In reality, this goal is not achievable: but since it is clear, and the absolute best one can hope for, it is a good target to aim at.

If we decide that a given risk is acceptable, we can move on to the next one. But if we conclude that it is not, then it must be mitigated.

Mitigating risk

Mitigating a risk means reducing its likelihood, its severity, or both. Risk mitigation (also referred to as risk control) must be continued until we decide that the risk is acceptable. Let us review several strategies.

If you encounter a risk which you have tried mitigating by all means possible, but it is still unacceptable, there is one way to completely remove the risk: just do not do what you were planning. If it looks like in your larp something horrible might happen which you have no control over, and you have no idea on how to fix the problem without it becoming a different larp, the best idea is to cancel the larp.

The second approach is to change the design, that is, adding, removing, or modifying elements of your original plan. Moving to a different location, locking doors, removing game content, forcing off-game breaks, adding non-diegetic safety elements (such as mattresses), or changing your player selection process can all be used to mitigate risks. If you are lucky, your larp may be unaffected – possibly even improved! However, it is more likely that the changes will impact your larp, possibly even to the point that you feel it is not worth organizing.

If there is nothing you can change, the next thing you can attempt is to affect how people will behave. You can instruct them not to enter an area under any circumstance, or remind them to stay hydrated under the scorching Tunisian sun. Since this relies on participants’ efforts and attention, you may want to go through these procedures during a workshop. Do not hesitate to make participation compulsory, if absence would lead to risks that you cannot accept. Of these behavioural mitigations (called administrative controls), the weakest form is what we can call, in general, labelling, which is any kind of passive, static visual information, such as signs, warning messages in manuals, pop-up windows, safety brochures, and actual labels found in packages, control panels, etc. If the only thing between a player and disaster is a paragraph somewhere on your website, or a danger sign that looks perfectly diegetic, get ready for disaster.

The final option is protective equipment. Unfortunately, as effective as they may be for other purposes, helmets and hazmat suits will do very little to protect your participants from emotional harm.

The Nordic larper’s risk management toolkit

By now, you hopefully have a good idea about what risk management is. In this section, we will zone in into the peculiarities of emotionally intense larp.

In emotionally intense larp, like in combat sports, enjoyment is inextricably linked to the potentially harmful things that players do to each other. Somewhat counterintuitively, risk management in both cases revolves around the same key concepts: the restrictions to what participants can do, the measures to ensure that participants will follow such restrictions, and the contingency plans to be used if something goes wrong. In other words, rules, trust, and care.


If you run or design larps, you should appreciate that you have a huge control over players: if you can convince them that they are capable of throwing fireballs by extending both index fingers, you can surely convince them that they cannot touch each other at all, thereby creating a world where the risk of hurting other people is non-existent. This is what rules are for.

By “rules” I refer to all the constraints on the things that can possibly happen during a larp. From a risk management perspective, rules are control measures which either reduce the likelihood of risks – or remove the risks altogether – or replace hazards with different ones. Rules define what may or may not happen in- and off-game. Sometimes larp rules are introduced for other purposes than risk mitigation, and in some cases, rules may control risks at the same time as they contribute to a more interesting game experience.

Perhaps the most representative rules of larp are those used to represent violence: I have never heard of any larp with WYSIWYG violence, that is where violence between characters is not governed by restrictions of some kind. Requiring padded weapons, using rules systems similar to table-top role-playing games, theatrical representation – where the outcomes are either pre-planned or improvised during play using some signalling mechanic, or even removing violence altogether from the game, are all different ways of reducing the severity or likelihood of harm, or even eliminating it altogether.

Sex seems to be the other major perceived source of risk. In this case, the hazards are not so clear-cut as getting a broken nose, but it is generally accepted that sex requires a state of vulnerability which opens the gates for extremely severe psychological harm. Again, the forms in which sex appears in a game are restricted, from total avoidance to “dry-humping”, including more abstract mechanics, such as the Phallus technique used in Just a Little Lovin’ (Norway 2011), or Ars Amandi which, after its introduction in Mellan himmel och hav (Sweden 2003, Eng. Between Heaven and Sea), has been used in numerous larps of many different genres.

In the daring type of play of many Nordic larps, characters are often exposed to many other sources of emotional harm, which are often a central part of the game: family abuse, workplace harassment, discrimination, slavery, imprisonment, political repression, torture, manipulation, etc. Harm happens when these emotions exceed the level the player is willing to experience. This may lead to emotional distress, and even trauma. These, in their turn, may be worsened because of triggering past traumatic experiences.

Interestingly, it is rare to find rules to handle emotional risks arising from something other than physical violence or sex in a specific manner: and these other elements are usually supposed to be represented realistically. For example, players playing prison guards are expected to shout at other players’ faces, and to represent mental torture scenes as they would think would happen in reality.

Instead, emotional risks are managed generically by check-in, de-escalation, and game interruption mechanics. These mechanics are forms of inter-player communication to avoid harmful situations. Check-in mechanics are used to verify, during or after a risky scene, that players are doing fine. A popular one is using the OK hand sign to silently ask a co-player if they are OK when it is difficult to tell if a negative display of emotions (grief, anger) is a sign of an emotional distress that the player cannot handle. De-escalation and interruption techniques function in the opposite way, providing signals (like safe words or taps) to ask co-players to not escalate further or to lower the intensity of the scene, or to stop the game altogether.

These techniques have become standard. If you decide not to include any of them in your larp, it is a good idea to explain your alternative risk management plan before players sign up.

It is important that safety rules are, in the first place, clear. But it is equally important that you, as an organizer, as well as every other participant, get a clear picture that everyone has understood them.. I strongly recommended practising them explicitly in a workshop before runtime, particularly in case of subtle diegetic mechanics, which may be easily missed. The number of safety mechanics should be kept to a minimum to prevent confusion. Well-meaning players may spontaneously suggest adding their favourite mechanics to your game: it is preferable to firmly – but kindly – not allow this. An overabundance of mechanics may have the same effect as too many warning signs: none of them are meaningful in the end.


Trust is the degree of the certainty we have in our predictions that no harm will happen to us. Trust is critical in daring larp, because participants will compensate for lack of trust by acting as if risks were worse (either more probable or more harmful) than in reality, refraining from fully engaging with the content.

When we trust someone, we know that they will not hurt us, neither by directly causing us harm, nor by neglecting doing their part in keeping us safe. When we do not trust someone, it is because we suspect they may fail at the moment of truth, or because they actively seek to hurt us. Trust has two components: a cognitive one and a primal one. Having enough information to make predictions is critical, but so is having the “gut feeling” that we are right. These two aspects need to be considered all the time.

The first step is building trust. In other words, convincing every participant that nobody will hurt them. Easier said than done.

For starters, participants must be on the same page about the possible risks. Make sure that you provide enough information during the sign-up process so that everyone has an understanding of risks as similar to yours as possible.

Another important aspect is the player selection process. A player may wish not to play with another player, for a variety of reasons. It is reasonable to publish a list of players and offer a channel for players to give feedback. Flagging, which consists of assigning a colour to other players to indicate the level of trust (from “will not share scenes” to “will not attend same larp”), is a popular approach. It may put you in the difficult position of leaving people out. In such a case, remember that your goal is to ensure a less risky game, and not to act as a moral judge. If you believe that your larp may present such risks that it requires that you completely trust all the players – trust that they can care for themselves and others – then you may need to do something more drastic, such as hand-pick your players or have an invite-only run.

Once your players have arrived at the larp location, the most effective way to create trust is pre-game workshops. On the cognitive side, you should cover all your rules and mechanics thoroughly, and rehearse them as necessary, until players are convinced that everybody can play their part. Safety-critical workshops should be compulsory, not just opt-in. A bit like how beginners are required to show that they can do an 8-figure knot before they are allowed to start top-rope climbing. Finally, do not rush through safety workshops: besides failing to communicate critical information, players may get the impression that you do not care enough about safety, and that you included the safety workshop as a nuisance that must be there.

On the primal side, you need to tickle the brains of participants to convince them that they are of the same tribe. Things like physical contact, or locking eyes and smiling, may help. Baphomet (Denmark 2017) used a simple and powerful technique where participants hug each other randomly in silence for a very long time. This had a profound effect in creating a trusting atmosphere. These exercises are not a replacement for the safety rehearsals discussed above, and can be counterproductive if they create a sense of false security.

When someone causes us harm, either directly or indirectly, we immediately lose trust, to a larger or smaller degree: our predictions that they would not hurt us failed, which means that they may hurt us again. Our brain will then activate the alarm and deploy its defences. Suddenly we will dislike, fear, or lose respect for those people. This defence mechanism is quite clever: even if our feelings for those people are unfair (for example, they tried to protect us and failed), our brain will override our reasoning, tricking us into being convinced we are absolutely right, pushing us to avoid that person.

Restoring trust is not easy. At a cognitive level, we need to know that the other person is sensitive to our pain – that’s the purpose of a (real) apology —, and that we can accept that something bad happened exceptionally, that is, that either the other person didn’t know something important or simply made a mistake, or that there was actually a very good reason we did not know about. The primal level also needs to be readjusted to lift the defences after they are not needed. For example, a hug or a smile can have a magical effect after a fight. However, be careful when using this approach: I can tell from my own experience that a forced hug from a perceived aggressor has the opposite effect, and can cause even more harm. In case of doubt, do not push it and simply try to figure out a way for the larp to continue with everyone feeling safe. This, in extreme cases, may require removing players from the game.


Care is a particularly versatile tool, because it can reduce the severity of harm which we had not even predicted could happen. In our quest for pushing the limits of daring larp, it is very valuable to deploy a solid care infrastructure, in the same way that a campaign hospital will help dealing with all kinds of physical harm, without needing to predict its exact nature. Making participants part of a care infrastructure is similar to demanding that everybody must take first-aid training before joining an expedition.

Similar to trust, it is possible to enforce care using rules. Off-game rooms and dedicated staff to support players are very common; although it may not look like such, giving players the option to walk out of the game into guaranteed support is just a larp rule. In many larps, each character has a connection with whom they have a positive relationship. This connection can be used to seek in-game support, which translates into support for the player. This could be further exploited by means of explicit rules, for example adding a hand sign directed at the support connection which forces them to go play a blackbox scene reminiscing of happier times. A larp designed around one-on-one abusive scenes could impose that after every such scene the players must go off-game together to provide mandatory after-care.

Care rules could take many forms: the key is that larp designers should not be afraid to impose such seemingly awkward game elements, because the fact is that this can be much more effective than leaving care to the skill and initiative of the participants.


Nobody – including, first of all, me – expects that larp organizations will start conducting formal risk review meetings, performing external audits, filling risk matrices, and writing down risk mitigation plans.

Let’s be daring! But daring does not mean reckless. Let’s learn from the lessons of the past and, for those disasters yet to come, let them be the kind that, despite the pain they cause, leave us with the feeling that it was worth trying.

      Take home messages:

  • Be brave! At least as much as you want to.
  • Be honest. Do not fool participants, but most of all do not fool yourself.
  • Be open. Your level of risk is not the same as most people’s. You do not want to drag anyone into something they will regret.
  • Be kind. If other people fail, and they honestly tried their very best to avoid disaster, be thankful that they discovered for all of us where the hard limits are.
  • Be creative. Pushing the limits will demand of you to come up with new techniques to go where no larper has gone before, and come back in one piece. Hopefully, you know now that you have more tools at your disposal than you thought before.



Anneli Friedner. 2019. “The Brave Space: Some Thoughts on Safety in Larps“. , ref. Dec 12th, 2023.


Anna Westerling & Anders Hultman. 2018. A Nice Evening With the Family. Sweden. (Originally En stilla middag med familjen (2007): Sweden. Anna Westerling, Anders Hultman & al.)

Eliot Wieslander & Katarina Björk. 2003. Mellan himmel och hav. Sweden.

Linda Udby & Bjarke Pedersen. 2016. Baphomet. Denmark. 

Tor Kjetil Edland & Hanne Grasmo. 2011. Just a Little Lovin’. Norway.

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

Losilla, Sergio. 2024. “Rules, Trust, and Care: the Nordic Larper’s Risk Management Toolkit.” 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 Eamon up North on Photo has been cropped.

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Sergio Losilla is a Spanish larper based in Finland. He works as a medical software developer.