The Descriptor Model

The Descriptor Model

This article is related to a presentation that the authors gave at Solmukohta 2024. Here is a link to the slides. It is a companion piece to Defining Nordic Larp.

We don’t think we are alone in sometimes having created larps where what our participants wanted from the larp was far different from what we had envisioned as organizers. Communication is of course key to get the right participants with the right expectations of a larp, but how do you successfully communicate this? We believe that we have put together a model that can be helpful in classifying and describing larps.

What we wish to present is The Descriptor Model, a toolkit that can be handy for other organizers when defining their larps and trying to communicate this vision to potential participants. This was first conceived together with the rest of Atropos, Tonja Goldblatt and Kirsi Oesch from Kimera Artist Collective, and Reflections Larp Studio.

The Descriptor Model defines three types of descriptors that can be used together to communicate the style, atmosphere, and target audience of a larp. It’s good to note that all of these target the player, rather than the character experience. The first of these is the Audience Descriptor.

Audience Descriptor

Audience Descriptor

Audience Descriptor (diagram by the authors)

An audience descriptor in larp is a term used in larp websites, materials, and promotions to:

  • Target a specific audience
  • Tell prospective participants what kind of co-participants they can expect
  • Communicate other things that are associated with that particular target audience

In this, we use audience in the traditional meaning of “target audience” for marketing or promoting your larp, not in the theatrical meaning where audience would mean onlookers or passive enjoyers of the larp itself.

Together with other descriptors, it can be used in larp design to identify and clarify the audience, style, atmosphere, and genre of a larp.

Some examples of this are: Nordic Larp, Blockbuster, Luxury, Exclusive, International, or phrases starting with things like “You who…” or “Have you…”

They are firmly targeting an audience. In the examples above people who like what they perceive to be Nordic larp, blockbusters, etc. They can also say something about the crowd that would typically be attracted to the larp.

To communicate something about how the larp will actually be played, you can use a style descriptor.

Style Descriptor

Audience and Style

Audience and Style (diagram by the authors)

A style descriptor tells you something about the playstyle of the larp. Examples of this are: Pressure-cooker, Blackbox, Abstract, Slice-of-life, Adrenaline-pumping, and so on.

It can also be used to describe a regional or national style of larping that has a clearly defined style, for example Mediterranean larping, Romanesque, Southern Way, etc.

Finally, it can also tell you the rule-based system that will be used, like Vampire MET or boffer fighting.

The style descriptor can in this way convey the playstyle of the larp, what rules it might use, as well as what to expect when it comes to rules, workshops, and setting. When it comes to the more abstract style descriptors like ‘theatrical’ or ‘surreal’, they instead say something about what the larp is striving for when it comes to feeling, i.e. what the larp’s potential meta techniques, workshops, and characters will try to support when it comes to mood or feeling. They do not tell you the actual aesthetic of the larp.

With the target audience and larping style defined, we also need something to describe the visual impressions, along with things like sounds or even smells.

Atmosphere Descriptor

Sans Gateway

Audience, Style, and Atmosphere (diagram by the authors)

An Atmosphere Descriptor explains what the larp will look like. This can include aesthetics, periods of history, or genres. Some examples are: Noir, Futuristic, Vintage Era, Regency, 1950s, and Dark academia.

However these can also be more narrow. They can describe a moment in time, or an overarching mood of the larp. For example: “Eating noodles in the rain in a near future” and “The festive spirit of Christmas in an assembly line dystopia”.

The Atmosphere Descriptor is there to give an idea of the visuals of the larp: what people will see as they’re larping. It creates a joint aesthetic vision for the larp that participants can use when putting together their costumes. It can also include music or even smell that contributes to the atmosphere.

Something to be aware of is that the same word can be used both as a style descriptor and an atmosphere descriptor but mean different things. For example a surrealist style of larping can be different to a surrealist atmosphere or aesthetic. There’s a clear difference between a larp played with abstract aesthetics in a teen drama style, compared to teen drama aesthetics in an abstract style.

This was the last part of the model, but in our discussions we realized that something was missing. How would we be able to classify the concept larps that used clearly defined existing IPs? So we created a broader term called Gateways.


Descriptor Model – Full

Descriptor Model – Full (diagram by the authors)

Gateways are something broader than a style, atmosphere, or audience descriptor. They are frequently associated with an existing IP, and bring a herd competence when it comes to the setting of the larp: but they also present some difficulties when it comes to communicating the larp vision. Examples of Gateways are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Westworld, Jane Austen, and Twin Peaks.

Gateways are not just a genre, but function as a big open door to the public. They often have mass market appeal and reach out to people who are not larpers, but feel strongly about the particular IP that the gateway is using. This means that a larp that uses a gateway can see a lot of first-time larpers; and it quickly communicates the atmosphere and style of the larp itself, because most people attending will already understand the aesthetics and tone of the fiction.

However, like most things it also presents some challenges. It can lead to players having vastly different expectations of how the larp will be played, what they can expect, and what is typical for your story. Some might lack experience entirely, others are veterans of the genre with favorite characters already, while yet others come expecting a Nordic larp because of who the organizers are.

You also risk losing the co-creative nature of the larp because of preconceived notions about what kind of story you will tell. Sometimes there are clashes between organizers and participants; other times between different groups of participants. People might disagree on what aspects of the known IP is actually being played out, and what role everyone should be playing. There is also a chance that it’ll feel like some people are playing the main characters of the story, while the rest are NPCs in a filmic drama.

Some Examples

The descriptor model contains three parts – audience, style, and atmosphere descriptors – as well as the term gateway. Sometimes these are communicated more broadly or in longer text passages, but we believe that many larps out there can be condensed into these three aspects.

To better illustrate this we have put together some short examples. Hopefully these will paint a clear picture of the type of larp they’re describing:

  • A Nordic pressure-cooker 1950s larp
  • A high drama 1920s luxury larp
  • A surreal vintage-era larp for those who always wanted to be poets
  • A blockbuster adrenaline-pumping cyberpunk larp
  • An exclusive, slice-of-life dark academia larp
    • Audience descriptors in the examples above: Nordic, luxury, “for those who always wanted to be poets”, blockbuster, exclusive.
    • Style descriptors: Pressure-cooker, high drama, surreal, adrenaline-pumping, slice-of-life.
    • Atmosphere descriptors: 1950s, 1920s, vintage-era, cyberpunk, dark academia.

What we’re hoping by presenting this is that the model can be useful to analyze and document existing ideas and projects, as well as in decisions on how to market or design a larp.

But How Do I Actually Use It?

One simple use for the model is to create one-sentence descriptions of your larp, which are beneficial for quick pitches and to market it.

For example, we frequently describe Love and Duty as “a grimdark regency larp by Atropos and Lu Larpová”.

  • Grimdark=style descriptor. It will not be moving towards happy endings or light stories. “[A] kind of nihilism that portrays right action … as either impossible or futile.” – Liz Bourke
  • Regency=atmosphere descriptor. The visual style is for the most part regency.
  • by Atropos and Lu Larpová=Audience descriptor. People who like Atropos larps will like this. People who like Lu’s projects or want to support her might like this.

Of course, in practice, ‘grimdark regency’ could also be an audience descriptor. It tells you that you will enjoy this if you enjoy a more realistic regency game without fairytale endings. But, anything could be – after all, we expect participants to sign up for things they will like.

In the examples above we’re keeping the terms very short and precise, but when actually making a larp website you often use more words to set the scene for the larp that you wish to make.

The descriptor model can be a good stepping stone when trying to determine the vision of your game. It might start with an atmosphere descriptor like “I want a larp about eating noodles in the rain”. From there you can try to determine what your audience could be: “People who like the mundane parts of futuristic society. People who aren’t scared of low-drama and focus on small human interactions. People who don’t need drama to have a good larp. People who want to explore humanity and dehumanization.”

And then your next step might be determining the style: “Think Blade Runner and Cyberpunk, but not cool prosthetics and special effects, but instead simple signifiers, with the color scheme as seen through the lens of rain. Where everything becomes duller and less cool.” With all that in place you might have designed an Androids larp inspired by Blade Runner (a gateway), but with enough thought put into the atmosphere, style, and audience that with time little remains of the original movie inspiration, and instead it has become its own concept.

Essentially it boils down to some simple questions:

  • Who is this larp for? (Audience)
  • How will we play this larp? (Style)
  • How will the larp look? (Atmosphere)
  • What is our main inspiration, if any? (Gateway)

A question missing here is “How do we want our participants to feel?” or perhaps “What do we want them to experience?” The reason for this is that these things are part of the entire designed experience. The Descriptor Model instead sets out to create a framework for potential participants. When it comes down to what they will internally experience or feel, that is both a part of what you are continuously designing as an organizer, and something that participants need to be co-creative in.

Sometimes organizers know from the beginning what they want participants to experience. Sometimes they want to create a cool event and see what stories come out of it. In any case, this is something that might change along the process, and that is continuously being worked with.

In many ways, that is the idea of the larp itself: while the Descriptor Model exists to better provide tools that will prime potential participants on what to expect, and to know if this larp is for them.

It could also be used to pinpoint early in the process that there might be too many things going on with your larp idea at the same time. For example, if you as a team have multiple styles that are supposed to mesh without having designed a new joint vision, people might get confused about how to play the larp. If you’re targeting multiple audiences without giving tools for how those different groups will play together, you risk the larp splitting into groups with separate experiences. Finally, if you give people too many options for atmosphere, you risk people stressing about costume and what the larp is actually supposed to look like.

All of these together risk diluting the core idea of what the larp should be about.

It can also be used to make sure that your organizing team is on the same page about what larp you are designing, instead of finding out down the line that you have envisioned completely different things.

Nordic Larp and the Descriptor Model

So what is the relationship between Nordic Larp and the model? Well, as we discuss in our companion article Defining Nordic Larp, the term itself still has meaning to people. ‘Nordic larp’ as a term attracts a certain crowd. This makes it valid as an Audience Descriptor, by attracting people who enjoy the style.

Adding the word Nordic can also change people’s idea of how a larp will be played. For example, there is a difference between a fantasy or vampire larp, compared to a Nordic fantasy or vampire larp. In that way, ‘Nordic larp’ could also be seen as a Style Descriptor, just like many other regional or national larp traditions. It might communicate that there will be workshops, that there won’t be a lot of rules, and that there will be a play-to-lose mentality. Style descriptors do not have to be unique, as long as there’s a group of connotations connected to it.

However, we do not think that ‘Nordic larp’ can be used as an Atmosphere Descriptor. Perhaps a case could have been made at one time for it meaning modern-day clothes without a costume aspect to them, but looking at the broad use of the term Nordic larp we surmise that it can have many different types of aesthetics.

Finally, ‘Nordic larp’ can be used as a gateway. If a community learns about the concept by watching videos or being told about it, then the term itself can be used to recruit broadly without defining the term too specifically. This will lead to the same type of issues as with other gateways, i.e. that people will have different views of what Nordic larp actually is, and therefore be acting according to different ideas and rules.

Final Words

That was what we had to offer. We hope this will be helpful to someone, and if you end up using it, let us know! We are available on social media, and are always curious to see if there are any ripples in the water.

Cover image: Photo by fabio on Unsplash

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Petra Lindve has been organizing larps since 2017, writing for larps since 2016, and larping since 2014. She is a member of Atropos and has organized, among others, the Androids larps, Love and Duty, and The Forbidden History. Outside of the larp world she works as a print editor, and values clear communication and defined expectations.
Simon Lindman Svensson (born 1984) is a Swedish larper, larp designer and writer. He has a background in history and religion studies and holds a great interest in systems and social dynamics. He is one of the founding members of Atropos.