Six Levels of Larp Participation

Six Levels of Larp Participation


This is an attempt to provide some theoretical structure to the different, but in practice often intermingled, levels of larp participation. While some of these levels possess a more readily available terminology – like distinguishing between player and character – the corresponding expectations, responsibilities, purposes, and activities often still remain unspoken. Other levels are still most often overlooked, or maybe not even recognized as a part of the design and experience, much less discussed or communicated. By sorting and clarifying these different levels we hope that our framework can be a useful intellectual tool for both participants and organizers.

As for all models, our framework is clearly a simplification: an attempt to separate concepts, actions, and ideas where no clear boundaries actually exist, where cultures, play styles, and preferences overlap, shift, and are context-dependent. Since larp as a cultural expression continually breaks the norms and often tests the established boundaries of the format, it isn’t hard to find examples that not only contradict the framework but also do this as a central design choice. This is only natural for a work such as this that tries to be very generic.

The framework

A framework is the more or less collective definition that participants in an activity have of the situation. According to Goffman (1961, 1986) it is the unspoken answer that participants could give to the question: what is going on here?

The meaning of things like an object or something you say or do is dependent on which frame is currently established. When Fine (1983) looked at role-playing games he ended up with three different frames. The first was everyday life, the second was the game level where your actions were affected by the rules such as whose turn it is, and the third was the fantasy frame that we would call ‘in-game’ in larping.

When talking about larps we realized that there is more going on within each frame. By looking at what the individual does, why they do it, and for whom they do it, we could identify six different levels of larping. As we see it, levels 1 and 2 both go into Fine’s first frame, levels 3 and 5 go into his second frame, and levels 4 and 6 match his third frame. These levels interact and influence each other, providing opportunities and limitations. We found that the levels are not only descriptive: there is also a hierarchy to them. In general, the lower-numbered levels have a higher priority than the higher-numbered ones. By level, they provide the groundwork that the following levels rely on to work and to be meaningful. Below you see a table overview of the framework with its different parts, and short examples.

Table of the levels of the six levels of larping. Important terms are capitalized. Read the table as “On level 2, The participant acts as an Attendee to Perform a Task for the organizers”.

The Participant acts as a/an […]
to […]
for […]
1.PersonTake care ofOff-game Needsthemselvessleep enough
2.AttendeePerform(a) Taskthe organizer/scook food
3.Co-creatorUphold(the) Shared Fiction (and play culture)the other Rolesuse in-game names, only play in-game songs
4.RoleProvideFunctionsthe other Playersbe the bully everyone fears
5.PlayerSteer(their) Experience (through the character)themselvessolving the plot,
all the drama
6.CharacterPortraytheir Personal Fictionthemselves, other Characters and Playersdress to stand out, swear and challenge norms

The levels

First, let’s start by taking a look at the different levels of the framework. We will describe each level and also give some tips to think about for participants and give some insights into what this can mean for an organizer. You can probably come up with many more examples yourself.

Level 1 Off-game Needs

‘The Participant acts as a Person to Take care of Off-game Needs for themselves.’

As a Person signed up for a larp, you have to make sure that your basic requirements will be met. This might include things like warmth, food, medicine, sleep, security, and trust. These are things that you also would need to take care of outside of a larp. If at any point higher levels challenge your ability to fulfill your Off-game Needs to your own person, the Needs should take priority. They are more important than narrative and character coherence or the Functions your Role is Providing. This doesn’t mean that you should drop everything immediately because you are getting tired, but pushing yourself over your limits because “the plot demands it” isn’t the right thing to do. If you have an Off-game Need to handle that will affect higher levels such as Function (level 4), then please make sure to tell affected organizers and co-players, and maybe help them find a working solution to your absence.

To think about

Go through what you need to have your Off-game Needs filled, and see what the organizers take care of and what you should handle yourself. Remember that we can have different Off-game Needs. Some people work great even on very little sleep, while others can’t operate at all. It can also be good to have backup things if someone else forgot, like an extra blanket for warmth or some energy bars.

For the organizer

Be clear with what you can offer and what you expect participants to take responsibility for themselves. Are there off-game sleeping areas for people if they need them? Will you accommodate all dietary demands or only some? Also, be clear about what is part of your design and what is not: maybe scarcity of food is part of the larp, and you want participants to also be hungry off-game.

Level 2 Task

‘The Participant acts as an Attendee to Perform a Task for the organizer.’

On the 2nd level, we have the Tasks that an organizer asks you as an Attendee at their larp to Perform. This may be cooking food, waking everybody up, making sure no one stands in the wrong place when the pyrotechnics go off, letting the organizers know what the council decides, and so on. In many cases, if these Tasks are in some way vital to the larp, they are performed by a non-player character or an organizer with a thin cover character, but it’s not uncommon to see these kinds of Tasks handed out to regular Attendees. It can be hard to know how to prioritize these if there arises a conflict with other Purposes without clear instructions. For example, can your character get fired from the kitchen, or quit voluntarily to go join another group? Can they be taken prisoner? Since working in the kitchen might be a Task you (hopefully) agreed to Perform, your obligation is to the organizers who asked you. In this case, you must check with the organizers before abandoning the Task. If the obligation is to yourself for level 1 reasons – maybe you need to get dry clothes or handle an off-game situation – you should still inform the organizers, if it can affect the Task in a significant way.

To think about

Give some thought to what the Tasks that the organizer asks you to Perform will entail, both for your gameplay and for your Experience of the larp. Consider how much time they will take, and how much energy they will require. Are there reasonable backup plans in place if things don’t go as intended? How crucial are the Tasks assigned to you, for the larp to Function at all? Will you be able to carry them out while managing your other commitments to the gaming group and fellow Players? Can you foresee a conflict of interest? Will the Task bring you out of the central playing area or isolate you from the action, and is this something you are fine with?

For the organizer

As an organizer, you should consider how crucial the Tasks that you assign to the paying participants are, since they will also anticipate a fulfilling game Experience. Also, consider whether there are alternative solutions if things don’t go as planned, and whether you have clearly communicated your expectations to the participants in question. It’s not automatically evident that the Role of a “guard” entails actual patrols and being on fire watch, or that a “principal” should prepare and lead recurring teacher meetings as a crucial part of the design.

Level 3 The Shared Fiction

‘The Participant acts as a Co-creator to Uphold the Shared Fiction for the other Roles.’

Level 3 is about how you, as a Co-creator, Uphold the Shared Fiction and play culture. Here we find things like the game’s genre, mood, and type of play. If the game is a horror larp, then playing it like slapstick will not be suitable. In a game about a harsh oppressing system, can you start treating everyone equally? While some things might be very obvious, others might not be, and this can also vary between different play cultures. Is it ok to play a well-known off-game ballad in-game? Will it help with setting the mood or will it break the immersion? Can you invent a witch-lord in a fantasy world if none is mentioned in the background fiction? And what consequences will this have for other Players, their Experience, and their Roles/Characters? In short, what can you do without shattering the world and the make-believe you create together?

To think about

Read the necessary material to understand the expectations.Try to consider the broader implications that may arise when you introduce changes or modifications to the narrative. Engage in discussions with other Players about their perspectives on the larp’s theme and the Experiences they desire. Be mindful of whether any forms of discrimination are inherent to the larp’s design, and which ones the organizer has explicitly stated as unacceptable within the larp. If you’re uncertain, you can always verify with an organizer.

For the organizer

Ensure your communication is explicit. This includes elements like a checklist outlining the anticipated types of gameplay, what is not desired, content summaries, mood boards, and references to other elements of popular culture. Clearly specify whether specific sensitive topics will be incorporated into the gameplay, and whether there are any that Players can expect to be protected from encountering. If you prefer greater transparency, be sure to clearly articulate what is planned to occur, including any external boundaries for fictional events. Can Characters die during the game? Can they be exiled? Is revolution a conceivable aspect of the gameplay?

Level 4 Function

‘The Participant acts as a Role to Provide Functions for the other Players.’

At level 4, there are two aspects that can sometimes be separated, but in most cases are so closely interconnected that we handle them together here: Role and Function. Role refers to the social position in the fiction that your Character occupies – a title, profession, or distinct trait – which Characters can refer to and discuss. Examples include “captain of the hockey team”, “the new student”, or “village elder”. Function, on the other hand, is about the possible play opportunities your Role creates for the other Players, within the game. Examples include “the bully others should fear” or “the one who leads the council and makes sure everyone has their say”. As you see, these are implicit positions in a social interaction, perhaps an integral part of the experience design of the larp. It’s not a given that the captain of the team is a dangerous bully; that Function could be fulfilled by someone else. However, it’s likely within the formal responsibilities of the village elder to convene the council. A Role can provide several separate Functions, and a given Function can be provided by several characters. Things are not clear-cut, and ambiguity in this area paves the way for misunderstandings and gaps in the design.

What is needed for the story/scene/situation to work? If, at a larp about oppression and a dog-eat-dog environment, enough Players of high-status Roles don’t fill their Function to bully others, the power dynamics of the whole larp will change. This leads to problems both with the Characters not being bullied, and thereby the Players not getting the Experience they were after (level 5), and Upholding the fiction of a competitive world getting harder (level 3). Another example is if you said you would fill the Function of love interest for another Player, and then during the larp you focus on other things, leaving your co-Player with an unfilled Function. As seen here, you as a Player can have more than one Function at the same larp. You can have different Functions in different groups and situations, or towards individual Players.

Having a responsibility to fill with your Function doesn’t mean that you can’t change what your story is about, or go for other gameplay if you wish to: but you need to make sure that the Functions you are assigned will be handled in some other way. It is usually good to start by talking to the affected Players. Maybe the Player you were going to play a romance with is happy about their gameplay, or has already found someone else they would like to play it with instead? Then your dilemma is already solved. But if the change has an impact on a larger group, it might be good to check with the organizers. They might have someone else who can fill the Function in a good way to still make it work. Maybe they know that the Function is already covered by other Players and you don’t need to worry. Either way, you should make sure that your Functions will be handled adequately, and not just leave other Players, that are depending on you to Provide a Function, hanging.

To think about

Understand the Role and Functions you Provide, either by reading instructions from the organizers if they have clearly articulated such, or by conversing with your fellow Players and aligning expectations. Keep in mind that a small personal relationship can be a part of a larger design where it’s intended to contribute to gameplay for many others, like the romantic plot of Romeo and Juliet, for example.

Level 4 is closely connected to the personal skills of ensemble play and “reading the game” To learn more about this we recommend the articles Do You Want to Play Ball (Westborg & Nordblom, 2017) and Ensemble Play (Tolvanen & Macdonald, 2020).

For the organizer

Carefully consider the Roles your larp features and requires, along with the Functions they Provide, whether explicitly stated or implied. Can they be communicated more clearly? Are some Functions particularly vital and demanding of a substantial amount of time or energy? If a Function is particularly vital, it can be good to divide it among multiple Players. This way, the design can more easily withstand absences, distractions, or other instances where a Player might not fulfill their intended Function. Alternatively, it might be necessary to elevate a particularly significant Function to a Task, and assign it to an instructed Player or NPC.

If there are Roles within the larp’s structure that involve stepping into another social Role or occupation in the event of a vacancy, such as a crown prince or second-in-command, do you, as the designer, hold such expectations of the Players too? Be clear in your communication about this. Should they, as Participants, prepare in the same manner as their Roles are expected to? Should they even anticipate that type of gameplay, since it’s very different to play the Role of an heir to the throne biding their time, or one that during the game is thrust into the Role of a ruler and the Functions that entails?

Level 5 Experience

‘The Participant acts as a Player to Steer their Experience for themselves.’

At level 5 we find the Experience of the larp. Just like in level 1 (Off-game Needs), this level is about the requirements for the individual. But where level 1 concerns itself with the Needs that also exist outside of the larp, level 5 is about desires that are specific to the larp. It’s connected to the participant’s playstyle and wishes about their Experience. Do you want to Experience solving the plot, playing out big drama, running around doing physical things, exploring the world, or having a deep relationship with your Character? What type of gameplay do you like and how can you get it? We use the term steering (Montola & al. 2015) here since it guides your character towards the kind of play you are looking for. This might be playing with another specific participant because you find them interesting, even though your Character does not really have a strong motivation for speaking with them. Or it might be going on all the quests, since you find solving problems and puzzles very thrilling and rewarding.

To think about

Be honest with yourself and be clear about what you want from your Experience, and take responsibility for making this happen. Coordinate with other Players to get the best Experience you can. Remember to check with other participants about how they prefer to communicate about this: maybe they like to do an off-game check-in each morning, or maybe they prefer to talk it through before the game. Try to accommodate each other. Approach the organizer if things aren’t working, or if you feel stuck. If you sense that your Character’s personality and internal logic are hindrances to your game, contemplate the changes needed and execute them. However, also consider the Experience of other Players and any commitments you have toward them that still need to be fulfilled. Your desire for a specific Experience shouldn’t lead to neglecting assigned Tasks, the Shared Fiction, or your Role’s Functions.

For the organizer

As an organizer, you can help by asking Players at signup what type of gameplay they are after, and then try to match that to the groups or Characters.

It helps to be explicit about the types of Experiences that might be available and how Players can ensure they either engage in or avoid them. You can also assist participants by being accessible off-game during the larp to support those who might find themselves stuck in gameplay they don’t enjoy, or who are unsure of where to find the kind that they are seeking. By matching Players’ desires with each other, you can guide them towards someone who would likely appreciate that particular type of gameplay they are looking for.

Level 6 Personal fiction

‘The Participant acts as a Character to Portray their Personal Fiction for themselves, other Characters and Players.’

The 6th level is about the Characters inside the story. Where level 5 is about the Players and their experiences, level 6 is all about the Characters. Here we find things like the inner coherence of your Character, aesthetics, personalized movement, and quirks. It can also mean latching on to well-known archetypes, or deviating from them. “Does this make sense for my Character?” and “What would my Character do in this situation?” are relevant questions at this level. It’s not just about filling a Function or Upholding the Shared Fiction, it’s also about making that Shared Fiction into something intimate, emotional, and unique, about adding your personal flair to it, your interpretation of your Character, and to an extent also the other Characters.

The 6th level is often closely connected to and restricted by the 4th level (Function), but doesn’t have to be.

The Character Kim holds the Role of the village elder and is Tasked with the Function of equitably distributing the floor in the council, ensuring all Players have a chance to speak. If the Player finds that the inner coherence and narrative of Kim leads them towards Portraying that Kim has an internal crisis that leads to Kim stepping down as village elder, this works fine on level 6. But it will have consequences on level 4 (Function) that need to be handled, since there is not only the Role of the village elder that should be addressed but also the Function of leading the council. This Function and what it entails has to be communicated clearly to any intended replacement, to prevent the larp’s council from being affected in a manner that the organizers have expressly attempted to avoid.

To think about

This level is where you create and Portray your Character. It is where you add your personal twist and go deeper into what the Character would do. It encompasses everything else not defined or confined by the foundational lower levels. However, even here, it’s beneficial to reach out to the organizer and co-participants before and also during the larp for inquiries regarding your Character, calibrating Portrayal, and visual representation.

Let’s say you have planned to Portray (level 6) a punk rocker with clear aesthetics that break the norm because the Experience you are Steering (level 5) towards is to be alternative and an outsider. If it then turns out that several other participants also choose that their Characters will be punk rockers, you risk not getting the Experience (level 5) you desire. You don’t need to change your level 5 priorities, since a change of direction at level 6 can solve the problem. Maybe playing a very religious Character now seems to be the more alternative choice.

For the organizer

This level is mainly relevant to the individual participants, but things you could do as an organizer include running workshops to help participants develop their Characters, adding guidelines on how to Portray the Character to the Character text, and being available and open to questions from the participants.


Here we will give two short examples of how you can apply the framework as a participant. By thinking about the different levels you can analyse what choices are available and assess what consequences these choices might have. There isn’t one right choice; it depends on the situation and what change you are striving for, but the framework might help guide you with your decision.

Example 1: Theodora the head chef

The Character Theodora is the head chef and is responsible for the distribution of the food on the ship. Every mealtime she keeps order in the line, shouting threats and insults to the crew, making sure everyone gets some food and no one gets too much, reminding them that they are critically short.

What part of this situation is the Participant (playing the Character of Theodora) free to change and what can she ignore or add to when next the mealtime comes around? Can she choose to serve food at a different time? Start rationing the food even more so everyone goes hungry? Start being nice and lovely, telling everyone that everything will be ok? Give up the position of the head chef and join the marines instead?

By applying the framework, we can deduce that distributing food is a Task (level 2) that the organizers have asked the Attendee to do. Therefore it has a very high priority. Unless there are pressing Personal Off-game Needs (Level 1), food distribution according to the schedule designed by the organizers shouldn’t be disrupted. Serving less food than agreed upon would also mean changing the Task, impacting the Off-game Needs of many participants. Even if there are very good Fictional reasons (level 3), like that the food storage of the ship has been damaged, any change in the Task should only be implemented once it’s been checked with the organizers.

Theodora’s reminding of the dwindling supplies is part of the Shared Fiction (level 3), while her harsh attitude and jargon towards others is a Function to Provide a feeling of military discipline and a tough oppressive command system (level 4). There might be good reasons for Theodora to change these behaviours. Maybe because the Player (level 5) got tired of being a bully and would like to feel well-liked instead, or maybe the Character (level 6) found a new way of dealing with her insecurities and worries by being much more positive. No matter the reason, if the designers placed Theodora in that Role with the explicit Function of being dominant and harsh and reminding people of how rough the times ahead will be, the Player of Theodora should ensure that these things will still happen, probably by someone else shouldering the Function, even if the Role of head chef is not transferred. Or they should at least check in with the organizers to see if the game has reached a point where that Function does not need to be Provided anymore.

Example 2: a high-status character

It is not uncommon to be anxious about playing a high-status Character that will work in the larp, say a king or a high-rank officer. The fear is about blocking play for others, or maybe disrupting the larp by not being believable enough. Let’s now apply the framework to break this down.

Blocking play is connected to level 4, Function. One of the most common Functions to have as a high-status Role is play distribution. Being high up in the hierarchy, a lot of information and many decisions end up in your lap. If you keep all the information to yourself and want to make all the decisions, you will create a bottleneck where everyone else is waiting for you and their play is blocked. You might also block others by having long meetings and not being available. High-status roles often have the responsibility to see that the Function of distributing play is fulfilled, either by you or by someone else.

The next fear is about disrupting the larp, which is a concern at level 3, Uphold the Shared Fiction. This is a responsibility everyone shares. All Co-creators have the responsibility to by default treat others as would be fitting for their position. It’s not one Co-creator’s job to make everyone else treat them in a certain way. As long as you try to treat everyone else’s Characters in a fitting manner, like inviting the most prestigious people when you are holding court, you have done your part. Also, note that the Shared Fiction isn’t static and can change during the larp. If a war is declared, or an attempt on the life of the king is made, the Functions of the Role would change as the Shared Fiction adjusts to accommodate this new development. Holding court would probably be canceled, as handling the new threat demands focus.

The last part of the fear is about not being believable enough. That is level 6, Character. Many people think that they must Portray their character with authority and realistic mannerisms in order to get others to listen to them. But as we just established, having others listen to you is part of Upholding the Shared Fiction. How you Portray a Character can be done in many different ways and is not crucial for whether the larp will work or not. As long as you fill your Function, in this case, distributing play and holding court, you don’t have to be demanding and authoritative. You can also Portray your Character as confused and incompetent, stating things like “My head hurts from all these words, let the oracles decide”. Both could work equally well.

By using the provided framework we see that Portraying a Character is not nearly as important as Providing the Functions of the Role.


What we have shown here is a hierarchy of things for you as a participant to do and take care of for the larp to work and for all the participants to have the Experience they want. The levels are not separate: they interact and interfere with each other.

Diagram by the authors. Graphic design: Sara Kannasvuo.

Diagram by the authors. Graphic design: Sara Kannasvuo.

Even though we spent most of this article talking about the levels and what they entail, what we find most important is not what level something belongs to, but the consequences of the choices we make in larps.

We find that adding new initiatives, making changes, and handling problems would benefit from considering the framework to better assess the available scope of action and possible solutions. Since the lower levels (1–4) affect many participants and/or your personal off-game wellbeing, they need to be prioritized. This doesn’t imply that changes or initiatives on the higher levels (5–6) should be sidelined, but rather that players should make sure that these do not generate large undesired effects on lower levels before implementing them. If you do not consider this, you might commit one or more of the cardinal sins of larp (Koljonen 2021). You do not want to break the trust placed in you, just like you do not want others to break the trust you have in them. Nordic larp is not about rules, it is all about trust.


Gary Allan Fine (1983): Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press.

Erving Goffman (1961): Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Bobbs-Merrill.

Erving Goffman (1986): Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Northeastern University Press.

Johanna Koljonen (2021): Cardinal Sins of Larp. Knutepunkt 2021. [Video] Youtube.

Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros and Eleanor Saitta (2015): The Art of Steering – Bringing the Player and the Character Back Together. In The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book, edited by Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted. Rollespilsakademiet.

Josefin Westborg and Carl Nordblom (2017): Do You Want to Play Ball? In Once Upon a Nordic Larp, edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand, 130-140. Knutepunkt 2017.

Anni Tolvanen and James Lórien Macdonald (2020): Ensemble Play. In What Do We Do When We Play, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Johanna Koljonen and Jukka Särkijärvi. Solmukohta 2020.

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

Westborg, Josefin, Janusz Maxe, and Gabriel March. 2024. “Six Levels of Larp Participation.” 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 image: Photo by geraldo stanislas on Unsplash

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Josefin Westborg is one of the world’s leading designers in edu-larps. She has a background in game design and pedagogy and is one of the founders of Lajvbyrån (previously LajvVerkstaden Väst). She now works as a Lecturer as part of the Transformative Play Initiative with focus on analogue games at Uppsala University at the Department of Game Design. Throughout her career she has met thousands of students of all ages, and run and designed larps for them. She has also been a teacher in game design at both Chalmers University of technology and the University of Gothenburg. She is passionate about designing for interaction, storytelling and learning. When she is not involved with games you will probably find her at the dance studio doing ballroom dancing.
Gabriel has been larping since the nineties, mainly French Mind's Eye Theater and fantasy larps before discovering Nordic larps and the international scene 7 years ago. Professionally, he's been a Navy Sailor and an IT technician for various government and civilian agencies. His hobbies include board games, tabletop role-playing, video games, goth and alternative parties, genre cinema and of course larping.
Janusz Maxe is from Gothenburg, Sweden. He has been larping since the larp The Monitor Celestra (2013), because it was run in his hometown AND provided costumes. It turned out well since he promptly attended both runs 1 and 3 and a decade later he is still here as part of our community. Janusz is one of the creators of Ensemble – an online tool for larps, and one of the designers behind the larp The Devil You Know.