Experience focused larp design

This post is written as an introduction to a debate about larp design at Knutpunkt 2014 in Sweden. It is some rather raw ideas and I am not sure about the merit of calling this a “design philosophy”, but I will let that be up to the discretion of the reader.

Also…this is a post about larp design, not about larp production. Although these processes are usually interconnected in many ways I find it useful here only to occupy myself with the design process and how an experience focused larp design can be accomplished in a relatively simple manner.


My favorite larps are the ones where I have clear expectation of my experience is going to be at the larp, before I sign up. By experience I don’t mean which story I am going to play or even who or what I am going to play. For me it is about the feeling that this larp presents a clean cut vision of the themes that the larp is going to revolve around and how the organizers are going to help me experience these themes. It is also my preferred (only?) approach to organizing larps. This article is thus based on my personal experiences with larp design and my reflections as a player on which larps I enjoy to play the most and my personal experiences with organizing larps, focused on the experience design.

And before you say “aren’t all larps experience designs” I guess I need to do a disclaimer. “Experience focused larp design” is a horrible description, but it is the best i have come up with so far – and it is definitely much better than “experience based larp design” which was my first feeble attempt to put these thoughts into words. However i do hope that it appears from the text why i find the experience part to be more prevalent in this style of designing than many others.

A design philosophy?
This article is not meant to be a manifesto or a critique of other approaches to larp design, but is a way of describing what I consider to be a relatively simple design philosophy. I consider it to be easy to design larps this way – granted, that you have (or develop) a singular idea for a larp experience, that you want to create together with your players. Basically, this “guide” is meant to inspire organizers to create more of the larps I like to play and to do it faster.

The base of this design philosophy is two central aspects of larp design:
– Creating a singular, rather that multiple experience, meaning that the themes of the larp should be the same for all players, even though the themes can be experienced from different angles.

– Communicating the experience design clearly for it to be understood by all your players before the larp starts. This philosophy is based on designing for and communicating what you want the players to experience…not what you want the characters to experience.

This style of larp design have a tendency of putting focus largely on the simulation of institutions, cultures or societies, rather that the narrative or the story. They also tend to have a high degree of transparency or openness (otherwise it gets hard to communicate the experience of the larp to the players before the game), a collaborative view on character creation (as a central aspect of this design philosophy is using workshops) and a collaboratively driven story engine (as the players should all be participating in creating the experience you have co-designed for – even if you want to do a very gamist larp).

A five step model (of sorts)
The real world is a messy place and models which try to fit theoretical frameworks on design will often fail. Designing larps is a creative process and you cannot expect to have it all figured out when you begin. What you can do is to design and communicate clearly about the experience you want to create, so you, your co-organizers and your players can reasonably expect what they are going to get if they participate in the realization of your larp.

Thus, don’t consider this to be a tight model, but rather a presentation of five central elements of experience design, which I in this text have connected to five concrete tools. As I see it, these elements are often central if you want to make a design focused on the experience (not the story – the experience) that you want to give the players (not the characters – the players). The emphasis is on communicating to your players what you want them to do, in an understandable way:

1) Defining the experience: the project description
2) Defining the feel of the experience: the mood board
3) Communicating the experience: the homepage
4) Co-designing the experience: the workshop
5) Planning the experience: the project plan

1) Defining the experience: the project description

The first step is to define the experience of the larp. What will be the common denominator for the experience of all the players, apart from the setting that they are going to be in?

Mind you…I am not saying that you can’t begin a larp design process without having the tightest experience design ever. Most likely you will, as you do not start out with the perfect idea. In my experience design is often a bit muddled in the beginning and the point of departure can be many different things, for example the setting (“I have always wanted to do a bleak, social realistic larp”), a location (“wow…we can borrow a 18th century villa”), a “twist” (“how cool would it be if children was in power in this alternate world of mine”), a meta-technique (“I want the players to be able to express their true emotions only when they are wearing the masks”) or whatever. But that doesn’t change the point I want to make here. You need to figure out what the experience is supposed to be, before you can communicate about your larp to the potential participants.

When I look at most larps that are currently being designed I often find it hard to understand what the experience is actually going to imply. Often only the setting is communicated clearly (such as “firefly”, “village larp”, “prison larp” or in Denmark the well-known “summer-larp”) while the experience is barely implied through world, culture and character descriptions. And that is presupposing that the organizers are trying to design for a singular experience, which I guess most often isn’t the case.

So what is the experience?
Yeah. so what do I mean by experience and “experience focused” design in this context. For me it is about finding the essence of your larp design; the things you want to communicate with the larp (here called: “themes”) and the larp medium through which you want your players to explore the themes (here called “setting”).

Experience = Themes + setting (and a splash of genre)

Some examples of larps, in which i see a clear focus on singular experience in the design:
– Totem: coming of age in a degenerating tribal culture.
– Delirium: love and insanity at an asylum.
– Kapo: Dehumanization in a surrealistic prison camp.
– Brudpris: Honor culture and patriarchy in 1890’s sweden.
– Lindängens Riksinternat: Bullying at a boarding school.

Mind you that these experience definitions has largely been made after the larps were designed played. When you are in the middle of the design process these “definitions” will probably consist of a lot of different elements such as emotions, visual imagination, ideas for scenes and so on which is perfectly fine. The important thing is that you try hard to get hold of the singular experience which is going to carry your larp for all the players.

A project description
The project description is a preliminary design document, where you describe what you want to accomplish with your larp and how you are going to do it.
– why are you doing this design? (i.e. we find the treatment of elderly people deserves critique)
– what are the players going to experience? (i.e. In “forgotten” we want the players to experience disempowerment at a retirement home).
– how are you going to give them that experience? (i.e. “forgotten” will be a bleak, dystopian version of a contemporary retirement home, where the players will live for the 48 hours of the larp)

The mixing desk of larp seems to be a nice tool which can be used to think about some central elements of your design. At least this tool forces organizers to be reflective of their design choices, which I guess is pretty good exercise no matter how accomplished a larpwright you are.

2) Defining and visualizing the feel of the experience: the mood board

When you have some idea of the experience you want to design for I find it useful go into a mode of visual inspiration. That is, to start thinking about how the looks and the feel of the larp experience should be. I find physical mood boards to be an effective way to communicate within an organizing group and some sort of digital representation of a mood board as a good way of communicating to players. Recently I started using pinterest, which seems to be a rather nice tool for this, although other methods might allow for more personalization. I have made a fast example pinterest board for “forgotten”, the retirement home larp here.

I find that images are generally better than words when you want to:
– Communicate looks
– Communicate feeling
– Communicate materials
– Communicate texture

Also…if it makes sense, consider a scale model of your scenography…model building is fun and a great way to get into deep discussions on design decisions which become very tangible as you see your scenography in scale.

3) Detailing and communicating the experience: the homepage

I love the phase in the design process where you make the homepage. The homepage for me is a great design tool as it forces you to answer all (or most of) the questions that players are going to have about your larp, which is great! It allows us to move into a phase where we reduce complexity and make active design choices. This is a phase that often takes a very long time in most larp projects as different organizers tend to disagree a lot on a many different issues. My suggestion is simply – start making the homepage and start writing as if you were communicating to players as fast as possible.

I also suggest that you do it online. If you want a fancy design you can always make it later. For starters just use a free service such as wordpress, which allows you to create the headlines you want and work with them in a web interface. My experience is that it is radically different from working with word documents. The whole mindset of writing texts for a homepage is very different from the often futile attempts to frame the whole project in internal design documents.

You need to think about the elements that is necessary communicate for the players to understand, become interested and able to participate in the experience you want to create with them, and preferably keep it at that. As simple as possible and focused on the experience. Don’t present the great surrounding world of your setting if it isn’t necessary (it rarely is). If you are doing a larp focusing on the experience of disempowerment at a retirement home, tell them exactly that.

Much of the material for your homepage can hopefully be added directly from your work on a project description and a homepage, but you will probably need to go into more detail if you want your players to understand the more subtle details of you experience design.

Detailing the experience
In this design phase you are detailing the experience. More often than not you will already have a range of ideas for the details of your experience design from the beginning of the design process, but at some point you need to define them more precisely and explain (at least to yourself) how they add to the experience that you want to create for your players.

It is probably not enough to tell you players that they are supposed to play “disempowerment at a retirement home”. You need to explain how you are going to make it an interesting, exiting and fantastic experience. In the case of the retirement home larp it is relevant to communicate clearly that we are talking about a “bleak and dystopian” setting and what that means, but also how the game will be run. Is the larp going to be played in acts? Do you have a storyline, which drives the larp forward? Are you going to have meta-scenes where the players play young versions of themselves? Are you going to have evil nurses? Will they be NPC’s or players? Are you going to use certain effects to reinforce the experience of the larp, such as lighting techniques or soundscapes?

Furthermore it is often important to describe the options players have (if any) for approaching the experience by describing the cultures, groups or characters that can be played in the larp. Is it important that different cultures or groups are portrayed in the larp in a certain way? Is it vital for the experience that you have an evil warden? In my experience it can often be nice to have some sort of framework ready for groups or cultures. Personally I prefer leaving character creation for the workshop.

4) Co-designing the experience: the workshop

I find that mandatory pre-larp workshop is a fun, and very efficient way of communicating, co-designing and rehearsing the experience of a larp. Workshop design is therefore highly important in this design philosophy. The design of the workshop will be largely dependent on the amount of co-design you want in your larp. Personally I do not like to write characters as it is often very time consuming and as i find that players are often just as good (or better) at inventing interesting characters and groups.

A main feature of pre-larp workshops is that you gather all your players, give them the same information about the experience that you want to design and then allow them to engage in a participatory process of developing and rehearsing how the experience design can be played in the most interesting way. In this way a pre-larp workshop enables players to “see” the same thing (in detail – hopefully they have a pretty good idea of the experience after having read your homepage) when they prepare for the larp. I strongly recommend reading Martin Nielsens writings on culture calibration for a more thorough description of the benefits of workshops in communication to and with players.

Workshops are used for information (What is the experience design of this larp? What is designed? What is supposed to be co-designed? What is stable/what is unstable in the culture/setting to be portrayed? What are the central controversies?) group building (making players trust each other and want to have a fun and crazy experience together by getting them to laugh, touch and behave stupidly together) culture and character creation (allowing the players to build the characters and relationships they want to play, within the framework you have designed) and character/culture calibration (rehearsing how the characters and the culture or society they are portraying should feel). See the workshophandbook for more elaborate descriptions of workshops and workshop methods.

Also. Bring your mood board and some costume examples to your workshop to add the tactile aspect of your design. Or consider if it is possible to find/make costumes during the workshop. At Kapo we told all the players to bring 1,5 potential costume each and the piled it all up and asked them to pick out whatever their characters would wear – not a bad choice for contemporary settings.


5) Planning the experience: the project plan

The project plan should be considered as an iterative tool. Something which is developed during the whole design process, from the vantage point of the project description. It will change as you understand your project better, as you involve more people and players in it and as you discover new barriers or possibilities for the production of your larp. A project plan is the “how to” part of your project and is a further detailing of your design. You know what you want to design, but need to make a plan to describe how to accomplish that the experience is realized. Are you going to do runtime gamemastering? are you playing meta-scenes during act breaks? Using mood lighting or sound? You need to detail how it is going to happen.

Your project plan can also be a great vantage point for a production plan, where you describe what needs to be bought, built, found and facilitated before, during and after the larp.