Someday, I want to write and run a three-day, one-shot larp. You know, the sort of thing with 30-60 pre-written characters, a workshop, a debrief, and a venue that looks just like the game world is supposed to look (360º illusion). A larp that happens in real time, and either offers breathtaking adventure, or makes the participants cry so hard that we can collect their tears in vats to be distilled for later cocktails. (The GM Martini: one part gin, three parts distilled players’ tears, stir to combine with dry ice, drink out of a goblet made from a unicorn’s tusk.)
If only I had a specific idea for a larp. While I wait around for inspiration to strike, I decided to do some legwork figuring out how an individual or group goes about organizing such a thing.
Such large-scale larps require more than one person, or two, or even three at the helm–and as the number of organizers goes up, the way they interact with one another becomes increasingly important.
As I polled organizers in the US and Nordica via social media, it became apparent that the folks I know have developed three core ways of larp organization. (Are there more ways to do it? I’m sure there are.)
Many US campaign larps use this model. Essentially, there’s a single main organizer steering the ship, who is at the top of a pyramid of different committees. It’s a model where one person functions as the decider, and it’s the job of the committees–plot committee, character committee, etc. to do much of the creative work on their own, and the job of the lead organizer to shape those processes, and make sure everything is consistent.
I see no reason why you couldn’t use this model to create a one-shot larp as well.
Advantages: The buck very clearly stops with the lead organizer–there is one person shepherding the process and that provides some consistency. Personal responsibility is clearly delineated, and there is a clear mechanism for breaking ties. If Billy wants it one way and Sharon wants it the other way, the lead organizer decides.
Disadvantages: Can create a power structure that is overly complicated. Is susceptible to lead organizers who try to be dictators. May mean that staff members don’t feel creatively invested in the final product leading to volunteer attrition. Can also be hard to manage upward, reigning in the truly unreasonable ideas of the higher ups–it’s possible the lead organizer’s ideas won’t be challenged and examined as they should be. Also means that there is only one person of whom the highest level of logistical and creative burden is asked–it’s possible for the lead organizer to get overwhelmed.
Large Committee Model
Louise has a great idea so she invites about five or six people to join her in creating a larp. These five or six people agree that they are all equal in stature when it comes to the project, and they create the setting and characters collaboratively.
Closer to the running of the event, individuals take on particular responsibilities in terms of logistics, writing, publicity, etc. The team recruits other volunteers as needed close to the larp — for example, a team of people to run the kitchen, a group to build the fort on the hill, etc.
Advantages: Everyone has been in on the larp from the beginning, so there is creative investment on the part of the organizing team. Everyone gets some creative satisfaction from the work. The creative process is full of collaboration, which means ideas are improved by group challenging.
Disadvantages: If your organizing team has six people on it and does almost everything together, scheduling becomes complicated–it’s harder to find a time for six people to coordinate to meet. Also, when everyone is responsible, in some ways, no one person is responsible–maybe the team is so inclusive that the artistic vision gets a bit muddled (yes! We can have spaceships AND dragons!). Occasionally stuff falls through the cracks, or the un-fun stuff endemic to planning any event falls on one person’s shoulders, fostering resentment.
Pigs & Chickens Model
I’m familiar with the concepts of pigs and chickens from the Norwegian larpers I know. The concept comes from an old joke about a pig and a chicken starting a bed and breakfast together. The pig asks the chicken, “what shall we serve for breakfast?” and the chicken says, “eggs and bacon.” The pig isn’t as cool with that, because it means he has to sacrifice, while the chicken only has to give what is convenient.
The pigs and chickens model combines the structure of the hierarchical model with the team spirit of the committee model.
In larp organizing, a “pig” is a person who will do whatever it takes and pick up whatever falls through the cracks in order to get it done. The “chicken” is someone who is given a discrete job to complete, but is not expected to offer more beyond that.
On this model, you usually have two to three pigs doing most of the heavy lifting and two to ten chickens who have their own jobs. For example, the three pigs come up with a direction for the larp, and then one of them takes on the job of meeting with the two chickens who will do most of the character writing. The chickens still get to be creatively invested, but the pigs steer the ship collaboratively and make sure that there is food at dinner time.
As the larp approaches, the pigs divide different responsibilities among themselves, and coordinate different sets of chickens.
Advantages: Lean organizational structure makes it easier to change directions and meet up regularly. Having more than one person collaborating on the pig committee means that ideas are challenged and reigned in, but that artistic vision is still coherent and narrow. Also means that chickens can be creatively involved while not having the larp take over their lives for ten months. One or more pigs meets periodically with different sets of chickens. If the three pigs meet with the two logistic chickens, that’s a few meetings of five people, rather than a jillion meetings with five or ten.
Disadvantages: Um…if the pigs can’t agree, that’s a problem? I suppose there is also the risk that some of the chickens might not feel as creatively engaged as they would on say, the large committee model. Update per the comments: Sometimes the chickens think they are pigs and deserve more say in a project than their participation warrants. Essentially, this is a problem with expectation-setting about involvement, and it can lead to hard feelings.
Aside from the organizational structure, when planning a larp there are a few other things to keep in mind.
Whether to Separate Logistics and Artistics
It may seem convenient to separate the team responsible for logistics from the people doing, say, character creation. But this can lead to problems down the road when the people writing the plot decide that the game won’t work without two tons of gravel, without knowing that this is impossible given the site and budget of the game.
Also, when folks working logistics are included in the vision meetings, the set and scenography and other logistics may end up supporting the vision of the game that much more. For example, in The White War, a Danish larp about an imaginary version of the Iraq war that focused on the interactions between soldiers and locals, the organizing team decided that the soldiers would hand out all the food, transforming mealtimes into a cornerstone of game play between the two groups, according to organizer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj. That might not have happened if the logistics team hadn’t been a part of the creative process.
Similarly, logistics are incredibly important to making a game run. If the bathrooms don’t work, the food is nonexistent, and everyone is cold during the whole larp, the game will not be a success (unless cold, hungry irate players is what you’re going for). Attending to these details isn’t sexy, but it’s way necessary to literally everything else that happens during the game. Love your logistics people and give them the opportunity to be creative.
On the other hand…it can be more efficient, time-wise, to separate the groups. But you will need to have at least one person to be the bridge between the two.
How to Pick Your Team
Whatever you do, you want to start out by getting your team on the same page. As Norwegian designer Magnar Grønvik Müller put it, “My experience is that with any volunteer project, if the organizers don’t agree on the vision, goals and audience, you’re off for a bumpy ride. Start defining those, and look at them when disputes arise.”
It’s important to have some balance on your team–pick people with a diversity of strengths and working styles. And don’t forget that organizing a game is supposed to be fun. Here’s how Norwegian designer Eirik Fatland put it:
“ It’s a creative collaboration. Who would you write a novel with? Who would you trust to design the covers? In whoose company would you prefer to be when you die?
There are also intra-person dynamics to consider. Balance perfectionists with “just get it done already!” folks. Introverts and extraverts. Make sure you have at least one collaborator who smiles a lot. Remember to feed people. Talk about ideas and vision until everyone is capable of generating new ideas that fit into the whole and are readily accepted by the group.
It’s volunteer work. Accept fluff, and factor in off-topic chatting as a natural part of planning meetings. If people aren’t having a good time working on the larp, it’s not gonna work out. Check with your co-organizers before you recruit someone new.”
Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson suggests that your best friends are not necessarily the best people to team with.
“As a very practical note, when thinking about who should be in the team, I recommend a thoroughly unsentimental approach. People who believe in the vision, do their jobs, are efficient and get along well. Recruiting friends and other larp buddies for social reasons means more pointless work later in the process.”
Swedish designer Anna Westerling suggests being bold and asking the people you want to work with:
“I hade waited for the longest for an organizing crew to fall in my lap and it just didn’t. So I started thinking, and listing (my university notes are full of these lists), who I wanted to work with and what I wanted them todo. Then I took them out for coffee and asked them, and most people said yes. That is how I got to know Anders Hultman. I wanted the greatest person I know of to do economy, and he was that. Then he turned out to do very much more in the project, but I didn’t know that at the time. My point is, don’t be shy. Ask the ones you want. Have coffee. I can also confess that when I begun I had another organization plan that didn’t really work out later, but then we just updated it. So you might not get it right in your plans, but make sure to have plans. “
Some Roles You’ll Want to Fill
Whether you outsource some of these responsibilities to one person, or spread the responsibilities across several, here are some things that will need doing. I’m pretty sure that this list is nowhere close to complete, but it also depends on how you divvy up the stuff needed during a larp, and of course, on how grand scale your larp is.
A larp on a grand scale will need lots of people doing logistics, scenography, etc. A small game might only require one or two people handling these tasks. A lot depends, of course, on how you have designed your game.
Eirik Fatland puts it like this:
“The bottom line, I guess, is: there is no pattern. Each time has been different, and each larp concept has presented different skill needs. Five roles always need to be covered, though: Treasurer, Designer/Writer, Producer, PR, and Communications/Correspondence. For small larps, they can all be one person. The big question is more about how much capacity (time) you need. If people are unemployed artists, you need fewer. If they are juggling work, family and larp, you need more.Once you write individual characters, you need lots of creative capactiy. If your vision is heavy on aesthetics, production and scenography blend. I was about to write that no more than three people should have a final say on concept, but then I remembered that at Moirai and the Blinded Eye we were 6 and that was OK, but it still is a good thumbnail rule.”
Oversees all practical aspects of the production, from budget and venue to insurance, food and props. Someone who can juggle a lot of balls in the air at the same time.
As Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson put it, “A good logistics person is magic, and can make the difference between a good game and a KP mistakes presentation [a public presentation of the mistakes you've made as a larp organizer].”
If it’s a big production, you’ll want someone to keep the books. In addition, you might want someone dedicated to getting grant money or fixing the insurance. Someone competent you can really rely on in a pinch.
Set and Scenography
Do you know people who like building stuff or who know how to sew the costumes you’ve promised participants? I hope so. Depending on how much set and scenography you’ve got going, you might need several people, or one foreman and a crew of builders, as it were, to get the larp set up. Does the game involve technology? You might need people to rig lights, run the fake Facebook, etc.
This person will need to interface with the producer about stuff like venue.
Kitchen God/Other Logistics
Whether you’re planning to feed your participants, or providing somewhere for them to cook their own food, if this is a several-day venture, you’ll need someone to manage the kitchen, make sure it’s clean, and that dinner, if any, is prepped on time.
Are the sleeping spaces OK? Do people need wood for the fireplaces in these cold tiny cabins? Are there extra blankets somewhere so no one freezes? Is there toilet paper in the bathrooms? Do you need latrines shipped in?
This encompasses a lot, but depending on the game, you might need people to form the game world, write characters, design the mechanics of the game, whether that means skill lists or metatechniques, think about how the space is designed to promote game interaction, forge the workshops, etc.
You might need a designer who is separate from the people writing character sheets, for example.
One or more people should be responsible for getting the website up and running, writing copy for it, and communicating regularly with participants. This can also include being responsible for overseeing the people who will document the larp, if you have them.
The Human Touch
Does someone need to be sitting in the off-game room in case a player needs to talk? If it’s a complex game, it can be wise to make one person responsible for ensuring that everyone else eats at least one meal and sleeps at least two hours per night.
Some Configurations That Have Worked for Nordic Organizers
- Halat Hisar (2014): 7 person core team with no leader. That team took charge of writing, funding, production, planning, and design. Near to the larp they recruited a kitchen team, interrogation team, documentation team, and logistics captain. 2 days.
- Just a Little Lovin’ (2011): 5 pigs (including two writers) and ? chickens. 60 players over 5 days.
- Kapo (2011): 7 organizers + staff. 180 players over 48 hours.
- Mad About the Boy (2010): 3 pigs and ? chickens. 30 players over 3 days.
- Skymningsland. 3 main organizers + production team of 12 + 5 people doing character creation coaching for players. 189 players over 4 days.
- The Mutiny (2004) 2*Directors getting their ass saved by Bjarke Pedersen
- PanoptiCorp (2003): Producer + 6 uncertainly defined piggish organizers
- Europa (2001) Director + Producer + Scenographer + 2 * General Crew + Prequel Producer + Treasurer. 4 days.
- Den Lille Kyrthanilaiven (2000) 3 creative pigs and an autonomous production chicken crew of 4
- Kybergenesis (1997): Director + Producer + 5 Writers + 5 IT + 2 Others
- Moirais Vev (1997) and Blinded Eye (1997): 6 Equal Pigs with one as First Amongst Equals. 4 days.
- (Got more configurations from more different larps? I’d love to know about them.)
Kåre Murmann Kjær, “Design for Work Minimization” and Anna Westerling, “Producing a Nice Evening,” both from Playground Worlds, Solmukohta 2008. (Free download!)
Angles I missed? Got different ideas for organizing a game like this? Know of other organizing combos that worked? More articles suitable for further reading? Leave them in the comments.