Larp Love, Not War: Nordic methods for sexy roleplaying

The below is the rough text of a talk on Nordic methods for larping love, delivered at the indie video game design collective Babycastles‘ 2012 Valentine’s Day event, as well as at Gen Con 2012. Most of the talk is based on Emma Wieslander’s essay “Rules of Engagement” from the 2004 Solmukohta book Beyond Role and Play (pdf), my interview with her, and some games I played on my first trip to Denmark in 2011

 

Introduction – Why should we larp love?

Typically, in the states, (I’m going to be generalizing here) we use larp to tell epic adventures set against a genre-literature style of background. We tell high-fantasy tales of bravery and derring-do, we tell stories about backstabbing vampires, and we tell stories about the demon Cthulhu rising to consume us all. We do not the quiet moments where relationships start to fall apart. We play battles, not sex. And if we do play love, it’s often incidental — two characters falling in love on the battlefield — not an intentional theme of the larp.

In comparison, if you look at an older story-telling medium, like say, the novel, you’ll find a wider range of stories. Sure, we’ve still got awesome tales of saving the world from giant robots with cunning and death-rays, but there are also tons of novels that take place in the real world, that tell stories about love. In fact, love is one of the great themes of art in general and the novel in particular. Sometimes it manifests in escapist ways — as in romance novels — but there is a ton of literary fiction about love, relationships, and adultery.

And if larp is really a simulation of the real world, if it has high-art aims, which I think it does,  I think it’s important that no theme be off limits, if a game organizer wants to address it sensitively.

You might think about violence and lust as two intense peaks in human emotion, (as Wieslander does) and I think it’s important to be able to play both of those.

So why should we play love?

  • It represents the real world that we live in
  • Widens the number of playable plotlines
  • And provides for an intense experience, because love is as intense as violence.

And I think that Swedish larp organizer Emma Wieslander, creator of the Ars Amandi mechanic said it best, “I believe that we need stories of hope, of choosing life over money, stories that go beyond the mainstream dualistic, black and white i.e. the stories that make us strangers to each other and to the world. Creating situations, or even whole societies, where only feelings of hate, anger and aggression are expected to surface scares me. Also that it’s so normalized tells you something about the vast need of promoting all the other aspects. Love, romance and sex are some of them. I think it’s quite sad that many players should have a greater expectancy of their character getting killed than fucked. I also believe that these stories deserve to be told in their own right and not just as background info, motivating the violence.”

 

Why We Don’t Play Love

Why don’t we play love in the US? I think there are a couple reasons: it’s messy, and we don’t have many mechanics to render it.

  • For starters, love feels more risky to play than violence. We live in a civilized world. In real life, few of us will ever swing a sword or, to quote Johnny Cash, “kill a man just to watch him die.” But love is something almost all of us will experience – even if it’s unrequited. Love is a universal experience, which makes it a powerful thing to play, but also a scary thing to play because emotions are hard to leave behind. If you slay me at the game, we can still ride home in the car together afterwards, because the physical act of violence is over and done. (though the emotion of anger might remain) But if I fall in love with you during a game, what happens if I’m unable to turn off those emotions?
  • Playing love feels risky because of its potential for bleed. “Bleed” is a technical term from the Nordic larp scene (explain bleed in — when your real life emotions affect your character actions — and bleed out — when your character emotions affect your real life emotions) I’ve noticed that US larpers are nervous about bleed; we think of bleed as something to be avoided since it can cause shouting fights and quitting and revenge larps. And yet, this must not be universally true, because the Nordic gamers seem able to handle that. And I’ll talk about some of the ways the Nordic art larpers manage those emotions in a minute.
  • Our fear of bleed also has to do with litigiousness – we come from a culture of lawsuits, and so many games have an explicit or implied no touching rule. When I asked American GMs about this in a non-scientific survey, they said it was there to prevent “he said she said” situations and to help them cover their butts from a legal standpoint.
  • The other reason we don’t play love in the US is lack of mechanics. If you give players boffer swords, they’ll expect to fight. If you give them lockpick skills, they’ll expect to pick locks. And if you give them the means to play love, they’ll fall in love.

 

How the Nordicans deal with potential issues

Here’s how the Nordic larpers — explain use of term — manage some of the potential emotional flare ups:

  • One mitigating factor is that in Scandinavia, larps with love themes tend to be one-shots (designed to run only once) not eternal campaigns, which have installments every month. That immediately dials down emotional risk. It limits emotional affairs temporally — they have a defined endpoint.
  • They mitigate the emotional risk of playing love by creating a safe space in which to talk about emotionally charged games via the workshop and the debrief, which bookend many larps in the Nordic countries.
    • The Workshop: A workshop is a meeting between players and organizers that occurs before a larp. Sometimes it lasts only an hour or two, sometimes it requires multiple meetings across several weeks. Workshops have a whole bunch of functions – they are an opportunity for organizers to teach mechanics and communicate expectations for the game, and an opportunity for players to get to know each other. Sometimes workshops include acting exercises to help people develop their characters and to develop the network of relationships within a given larp. Sometimes workshops include crash courses in feminist theory or WWII history or other material that might be relevant to the upcoming game.
    • Most of all, though, workshops establish the community of players and create a safe space in which players can communicate what their own physical and emotional boundaries are. It goes a long way to circumventing miscommunications between players. During workshops, players may also plan romantic entanglements; these discussions help everyone get on the same page in terms of expectations.
  • Afterward, there is often a debrief, the bookend to the larp experience. In the US we do this informally – it’s the post-game trip to the diner where players kvetch over what went down at the weekend’s game. For Nordicans, the debrief is more formal; it’s a structured session of talking about what was problematic or what might have been problematic. Depending on how big the larp was, organizers split players into smaller groups and everyone takes a moment to talk about their experience. It’s a time for players to talk to one another and say, “hey, I felt really vulnerable when your character said mine was childish” and to clear the air. The more intense the game the longer the debrief required.
  • Because the emotion of love is so powerful, I think that the workshop and the debrief are an important part of roleplaying love – they allow the risk of playing strong emotions to be mitigated and understood. It takes time to create a safe space for players in which they feel comfortable exploring these emotions.
  • Use of Safewords. Some games make use of safewords to help players feel in control of the intensity of their game experience. These can be introduced and practiced during the workshop. There are three types of safewords, go, break, and cut words. So if Bob is really yelling at me and I’m getting freaked out and don’t like it, I can say, cut and walk away. Or if Janell is nervous about seducing me I can say to her “go,” if I’m comfortable with her coming on harder. Or if Pete is seducing me and I’m starting to feel uncomfortable I can say, “break” meaning “this level of intensity is fine but please don’t rachet it up.” Even if the safewords aren’t used, their mere existence communicates to players that a game may be emotionally intense and push boundaries, and that is supposed to help players prepare.
  • Mechanics are also important for reducing our fears about bleed; they introduce rules and limits for what constitutes acceptable behavior, which can help mitigate misunderstandings.

In Emma Wieslander’s  2004 essay “Rules of Engagement” – she lists out all the different types of mechanics the Nordic larpers have tried, and gives us a bit of background on why Nordic game organizers introduce mechanics to start with — which is a bit different from the way we do it here.

She says that organizers introduce mechanics when they want the character to experience something, but not the player. Violence is a perfect example; my character wants to stab a goblin, but obviously, I don’t want to use real steel to kill whoever is playing the goblin; I want the goblin and her player to experience the phenomenon of character death differently, so I introduce a mechanic, like a padded weapon, or a dice throw, etc. We want the character to experience injury or death, not the player.

Amorous roleplay is not different – it can be emotionally risky; it can feel physically risky and so we want to introduce mechanics so that the players and characters experience the phenomenon of love or sex differently from players; this is part of what creates the wall between player and character, which can increase emotional safety.

Here are some mechanics for love that have been tried:

  1. WYSIWYG. The Scandinavians have a tradition of mechanics-lite larps, where WYSIWYG is the rule. And this includes sex. The WYSIWYG has some advantages – preserves immersion, helps you stay in the moment, easy to remember because there’s nothing to remember. 120 Days of Sodom …Not a great option because – what about people in relationships? What about minors? What if my character falls in love with a sweaty barbarian that I’m not attracted to in real life? What about secret pedophiles?
  2. Dry humping. It’s like sex with your clothes on. But still, it’s getting up in people’s personal spaces. I’ve heard of this technique used in some medieval games. But it seems impossible in the litigious US – too much potential for it to go awry. Like wysiwyg, there’s the risk of somewone doing something rotten, like bullying another person into contact, or taking physical advantage of a situation; there’s the risk of players feeling physically violated. It’s not a great system because there aren’t any rules setting boundaries for the players.
  3. Talking through sex. “Oh baby, oh baby. I take off your shirt and tangle my fingers in your chest hair.” It works to connote intimacy, but it also seems to take players out of the moment because we’ve all got to giggle about it. There’s none of the physical sensation of intimacy.  Ideally, a sexy mechanic would feel sexy, just as a good mechanic for violence – like boffers – can feel aggressive, right?
  4. Symbolic methods, where one action stands in for the action of lovemaking. The Scandinavians have come up with a bunch of these. For example, feeding another character a piece of fruit can be unexpectedly sexy. Or giving a massage. Sidenote: I’ve heard that in Russia, characters in love brush one another’s hair. The mechanics I’ve just mentioned preserve the sensuousness of a physical relationship, but aren’t very flexible – how intense can a back massage really be? How many ways are there to brush someone else’s hair? Another problem with these mechanics is that they reinforces traditional ideas of sex, where one partner is passive and the other active, and by extension, our gender stereotypes, where women are supposed to be passive and men are supposed to be active.

So that’s kind of the background for the rest of the talk. I’m going to look in more depth at two methods of playing love, which are symbolic or representative: tango dancing and ars amandi.

 

TANGO DANCING

In 2011 I played in a larp called In Fair Verona while on a reporting jag in Denmark. The game featured tango dancing as a way of representing relationships –including love and hate — between people. The point of the game was for each of our characters to find love. The game itself was set in the Little Italy ghetto of NYC in the 1920s, and was divided into three acts. Each act consisted of a specific number of tango dances, which played one after the other.

We had two workshops totaling 14 hours before the game, during which we learned how to tango, built characters for ourselves around props picked off a communal prop table, and during which we did a series of acting excercises to develop those characters and their relationship to their community. For example, during workshop, we each received a character dilemma, and during the first act we were supposed to dance with our negative relation, which would catapult us into that character dilemma. During the second act we were to explore the dilemma, and during the third act, we would either overcome our dilemmas and find love, or fail to change.

The only rule was that to refuse a dance was forbidden. Even if someone you hated asked you to dance, you had to dance out that hatred.

The tango mechanic really worked during the game as a proxy for love and other emotions, because you can tango close to someone, far away from them, rigidly or more softly – the physical mechanic of the tango was really flexible in terms of presenting character emotion, including amorous emotion.

Of course, the tango isn’t perfect – there’s a leader and a follower in each pairing, and for the purposes of the larp, these translated to male-female pairings. During a later run in Stockholm, the organizers made it more clear that this game was a game about heterosexuality, though they put no restriction on who could play what role. I thought it was interesting that they were having that discussion at all, because it’s not one I’d heard on the larp scene before.

So I think dance would be a method for romantic roleplaying to explore.

 

ARS AMANDI

Lastly, there’s Ars Amandi. Emma Wieslander created Ars Amandi for the 2004 larp Mellan Himmel Och Hav, or “Between heaven and sea.” The larp was based on the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin and explored the idea of gender as a role, and  the possibilities of polyamory.  This world did not have men and women, but morning people and evening people. Evening people wore red and yellow, concerned themselves with philosophy and decision-making, and served as the objects of sexual gaze. Morning people wore blue and green, were responsible for practical arrangements and implementing the decisions of the evening people,  served as the sexual initiators. The occasion for play was a marriage among four people – their families and supporting community coming together for the festivities. It was a tremendously influential larp on the Nordic scene.

Wieslander created the Ars Amandi mechanic for Between heaven and sea. And she had this to say about it. “I wanted to play on love, of all kinds, and had encountered a lot of players that said that it was impossible, or at least not ethical. That made me bounce. How can it be unethical to play out romance whilst mass murdering is ok? I realized that, in many cases, it came down to fear. Fear of falling in love, of being used by other players, or of having a muddled experience where it would just come too close. When I was exploring the possibilities I talked to an actor that said that he had once been in an improvisation where they used a form of circling each other, like a dance, to improvise lovemaking and where the touching of hands represented sex. This inspired me a great deal and I guess that was the spark I needed. I had tried some of the other methods and they didn’t quite do it for me. When I did the larp Between Heaven and Sea I had a perfect opportunity to try out out-of-this-world stuff. So I did.”

What she created is now called Ars Amandi. When I asked her to describe it, she said, “Basically it’s a method for doing things in a game in a way that makes the character experience them fully, enabling play and really going for the energy without the player ending up in messy situations. Much like the use of boffers enables players to rush into battle with fear and anger flaring because of the character’s fear of dying, but without the player having to worry.”

The mechanic allows players to touch permitted zones with permitted bodyparts. The permitted zone is the arms, up to the shoulders, across the sternum and upper back, and the neck, keeping it below the ears. The permitted bodyparts are hands, forearm, and neck.Touch can be light or firm, but most players say that the true magic happens in the eyes, between players. Breathing in a more sexual way can also dial the tension up.

Ars amandi has several advantages – one is that it doesn’t pre-script the active or passive role that one might play during sex. It’s gender neutral. It preserves and individual’s sense of space by restricting the zone of touch, and it’s a remarkably flexible technique that is capable of representing tender new love and hate sex with equal aplomb.

It can be used within the frame of the game (diagetically) or symbolically. In Between heaven and sea, for example, it was used within the frame of the game – instead of the primary erogenous zone of the human body being the genitals, it was the arms. Likewise, the method can be used symbolically, with two vampires, say, touching arms and declaring that it represents  sex.

It’s also a useful technique for game organizers because it’s easy to scale back the zone of touch. For example, while running an Ars Amandi workshop for some stateside gamers, we decided that touch on the neck was too personal and intimate, and so we were able to take it off the table. It’d be possible to scale touch down just to the shoulders, or the elbows, or even to confine it to just the hands.

All of the participants felt surprised at how intense the mechanic felt — no one had been prepared for that — and everyone mentioned how exhausted they were after these two and a half hours. People were also surprised that the technique felt so “hot.” A couple folks said they’d be bringing it home to their significant others.

That said, I think it’s a mechanic that requires a workshop before the game, especially in the US where it’s not widely known, and where love isn’t widely played. During the workshop I ran, I noticed players finding ways to enforce their personal boundaries with their partners in non-verbal ways, and I think that a workshop is necessary to helping people listen to one another in that way.

Wieslander views her creation not as the endpoint when it comes to playing love, but as a jumping off point; we need lots of ways to play love. It’s just that hers is one of the first, it’s easy to learn, and it’s exportable.

Ars Amandi in some ways revolutionalized the Nordic scene, simply because it’s so adaptable to a variety of situations. Soon, fantasy players were bringing their technique, of their own accord, into more traditional campaign games. Fair warning: the technique has had explosive results — there are plenty of stories out there about people who jumped in or out of relationships after undergoing an intense relationship game. So playing love can change your life; I don’t think it’s something to do lightly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all.

Advice For First-Time Larp Scholars

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics.

Who cares about larping when you could be WRITING about larp? Today’s advice is for budding larp scholars.

Claus Raasted reminds us to bow before the all-knowing Finnish scholars:

Google is your best friend. Finnish roleplaying scholars are your second. But even more importantly, realizing that other people have been at this for years is something you need to accept. And while it’s definitely OK to come up with ideas that others also have come up with, it’s less welcome to claim that you invented something that it turns out that the Canadians have been doing since ’93.

Apart from that – do your research, find out what you want to write about, and make sure you don’t bore your audience to death because your university professors liked long sentences. I usually say that if you have to tell someone that what you’re doing is art to make them value it, then your message isn’t strong enough. And if you meet criticism by referring to the fact that “it’s academia”, then maybe you should find a different audience or a different writing style.

Finnish game designer Juhana Petterson says to read the books Finnish people have written/edited, dammit:

Be aware that there’s a body of scholarly literature about roleplaying already in existence. There’s ten or fifteen books you have to read so you won’t make a fool of yourself by repeating stuff that’s already been done in the US, in the Nordic countries or in other parts of the world. The joy of writing about roleplaying is that there are so many essentials still to be discovered, but things are already much more advanced than they were ten years ago.

For serious: do your research. There’s nothing lamer than not researching. Anna Westerling:

Talk to people, read books written from people inside the movement and really do your research. My experience with people writing critically about larp is that they are usually so ill-informed so their criticism falls flat.

Aaron Vanek reminds us that there are books about roleplay that aren’t written by Finnish researchers — there are other Scandinavian countries after all:

Read what others have done before you, and be sure to give these giants credit. If you are going to write critically about larp, it’s essential that you read the Knutepunkt books.

Consider the context, says Emma Wieslander:

Roleplay is a medium (or more). When you analyze literature you do Ann Rice and Herta Muller in different ways (although comparisons can be fun and fruitful). Same with movies. The Bourne films, anything by Woody Allen and Hollywood rom-com are all produced in their own contexts and should be criticized and analyzed together with context.

Writing about these medias are exactly the same. [The audience might be smaller,] as most games aren’t reproduced the way plays are and you might get a different reception as these medias have not yet achieved the status of being thought of as “art” the same ways some other mediums are perceived to be works of art to a higher or lower degree. But yay!! Go ahead and write. As the media itself is based on storytelling, all forms of text are a good thing.

Amber Eagar recommends variety:

Don’t limit yourself to one genre or style; play many styles and genres of games because each game, style and genre will teach you something different. Chat with others who study and have written about such topics and ask them their view points and debate (and I mean debate, not argue about) design theory to terminology to whatever interests you. Lastly, respect those who have knowledge and are willing to share it with you. Their view may not be exactly as you see something because larp game studies in the US is a budding field (and everyone will have their own opinions about things), but respect them for helping to pave the way for you and provide you a groundwork they may not have had.

Sarah Bowman outlines some classic pitfalls:

  • Do not make broad generalizations based on your limited experience in your region of the world. Keep in mind that all sorts of inventive and experimental forms of role-playing exist out there.
  • Try to avoid focusing on the stigmatization of role-players by mainstream society. While role-playing groups are often marginalized, emphasizing that element of the experience can color the positive elements.
  • Do not be afraid to contact other role-playing scholars. Just like in role-playing games, scholarly work is stronger when multiple voices are considered.
  • Conduct interviews with as many role-players as you can in order to get a varied range of responses. You may be surprised at the variety of perspectives and the notions you personally take for granted. Since role-playing is a first-person experience, the best way to study these moments is by talking to actual role-players, not just game designers or scholars.
  • Do not let people dissuade you from writing about ‘controversial’ material. Be proud of your work and be brave enough to share your observations with the world. .

Geoffrey Schaller, Avonelle Wing, and Michael Pucci remind you to try larp before you write about it:

Geoffrey: You cannot write about something without understanding it.  Just like a biologist cannot write about a new theory with any conviction unless they understand the subject matter, you cannot write about roleplay without some level of experience in the area.  Fortunately, dissecting dead frogs is not a requirement for RP. ;-)  Dive in, have fun, and get to know your new subject from as many different angles as possible – Player, Writer, GM, Staff, etc.

Avonelle: There’s no way to understand the catharsis that comes for a well-executed scene or an artful exchange without immersing yourself in the experience first-hand.  I’m sure it’s possible to imagine it, and to come to an intellectual understanding, but until you’ve crafted a character, executed a self-driven plot or saved the day, there’s no way to properly appreciate how it feels and why it’s so potent.

Michael: Ask Lizzie Stark.  But seriously, I would say immerse yourself in the world Gonzo journalism-style and don’t try to observe it as an outsider.  If you observe it as an outsider, you just won’t get it.  Roleplaying isn’t like an organized sport where it can be completely appreciated from the outside.  A large portion of roleplaying is about immersion, and without being a part of the world, you can’t really write about the world.

And since I wrote a book, I’ll pitch in my $0.02:

  • Make your narrative compelling — put only the most interesting stuff in there. Sometimes, that’ll mean writing from a first-person perspective.
  • Don’t be afraid of complexity — if the facts don’t fit your theory just say so.
  • In addition to playing, interviewing gamers, and reading past research, do keep your eyes open so that you can write vividly about the fascinating scenes you’re sure to witness.

And it doesn’t hurt to talk to some Finnish people.

__

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish journalist, tv producer and game designer. He has published three books and been translated into five languages.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Lizzie Stark is the author of Leaving Mundania, a narrative nonfiction book about larp aimed at a mainstream audience and due out from Chicago Review Press in May 2012. But you probably knew that.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

Other First-Time Guides

How To Make Larp A Day Job

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention.

Today’s advice is for gamers who want to live the dream, and make larp their day-jobs.

Mike Young provides a reality check:

Are you in a Scandinavian country?  Great!  Are you in the USA?  OK, larp is a niche market of a niche market of a niche market (larp is a niche of the RPG [roleplaying games] market which is a niche of the hobby game market).  The numbers just aren’t there.  Good luck!  You’ll need it.

 

Claus Raasted’s super-secret advice:

Don’t. Unless this is your dream and you’re prepared to do what it takes. Then send me a mail at claus.raasted@gmail.com. I’ll be happy to let you pick my brain, but since a lot of it will be unpleasant truths that need to be addressed (or ignored), I won’t write about it here. After all, your friends might be reading this too. :o)

Rather than run your own game, Anna Westerling recommends applying larp to the real world:

There are plenty of larp-like activities done for profit; you can do team building and development for companies, you can do educational games for schools or you can do PR and event like games for the entertainment industry. Of course, you can make huge larps and keep productions cost low enough to live on what your participants pay you, as done in Denmark with some children’s larp. But all of these options mean you will have to think slightly different about your hobby.  The last option would be to get money from grants, but that will be difficult to live on in the long run.

Other options include becoming a researcher,  working in a store that sells larp and roleplaying gear, or writing and publishing scenarios.

Boil it down to your core mission, suggests Emma Wieslander:

Be aware of what you really are trying to achieve. Is it a commercial game? Make a financial plan. What do people expect when they pay and how much are they willing to? Is it the games or a “community center” that will be the day job?

Is it educational games? If it’s really what you want to do then make sure that it’s the gamist version of education that you aim for and not just a way to do games and make money or you will give people a strange image of roleplaying and you’ll probably get fed up pretty soon.

Also consider  that when you get pay, others will want pay. You can’t expect them to work for free and money has a way of changing dynamics. Be absolutely sure that everyone is game – first.

Forget running it like a commune, according to Avonelle Wing:

Anticipate upheaval and don’t build the success of your organization on anybody’s shoulders but your own.  This is an industry rife with personalities, and the visionary MUST maintain the deciding vote. Do not rule by committee.  A committee of more than two is death to an organization of that sort.  You can have advisors. You can even share the success, but do not fall into the trap of trying to be a socialist organization; communes are a nice idea, but they don’t work.

Don’t lose track of your audience. Listen to criticism and sort it carefully. If you hear the same thing over and over, you’ve either got a vision flaw or a PR problem.  Either way, fix it.

Remember that running a business isn’t always fun, Geoffrey Schaller says:

Not only will you have to deal with the banality of the business putting a constant drain on your will to run the business that used to be fun, you will be dealing with legions of players, who are now customers, trying to pull you in multiple (and often opposing) directions in their attempt to influence your game / product / business.  Unless you can maintain your ideals, visions, and integrity, you are bound to fail.  People skills are essential to success.

Attend to the unsexy back-end of running a business, Michael Pucci recommends:

Take classes in regards to setting up business status, taxes, liability, and growth.  Most people don’t consider how much they can put themselves at risk by making a business out of their hobby without understanding the business side of things.  If you already run a game you at least understand the basics of gaming… however making it a business requires a little more effort.

Aaron Vanek suggests alternative revenue streams:

Consider going the non-profit corporate route, and applying for art grants. Learn how to use Kickstarter. If you design larps, consider boxing them and selling the scenario online. If you make props or costumes, keep the molds or patterns and consider selling those, too.

Amber Eagar says to cater to more than just larpers:

Here in the US running a larp as a viable, full-time job that will provide you with a stable enough income to live on is very, very rare. The hobby has yet to grow and mature like the table-top hobby has to a point where people can make a solid living off of it. At this time, its the support industries that have the larp job opportunities: costuming and prop suppliers and rental locations/facilities; and they all have one key thing in common: they’re able to cater to a wider audience than just larpers.

Approach it like a vocation, says Jeramy Merritt:

Running a larp is a lifestyle, like becoming a priest.  And as with the priesthood you are expected to maintain a public face, to always support your endeavors, even if all you want to do is sleep for a week. Also, most jobs pay better. There are maybe 20 people in this whole country that make a living running a larp, and maybe another 50 (and that is being generous) who sell enough product (weapons, costuming, etc.) to support themselves. The fact is, unless your game is bringing in 100+ people an event, you are probably not making a living off of it.

Here are all the things you have to do to just start up a larp: Create rules, set up a web-site, collect a giant wad of cash, become a business, find a campsite, get insurance, write a plot, convince people that there is a reason for them to pay you to entertain them for a weekend and make certain they have incentive to keep coming back.

____

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

Other First-Time Guides

Intro To Ars Amandi

Ars Amandi is a Nordic mechanic for simulating romance or sex in larp. The full mechanic permits players to touch permitted zones (arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, and neck below the ears) using permitted boydparts (hands, arms, neck).

In the wake of the Ars Amandi workshop I ran at METATOPIA, I caught up with Swedish mechanic creator Emma Wieslander, who kindly answered some questions.

What is Ars Amandi and how is it used?

Basically it’s a method for doing things in a game in a way that makes the character experience them fully, enabling play and really going for the energy without the player ending up in messy situations. Much like the use of boffers enables players to rush into battle with fear and anger flaring because of the character’s fear of dying, but without the player having to worry.

It’s also a try at creating the “missing link” needed to widen possible playable themes. I believe that there are an infinite amount of stories out there to be told about love and a better world and that perhaps we need less about genocide and “all orcs/humans/martians must die.”

Why is it important to play romance or sex in a larp?

When I do larp I use the media to tell stories that I think the world in general and the players in particular really need to hear. I believe that we need stories of hope, of choosing life over money, stories that go beyond the mainstream dualistic, black and white i.e. the stories that make us strangers to each other and to the world.

Creating situations, or even whole societies, where only feelings of hate, anger and aggression are expected to surface scares me. Also that it’s so normalized tells you something about the vast need of promoting all the other aspects. Love, romance and sex are some of them. I think it’s quite sad that many players should have a greater expectancy of their character getting killed than fucked. I also believe that these stories deserve to be told in their own right and not just as background info, motivating the violence.

What inspired you to create the technique? Did anything–earlier games, techniques, etc.–influence you?

I wanted to play on love, of all kinds, and had encountered a lot of players that said that it was impossible, or at least not ethical. That made me bounce. How can it be unethical to play out romance whilst mass murdering is ok? I realized that, in many cases, it came down to fear. Fear of falling in love, of being used by other players, or of having a muddled experience where it would just come too close.

When I was exploring the possibilities I talked to an actor that said that he had once been in an improvisation where they used a form of circling each other, like a dance, to improvise lovemaking and where the touching of hands represented sex. This inspired me a great deal and I guess that was the spark I needed. I had tried some of the other methods and they didn’t quite do it for me. When I did the larp Between Heaven and Sea I had a perfect opportunity to try out out-of-this-world stuff. So I did.

Why did you name it Ars Amandi?

Ars Amandi means the art of love, which I guess it is in a way. Mostly though it’s a reclaiming from Ovid who wrote the books with the same name. They’re basically a manual advocating rape that has influenced western thinking to a great extent with regards to male and female and the subjugation of women’s sexuality. (It used to be mandatory in all forms of “classical” education since the renaissance). And then it’s a playful nod to all the martial artist roleplayers who maybe should try another “art”.

Why should game organizers use this tool?

I hope that many other methods for lovemaking will emerge. I believe that different games need different tools. Using Ars Amandi can be a start. It works on a very psychological and emotional level, allowing for players to play with the emotions but not really engage fully in the physical. It’s fairly well tested by now and several variations have been made. I guess one answer would be: Because it works.

How has Ars Amandi changed your local larp scene?

It has been a great tool for allowing the discussion to widen. To play being in love, relationships and sex, a lot of issues need to be dealt with. This means that there is a lot more gender awareness these days, but also that the games are perhaps a little less heteronormative in their hidden and not-so-hidden power structures. I think it’s definitely been part of developing the Nordic larp scene into what it is today, mostly because so many different games have used it, which has been great in other respects too.

In 2006 Between Heaven and Sea was voted the most influential larp ever in the Nordic scene. I think that is huge overstatement but maybe it illustrates how revolutionizing many players experienced it to be.

How should newcomers approach learning this technique?

I think they should do it like with everything else – with curiosity and with a feel-good set of mind. If it doesn’t feel good, take a break, play it in another direction. Remember that most of it is in they eyes. That’s where the true magic happen.

You can read more about Ars Amandi on my blog, on Facebook, or on the web.

____

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars Amandi method.

Ars Amandi: The Post-Coital Review

On Saturday at METATOPIA six brave souls — two men and four women — tried out Ars Amandi, a Nordic game mechanic for simulating romance and sex in a larp. I think it went pretty well.

The Mechanic

In a nutshell, Ars Amandi allows players to touch permitted zones (arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, neck below the ears) using permitted bodyparts (hands, arms, neck). Experienced practitioners say it’s all about the eye contact, and the rhythmic breathing, which allow couples to dial the intensity up and down.

I based my workshop on the detailed account that Swedish mechanic creator Emma Wieslander sent me. The workshop operated a bit like a dance class, with participants swapping partners after short sessions. I functioned as the square-dance caller, telling people where to go and what types of touch or emotion to explore during each segment. While they explored, I watched and kept neutral music on in the background.

The Workshop

At first, we limited ourselves to just the hands, and the pairs rotated until everyone had “met” each other. Folks tried out active and passive roles with their eyes closed, then with eyes open. The permitted zone expanded from hand to elbow. Then, instead of taking on active or passive roles, couples mutually explored each other’s hands and forearms.

During this first leg of the workshop, the participants laughed and talked with one another, across couples, almost incessantly. All the chatter helped them diffuse the tension in the room, but it also helped them ignore the intimacy of touching someone else’s hands. At first, their touching was tentative and very unsexy — they simply tried to touch every different part of their partners’ hands. But by the end of this first phase, they were touching each other with more liquid strokes, and were experimenting with different hand positions. Still, the chatter was protecting them from really going for it emotionally.

During the second phase of the workshop, they graduated to the shoulder. We had discussed the clavicle and neck as a zone of touch, but not everyone was comfortable with that, so we stopped at the shoulders. I forbid talking and enforced it, with the almighty power of the “shh.” For the first few rounds, there were still some nervous giggles, but the air in the room subtly changed, becoming more charged. They tried moving around each other, touching their partners’ arms from behind. They tried breathing more sexually. At first, everyone tried out the novelties incessantly — lots of eye contact, lots of heavy breathing, lots of walking around each other, arms folding together and apart like some swing-dance move. Very quickly, everyone backed off of the new additions, using them more as a garnish to the lovemaking than as its substance. Later, they mentioned how far a very small amount of eye contact goes toward increasing the intimacy.

As the workshop progressed, the sessions between partners lengthened, and we tried playing scenarios — storybook romantic love, oppositional and angry love, a one-night stand, the casual sexual opportunities of a long-term relationship. By this point, each of the participants seemed to have developed a signature style, a method of playing Ars Amandi unique to themelves. The dynamics between different couples differed quite widely, even when I didn’t give them anything specific to play — I saw innocent flirtations and intense, fraught bedroom scenes. Some pairs touched each other with slow tenderness, some almost danced together, others seemed both exploratory and ashamed at time. Beautiful love scenes unfolded.

The Response

Afterward, we all sat down and talked about the mechanic and its possibilities. Here are some of the observations that came out of that discussion:

  • All of the participants felt surprised at how intense the mechanic felt — no one had been prepared for that — and everyone mentioned how exhausted they were after these two and a half hours. People were also surprised that the technique felt so “hot.” A couple folks said they’d be bringing it home to their significant others.
  • As a group, they said they really enjoyed this technique and asked when it might be used in a larp and how this technique might play out in a five-hour convention larp setting. Sadly, I didn’t know the answer to either of these questions. I figure you’d have to require workshop attendance before a game, and I didn’t know whether convention-goers would be willing to give up two slots of time (one for the workshop, one for the larp).In terms of running an Ars Amandi larp, I’m no game designer, but I’d borrow and run someone else’s shorter scenario, if such a thing existed. However, most of the Scandinavian Ars Amandi larps I’ve heard about lasted a couple days and had really complicated staging unsuited to a short convention game. So, Nordic people: are there shorter Ars Amandi games out there?
  • We had some lively discussion about costuming possibilities — velour opera gloves (kinky!) — staging possibilities — wouldn’t chopping celery in the kitchen make for a great, handsy set-up? — and made lots of jokes about everyone being arm sluts now.
  • The participants felt that as the workshop became more intense, everyone got better at enforcing their own limits, typically in a non-verbal fashion. People said things like, “you showed me how you wanted to be touched,” and “you could tell when someone wasn’t comfortable with a specific move.”
  • While the workshop proceeded without interruptions, during the debrief, a couple people tried to walk through our room, despite the signs I’d put up. This led to some interesting discussion — one participant said that she wouldn’t have cared if someone watched the workshop, but that now, in this moment, while talking about her emotions, she especially didn’t want an outsider in there. Several people echoed her feeling, testament, I think, to the power of this mechanic.
  • Some interesting discussion about whether an Ars Amandi game could have a “non-combat” equivalent. Many stateside boffer games, for example, allow players, either by choice or by necessity (in the case of children) to wear a non-combat headband. If you’re wearing the headband, that tells other people not to hit you with boffers. Instead they call their damage from a distance. Would this work in an Ars Amandi game?
  • Ars Amandi ettiquette. A couple people thought it would be fun to write up a little sheet advising hand-lotion, getting the grit out of your fingernails, and gum. At least one of the ladies sighed longingly after another’s manicure. If only she’d known it was going to be so intense, she said, she’d have done the same.
  • General improvements: I could make the workshop better by limiting talking earlier on, introducing a safe word or a specific motion that people could use to ask their partners to back off, just as a fail safe. I could also have done a better job of letting people know when they were about to change partners — several people (very politely) complained that my abrupt cuts had resulted in coitus interruptus. I needed like a one-minute warning method, or a “3-2-1, stop.” Also, a more formal warm-up game might have helped diffuse some of that initial chatter.

Not enough Ars Amandi in your life? Tune in on Wednesday for an interview with Emma Wieslander, creator of the technique.

Thanks to the folks at METATOPIA, Double Exposure’s new awesome game design convention, for making space for this. Rob Donoghue has a really nice description of what the rest of the convention was like.

Ars Amandi: It’s Like Boffers For Sex

Larps need love.

Think about it: in a typical larp, your character is far more likely to kill something or die than she is to fall in love. The ability to play romance and love safely would open up a whole new vista of possible plots and character developments.

This is why you, oh roleplayer or game designer, should come to my Ars Amandi workshop at METATOPIA on the morning of Saturday, November 5, and learn this fascinating Nordic mechanic for representing romance. Ars Amandi is sort of like boffers for lust, a valuable design tool for anyone who wants to open their larp to new frontiers, by structuring player experiences beyond violence.

Participants engaging in Ars Amandi touch one another on the arms and shoulders, lightly and firmly, playfully and forcefully. During the workshop, we will be exploring different modes of touching in a safe, structured environment. Due to the nature of the mechanic, I’m limiting the workshop to those 18 and older.

I know Saturday mornings can be tough, so there will be free donuts and coffee available. Come wearing comfortable clothing and prepared to get intimate with strangers’ arms.

Stay tuned for more information about Ars Amandi, including a forthcoming interview with Emma Wieslander, the Swedish roleplayer and game designer who created the technique.

I’d love to hear from folks who have Ars Amandi experience (larping or teaching) in the comments, as well as from people with questions or concerns.

To read more about Ars Amandi, check out Wieslander’s pieces in the free download of Beyond Role and Play, or check out the Ars Amandi Facebook group (from whom I borrowed the above photo). There’s also Jonas Barkå’s post about the technique and a bevvy of links available from this Lumpley thread.

How To Assemble A Great Larp Costume

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but sound advice can help ease the way.

Today’s tips cover how to assemble a great larp (or Halloween!) costume.

Geoffrey Schaller recommends starting small:

Take it easy.  Rome wasn’t built in a day!  Start simple, and gradually add to it over time.  “Get dressed” as your persona.  Assuming this isn’t for a cosplay as a specific character, or a one-time event like a Halloween party, you can keep adding bits to your costume each time you wear it.  It’s one thing to hear “Nice costume” – it’s another to hear “Wow, you’re costume’s improved over the past few months – I can’t wait to see what’s next!”

 

It doesn’t have to be fancy, says Emma Wieslander:

Keep it simple, make sure it’s functional for the game and for the location. Ask If you can borrow some of the stuff and focus on a tunic or top that says something about your character. Take real patterns and use them as a base if you are going to sow from scratch. Often you can find stuff at second hand stores and alter.

 

The elusive Liz recommends thrift stores for costuming on the cheap:

I feel it is important for first time larpers to get the best costume they can for the least amount of money.  The easiest way to do this is shop thrift stores.  No matter what genre you are going to be playing you can find something that will work and for very little money.

If you are handy with sewing you can alter the costume to suit your character better.  The other option is the entirely sew yourself a costume.  Patterns will only set you back a few dollars and since you can buy out of print patterns on the internet, you can make pretty much anything you could want.  Though, be warned that higher-end fabrics can cost you almost as much as buying a professionally made garment.

Do NOT buy from a trendy store, the clothing will not stand up to the rigors of larping and costs a lot more.

 

The details count for a lot, according to Anna Westerling:

Accessorize! You can have a fairly simple costume, and then add accessories to put it in the right era of time or to mark the qualities of your character. For example, use a fan if your character is flirtatious, a book if your character is learned or wear a lot of color if your character is artistic.

 

Buy strategically, Avonelle Wing says:

Don’t feel like you have to go buy everything from scratch. If you do buy something new, either buy something with enormous impact, like a flashy wig, a signature doublet or a quirky hat, OR buy items that can be repurposed into your real life or future costumes.

As an example, over a decade ago, I bought two black ballgown skirts on clearance after the holiday season.  I’ve used those skirts for vampires, gypsies, dignitaries, wizards and faeries.  I’ve lent them out, I’ve mended one of them twice.  Since I know I like playing flouncy female characters, this was a GREAT investment for me.  If you prefer playing skulky, shadowy, edgy characters, maybe your splurge is a leather jacket from the thrift store.

Look at what you’re playing.  identify the basic shape of costuming–is it pants, shirt, utility vest? is it skirt, bodice, cleavage? Scavenge your wardrobe and then add the signature piece/color/theme. Going monochromatic is a fast way make a strong visual impact.

For a campaign, don’t commit to an entire wardrobe until you’ve settled into the character and really know what you need.  And don’t sink a lot of money into the costume until you’ve played the character in the space you’ll be in.  I worked up awesome theoretical armor for a boffer game I play. And once I wore it, I realized it needed MASSIVE adjustments.  (Any armor that makes it tricky to use visit the little gamer’s room is suspect at an all-weekend event.  any armor you can’t put on single-handedly? also suspect. Any armor that ends up twisting and bunching up when you break into a jog? Unacceptable.)

Theoretical costuming often falls apart in a physical world.  Test it before you commit to it.

 

Cassie recommends pockets and vacuuming:

The best advice I can give is this: make sure your outfit has pockets of some kind. Whether they’re regular pockets in your pants, hidden ones sewn into the lining, or even just belt pouches, do not neglect the pockets! You may not need to carry your wallet and phone, but larps have plenty of other things you’ll need to keep track of and access easily. Think carefully about what your character might be carrying, besides what is logistically needed (like character cards). You might have in-game currency, potions, item cards, plus small props or tools for your character. You will need a way to carry all of these that does not involve constantly setting them down on the nearest table.

Other practical concerns: If you’re larping outside, you need to take the weather into account. If you’re just starting out, consider wearing a costume that you can easily hide mundane clothing underneath. Later on, you might consider having summer and winter outfits, with some removable outer pieces for those autumn and spring days when the temperature changes wildly. Even if you’re larping inside, hotel temperature control is notorious for being too hot or cold, so again, consider layering your costume pieces.

What kind of larp is it? Is it a boffer larp, where you’ll be running around a lot? Is it a vampire larp, where you’ll be lounging like the sexy beast you are on the nearest couch? Whatever the style, make sure you can move in your outfit in the ways you will be moving in the larp. Wear the costume at least once before you go to the larp, so that you can tell early on if it’s going to be restricting or uncomfortable in any way, or if you’ll need help at the larp to put it on. Something I’ve heard often, and used to great benefit, is to vacuum the house in your costume. If you can’t do that, you have no business wearing that outfit, and if you’ve sewn the outfit yourself the activity will test all the seams.

Last piece of advice: good footwear is key. Larp is all about getting up and moving around, and you will be standing for a good portion of it. Four-inch heels may look great, but if you’re not already used to wearing them for long periods of time, you’re going to spend most of the larp surreptitiously looking for ways to sit down. Practical footwear in solid black or brown is a good choice for your first costume. A good work boot will blend in well with many costumes; ladies, if the larp is going to be inside and requires you to dress all fancy-like, consider wearing dressy flats instead of heels.

If you keep the practical aspects of the costume in mind while you’re planning, it will go further towards your enjoyment of the game than having a pretty outfit in which you can’t actually play. Your role-playing is the star of the show, not your clothes, so don’t wear things that will take your attention away from the game!

 

Think about your character’s mentality, and the game’s setting says Sarah Bowman:

Costume pieces are like power items for your character. Often, when we don our costume, it helps us get more deeply immersed in the mentality of the character. Think about your character concept as you shop, not just what you would personally choose to wear in the mundane world.

If you see another player whose style you particularly admire, feel free to ask them where they shop or if they are willing to give you pointers. Some players even hold workshops for costume, weapon, and prop-making. Most role-players love to help newbies, so don’t be shy!

Spend some time ritualizing the donning of your costume before game. Allow the costume to take you into the mindset of your character. If you are applying makeup or accessories, take your time and allow that transformation to take place both externally and internally. A well-designed costume can help decrease the nervousness you may feel before game, for both you and for the other players.

 

Nuance has a place, but not in a larp costume, according to Michael Pucci:

Don’t be subtle!  Go over the top as you design the costume and think to yourself, “What are the signature items that truly make this character’s costume?”  Every character has something that is key to them, and only them… be it a certain jacket, hat, or walking stick make sure you assign that item to that character and that character only.  That way as your costume changes and evolves, people will still recognize the character by the key costume items.

Make sure your costume is something that you are willing to wear the entire time you are playing your character because players removing costuming bits is on par with girls at a prom removing their shoes.

 

See if your game has costuming they lend out, Amber Eagar says:

I’ve found it common for games to have loaner costuming that they can let you borrow if you don’t have anything at all, though check on this earlier rather than later as you may need to make special arrangements for it.

 

When in doubt, wear black, Jeramy Merritt urges:

Black t-shirt, black sweat pants, black sneakers.  As far as costumes go, it is pretty lousy.  It really isn’t a costume at all.  What it is however is unobtrusive and cheap.  If you don’t have them already, you can probably snag these articles for less than $20.  If you are just going to check out a game, or you’ve never larped before and don’t want to make the investment, this is about as simple as it gets.

 

And finally, Aaron Vanek reminds us not to forget practical concerns:

The three most important things to consider for a larp costume are:
  • mobility – can you move with ease? This is extremely important if you are in a live combat larp with physical action
  • comfort – is it warm enough, too warm, does it chafe, can you breathe in that corset? Remember that most larps are four hours or longer. Can you stand to be in that outfit all day and all night?
  • pockets – seriously, you need a way of carrying character sheets, in-game info, spell components, whatever. And if you don’t have any of that to start, you might get some later on, and you need to keep it on you

____

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Liz has been larping for ten years and her first costume (which was for Knight Realms) cost her $6 and that included shoes.  She didn’t learn how to sew until she had been larping for 4 years.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Cassie tries to be a modern renaissance nerd, which mostly results in a mess in her living room, a closet dedicated to costuming, and a lot of soldering accidents. She also writes a blog about gaming and nerd culture.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

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Advice for First-Time Game Designers

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but with the right advice, maybe it’ll be a little easier.

Today’s advice is for first-time game designers and larp organizers.

Geoffrey Schaller reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun. And that’s OK:

New ideas are rare.  Don’t fool yourself to think you’ve got something no one else has thought of before – rather, do it better than everyone else.  There’s a dozen CCGs [collectible card games] out there, and hundreds of fantasy RPGs [roleplaying games].  The measure of success is not how original your idea is, but how good the finished product is.  The car has been around for 100+ years – but new, and better – ones are still being made.

 

Anna Westerling advocates working smarter, not harder:

Do what you want. You have a vision and work to fulfill it.  But don’t make it too complicated. If you want a larp set in a castle, it might be enough to find a nice room and a nice table setting to help everyone pretend. Use a video before the game begin to show the castle if that is very important to your story. Minimize your labor — think about what story you want to tell and cut away the extras.

 

Emma Wieslander has a hundred-point method:

Ask yourself: What’s most important. Clothes/Props, Drama/Story, Fun/Mood. Divide a 100 points between them and then use that as a guideline for procentages when it comes to all strategic decisions (what demands on costume, how “correct” the setting should be, how much effort to make characters, comfort, methods etc).

Don’t forget that cold, hungry players that haven’t been able to go to the toilet, generally are uncreative, grumpy and less likely to comply with your great vision of what the game should be.

 

It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, says Claus Raasted:

Lower your ambitions enough so that you’ll actually produce something. I don’t care if your first larp is a five-person game that lasts 30 minutes and is about five mercenaries eating a meal. I don’t care if it’s just you and four of your friends eating a pizza in your living room while pretending to be characters discussing something from a fictional game world. As long as you DO it. The reason we don’t have more organizers in this hobby is because people usually let their ambitions run wild, while their time/energy/dedication/skill/experience stays put.

“Mona Lisa” wasn’t Leonardo’s first piece. Every time you DO something, you get better at it. Even if it sucks. Don’t be dazzled by organizers who’ve done two cool larps and then called it quits. Be inspired by those who’ve had the courage to keep on trying, even though they fail from time to time.

So my advice is simple:
Lower your ambitions.
Actually do it instead of talking about it.
And learn something that you’ll use next time.
But most importantly. Make sure there’s always a next time.

And remember that the easiest way to avoid failing is just to do nothing.

 

Think critically about other games, says Amber Eagar:

Play, a lot. There’s nothing that beats experiencing a game first hand. Get out and nab as many rule books from different larps as you can (many larps offer them as free downloads). Read them. Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about them and then ask yourself why and what you would do differently. Chat with others who design games and ask them their view points and debate (and I mean debate, not argue about) design theory. Lastly, respect those who have knowledge and are willing to share it with you. Their view may not be exactly as you see something because larp design here in the US is a budding field (and everyone will have their own opinions about things), but respect them for helping to pave the way for you and provide you a groundwork they may not have had.

 

Play-test outside your group of friends, Avonelle Wing suggests:

Actually, my advise for game designers is much the same as my advice for GMs.  Prepare, research, explore, playtest.  play to your strengths – if you’re lousy at graphic design, engage a graphic designer. If your sense of color brings you around to Avocado, Harvest Gold and Pumpkin EVERY TIME, get an artist involved.  And remember that somebody who says “that’s isn’t how it’s done” really means “my imagination can’t stretch to conceive of your idea.” Never hear it as “your idea is no good.”

Always go outside your social group for playtesting. My experience is that shared experiences lead to shared assumptions when rules are executed.  You want to make sure that a wide variety of folks read–and execute–your rules similarly and without frustration.

 

Michael Pucci recommends planning for the long-term, and learning to love criticism:

If you aim for where the ball is now, it will be gone by the time you get up to speed.  Aim for something that will be big a few years down the line and you will reap the benefit of being ready to strike while the iron is hot.  Also, understand you will not be able to do this project all by yourself.  Choose your co-workers carefully and by product instead of familiarity.

Understand that the baby you are making is going to be turned over to other people, and in your best interests, they are going to rip that baby apart.  Thicken your skin, accept not everything you do is perfect, and consider all feedback… even if you don’t use all of it.

 

Check out your competition, Aaron Vanek advises:

Research! Know the games market, and the strengths and weaknesses of each part of it: video games, board games, card games, role-playing games, larp games, ARGs, and hybrid combinations between them.
Study every game you can. Not just the ones you love, but the ones you hate. Why is it a bad game? What are they doing wrong?

 

And if you’ve done your research, you can follow Juhana Pettersson’s advice:

For tabletop, I like to stress simple, clear concepts and the importance of making things that nobody else is making.
____

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish journalist, tv producer and game designer. He has published three books and been translated into five languages.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

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Advice for First-Time Roleplayers

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but with the right advice, maybe it’ll be a little easier.

Today’s advice is for first-time roleplayers.

UPDATE: New advice from Anna Westerling and Emma Wieslander, posted 10/1/2011

Stay calm, says Anna Westerling:

Take it easy and enjoy. Meet new people, talk to them and explore. And don’t be worried that you are a bad roleplayer: because it is your first time, people will be understanding, and help you.

 

Emma Wieslander lays out the logistics:

Remember that it’s a story. In a table game this means: You animate the character by talking. If you’re silent nothing happens, but also that if the other players don’t get room to say animate their characters, you’ll only drag some zombies around and it won’t be fun for anyone. Say: ‘I  go there’, or ‘I take the object’ in a first person but don’t say ‘I say:’, act! Say what your character are saying to who he/she is saying it. If it’s unclear what NPC you are talking to say ‘I face so and so’ and then say what the character says.

If it’s a larp this means that you have to remember that you, as the leading actor, in your characters story have a responsibility to make that specific story happen. Also remember that the more you allow yourself to feel, the more the story will come to life. Remember to de-role and ask of your organizers how they are planning that so that you know where to go after the game.

 

Play where everybody knows your name, Geoffrey Schaller says:

Play among friends.  Playing amongst strangers is hard, because they don’t know the REAL you – they may think the persona you are playing is the real person, even if they know it’s just a game (First impressions and all).  Being able to play with other people you already know enables you to share the joy of role-playing that much more when you’re OOG [that's out of game, for you luddites] and back in the real world, talking about it.

 

Explore your own personality, Jeramy Merritt recommends:

Find an aspect of your personality that you have always wanted to explore and invoke it.  The real world expects you to be someone, and most of the time you expect you to be that person too.  It is hard to change people’s expectations of you.  But at larp you can be whoever you want to be.  You can explore parts of yourself that you might otherwise be scared to show.  And it is cool, because you are in an environment that promotes oddity, where people are expected to play various roles.  The best larpers are always playing some aspect of themselves.

 

When in doubt, just introduce yourself, says Mike Young:

The most important skill in LARP is your ability to introduce yourself to a stranger.  If you can do that, you’re golden.  And if you aren’t having fun or are bored, talk to the event organizers out of character.  That’s why they are there.

 

It’s OK to be scared, according to Sarah Lynne Bowman, but try to take risks anyway:

Everyone is terrified their first time. Many experienced role-players feel fear even years into the hobby. Do not let fear stop you from participating. Take risks. Role-playing games provide safe, imaginary spaces where you can act outrageously or daringly with little-to-no social consequence. Enjoy the freedom!

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Identify the staff of the game or experienced players and ask for help if you do not understand something. New players add a certain vibrancy to the game that seasoned players appreciate, so they will generally want to help you. On some level, though, you must be able to ask for help to receive it. You can also learn a lot by simply observing.

Try to contact the organizers in advance and discuss your character concept. If you have a strong sense of character and some understanding of the game world before arriving to the first session, you are more likely to feel involved. Think about what parts of yourself you’ve always wanted to express, but never had the opportunity. Be experimental!

 

Relax! Avonelle Wing reminds us that we’re all natural roleplayers:

There are out-of-practice roleplayers.  There are unwitting roleplayers. but I’ve never actually met a truly first time roleplayer.

Why is this? Because most children played roleplaying games  of some sort, even if the adults in their world didn’t say “oh, susie! johnny! what strong acting! what powerful plotlines! how gripping your themes!”  Seriously. Cops and Robbers? Combat without a resolution mechanic. House? Collaborative storytelling.  Fort? Campground larping
for the pre-school set.

Who didn’t play Lava Monster on the playground, or spin elaborate tales about the monster under the bed with his younger siblings? Every child who ever shoved Ken’s plastic self into the passenger seat of Barbie’s Corvette so she could drive them to the chapel to get married has roleplayed.

First time roleplayer my foot.

 

Aaron Vanek advises preparation:

Don’t be afraid. You’re not on stage, no one is going to boo you. You probably don’t have to remember lines. GMs and other players will almost always help you remember the rules. Do some prep work, as best you can. Ask yourself three questions about your character to think about–some of this is probably provided by the GMs:
1. Where did this character come from? (backstory)
2. How did they get to where they are now? (what is the character’s personality)
3. Where does this character want to be? (what is their motivation? Why do they do what they do?)
Any answer you can give will give you something to fall back on if you are at a loss on what to do or say.

Take breaks! Not just from any battles, but from role playing itself. It is very difficult for anyone to say in character for four hours straight, especially during the down times–and there will be down times.

 

It’s OK to leave a game, Amber Eagar reminds us:

If you’re not having fun within the bounds of the rules, it’s okay not to return to that game. While you may find a certain genre or style of game more to your liking, don’t ignore all the others because you may just find a surprise gem in there somewhere, or learn something about a style that may just interest you.

 

Michael Pucci says to try out different games to find the one you like:

Don’t be afraid to tell people that you are new, and to ask for a hand getting into game.  Gaming is as much about getting together with your friends as it is actually playing the game… so if you walk in letting people know that you are new they will more than likely help you get involved and understand the world.  Understand that gaming is an entire world, and that you will need a little time to catch up with everything that is going on.  Don’t completely judge the hobby on your first experience, but like anything, try different games and different groups until you find one that feels like ‘home’.

___

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

Other First-Time Guides