Solmukohta Ahoy

After my stop in Denmark for Fastaval, I headed to Helsinki to participate in Solmukohta, the Finnish installation of the Knutepunkt conference that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals, changing its name according to the local languages. The event features larps, workshops, run-downs of completed or upcoming games, and tons of talks on larp theory.

The convention took place at a building that seemed like a cross between a hotel and a boarding school, a labyrinthine complex of hallways, lounges, and classrooms that seemed built into a hill.

Zombies and Bleed

Rather than attend the opening ceremonies, my Fastaplague-ridden body required a nap. When I awoke, I stumbled through the corridor, blithely ignoring the “game area,” signs, since I wished to find the info desk without wandering out into the snowy forest. (Although the skinny, red-barked pine trees looked lovely).

Scores of groaning conventioneers shambled through the hallways, their mindlesss half-witted expressions and limping gaits perfectly mirroring my physical well-being. Apparently, I had stumbled onto the convention’s opening scenario, a zombie game. The zombies inexorably advanced, and I could find no escape from their gnashing teeth, which latched onto my shoulder.

I, too, became a zombie, damned to wander the corridors, limping, until the government arrived and killed us all.

Rants

Later that evening, I attended the Hour of the Rant, where various folks get up on stage and make pointed comments, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, often a mixture between the two. There were rants on why larps may not change the world, and why they should. Rants on how current measures for psychological safety don’t work as well as they should, and rants on how larpers should do a better job of giving out credit to everyone involved in a project. American game designer Jason Morningstar zinged the crowd with a rant on why they ought to play more and document less.

Like an American jerk, I delivered a rant titled “Write a damn rulebook.” Last year, while reporting for Leaving Mundania, I’d gotten frustrated that there weren’t readily available easy-to-understand materials explaining basic concepts on the scene. In what may have been a case of “arrogantly demand and ye shall receive,” (or just serendipitous magic) the Nordic community has remedied this as of Sunday, with the delightful, searchable, work-in-progress Nordic Larp Wiki. Run! Run to your nearest new browser tab and check it out!

Mistakes

I love the Beckett quote “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” so I attended a panel titled “All the Things I’ve Learned From All the Mistakes I’ve Done,” a run-down of larp-organizing errors, presented by larp organizers, including panel host Rasmus Høgdall. Among the lessons learned:

  • as an organizer, it’s possible to spread yourself too thin
  • know when it’s going to be a disaster and don’t be afraid to cancel
  • it’s better to have a few awesome things in game than lots of mediocre ones
  • also, bribing your players with booze only works if you buy a lot of booze

Safety

When explaining Nordic larp — with all its serious, emotional impact — to Americans, their first response is usually something like, “that’s not a game; that’s therapy” or “that sounds like the Stanford Prison Experiment. Do people come out of these things permanently damaged?” So I was fascinated to attend The Great Player Safety Controversy Panel and listen to a well-reasoned, in-depth discussion of these issues. I took tons of notes, so check back here later this week, when I’ll post them. (4/26/12 update: here are the notes.)

The Roleplay Contract

Riffing off the safety panel, larp maker Bjarke Pedersen gave a talk titled “Five Things We Lie About in Larp,” which generated some interesting discussion. He suggested that the “roleplay contract” is a lie, which was doubly interesting both because I’d never before heard of the roleplay contract, and because lies are fascinating.

The roleplay contract, apparently, is an agreement between players not to judge players for their characters and vice versa. So if I’m a jerk to you in game, you agree not to judge me for it later at the diner. Or if we’re both dark elves in game, I’ll roleplay with you even if I don’t personally like you, because that’s what makes sense for the narrative.

As Bjarke pointed out, this isn’t always true in practice. People want to roleplay with their friends and may shut others out. Sometimes we dislike people after seeing the way that they roleplay. I came out of the session thinking of the roleplay contract as being a bit like philosophical debate around freewill: whether or not we have it is irrelevant, because we behave as if we do.

His point that not everyone is equally capable of playing every role also generated some discussion. He suggested that super-tall dudes can’t really play hobbits, because it breaks our idea of what a “hobbit” is too much. Some members of the audience disagreed, noting that players have a remarkable ability to overlook out of game stuff during games, and that “hobbit” is a fictional category anyway, arguably one capable of expanding or contracting according to the game’s surroundings.

Saturday

I had a big Saturday at this con, but since I flapped my yapper instead of listening, I didn’t learn all that much. I caught the end of a really interesting talk on a game based around a Norwegian brass band (I think), and a bit of Sarah Lynne Bowman’s talk on social conflict and bleed, which I’m hoping to catch in its entirety at WyrdCon.

I went to Johanna Koljonen’s fantastic talk, “Designing Supernatural Terror,” in which she outlined myriad ways to make players feel creeped out, frightened, and terrified. Her slides are definitely worth a look, especially if you organize horror games!

I gave a talk based on my paper “We Hold These Rules To Be Self-Evident” in the convention book States of Play (free download!), which was about American larp as emblematic of American national values. I also incorporated some ideas floated on my blog that had to do with American hyperbole and lack of historical accuracy and American litigiousness. In addition, I sat on the panel “How to Communicate About Larp to a Mainstream Audience.” More on that at a later date — including some press tips — in this space.

The Next Episode

These formal programming items only capture half of the fun of this con. Stay tuned this week for the second installment, featuring more of a social angle.

For some takes on Solmukohta by other bloggers, check out blogs by:

Thomas B: part 1part 2, part 3, part 4
Evan Torner
Annika Waern
Rafael Bienia
Mike Pohjola
Oliver
Twinners
Story Games Forum
The Solmukohta documentation page has tons of content from other panels too!

(Got more links? Post them in the comments, please!)

Five Things US Conventions Could Steal From Fastaval

The Dirtbusters receive accolades at the award ceremony. Credit: Bo Jørgensen

Yesterday,  I riffed on Fastaval, an awesome Danish roleplay convention I attended as part of my two-week Nordic roleplay junket. Today, I want to talk about a few favorite elements of the convention that US convention designers might import into their own conventions:

  1. The Dirtbusters. So far as I know, the Dirtbusters were created — maybe a decade ago or longer? — when no one wanted to clean toilets. These folks — mostly men — don jumpsuits, sunglasses, and pink tutus and spend the entire convention engaging in a larp in which they fight the forces of entropy with semi-military precision armed with plungers and mops. In the states, we’d have to do it minus the beer and porn-laden command center, but I love love love the idea of creating a pervasive larp that convention staff can participate in. Because people who help out deserve to have fun too.
  2. Communal Service. Fastaval has everyone do a couple hours of service for the convention, which really changed the dynamic from one in which we came to be entertained, like clients, into one where we were in it together. The hours I spent serving food weren’t necessarily my favorite, but they changed the nature of the experience for me. Many hands make light work. I’ve seen this helping-out super-power work at my local boffer larp, where everyone signs up for a mandatory NPC (non-player character) shift during the course of the weekend, with similar community-building results.
  3. Game Exchange. Bring an old board or card game you haven’t played in a while, and exchange it for another. The only stipulation is that when you’re done with your vintage game, you can’t sell it, but must pass it on. The games had little library cards in them, showing their history of ownership.
  4. Scenario Writing. In addition to the Fastaval concept — people writing and workshopping games for the convention, which is awesome and should be exported — Fastaval also ran a scenario-writing competition that took place during the convention. Participants were given their inspiration — two obese women and the scent of marzipan — at the start of the convention and had a couple days to write a scenario, which was then-judged. A cool idea.
  5. Photo Competition. Not immediately related to games, but another community-building activity. Maybe it’s just me, but there seemed to be tons of gamers walking around with serious photo equipment at Fastaval. Folks took photos of the convention, quickly printed them and slapped them into frames, and set up a display within the main function room. A cool way of encouraging people to document the convention with unusual angles, bright colors, and razor-sharp focus.

One-Shot Larps v. Campaigns

 Welcome to the first-timers’ series, where a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond weigh in on topics pertinent to the larp newbie.

Part of having fun at a game is knowing which games are right for you. So today the experts begin exploring their own preferences, answering the question: Do you prefer one-shots or campaigns,* and why?

Their answers, not so surprisingly, were mixed. Let’s hear from Team One-Shot first.

Frederik Berg Østergaard:

I’m a one-night stand guy. I prefer my women givin’ it up on the first night. A prolonged engagement–while entertaining in its own right–doesn’t get that first-night vibe that is so titillating

.J. Tuomas Harviainen:

I prefer writing one-shots, as I see in them the chance to experiment with ideas that have a lot of short-term potential, but would be boring in the long run. I also prefer playing one-shots, as it’s much easier to book the time in advance. Campaigns have their significant advantages in character development and so on, but they are also risky ventures in that even the greatest of plots may die if one key person is not able to attend.

Claus Raasted:

I much prefer one-shots. If you’re doing a one-shot, you can make decide that all the interesting stuff happens right now. If the world is about to end, the larp happens just at that point. If the princes are getting married, thus re-uniting the kingdoms… then that’s when the larp is set. When you’re doing campaign larps (especially those of the “once-a-month-or-similar” kind) that’s a lot harder. Unless you’re willing to do enormous amounts of work, you easily get into the rhythm of having the in game calendar follow the off game calendar – and suddenly you have wild and interesting things happening to the same people once a month. In the same place often. And after a couple of years, the fiction gets strained… one-shots don’t have that problem.

Aaron Vanek:

I’ve played far more one-shots than campaigns, so my answer is biased. But, I slightly prefer one-shots over campaigns because:

  1.  The majority (though certainly not all) of larp campaigns are fantasy based, which isn’t my favorite genre.
  2. Sooner or later, I will get bored of either my character, the game, or both. I like exploring different facets of my personality; I’m more interested in a broad range of roles than deep exploration of one.
  3. A single event can try out a mechanic or rule or setting and, if it works, it can live on in the next event. If not, it’s gone after one session. A non-fatal flaw in a campaign can linger for months or years.
  4. I enjoy the intensity of one-shots. Since I don’t have to play it safe so that my character will survive to adventure again next month, I can–if the character’s personality has this trait–be reckless and foolhardy. Even if the consequence is death or removal from play, it’s not a huge loss to my ego or all the money I spent on a costume I’ve been improving or adding on to for a decade

What one-shots miss, though, is the ability to savor a slow shift to a character’s personality.

Mike Young:

For me, it all has to do with the amount of prep and work I need to do out of game.  Both one shots and campaigns require costuming and props, but I can reuse them during a campaign.  However, campaigns often require between-game actions and conversations which can take a lot of time.

I enjoy them both, but I think I prefer the flexibility of one shots; they allow for more variety of character.


Several experts were on the fence between one-shots and campaigns, preferring one or the other depending on their specific design goals or desired experience as a player:

Michael Pucci:

Depends on the world and the goal. When I am looking for an intense, action packed, immediate gratification game experience I prefer the one shot event. If I am looking for a deeper emotional investment, political machinations, and long term character growth I enjoy campaign style game.

Since a one shot game has a set time limit to its existence, players tend to play their character to the extreme with little reservation. When you have that sort of environment you can have some incredible role playing experiences with over the top moments that people will talk about for years. The downside, however, is that one-shots don’t offer the same degree of growth and emotional depth as long term campaign style games. You want to see your character grow up, develop strong emotional ties, and change and grow?  You need more than one night’s worth of interactions and events to make that happen.

Avonelle Wing:

I find one-shots more forgiving – you don’t have to live with a mistake you make in hour one for the entire rest of your character’s life, but as a player, campaign games scratch the creative itch more thoroughly for me.When it comes to writing or designing games, hands down, one-shot games feed my soul 100% more than managing a campaign. If you have a power gamer who wants to exploit the system in a one-shot, you only have to manage him for the length of the game. If you have (a) power gamer(s) in a campaign, you might discover that a twelve page rules system explodes to 36 pages to compensate for “well, what does this sentence REALLY mean…?” One-shots give me a chance to play with systems, to write edgy or risky plotlines, explore themes and generally play with the artform, and I am really enjoying that currently.

Kate Beaman-Martinez:

There is a certain feeling of ‘do whatever you want’ out of one shots. You can be as bold as you’d like, insane as you like and can explore areas of yourself that you may not necessarily get to play. The other great thing about one shots is that you can test out a GM group or a genre that you wouldn’t normally try without the commitment of a long term game. Gives me a chance to try out a new character type and to role play with people who I don’t normally get the chance to.

There is something about creating a long-running character that really appeals to me; I get to stretch my roleplaying legs when I have a character with a long term chance of surviving. I become incredibly attached to my characters and really throw quite a lot into them. Having a character change from a three line concept to a fully fleshed out person (or elf or alien or vampire, etc.) is a personal joy that I always get from a campaign.

Finally, we’ll hear from the “campaigns rule!” camp.

Geoff Schaller:

I prefer campaigns for the long-term growth and return you get, both in-game from your character, and out-of-game with the other players as the game’s community builds.  One-shots are fine and fun, but are akin to TV dinners to me – I don’t want to make a steady diet of them!  I know other people who love the thrill and variety of many different one-shots, such as those run at Intercon (where you sign up for multiple one-shot games in one weekend).  This is just not my personal style.

Sarah Lynne Bowman:

I played campaign-style most of my life, so I suppose I have a preference for long-term games. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. You can delve deeply into character evolution and explore complex story arcs with campaign play. Also, the connections between players and the community as a whole tend to be stronger, unless the same group also regularly plays in one-shots too.

Long-term play tends to cause heavy investment into the character and attachment to the game, which can be both pleasurable and painful. Long-term play can also put a strain on relationships, since role-playing tends to feature high intensity situations, some of which feel like “life-or-death.” In one-shots, players feel free to be more outrageous and take risks, especially if the game is at a convention where the people involved may never see one another again.

* A one-shot is a game that is completed in one meeting. A campaign game continues the story across many events, which make take place regularly over months or years.

More game guides for newbies.

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Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

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.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

Frederik Berg Østergaard is a Scandinavian game designer and jeepform evangelist. His work has mainly focused on taking the medium further and farther away from its tabletop roots into an adult oriented form,  that has more in common with performance and psychodrama. He also holds an M.A. in History of Religions from the University of Copenhagen.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Larp TV: Nordic Larp Talks

If you haven’t seen the Nordic Larp Talks, you should. Built around the TED Talk model of short, accessible speeches on innovation, this series of lectures on larp delves deep into the hobby from a philosophical and practical angle. The series began in 2010 and is now entering its third year.

I highly recommend visiting the Nordic Larp Talks site to watch other speeches which tackle issues like educational larp, playing horror, gender in larp and more.

To whet your appetite, here’s an introductory talk given by Swedish journalist Johanna Koljonen in 2011 in Copenhagen.

How To Develop Your Character In Game

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, where a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond weigh in on topics pertinent to the larp newbie.

Since we’ve already looked at how to create a fun larp character, today, we look at the question: How can a player develop his or her character during a larp?

Get in touch with your character’s flaws, says Geoffrey Schaller:

In a campaign, the best approach to developing your character is to start the game with them being incomplete.  If you’ve already determined everything about them, there’s no where left for them to go, no room to grow or change.  Start your character young and flawed, and resist the urge to resolve those flaws too quickly, or you will find the character is no longer fun to play.

For a one-shot, it’s harder, as what you are handed to work with, and the constraints in which you do it, are much more limited.  Look at the session as a whole, and determine the theme or point of the game, and let that be your guide.

In-game failure is a virtue, Michael Pucci thinks:

Character development relies heavily on being aware of the world around you, and allowing it to affect your character emotionally and mentally. Allow your character to grow friendships and enemies, to win, and most importantly, to fail.  Some of the best stories come from a character failing and dealing with picking themselves back up off the ground.  Don’t be afraid to show a full range of emotions while playing so that your character can develop his or her own emotions that exist outside of yours.  It is easy to act like nothing bothers the ‘ultra heroic character’ however it takes true role playing skill to actually show weakness, character flaws, and negative personality quirks.

Jeramy Merritt says your character should want something:

Goals.  Find something you want to do as your character, and work toward it.  Whether you succeed or fail matters little, so long as you have something that keeps you going, it will inform much of how you play your character.

Consider the overall dramatic arc of your character, and take metagame steps to achieve it, Anna Westerling advises:

I usually strive after some kind of dramatic curve for my character. A beginning, some conflict and then a solution about how the character will move on. To achieve this, meet with the other players before the larp and plan what you are going to do and what conflicts will happen. Of course this sometimes doesn’t happen, because you get pulled into the larp, but you can also go off-game with a few fellow players to check up on each other. How are we doing, are we achieving our story, and can we help each other? This so no one is left behind, and ends up feeling that they didn’t get a good larp. Towards the end of the larp I also usually try to find an ending  for my character, to figure out how s/he will move on after the larp is over.

Practice good improv (say “Yes and…”) says Mike Young:

Use the improv theater techniques of listening and building.  That is, pay attention to what is going on in the world around you and then allow your character to grow by reacting to it.

Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, suggests Kate Beaman-Martinez:

Obviously what I play is greatly affected by setting. I generally poke around the rule book to see whats there and find a combo that fits. Over the years I’ve figured out where I land (generally a good person who likes to help others) and I try to push the envelope on my comfort zones.

Make sure you’ve done your prep, say Aaron Vanek and Sarah Bowman. Sarah Bowman:

Two things are crucial for me when preparing a character for a larp, either one-shots or Campaign-style: backstory and costuming. Once the character enters the game world, however, anything goes. The character changes and evolves as a result of interactions within the game, sometimes dramatically. Interactions with other players and with the game universe forces that sort of change, providing the stimulus for actions that may or may not have been built into the original character concept.

Aaron Vanek:

I do my best to make a three-dimensional character that has strengths and weaknesses, flaws and virtues. I try to always give my stereotypical good guy characters an unpleasant quality, and my stereotypical villains something admirable. The characters I want play, fun or not, should have three parts to them:

  • a background history that explains where they came from, i.e., the events that occurred in their life (birth, family, friends, education, occupations, and traumatic or beneficial incidents)
  • a personality that shaped and was shaped by that background and events. It’s one thing to say “My parents were killed by barbarians before my eyes” and another to say “I spent the rest of my life honing my combat skills to exact revenge” and another to say “I dedicated my life to the dark arts to bring back my parents and all the others the barbarians have slain to take their revenge on them” or “I used any means necessary to rise to the top of army command and now will lead my forces against the barbarians” or, “I retreated from the world and stole what i needed to survive. I trust no one and make no friends or allegiances for fear anyone I really care about will be taken away from me leaving me with that devastating pain I felt years ago.”
  • finally, this character needs to have concrete goals that motivates them and gives a thru-line to hook the larping to.

My road trip analogy is:

  • a character’s background is the make and model of the car
  • the goals or motivation is where the car is going, the destination
  • the personality is how you drive to that destination–fast, slow, nonstop, visiting detours, comfortably, stylishly, or belching poison behind you, hazardous to anyone behind you?

During the larp itself, developing my character isn’t my goal, acting and reacting as the character to what is presented is my goal. If that leads to character growth, great. If not–but I feel that I stayed true to the character–that’s fine.

 J. Tuomas Harviainen and Rick McCoy remind us that many character developments happen naturally. J. Tuomas Harviainen:

The character is, without actual play, just empty words, and idea on paper. It starts naturally developing as soon as it’s brought into play (in a pre-game workshop, or the actual game), through interaction with other characters and the game world. So when I play, I add bits and pieces of what I encounter into the “facts” of that character. The only rule I follow, really, is that nothing I add should contradict what was originally given to me by the organizers as facts about that character.

Rick McCoy:

Most characters will have a chance to evolve and develop during a campaign game. It’s natural. As the story progresses, your character’s experiences accrue. Even if you are just a writer that comes out every game, and don’t interact much with anyone, you would be noticing everything around you, and the evolution of the story from event to event will be the backdrop for how your character reacts to the game environment.

Read more first-timers’ guides here at LizzieStark.com.

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Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

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.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

Rick McCoy began larping in 1989, and works as an electrician by day and a larp advocate by night. Over the course of his career, he has organized many games, conventions, and larp organizations. He currently serves as the president of LARP Alliance, which he co-founded, and has been involved in many media promotions of the hobby, including work in an advisory capacity for the filmmakers of Role Models and the forthcoming Knights of Badassdom. He lives in Southern California.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 bookNordic 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.


Link Love: Larp Magazines

I wanted to start out the year with some good karma, by throwing out link love out to all the hard-working larp magazines out there.

From Abroad:

International Journal of Roleplaying — where the big kids of roleplaying theory come out to play. I wish their site had permalinks, though.

LARPzeit — a German (?) larp magazine with an international edition printed in English. Even includes some costume patterns.

Playground Magazine – an international magazine originally based out of Norway about the “new wave” of roleplaying. You can subscribe or purchase .pdf copies. A nicely-produced magazine with some pretty interesting articles. UPDATE: Apparently, Playground will not be closing as previously reported. Rather, as a commenter pointed out, it’s continuing under new Danish management.

Interacting Arts — OK, not really a magazine so much as a collective of larpers, based out of Sweden, I think. But they’ve got some interesting theory up.

Rolle|spil — I hope you read Danish, because if you don’t, you can’t read this.

 

Meanwhile, in the US…

While there are some (largely corporate-linked) US tabletop RPG magazines out there — Kobold Quarterly, The Crusader, Dragon, etc. — for the most part, I haven’t been able to find any active American larp magazines. Examiner.com’s larp vertical is the notable exception. In addition to the national column, Examiner.com has regional columnists in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Albany, and more.

Otherwise, the best I’ve got are the archives of some now-defunct ventures:

Metagame — this larp magazine ran from 1988-2000; it was the official magazine of the Society for Interactive Literature (SIL), a predecessor of LARPA. Full archives available.

LARP Magazine — ran from 2006-2007. It’s got practical tips on how to larp and a little coverage of the US scene. Full archives available.

The Larper — a magazine that ran for two issues in 2001. Appears to be associated with LARPA.

Dreaming Larp Magazine – a nicely-designed one-time magazine that documents a larp run at SUNY from 2002-2010.

Interregnum — a roleplaying magazine that covered some topics in larp, ran from 1995-2001 out of Cambridge, MA, before folding. Some articles and a sample back issue are available at the link.

Alarums and Excursions — I can’t tell what sort of content this California-based magazine has, since there’s none on the website, but it appears to be a tiny magazine that is still issuing subscriptions.

Maybe this is an opportunity for some enterprising US larper to cater to a new market.

 

Know of more larp mags? Hit me up in the comments.

How To Create A Fun Larp Character

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. Today’s question: How do you create a character that is fun to play in a larp?

Know thyself and thy game say Mike Young and Michael Pucci. Mike Young:

What I try to do is figure out what I want out of the larp.  Do I want adventure? romance? sitting around roleplaying?  And then I try to create a character that focuses on that area.  I work with the GMs and the other players to make sure that the character works well with the larp.

Michael Pucci:

A lot of what makes a character fun for a player concerns what it is that the individual player is looking to get out of their gaming experience. Some people enjoy characters focused on action and adventure; some people enjoy social manipulation and politics. Making a character that will allow a player the opportunity to have dynamic social ties, become involved in the aspects of gaming you enjoy, while still offering the opportunity to grow with the character almost takes a degree of self analysis to understand what it is that you want to take from a gaming experience.

The second step is to ensure that this basic want that you have for your gaming experience fits in the game you are going to. If you want a high adventure experience then a politics heavy socially driven larp may not be your best choice. Similarly, if you are looking for a complex social and political dynamic then a game that focuses more on ‘monster of the month’ than social dynamics probably is not the game for you.

Lastly, while networking with other players is a great way to have fun at a game, many gamers fall into a common trap. Oftentimes newer players will completely base their characters history and drive for coming to a game on the background and interactions of another already established player. While an established character can do great things for introducing you to a game, if the character you design is dependent on someone else, then you can quickly find yourself without purpose, drive, or reason to exist if the established character is missing or preoccupied.

 

Larp is a social venture, so for the love of Cthulhu, don’t roll up an introverted character, say three of my experts. Geoffrey Schaller:

Ultimately, you are at the game to have fun as yourself, as the player.  Larping is also a social activity – if you want to have fun being alone, you shouldn’t be playing a larp!  Make a character that interacts with other people, either friends you already have, or new ones you’d like to make.  Part of the joy of the game is meeting, and working with, new people – both IG and OOG [tr. in-game and out-of-game] – and exploring those relationships.

Kate Beaman-Martinez:

Make someone you can sustain. Seriously. Not everything is playable. For a first-time larper, don’t make the mistake of rolling someone who is quiet and or shy unless you plan on breaking that barrier in some way. Pick something that will get your character moving so you aren’t stuck at the inn wondering why no one is talking to you. Take a personality quirk and blow it out of proportion. You have to take responsibility for your own enjoyment. If the concept makes you giggle, you may have hit character gold. Run it by some of your friends and see if it’s something that could be fun to play with.

Rick McCoy:

Don’t create an introvert. Not unless you want to have zero interaction at game. Unless other players are somehow forced in some way to interact with you, your character’s aloofness in game will work against people being able to interact with you.

If you have the opportunity, plan ahead and create a character that is attached to either the theme or the in-game environment of the larp. Think and plan the character’s dynamics within the environment. Making the character interesting with unique history or personality traits that you hand craft make that character enjoyable to play. This won’t work with all larps, but would work for many including those with an ongoing campaign setting.

Come in with a group! Create a group dynamic that allows you to trust and support the group you come in with. Not to dominate, but to support each other. A sense of knowing someone has your back allows you to feel more natural and at ease in a game environment, and the group dynamics you create prior to (the group is a seasoned group of mercenaries that have several years campaigning together, etc.) and during the event help with the enjoyment you will get roleplaying.

 

Create a round character — someone with social relationships and psychological complexity — and stand out from the crowd by creating conflict, say Sarah Lynne Bowman and Anna Westerling. Westerling:

Think of three things. First what would you like to play, what does your instinct tell you would be fun? If you have a clear vision of or a feeling for a character that you want to fulfill it usually works out great.

Second, in what social context/story will your character function? If everybody else plays shy, it might be a good thing to play an outspoken character. Make a contrast and create action. Another example is if everybody is pro-revolution, it will be more fun for all if you are anti-revolutionary and create a conflict to act upon.

Thirdly, make sure your character has meaningful relationships, family, people they care about etc. Because it isn’t fun to be alone, and when the larps evolves you can react to what happens to your loved ones.

Bowman:

For me, the most important component for my larp characters is psychological depth. I need some form of backstory in which I establish my character’s motivations and previous relationships in order to get into the headspace of that individual. I also must establish his or her position in the socio-cultural strata of the world. When/where was the character born and raised? Does the character hold a high or low place in society? What are the character’s formative experiences? What does the character wish to accomplish? Sometimes, these goals may remain vague, such as, “my character wants to have a stimulating conversation.” Other times, the goals may be more explicit, such as, “my character wants to avoid her former lover at all costs to save face.” Generally, though, my character motivations and goals evolve through interaction within the game world. If an intriguing puzzle is presented, for example, I may feel compelled to attempt to solve it; alternately, my character may remain completely disinterested if psychologically motivated in another direction. Establishing a basic psychological framework, in way or another, is key for me to feel immersed.

 

Even though it’s a larp, be yourself says Jeramy Merritt:

Don’t start building a character by giving yourself traits that you don’t have in real life.  Larp is acting, and while you can fake it for a while, and perhaps some extraordinary people are good at faking it and remaining genuine, for most of us, something that doesn’t feel like ourselves will end up being fun to play for about two hours before we want to retire the character.  Creating a good character is all about building on aspects of yourself, exaggeration rather than fabrication.

Or, don’t be yourself, says Aaron Vanek:

What is fun to me is always challenging myself to play someone new or different than what I’ve played before. I love to fluctuate between Goebbels and Ghandi, or Caligula and Jesus the Christ. I also enjoy playing historical figures, or modeling my character after them, because I enjoy the research.

It’s sometimes easier and more liberating (fun, I guess) for me to get into the head of someone else and ask “What would they do here?” as opposed to playing myself–even an idealized version of myself–and doing what I would do.

 

And finally, J. Tuomas Harviainen tells us, combine the big three vectors of character — motivations, traits, and social bonds:

Given that I nowadays write mostly mini-larps that can be run by anyone, I strive to create an optimal balance between memorability and information. Effectively, I try and write characters that are as short as possible (so that the player can remember it all) yet contains as much playable material as possible. By combining strong character motivations, some easy-yet-fun-to-play personality traits, and good connections between the characters, I believe I can facilitate interesting character play. Note the emphasis on “interesting” – I do not believe that all larps should be fun, but I believe that all should be interesting to play.

Read more first-timers’ guides here at LizzieStark.com.

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Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

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.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

Rick McCoy began larping in 1989, and works as an electrician by day and a larp advocate by night. Over the course of his career, he has organized many games, conventions, and larp organizations. He currently serves as the president of LARP Alliance, which he co-founded, and has been involved in many media promotions of the hobby, including work in an advisory capacity for the filmmakers of Role Models and the forthcoming Knights of Badassdom. He lives in Southern California.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In Defense of “Larp”

In the states, larp’s got a certain…ah…shall we say stigma attached to it. Larpers know this, and they don’t like it one bit. In fact, a lot of them hate the term “larp,” lamenting it as a weird-sounding word that quite possibly evokes a smelly bodily function.

Perhaps this explains why so many larp organizers use other terms to describe games that would otherwise seem to fit in the “larp” rubric. Here’s a little sampling that I’ve come across in the course of my research:

  • Knight Realms bills itself as a “live acting experience.”
  • Interactive Outdoor Theater, a new game company in New Jersey, calls its games “rehearsals” and its players “cast members”
  • A couple people on one of my larp listservs prefer the more generic “roleplaying” or “live role playing,” while others objected to “larp” on the grounds that it lumps together very different sorts of games, and proposed a variety of more specific substitute terms, such as “battle games,” “freeform,” “live combat,” “theater style,” and “parlor games.”
  • Seventh Kingdom calls itself an IGE or “interactive gaming experience.”
  • The Osiris Sanction, a game that apparently has pervasive aspects by NERO grandaddy Ford Ivey is called  a “LUG,” or live urban game.
  • Wyrd Con, a US-based convention in the style of Knutepunkt, calls itself an “interactive theater” convention.
  • Incidentally, the above are all lovely games/venues, and are worth checking out.

Here’s my take: larpers, call yourselves larpers. OWN IT. Yeah, sure, you could call yourself “roleplayers” — you are roleplaying, but to me that just doesn’t have the snap that “larp” does. As a word, “larp” is freaking awesome. For starters, it sounds like a real word, and it’s adaptable as a noun, verb or adjective. (I larped at the larp; the after party felt larpy because everyone still had their costumes on. I larped the larp with larpy larpers.) Plus, if the random people I meet in bars are any judge, there are tons of non-gamers out there who are already familiar with the term. You can capitalize on this.

I get it — “larp” has a bad rap — but it’s totally possible to reclaim it as a term by getting your story out there.But in re-qualiftying your game to avoid the stigma, you are, perhaps, further stigmatizing good old “larp” as an unutterable insult.

Is the term broad? Yes! But that’s part of its awesomeness. Part of the reason the medium is already so misunderstood is that it’s cloaked in all this mysterious technical jargon — NPC, GM, IG, OOG — that is inaccessible to the uninitiated. Splitting larp into more technical categories like “battle games,” “theater games,” “salon games,” etc. isn’t going to fix that — it simply creates more terms for the average non-gamer to negotiate. It fragments your community into many even smaller fringe communities. To mainstream culture, as IGErs, LRPGers, battle gamers, you are individually weak, confusing, and dismissible. Together, as larpers, you are a strong movement rapidly moving into the mainstream consciousness.

By all means, keep on using the finer terms and technical gradations inside the gaming community — to the seasoned gamer, to someone already in the know, they are tremendously useful. I’m not much for battle games, for example, but I love theater-style games, and I’m curious to try a LUG, mainly because I’m not yet sure quite what it is (though I love the verby-sounding name). But first and foremost, be a larp.

Sure, the theater analogies are tempting; there are strong parallels between theater and larp, and I think it’s a great idea to party with all the interactive theater people out there. But I also think you should be proud of your roots in gaming — the interactive theater people have a lot to learn from you. Larp isn’t theater and it’s not a theater-derivative; it’s its own cool and special medium, and as such, it deserves a unique name.

Think of it this way: if “larp” goes mainstream, then you won’t have to explain the general term, just your specific niche to the interested consumer. Educating the public about larp in general saves you time in explaining specifics. Instead of telling prospective new players, “magical fantasy interactive theater von LRPGROFFLBBQ? Do you have a couple hours so I can explain it to you?” you’ll be able to say “this is a larp where ___.”

Viva la larp!

Think I’m dead wrong? Think I’m half-right? Are there other reasons to use names that aren’t “larp”? Have you got a better term? Is the whole thing a non-issue that I’m blowing out of proportion? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

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.

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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