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164. Ten Thoughts on Campaign Larps

I’ve been designing and running larps since 1995. I’ve done events that lasted an hour and events that lasted a week. I’ve done first-and-only affairs and I’ve run campaigns that spanned decades. I’ve started campaigns. I’ve taken them over and run them for a time. And I’ve closed some of them as well.

Here are some thoughts on larps in a campaign format, that I hope my fellow designers, organisers, producers (and whatever titles fit you) find useful.

  1. Open-ended campaigns are hard to keep interesting. If you do a three-event mini-campaign, it’s reasonably easy to make sure it has a beginning, a middle and an end and that all three are cool. If you do a year of events, you can build to a crescendo and make every step of the journey meaningful. If you have a thing that runs for ten years and looks to maybe run for ten more, it’s damn tough to balance the new with the old. When you’re creating your new campaign, the more thought you can put into this, the better. Good decisions now will mean good results down the road.
    ADVICE: If you’re not going to do a time-limited campaign, then think seriously about what it COULD look like in five years. Not that it will, but just what it could. If the same basic stories and conflicts will still be interesting five years down the line, you’ve got something good. If you think “Huh… we’ll run out of steam after six months”, then a rethink might be in order. ;-)
  2. There’s a huge difference between defining and exploring. When you go to a fresh larp campaign, there are usually vast amounts of stuff that you can play around with and make your own. “The Dragon Tribe” might be described in a sentence somewhere and stay that way until someone writes about them (or plays them!). On the other hand, if you walk into a twenty year old campaign, it’ll be rich with detail that’s there to be explored. But choose your poison and know you can’t explore and define at the same time.
    ADVICE: Figure out what kind of organiser you are, and what kind of players you want. If you’re a crafter of intricate universes that you want others to dive into and marvel at their wondrous complexity, then you definitely want to make a larp where discovery is a big element. If you prefer giving frameworks and having others fill out the blanks, then make sure to give them plenty of things to define on their own.
  3. Even the best systems tend to become dated. Rules that seemed perfect at the time tend towards awful with time. Descriptions that were deemed respectful and original at the time can look terrible ten years later. Plot devices, storytelling elements and the like don’t always age well. This is doubly true when you add things like experience points, rule-based skills and character classes to the mix. 1986 was great in 1986, but the world has changed since — including the world of larp.
    ADVICE: Revisions need to happen from time to time, and the more you are open about changes being necessary, the better it is. If everyone knows that the deck gets reshuffled significantly once or twice a year, they’ll be less likely to go berserk when you decide to axe their preferred character class or change the nobility ranks. If everything has been the same for seventeen years and you make a major change, on the other hand, then seal the doors and lock the windows, before the torches and pitchforks come out!
  4. Continuity is awesome and tempting. We all want to go back. Back to our old movies, old books and old haunts. And nowhere is it more alluring to return than to our old characters. For many, they become like second skins, that can be slipped on when the time is right and effortlessly transport us away from our daily lives. I was the warlord Black Otto for a string of years, and once a month I commanded an army in the forest. Though I haven’t played that character for years and years, Otto is still my go-to name for characters, because I know I’ll answer to it, and I could still snap into Black Otto in an instant if I needed to.
    ADVICE: Acknowledge the power of returning, and make sure that there are ways to end stories in a meaningful way, so people can get the closure they need. As long as a character feels like it has more stories to live out, it will be tempting to return to it. That can be good or bad, so make sure that you also make room for good character exits.
  5. If you don’t fight hard, your fiction will become improbable fast. Now, that may sound weird, but it’s what I’ll call The Beverly Hills 90210 problem. At the beginning, the show featured young adults who seemed more or less believable, but as time wore on, their lives just turned more and more bizarre because the series demanded ongoing drama. In larps, this is often represented by the phenomenon of the small town (where the players live) having been attacked by endless armies of evil. There’s a limit to how many times you can save the world before it starts to get old.
    ADVICE: Keep your drama low-key if you’re running an open-ended campaign, and high level if you’ve got a planned end. After a certain point, escalating and powering-up just becomes silly. Think of how many movies suffer from constantly needing to outdo their prequels. Here, it’s even worse because the “actors” care intensely about their roles and worlds, making them their own in a way that few traditional media actors do.
  6. Onboarding is a serious issue and needs to be tackled well. I’ll never forget it. It was in the late 90’s, and I was at a fantasy larp held at a school. The classrooms were houses and the corridors streets. It looked like hell, but the indoor plumbing, showers and warm sleeping spaces made up for a lot! After the game was over there was an event debrief, where people got to voice suggestions to the organisers. Pre-internet, you know? One person said “Could we have some street signs? That would be cool for new people.” The answer? Someone else (who wasn’t an organiser) said “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it after a couple of events”. Enough said. Make your newcomers feel welcome. Especially as the years drag on.
    ADVICE: Regularly talk to new players about what they find challenging, and do your best to listen to what to have to say. If you are constantly watching out for signs of hostility to the fresh faces among you, then you’re likely to be on top of the problem. Looking outside your player base and getting feedback from complete outsiders (larpers or not) is also a useful tactic.
  7. Veteran advantages tend to compound unless you stop them. Experienced players tend to not only have higher level characters that are stronger rules-wise (in games that feature rules like this), but they also have more friends at the event, more understanding of the fictional world, better odds of being on good terms with the organisers, and so on. I’ve got 25 years of larp experience under my belt, but I’ve come to campaigns as a first-timer and been made to feel like a complete newbie — and not in a good way. In-jokes, shared routines and so on are unavoidable, but when prefacing an information booklet with “It’s just like last time except for this, this and this!” you’re not exactly playing to the new among you. ;-)
    ADVICE: Do your best to remember that it’s very hard to see the world from someone else’s perspective, even when you actively try. When half the people at the campaign are friends of yours, it’s hard to imagine how it feels to participate for the first time without knowing a single soul. Do your best to foster a welcoming community and make rules and policies that make it cool to be new instead of annoying.
  8. Longtime players will try to bend the larp to their will. This is completely natural, but also potentially problematic. Someone who starts out at a larp campaign as a high school student at age 18 will (probably!) find different things interesting as an architect at age 26, and if you add in a couple of extra years and a child and a marriage, then you’re looking at some priorities and tastes that have changed. We rarely enjoy the same stories all our lives. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to larping (far from it!), but what’s unique here is that so much is created by the player base. This is especially prevalent in places where there aren’t that many different larps to begin with. If you have one larp that you play and it’s the only one around, then of course you’re going to try to change it to fit your tastes. For organisers, that is often challenging, though.
    ADVICE: If you find that you’re not getting what you want out of “your” larp campaign as a player, then look for alternative larps to play instead of trying to death-wrestle your regular larp into submission. If you’re an organiser, encourage your players to get out often and get inspired, but also be on the lookout for toxic behaviour. Talk with key players who drift into having this problem and try to make them allies who lead by good example. And if that doesn’t work, then tell them straight out that they’re being destructive.
  9. People rarely base their perceptions on up-to-date info. Again, this is not just a larp campaign issue, but it’s very real in this space. Someone who visited your game ten years ago will talk about it as if nothing had changed (for better or worse, but often for worse!) and it can be intensely frustrating to get criticism that you then deal with, only to find that the people making the critical remarks never return to your event and never bother to find out if things actually have changed for the better. A larp that runs every month is a larp that can potentially change things around 12 times a year, but that fact is easily forgotten by those who left it years before.
    ADVICE: Practice the art of zen and of smiling even when someone is trash-talking your larp for a reason that hasn’t been relevant since the late 00’s. Also, accept the fact that humans are humans and that we rarely take the time to update ourselves on things that aren’t at the center of our attention. If it’s particularly bothersome, talk directly to the people involved, and if not, do your best to ignore their misunderstood beefs.
  10. Larp campaigns are awesome for recruiting new players. The strength of having something stable to point to shouldn’t be underestimated, and neither should the communities that campaign larps spawn. For all their advantages and disadvantages, one of the strongest I can point to is that they are extremely fertile grounds for bringing in new people. Being able to say “If you think this sounds interesting, you can join the next one. It’s in a week/month/year/etc.” is much more inviting than saying “Oh, you think that larp I told you about sounded interesting. Yeah, too bad it’s over and they’re NEVER MAKING SOMETHING LIKE THAT AGAIN!”.
    ADVICE: Keep doing the things you love and creating spaces where others can get to have amazing adventures and experiences together. Always consider whether a campaign larp is a good idea or whether a one-shot or a shorter series would be more fitting, but once you have chosen, know that you’re keeping the torch alight. I salute you for that.

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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