68. Fiction, co-creation and larp worlds

If you do just one larp event, it’s easy. You create (or use) a world. You define a setting. You provide information for your players, and let them know which blanks they can fill out.

Sometimes this means giving a rough framework and only the bare minimum of details. Sometimes it means massive documents to read and get to know. But no matter how extensive your world/fiction is, it’s reasonably simple (in theory).

So far, so good.

Now let’s say you’ve had a successful event, and want to do one more. You’re excited. Your players are excited. But what about the fiction? Even if you choose the relatively uncomplicated approach of re-using world, setting, characters, etc, and just setting it later time wise, it’s still hard.

Do you update your fiction descriptions? If the Penguin Queen is described in a text, but the character got murdered in the previous larp, that should be addressed, right? If someone summoned an Elder One that’s now loose, it might be nice to know for new players.

But where does it start, and where does it end? Who decides what happens to the characters “between larps”? Are they still under the control of the players? The organisers? Shared ownership? In a book, it’s easy. The characters only do what the writer wants them to do.

In film, it’s a bit harder, since the characters are created by both actor, writer, director, costume maker, etc. — all working together. Could Harrison Ford have decided that Indiana Jones should lose his hat for a potential fifth Indy movie? Could the costume team? Or is that fully in the hands of Lucas/Spielberg?

When you create a sequel to your larp, and let the players bring the characters back for another go, you’re stepping into a hornet’s nest. It can work out great, as long as you’re aware that larp characters exist in a strange space of shared ownership — if not legally, then at least often artistically.

But still — you’ll work it out, and it’ll be great.

For campaign larps, this problem has been turned up to 11. It can be incredibly hard to change the world, and telling a player who has played the same character for four years that changes need to be made to it, is seldom met with applause and smiles.

Most campaign larps I’ve come across are constantly updating their written material, and also depend on a lot of organically passed on knowledge. The old players know that the mafia boss used to be a Chicago lowlife, and pass on that knowledge to new players during the larp. The new king isn’t written into the setting description, though it’s mentioned that the realm has a king.

Campaign larps that live for a long time often get unwieldy and stupid and bizarre. If the world is saved six times a year, it might be a bit hard to get the characters to take it that seriously when a crisis erupts. You get stuck with definitions that belong in the 90’s, and it’s hard to throw out that problematic character type, but there are twenty players playing it that don’t want change.

The more of a varied player base you have, the harder it is. If it’s (more or less) the same players each time, you don’t have to tell them too much. They were there, after all. But if it’s central to your next episode that everyone knows that a murder took place, well, then you need to tell them. This gets tricky FAST, but is doable. In a long-running campaign, it’s extra hard, since you might have a key player taking a year-long break, and then returning.

Another issue is that the longer you play a campaign the less you can boss your players around in it. For good reason! But from a world building perspective it’s annoying that you can’t smash the old when you need to, just because it represents somebody’s lived experience. It’s understandable, though, and not exactly surprising.

Still, campaign larps are common, and work quite well.

Here’s a tricky one. It’s the dream scenario of many larpwriters. “What if there were six campaigns set in our universe, that ran parallel, but influenced each other? A living, breathing world? How cool would THAT be?”. Pretty cool, to be honest. But also damned hard to make work.

Because here, not only do you have all the troubles of a campaign, you also have new ones. What knowledge is relevant for everyone to have? What developments need to be communicated to other campaigns for the world to remain believable. If you’re running a modern day Vampire: the Masquerade campaign, and some people in a campaign blow up Los Angeles, the rest of the world would probably hear about it.

But what level of detail is too much. Is it essential that everyone knows the name of the current king of Sweden in your 1519 alternate history larp? *Hint, the king of Sweden at that time was Danish, and murdered quite a bit of the Swedish nobility the year after in a scene that was worthy of George R R Martin. But that’s neither here nor there. The relevant thing is that you need to decide what needs to be shared and what doesn’t.

If individual organisers can influence the world at large, what does that mean? The American post-apo larp Dystopia Rising has chapters in 15 states (or maybe more now!), and each of these has a local boss. The local bosses coordinate with the national leadership, but they still have autonomy. Setting up systems for this is terribly hard and easily goes haywire. And that’s “just” 15 campaigns. The German Mittellande organisation has over 100 different organiser groups under its umbrella. Yikes!

After we moved College of Wizardry away from the Harry Potter universe, it has existed in a universe created specifically for the larp. It’s not a campaign larp, but an event that constantly spawns new, branching timelines. Or in other words, it’s a crazy mess of creativity, madness and fun.

Now, we’ve played around with the idea of making it a bit more “alive” — a bit more like a campaign world with multiple events inside it. This is of course due to the fact that we’re no longer just the College of Wizardry event at Czocha. The universe is also home to the American New World Magischola, which has its own distinct flavour, the German-language Nibelungen and an upcoming British one (Bothwell).

For these larps to be able to exist in the same universe, we of course need to have some guidelines. If we were doing an online massively multiplayer game, it would be simple. We’d just have everyone be part of the same world. But since we’re not, we have to do it differently.

So with that introduction, I’ll give you an idea for how to do that.

Inspired by a series talks involving Anders Berner, Maury Brown and Ben Morrow from CoW/NWM, and with input from Swedish larpwrights Hilda Levin and Petter Karlsson, and Finnish larp scholar Jaakko Stenros, there’s a model ready for seeing the light of day.

Petter coined the term Core/Lore/More, but after talks with several others I realised that it needed more layers. And that’s what brings me to these levels of fictional truth:

Global truth must be the same for each larp set in the world. In the CoW world it means things like “Magic is real”, “It usually manifests itself during the teenage years”, “Magical society consists of tiny bubbles hidden around the world”.

Regional truth is something that’s true for all larps set in a specific area in the fictional world. The North American magicians call themselves The Magimundi, while most European confluxes (magical communities) are bound by something called The Treaty of Avalon. It’s ok if you go to New World Magischola and don’t know what the treaty is, since it doesn’t directly affect your region.

Local truth has to be true for the whole larp. If there’s a Headmaster (there is at most of these larps, though the title varies), who it is exemplifies a local truth. The players at the upcoming Bothwell larp better agree on who runs the school, though it matters little to the players at a Nibelungen event.

Communal truth deals with agreed-upon fiction within a group in the larp. House Grimm from Nibelungen, for example, has certain rituals and stories and traditions, that the students from that House need to agree on. It’s ok if other players at the larp don’t know them (or don’t care), but if three different Seniors say “As well all know, THIS is the traditional Grimm dance”, then it can get a bit awkward (but also funny, in this case).

Relational truth has been decided upon by a select group of players, who agree on something that the rest of the larp is completely unaware of. If four players at New World Magischola have chosen to play siblings, it’s not a fact that the rest of the players need to know about. They may find out, or they may not, but as long as the four siblings agree, the information can spread organically during the larp.

Individual truth is a catch-all for all the things that a player decides for her character, that no one else knows about until they encounter it. Is the pendant at her throat magical and a gift from merfolk? Was her mother a bit of a bragging fool, who couldn’t cast a spell right if her life depended on it? Individual truth is essential for character depth, but isn’t something that others need to worry about.

It may sound a bit muddy, and it no doubt is. But it’s a way of giving organisers (and players!) some guidelines on how to deal with the fiction. Knowing who has the power to define the fiction is central to any larp, and if that isn’t clear, it leads to situations which are … interesting.

During the first Fairweather Manor larp (set in 1914), we had a player try to start World War One with a telegram. This led to the question: “Does this character have that power?”. But it might easily have been done in a way that didn’t give us the chance to reflect on that. A player might have said “I’ve just received a letter. War has been declared”, and in one fell swoop thrown the larp into a completely different spin.

For some larps, it’s easy. Sometimes the players have zero definition power over anything but their own characters and their pasts. Sometimes not even that. For other larps, they have immense world building powers, and agency up the wazoo. As with all design choices, there are pros and cons to each way of doing it, but it’s good to be aware of these. It’s also quite practical to let your players know how much they get to co-create.

And what about us?

Well, the shared CoW/NWM/Nibelungen/(soon-to-be-Bothwell) world is still being defined as I’m writing this. Whether we end up using this model or another one isn’t decided yet. I wanted to put it into writing anyway, though, since others might find the thoughts here useful.

And even if we find the notion of shared worlds daunting, there’s nothing daunting about shared ideas. Those are what keep us growing.

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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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