How Scandinavian players 'killed' LARPing to save it



This sounds pretty awesome, but I am very unfamiliar with this direction. Hmmm…

Ultimately, the Dogma 99 movement ran its course not because it failed, but rather because it succeed

Now there’s a handy, all purpose excuse…

No mention of the Turkuist Manifesto or Jeepform? Also, there’s an excellent book available on the subject by the name of Nordic Larp.

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Magic missile!

I’m not sure how successful Dogme99 was in transforming LARP since a lot of its output seemed to be fairly abstract improvisational theatre, really - and since that already existed LARP didn’t need to fill that gap. However, I think that it did kick off a wave of people consciously creating their LARP systems, building them around a theory of how they wanted it to work. Previously this hadn’t happened and much like the way that D&D’s roots in wargames stymied tabletop roleplaying’s development for a long time, LARP had sprung up as an idea, and rules and settings had been created, but nobody had really thought about what LARP was. As such, it met the needs of its players poorly. All sorts of terrible ideas such as advancement in rank and power in the game resulting in players being co-opted into non-player roles, or worse into positions of authority within the organisation of the game rather than only its game-world.

There are several streams of activity in LARP which do not always combine smoothly, and different players are more or less interested or responsive to each stream. By having a theoretical foundation for a game, describing what you are trying to achieve, you can at least pre-determine the nature of the game and let players know whether they’ll be interested.

For example, I think there are 3 main types of activity in LARP. There is LARP as a sport - the competitive, combat oriented play. This requires simple and universal rules that are easy to apply. Winning is straightforward and unambiguous. The gameworld and costume is a backdrop to that. Storyline and motivation takes a back seat to the player’s desire to hit things.

Then there’s LARP as an RPG, which may require more complex rules to allow players to develop and progress their characters to ‘win’. Unlike the sport/fight kind of LARPer, progressing or winning are not meant to be linked to the player’s own abilities or skills, but rather those of the character which can itself be difficult to manage and wishful thinking - players to a greater or lesser extent hope that the rules system will accommodate their desire to overcome their own shortcomings. They’re still competitive much of the time, but immediately you see this can add complexity to the combat-sport game as players learn new skills or find or create new, special weapons, for instance. Managing this is already quite hard because adding too much complexity to combat is hopeless.

Finally, there’s LARP as a sort of drama. This element may not need rules at all and in fact rules may encroach upon it (complicated rules tend to screw your suspension of disbelief - one of D&D’s problems) This type of play demands that players be able to do anything that comes into their heads and resolve the situation as best suits their dramatic interests, with ‘winning’ being of low importance. However, rules are there to ensure fairness and if players are taking actions that may have in-game consequences for themselves or others (for instance, having a bar-room brawl with mock-fisticuffs, which the game system has not developed rules to account for) then other players may feel that the rules are being circumvented and ‘dramatic license’ is just an excuse for unfair, ambiguous play among certain cliques. Whether or not the organisers have created a formal ‘plot’ (and if so, how rigid it is) also falls into this area and can have a massive effect on how fair the game seems and how satisfied players are that they can influence the game.Dogme99 pretty much only covered this kind of game activity, which risks actually creating something really interesting and deep but not actually LARP.

All of the players aim to gain self-actualisation through engaging and influencing the game world, other players, and the ongoing events - what I’ve described above are the main means by which they do so.
Different players will engage in each of these types of play in different proportions, so it’s important to either broadcast clearly which types of play you intend to accommodate, and how, segregate your types of play into separate arenas through your setting so that although the players can interact dramatically and through outcomes in different arenas influencing the others, the types of play are largely separated, or developing a rules system, game management policy, and setting, that accommodates all players well. The latter is a theoretical ideal rather than a reality, I think, although some systems are getting closer.


Sounds a little like something from My Dinner With Andre.

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Hasn’t Norwegian black metal already taken this to its logical conclusion?

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No geek discussion of Nordic LARP can leave out “The Monitor Celestra.”

As someone who has never swung a rubber sword (actually, that’s not true; I did once and immediately knew that it wasn’t for me), I am not sure that your assessment of “LARP as a sort of drama” is entirely fair. But this may be because my entire subsequent experience with the genre has been with what in the UK (and Australia and somewhat in the US but perhaps not so much elsewhere and definitely not in the Nordic scene) is called “freeforming” - in which the storytelling is largely predominant and the gameplay is about the resolution of the (often heavily defined) plot by the characters; whilst there is certainly emotional subtext involved, it is usually only a part of the structure, whereas it is generally the main feature of the Nordic (Dogme99) form. But they are both still clearly LARPs because they are (a) Live Action and (b) Role Playing (although the original article does note that, of course, this what “real life” is!)

In other words, I think I would be willing to argue that neither the Nordic nor the Anglo-American versions actually quite fall into your third category, although they have a considerable amount in common with it. Instead, they perhaps partly comprise a sort of fourth version, which comes in two forms: games that are more about some form of emotional catharsis, and those that are more about plot resolution. They certainly both involve drama and character development but in both form and function you might say (albeit clearly slightly sarcastically) that they are like Indie Films and Hollywood Blockbusters. But I do not believe that they are, as you refer to them, merely “abstract improvisational theatre”.

And the key difference seems to me to be that, in general, these games are defined and closed. A LARP (like a classic RPG) is often predicated on being an ongoing story; the actions of the players influence later events because there is no formal “end” (at least, only in the way that, say, a soap opera might have an end.) In our “freeform” version of LARP, the outcome is rarely, if ever, influential on later games (having said that, there are clearly exceptions that prove the rule. :smile:) And there is usually some sort of clear ending. [It is true, however, that an alarmingly large number of freeform games are fond of the Cthulhu ending because it avoids complicated wrap-ups…]

In the end, I think that “all of the players aim to gain self-actualisation through engaging and influencing the game world, other players, and the ongoing events” is actually pretty good as a potential definition of LARP - it’s just that I think the genre is a little wider than you make out.

(Please don’t get me wrong - I liked your analysis a great deal; it reminded me of exactly why I don’t like any version of what are commonly called LARPs!)

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I probably didn’t explain myself very well. What I mean is that the variations I described are different approaches that players take to LARP, based upon their own interests, strengths and proclivities. The games people have created will serve each approach with differing degrees of success - and some (as you’ve pointed out, much of the US and UK scene I’d say has problems in all three areas because their approach is not clearly conceived in any area - leading for example to overcomplicated combat, unsatisfactory opportunities for character development, and pre-written plots which leave players unable to influence events because the outcomes have already been determined out-of-game. In fact, much worse outcomes are possible, too).

I should have pointed out that none of the elements I described alone constitute LARP; Combat only is just an SCA style sport, character progression only can end up discouraging player action, because that involves taking on risk and interrupting/ending character progression, and as mentioned, theatrical roleplaying alone is just theatre or playing pretend games, with the attendant grounds for argument “I slayed the dragon! No you never!” that can occur when children play those sorts of games. Likewise, if any element is entirely lacking, then the LARP is arguably incomplete - if a LARP didn’t have costumes and characters, what would it be?

When designing a game, creators (either by design or by accident) will be more or less responsive to the different activity types, as well as overall being more or less responsive to the players’ desire for self-determination and accessible action (to plot or not to plot), since totally player-driven games can also be unsatisfactory - it’s hard to gather enough momentum to make noticeable change in the action, and can also become clique-driven. But I think that as I said, Dogme 99 only addressed the approach organisers took to developing dramatic elements (inspired as it was by a similar approach to film), and by neglecting to address the way in which rules are designed, failed to engender a holistic philosophy of LARP.

As a self-confessed ‘dramatic’ player, I’m not entirely surprised that you find most of what I wrote accurate but think that I was over-simplistic with regards to your preferred style of play; no doubt players of the other kinds will feel the same about my description of their preferred approach. Much as it was a wall o’ text (as is this), I was only roughly describing each style and didn’t go into detail about the pros and cons.

It’s one of the differences, sure, and in a sense I think creating contained games takes its cue from film and storytelling. That said, it’s also observable that the kind of film and literature popular in LARP circles tends to defy that convention too, and go on interminably…However, I’d argue strongly that taking game design cues from storytelling is an error, because the more storytelling you do, the less space there is for player determination. This is often unimportant to players who have strong relationships with organisers as their characters are ‘written in’, but others will find that they are reduced to ‘scenery’ essentially because the story is pre-determined and they aren’t in it. In these instances players can end up competing with organisers for self-actualisation - the plot team wanting to see their scenarios played out as originally conceived, and the players wanting to see their mark upon them! I’ve seen a lot of people leave traditional LARP for this reason, only to make exactly the same mistakes in the events they run on a smaller scale.

How games run and end is a point of contention in LARP, and ‘progression’ type players are often upset when a game they are participating in ends. One system in the UK famously permitted a player group to ‘end the world’ (mainly because no other player group got it together to stop them) and the organisers have since run games for around a decade before winding them up, (in a more formal way) which has worked quite well for them. However, I’d argue that by running one off events you’ve pretty much decided that you aren’t going to permit progression-oriented players to get what they want out of the games you run - whether you realise this decision or not. It also has knock-on effects for player motivation, effort in costume, time that people will allocate to preparation, etc. So by determining that an event will be a one-off, you consequently introduce an array of other limitations.


I think you are trying to describe the 3 fold model.


That’s really interesting - I had no idea that this existed. I guess there are differences in understanding and application to a LARP rather than tabletop setting, but thanks for the link!

I think you would find this article also interesting.
(The whole blogg is about LARP not drama, not freeform, but only pure LARP,
with characters, relations between them and a society around them)

Yeah, that was new and interesting to me too (and it kind of derives from “fast - accurate - cheap : choose any two”) although naturally I think it omits some important aspects.

However, I’d argue strongly that taking game design cues from storytelling is an error, because the more storytelling you do, the less space there is for player determination.

Whereas I might disagree with you. Whilst you make some significantly relevant points which the “freeform” community have agonised over for years, it’s very rare now for a game to be written in which a character is written simply to be scenery - a lot of effort is often taken to ensure that they all get unique stuff to do and have their own influence on the outcome, whatever that outcome turns out to be. And I suspect that this is mainly because the games are written with no idea about who is going to be playing in them later (which also means that they are replayable to an extent, which is why we are definitely closer to the Nordic tradition than to the usual LARP tradition that you outline.) As a writer, I find the most enjoyable part is that I can create a scenario in which there are certainly constraints, but in which I have no idea what the endpoint will be. And as a GM, my job is not to have any sort of favouritism because I know the players or because I want my preferred storyline to play out (indeed, my best experiences have been with games written with others precisely because even the writers disagree on where they think the scenario might go, let alone trying to get the scenario to work out the way we might “want” it to go. Having said that, I’ve also had experiences where an imposed external event has annoyed players even though it was intended to create precisely that space for unanticipated development. So maybe it’s the fault of the players after all? :smiley: )

[In passing I would note that I don’t consider myself a “dramatic” player at all; I’m a puzzle-solver. Indeed, I find it slightly weird that I do LARPing/freeforming at all since I’m generally an asocial introvert (somewhere on the Asperger’s scale.) Which may be why I find the one-off nature of freeforms more attractive. And it is almost certainly why I like writing them rather than playing in them - let the players themselves deal with the emotional angst…]

So yeah, you are correct - the freeform community (in the UK at least) is not at all compatible with “progression” players. On the other hand, I profoundly disagree with regard to things like motivation, costuming, preparation etc - players often go to an insane amount of effort (yes, people do actually bring sewing machines to one-off events.) Indeed, sometimes I wonder if we’re actually closer to the historical re-enactment people - freeform games definitely tend to like historical rather than overtly fantastical settings.

In the end, I guess this is one of those definitional arguments (but then again, isn’t everything?!) The (for want of a better word) “rubber-sword” LARP and the freeform LARP (and, to a lesser extent, the Nordic tradition) need all the things you describe, it’s just that the balance is different. And there is no single correct approach - what’s important is for potential players to discover that there are many approaches and that the one they have found (and did or did not like) is not the only one and the entire genre should not necessarily be written off as a result. (Which is, for me, the mistake the Dogme99 people made.)


This has been an interesting discussion. I’ve always wanted to be more involved in role-playing, but been frustrated with finding a compatible group and the time to actually commit to it. I used to think MMORPGs had a lot of promise, and I’ve had good experiences in the past, but they had a lot of shortcomings as well, and the trend in design now is to treat them purely as games with no meaningful player interaction. Most often, MMO players seem confused when I try to explain what I’m looking for.

So it would be nice to join some group in which, even if we haven’t hit on the ideal solution, we at least can have interesting conversations about what we’re trying to accomplish. And also have fun with the role-playing itself.

[quote=“Scurra, post:16, topic:54883”]
Whilst you make some significantly relevant points which the “freeform” community have agonised over for years, it’s very rare now for a game to be written in which a character is written simply to be scenery - a lot of effort is often taken to ensure that they all get unique stuff to do and have their own influence on the outcome, whatever that outcome turns out to be.[/quote]

Sure, I’m describing tendencies and what happens when things go wrong, rather than trying to state that categorically ‘X always happens’ - although in my experience the things that go wrong in each style go wrong a lot - and even when not, dissatisfied players will often think that the cause of their problem lies in that area. Interesting that you describe games where the character is pre-written - do you mean by the organisers? You see, while I’d be happy to play a game like that, already I’d argue that this is an opportunity for players to be creative and self-actualise being lost in order to allow the dramatic-leaning game to function smoothly. Of course there are ways around this, such as submitting characters to the organisers ahead of time, although this would interfere with the repeatability of a game somewhat. Furthermore, I’ve never really understood why LARP organisers agonise over getting detailed character backgrounds from players and trying to write plots around them - the interaction between player characters on a personal level is really the area that requires the least intervention from referees and organisers since this is the bit that doesn’t have competitive/victory mechanics and doesn’t need to be simulated (since interpersonal interaction can largely be represented by in-character interactions, unlike combat or magic or commanding armies outside the immediate field of play).

What you describe is close to the ideal of plot-writing. I find that in any case the creation of in-game plot tends to restrict possibilities and leave organisers less flexible in their responses to player actions if those lead in unexpected directions. And as I’ve said, more commonly organisers become precious about the exciting set-pieces that they’ve created (in an absolute worst case scenario - set pieces that revolve around ego-stroking their favourite players or delivering in-game advantages to them), so I’ve in the past been of the opinion that plot-less games (where a rich background is created and communicated to the players, but no specific actions planned by the organisers for time-in, leaving players to originate all activity) was preferable. However, I now think that this also has its disadvantages too, as quite often not a lot happens, and more confident players tend to quickly overwhelm those who are more shy or less pro-active.

This tendency is compounded if rules systems are badly developed or poorly applied, because rules - being the mechanics by which simulated actions take place - democratise the ability to act in-game. This is less visible to players who are in an in-crowd or otherwise privileged, but really important for those players who don’t feel confident with other players or don’t have equal access to referees - and in my opinion rules should as far as possible be player-managed in-game, as having to get a referee to make decisions or rulings on outcomes all the time is too heavy a burden on organisers, slows down play, and introduces the possibility of bias or (more often) the possibility of players believing that there is bias.

Having said that, I’ve also had experiences where an imposed external event has annoyed players even though it was intended to create precisely that space for unanticipated development. So maybe it’s the fault of the players after all? :smiley: )[/quote]
Undoubtedly - one only has to examine the limitations of entirely plot-free events in order to see that much as players like to blame the organisers for everything, events don’t run significantly better when they’re left entirely to their own devices.

[In passing I would note that I don’t consider myself a “dramatic” player at all; I’m a puzzle-solver. Indeed, I find it slightly weird that I do LARPing/freeforming at all since I’m generally an asocial introvert (somewhere on the Asperger’s scale.) [/quote]

Yours is not an unusual personality for LARP - something about people with a rich internal world seeking a safe environment to practise social skills, perhaps? :grinning:

I’m not saying that one-offs are going to have crappy props and costumes, but the effort worth putting in is inherently lower if the costume or prop will only be used once. That said, some of the big fests have really lowest-common-denominator costumes (tabard over a 3-wolf-moon t-shirt or colonial marines at fantasy battles, that sort of thing) so it’s not purely down to the ‘how often do I get to wear this?’ factor. If you pull in a variety of players they will have naturally varying skill and motivation. Perhaps again you find that the events you run ‘pre-select’ players from a motivated crowd, by their very nature. You aren’t going to get many ‘my sword cost 5 times my costume’ players at your events, by the sound of it! Also, generally committed LARPers tend to accumulate a lot of crap…I mean, kit… so I guess that also plays a role - how can I repurpose what I have or what I want to make?

I suspect that one reason dramatic-style event organisers like historical settings is because you can get away without complicated rule mechanics for simulating fantastical or futuristic actions, which helps to make maintaining immersion easier to achieve. My experience of German LARP was that they took a very serious approach to ‘historic-ish-ness’ of their fantasy games, much closer to re-enactment than UK mainstream LARP - but their game systems were very orthodox, and much more complicated and difficult to navigate rules-wise than UK systems have become. It worked better in my experience because of the people involved rather than because of the systems.

Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I’m not really arguing here, just trying to fit LARP as an activity into a coherent concept so that design can be improved. I think that by so thoroughly rejecting LARP as a game with competitive elements, rules to govern this, and representative methods/substitute implements for activities like combat, Dogme99 allowed the discussion to begin around why we needed these elements and what characteristics these elements had to have in order to work. The downside was that they focussed all their efforts on a facet of LARP that didn’t need fixing. I don’t think that the innovation in rules systems that resulted was intentional, though - just a fortunate side effect. It’s led to a lot of experimentation that probably won’t be recorded as watershed moments or great ideas in the history of LARP, but ultimately has probably contributed a lot more to the game as organisers have defined their goals more clearly, and developed systems around these more effectively. I think we’re still a way of a game being developed off a total, coherent theory of LARP (and who knows, it might still be crap) but I know that organisers are taking a critical, analytical approach to different elements of LARP and this has been great for the hobby. I know many players who have got to modern fest-scale events and said that it totally rejuvenated the hobby for them - it was like going to their first event as teenagers, before all the shortcomings of the old school systems became apparent! No doubt the shortcomings of the current systems will arise over time, but if we keep innovating faster than people tire of the new systems, we’re golden!

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Yeah, I’m still keenly interested in LARP but as my career has changed, babies appeared etc, I’ve not had the time. The old text-based MUDDs and chat-based RPGs are probably more what you’re looking for from a web-based perspective (not that I was very into them, but I remember that White Wolf Games used to have good chat-based RP on their website). MMORPGs are probably at the stage that AD&D was in the 70s, and LARP was in the early-to-mid 90s, now. Quite a way off moving away from really rule/mechanic dominated, lowest common denominator activity-based games.

I’d say MMORPGs were at that stage, about ten years ago. From what I’ve seen, the trend in development of MMOs has been to abandon any pretense at facilitating role-playing. Adapting the game-world according to the actions of players was a goal some MMORPGs at least professed, but it was very difficult and expensive to pull off, even clumsily. Worse, the design of most MMORPGs I’ve seen come out in the last few years is that there’s a distinct linear storyline, one in which the player character is the one and only hero – which means that the storyline explicitly denies itself for use as a basis for interaction between players. Most players of these games, I find, understand “role-playing” to mean only the choice of stats when levelling up, or the choice of which costume to use.