Let’s get this out of the way at the outset. LARP is an acronym that stands for Live Action Role Playing. Think Dungeons and Dragons, but running around in the woods in costumes and with fake swords. Or at least, that’s what I thought it was. But, it’s way more than that. It’s way more than I imagined anyway. Before I get into the details, let me give some background.
Here at Jackson Fish Market, we live and breathe user experience design. And for us, the highest calling of a great design is making the user feel… have an emotional experience. This is what we strive for in small and large ways. As my co-founder Jenny has said, in some ways, a game is the purest form of user experience design. The person playing the game doesn’t need to get their work done, or get a message to someone, they’re just there to feel something, to have fun. With other software, the user needs to accomplish a task. The software they’re using may be their only option for getting it done. But in the world of games, there are tens of thousands to choose from. And these days, a huge number are free.
One of the common themes in game design circles is the desire to tell a story. Countless failed efforts at “interactive fiction” and games designed with the input of Hollywood folks have left that dream for the most part unfulfilled. But for game designers, software is but one canvas. The resurgence of tabletop gaming is evidence that the thirst for gaming goes will beyond our obsession with our various screens. And for one group, the canvas of choice is the real world.
A LARP is an experience where a group of people enter a situation in character and play out a story. There are other people, the game runnners, who arrange plan the experience, the rules, any props, and any non-player characters. The key is this, whatever the scenario, whatever the environment, the players job is to stay in character and keep the game going no matter what. There are tools to pause the game and discuss how to proceed, but the magic of the LARP experience is to feel like you really are in a dungeon/spaceship/different era. And when someone stops the game, the suspension of disbelief takes a hit.
In a world where the internet is filled with trolls, and online games have griefers — players who like nothing better than to ruin the game for others — it’s difficult to imagine playing a LARP where someone doesn’t try to ruin it for everyone else. But as best I can tell, the LARP community is small enough and tightly knit to the point that this type of anti-social behavior is frowned upon. So for a niche group, a LARP can really be an experience that creates real emotion and transports you to another time and place. Whether this is something that could be reproduced for a much broader audience I wonder.
A few months ago I read online about a LARP that was being planned for March 2013 in Sweden. It would take place in the world of Battlestar Galactica. In in the real world it would take place on a Swedish destroyer that was now a museum. The LARP was billed as put on by the most hardcore and serious LARPers on the planet. Basically, this would be the ultimate LARP. Four six hour “episodes” spread across three days on a Swedish Destroyer. Fascinated with game design, and with extending user experiences beyond the screen, I decided, if I was going to experience a LARP, this was the one to try. I signed up.
To be quite honest, it was fantastic. Like a movie more than a videogame but I WAS IN IT. Maybe it was more like a play? A play that went on for twenty-four hours on an immersive set? If you’ll excuse the metaphor from another fictional universe, it was like the holodeck. It wasn’t perfect, but when everything was clicking there were a few truly magical moments where I believed I was in space aboard an old ship that had just survived the Cylon holocaust that destroyed most of humanity. I was THERE. Seriously. I know that I have a data set of exactly one, but given the reactions from some of the veteran LARPers that were there, I think it’s fair to say my positive assessment is not entirely because of the fact that this was my first LARP.
Before I dive into some of the details, it’s important to note that while there are many reasons why this LARP was so good, the most important decision the team made was to set it in the Battlestar Galactica universe. If you’re going to make a Harry Potter LARP, the players need to pretend to cast spells (and more importantly, pretend to be affected by them). If you’re going to make a superhero LARP you’re going to need to pretend to fly and use superpowers. But while BSG has space travel, and sentient humanoid robots, the technology in the show basically resembles what we have here on earth. In fact, to avoid Cylon infiltration, the survivors in the BSG universe had to go use old tech that wasn’t susceptible to Cylon technology. That kind of technology looks a lot like a Swedish Destroyer from the middle of the twentieth century.
Because the rebooted BSG television show was produced on a budget, many of the decisions they made about the storyline and context of the story were made to save money. In other words, the producers of the show the LARP were trying to emulate tried to use as many real world props, and inexpensive environments as they could. The TV producers’ decisions made it so much easier for the LARP producers to create an environment that really felt like you were in the world of Battlestar Galactica. One of my favorite examples is the octagonal paper and signage present throughout the TV show. Basically, you cut the corners off a piece of paper and voila, it’s from the world of BSG. When I first saw this on TV I thought it was kind of silly, but like most of the little details the TV producers used, it grew on me, and gave texture to that world. And wonderfully, it was pretty straightforward to reproduce in the LARP. All you needed was a pair of scissors.
Who was in attendance at this LARP of LARPs? I didn’t do a formal survey but for the one I attended (they put it on three times) it felt like over half the people (and maybe more) were somehow involved in the business of game design. Video game concept artists, Disney imagineers, tabletop game store owners, video game level designers, and more. Basically, this was an incredibly well-thought out LARP, set in a perfect and immersive universe, run by the most hardcore game runners in the LARP world, and attended by people who design games for a living. In other words, this was a professional game for game professionals. A perfect storm.
Oh, and I was there too.
I played a marine. I was equipped with a backstory a uniform, and some weapons as well. The uniform didn’t fit. And like the food that wasn’t good, it all helped me get into the mindset of being a Colonial Marine. I imagine that Marines just make do. And that the food on some random commercial spaceship that luckily survived the almost complete annihilation of humanity wouldn’t be that great. There was money — cubits they gave us. There were a few card decks with which to play Triad (BSG Poker). And throughout this old Swedish destroyer, octagonal signage, and screens connected to hardware controls that let you actually do stuff that mattered – like fly and repair the ship. Or run scientific experiments that had a bearing on the story. Honestly the level of detail, and thoughtfulness put into this experience was nothing short of amazing.
You didn’t fly the ship with a joystick. You flew the ship in three dimensional space. Planning jumps. Reading sensors. Plotting coordinates. Math and stuff. Apparently the first version of the interface for flying the ship was so realistic, some PhDs in Astrophysics had a hard time getting it right. After some retooling the game organizers came up with some great teamwork inducing mini-games that let a group fo people in the CIC (that’s BSG speak for “bridge”) fly the ship pretty well. Yet another detail that was super well thought out.
But it wasn’t just environment, there was a story too. A good story. Playing with a bunch of game designers meant that not only was nobody trying to ruin the game for anyone else, everyone was almost nervous that they might ruin the game for others. So people played with a light touch, trying to read signals about what others wanted to do. It was actually quite nice. And everyone understood the basic rhythm of a good story, so everyone was content to let the tension and revelations build over time until the end of the experience where things came to a head. Creating a story that 140 people can guide in a freeform fashion is no small feat. The game runners did just that however. Often repeating the pattern of balancing three elements of the story, three choices, three sources of leverage with each other so there were always interesting directions in which the story could proceed. It was never A or B. It was almost always A, B, or C. And when key inciting events had to happen, the game runners were able to deliver those moments to the players either via the technology built just for the LARP or by the introduction of non-player-characters played by the game runners themselves. If you know anything about Battlestar Galactica I can’t tell you how disquieting it is to know that there are unidentified Cylons aboard your ship, and then suddenly see twins. Anyone familiar with the TV show knows that this is the telltale sign that you’re in deep shit.
The other players were really quite great. All of them trying their hardest to really live the experience, never break character, and make the game fun for themselves and others. They were also nice enough to help me with my crazy marine uniform (I would make a super crappy soldier) and advise me on the secret of LARPers — chocolate. When you’re on guard duty on a cold space ship, making sure a Cylon doesn’t escape, and you’re starving, a Caprican chocolate bar tucked away in one of your pockets can be a real life saver.
I want to take a moment to thank the organizers of the Celestra LARP including Martin, Cecilia, and Adriana. They were just one tenth of the team that put this on, but they were some of the folks I got to talk to in more detail at the afterparty over beers. They did an amazing job and I’m super grateful. (There’s also a Facebook page with lots of pictures and videos.) I’d also like to thank all my fellow LARPers — newbies and veterans alike who made it a super fun experience. I heard rumors that maybe this experience will come to the U.S. If they do put it on again, or frankly, if this group of folks put on any LARP again, I urge you to attend. If you have even one of the magical transporting moments that I did, I promise it will be worth it.
So say we all.