Larp journals are filled with articles contrasting and analyzing various styles of larp design and play. Far less discussed is the process used to design those larps.
Creative processes can significantly affect the results they achieve. Pixar, for example, uses a very deliberately-designed process for creating its films, encouraging collective input and critical feedback at every step. The company believes this process has helped it maintain a high level of originality and creativity (Catmull). Similarly, using an electronic outlining-based writing process has been found to significantly improve the organization of student essays (de Smet 362). Naturally, one might conclude that the process used to design larps would likely have some effect on the larps themselves.
It is important not to overstate this effect. Clearly, if two different writing groups start from the same set of ideas and follow similar processes, each will bring their personalities to bear on the creative output, and they will end up with different larps. Furthermore, all processes for doing work are idiosyncratic to some degree. Arguably, it is impossible for two groups to follow exactly the same process, because process details are dependent on the particular people doing the work. However, there are certain elements and values present in creative processes which, if adopted by a team, can help shape the work they produce.
While interviewing Liliya Benderskaya for a different article, I discovered that she and her frequent collaborator, Tory Root, use a creative process unique among any I had previously encountered. This article will give an overview of both that process and one that I have frequently used in the past, explore differences between these processes, and discuss some effects those differences may have on the larps they produce.
Benderskaya and Root, collectively known as Paranoid & Crotchety1, have created six larps together: Lifeline, The Sound of Drums, The All Crotchety Old Folks With Shotguns Game, Stars Over Atlantis, Folding the River, and The Other Side of the Glass. Each has also written larps outside of the duo.
Following the earlier conversation I had with Benderskaya, I interviewed the two writers together about their process, its benefits and drawbacks, and the effects it has on their work. In this interview, I learned that Benderskaya and Root’s collaborative creative process consists of two phases, which I will call “play/design” and “writing.” The play/design phase allows the team to collaboratively discover the details of their game’s characters, the world they inhabit, and their challenges and motivations. Only after play/design is complete does any writing of sheets for the larp begin.
In the play/design phase of the process, Benderskaya and Root take on the roles of various nascent characters in their larp-in-progress and role-play conversations as those characters. During these role-play sessions, they keep in mind questions such as: “If I were a player playing this character, what could I do?”, “What kind of character relationships would I want?”, and “What would make my experience cooler?” These guiding questions help the writers focus on the player perspective as opposed to simply what would feel natural for the character.
Later in the play/design phase, the focus begins to shift more towards structure, building out a framework for the larp to function as a game given the characters and world that have been designed. As this happens, Root and Benderskaya may discover that the game needs additional characters or plots added to it in order to function well, which may necessitate more rounds of role-playing in order to work out their details and backstory. Furthermore, at this point in the process, the creators often role-play not as the characters, but as players of those characters discussing their experiences after the game. This may lead to the addition of elements to the game design in places where it feels as if characters do not have enough to do.
Once all this has been done, there are very few decisions left to make during writing. According to Benderskaya, “by the time we’re starting we know what [the game] is going to be.” The game design almost never changes once sheets start to be created; in my conversation with them, the duo could think of only one example when it had changed. For this reason, writing can often begin very late in the process as a whole, relative to the way other larp writing teams work.
Alleged Entertainment is the larp writing group I co-founded in 2003. The group consists of a large and fluid set of people, writing in various combinations, but the most frequent core of Alleged Entertainment creative teams has been me, Susan Weiner, and Vito D’Agosta.
I wrote a bit about the writing process we use on our group blog2 in 2009. That article describes two separate phases (writing and design), but in retrospect I believe these two phases are better understood as one single process (Budin). The design of the larp is continuous throughout the entire process, and writing is done as early as possible for each piece of written material.
The process typically begins with large-scale discussions about the larp we’re planning and its structure. Many of our larps have been structured differently than the traditional secrets and powers form typical in the Intercon community, so we begin by hashing out the format for the game and discussing what we think it will be like to play. Even in a secrets and powers larp, however, the early design process begins by thinking about the overall play experience and flow of the larp rather than specific plot and characterization decisions.
Once we have an overall structure for the larp, we begin to fill in the bones of the structure. In the case of a secrets and powers larp, we might brainstorm and outline plots. In the case of a scene-based game, we will typically outline the scenes and the order they should appear. In both cases, we outline the cast of player characters and discuss at least the basics of the game mechanics, both at a very high level—typically, at this stage, the characters are not even yet given names.
Once we have arrived at a set of characters, scenes, and/or background materials, the writing begins. The game is split up into a series of small chunks to be written (often individual sheets), and these chunks are assigned to writers to draft outside of team meetings. Meetings are regular and frequent—usually every two weeks—and consist of dramatic readings of drafts as well as critical feedback and copy editing on those drafts. At the end of each meeting, further assignments are divvied up among the writers (Budin).
Since the game has not been fully designed in its particulars by the time writing begins, there are still many decisions to be made by the writer, who has latitude to invent aspects of the game’s backstory, character personalities, and other details. Thus, design is done simultaneously with writing. As before the writing began, design proceeds starting from a macro scale and ending at micro scale. Background information sheets are usually written first, followed by knowledge sheets given to groups of characters, then scenes and character sheets.
The respective processes of Paranoid & Crotchety and Alleged Entertainment clearly contain some major differences. Let us focus on a philosophical distinction between them that may be usefully applied outside these groups. When designing a larp, which perspective do we take: that of an outsider looking at the entire game, or that of an insider playing out moments in the context of the game’s fictional universe? Alleged Entertainment adopts the outside-in point of view, while Paranoid & Crotchety takes the inside-out one.
Each perspective has its uses. Inside-out design prioritizes the experience of players (in Paranoid & Crotchety’s case, by having the designers literally adopt the player persona), and by doing so, helps guide the design towards characters that feel natural and cohesive to play. By contrast, outside-in design prioritizes overall structure of the larp, thereby helping make the game itself feel like a coherent whole.
Both outside-in and inside-out processes force certain creative decisions to be made early on, while allowing others to be deferred until later. Decisions made later in the process will usually be based on decisions made earlier, making earlier decisions harder to reverse by virtue of having to also revise a great deal of other design work.
One example of the effects of this tradeoff is alignment of goals in a secrets and powers larp. An outside-in design process might start with a genre and set of themes the game would explore, develop the setting of the game, and then build a plot web from those themes. From there, the designers might create a set of characters to interact with one another. By working in this way, the goals of the characters are very likely to interact well with one another, providing good opposition and interplay. However, the characters themselves are practically an afterthought in this design process. By the time the writers create the characters, it may be quite difficult to create a cohesive set of character motivations to implement a particular set of goals.
An inside-out design process might begin with the characters, making sure to give each one internally consistent and interesting motivations. After designing the characters, the team might move on to plots to tie them together. Through this process, setting, genre and themes would emerge and become fleshed-out. Because the plots (and therefore the character goals) arose from the characters’ motivations, they would probably feel very cohesive to play, and players would walk into the game with a very good sense of who the character is. The larp as a whole, however, would be less likely to interact well as a game: characters might be unbalanced with one another, leading to what Benderskaya and Root term “secondary character syndrome,” in which some characters feel to players as if they are much less important than others.
Of course, it is quite possible to design an excellent larp using either an inside-out or an outside-in process. Neither design approach dooms its users to a fate of incoherency at a structural or character level. But in both cases, care must be taken to avoid the risks of the chosen process. This is why, for example, Benderskaya and Root use the technique of role-playing as players talking after the game: to force them to focus more on making characters in their larps equally central to their own stories. According to them, this has been an effective way of mitigating secondary character syndrome.
Paranoid & Crotchety is not a single unit, and as such, Benderskaya and Root are very different in their respective approaches to writing. According to Root, when she writes larps on her own, her approach is far more structure-focused and outside-in than when she works with Benderskaya, who tends to think more free-associatively, coming up with possible connections between characters on the fly. Both agree that these qualities combine to make their process work, with Benderskaya providing “the plot web you would have come up with [given the characters],” and Root giving necessary play structure and mechanics to the game.
Similarly, Alleged Entertainment’s process works by virtue of who we are as people. Weiner and D’Agosta tend to conceive of the original ideas about the game’s structure and themes, whereas I usually bring the perspective of crafting the player experience to implement these ideas. The three of us all prefer to work independently on creating characters rather than designing them as a group ahead of time, but our independent creativity is appropriately bounded by knowing each others’ work as a result of having worked together for years. By virtue of this, we can be fairly sure nobody’s independent writing will stray too far from the others’, and if it does, we have a relationship that allows us to rein it in.
Because our individual personalities influence our work so greatly, it is highly unlikely that copying either of these groups’ exact processes would be possible for any other group. It may, however, be useful for others to consider the benefits and drawbacks inherent in these structures of process when designing their own games.
Making use of a specific process is one of the many tools available to a larp writer. From the examples of these two groups, we can see that the aspects of a larp design that are prioritized early on tend to be the most cohesive elements of that game, but also the hardest to change later. Since each larp is different, it is perhaps useful to intentionally consider where to begin with each new game.
In a drama about the sinking of the Titanic, for example, the decision to begin inside-out might produce a poignant character piece, while an outside-in take on that concept might produce a thrilling life-or-death adventure. Our outside-in version of a Passover-themed larp was an intensely emotional story with a plot twist (D’Agosta et al), whereas an inside-out design might have produced a more contemplative, spiritual experience.
Other aspects of process may have effects as well. For example, does the process include peer review of written materials, and what is done with the results of those reviews? Does the group use a plot web or not? How much is decided about characters before writing their sheets? How often does the group meet, and what discussions happen in those meetings? Ultimately, the design of a larp is influenced to some degree by all these factors.
Intentionality of design and a consistency of authorial voice seem to be overall trends in theatre-style larp design in the past decade. The right writing process can help a group of disparate authors produce these qualities in their work—or indeed, other qualities. When embarking on a new project, there is great value in being deliberate in the selection of a team’s process in addition to the design of the work itself.
Benderskaya, Liliya and Tory Root, in conversation with the author, August 17, 2015.
Budin, Nat. “A Group Writing Process.” Alleged Entertainment Blog, June 15, 2009. <http://blog.aegames.org/2009/06/group-writing-process.html>
Catmull, Ed. “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity.” Harvard Business Review September 2008. <https://hbr.org/2008/09/how-pixar-fosters-collective-creativity>
D’Agosta, Vito, Susan Weiner, Nat Budin and Joshua Sheena. The Last Seder. 2008. Live action role play game.
Milou J. R. de Smet, Saskia Brand-Gruwel. “Electronic Outlining as a Writing Strategy: Effects on Students’ Writing Products, Mental Effort and Writing Process.” Computers & Education 78 (2014): n. pag. Web.
Nat Budin got his start in theatre-style larp in 2002 at Brandeis University. He has served as con chair for Intercon I in 2009 and Intercon P in 2016. He also founded Brandeis’s Festival of the LARPs and co-founded Alleged Entertainment, with which he has written and run over a dozen original theatre-style larps. Nat also created and maintains several web-based tools for larp creation and management, including Journey Surveys, Vellum, and ConCentral. Nat’s writing about larp has also been published in the Wyrd Con Companion Book.