The surface objective of this article is to introduce the readers to the collaborative character creation process and encourage using this tool, as well as to illustrate the importance of workshops in designing a better, more immersive, and memorable larp.
This article may be useful to all who are interested in larp design and larp theory. It discusses an alternative larp design to what is traditional in many larp cultures where characters are prewritten, as well as introduces the concept of workshops as a standard part of larp.
I will address the collaborative character creation process as contrasted with the design of pre-written characters, its peculiarities, and the opportunities it opens up for the players and larp organizers. I will outline different aspects of character writing, and showcase how collaboration with the players benefits a larp. I’ll consider the most common objections to player-written characters, such as claims to have less control over the larp, no secrecy, problem with casting, et cetera, structuring them from most common to those less frequently mentioned. I’ll sum up the existing knowledge about collaborative character writing, show examples based on my experience as a larpwriter and organizer, and elaborate on different types of workshops used for that.
Before I proceed with that, I find it important to mention the larp background I come from, as the ideas stated in this article are highly influenced by the experiences I had as a larpwriter, larp director, and player. I got acquainted with larp at the Larpwriter Summer School (LWSS) in 2012. LWSS is a five-day intensive course in larp design, aimed at enabling the participants to create and run their own larps, is organized by Belarusian-Norwegian team, and is primarily based on Nordic larp—a school of larp design, or larp tradition rather than a geographic term, that is highly grounded on immersion, collaboration, and often offers its players more than just entertainment. Since then, I’ve been a part of the LWSS organizing team a couple of times, wrote and organized a few larps, seminars on larp, and larp festivals, and played plenty. While I consider myself a representative of Nordic larp tradition, there’s an ongoing debate as to what Nordic larp exactly is. It would take a separate article to ponder on that, but there are quite a few articles and books on that that I can recommend: Nordic Larp by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola; Why ‘Nordic Larp’ is Confusing by Lizzie Stark; Keynote Script: What Does “Nordic Larp” Mean? by Jaakko Stenros, The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp edited by Jon Back, There Is No Nordic Larp—And Yet We All Know What It Means by Stefan Deutsch.
Prewritten characters can sometimes be called organizer-written characters and are those that are created prior to the larp by staff rather than by players. Character description can vary from one line to dozens of pages; it can also be given in a form other than text, such as a song or a picture. Prewritten characters differ in the amount of information about the world of the larp.
Collaboratively written characters, sometimes called player-written characters, are those created by the players, usually during the workshops immediately prior to the larp. Just like prewritten characters, they can vary a lot—the number and the combination of workshops, as well as the workshops themselves, used for creating characters are unique to every larp.
The difference between these two character-writing techniques can be viewed from two perspectives: who creates the character (organizer versus player) and how can the process of writing them be described (predetermination versus collaboration). I decided to primarily focus on the latter, as the processes that are typical of the larp are more important and interesting for me.
The most common argument in favour of prewritten characters that I’ve heard at larp conferences is that with prewritten characters larp designers have more control over the larp. The arguments for this point are as follows: since you are the author of the larp, you know best what will work out and what will not; you can write different types of characters that the players would not create for themselves otherwise; you know which secrets should be revealed and which shouldn’t; and you can build expectations of how the actions in your larp will develop. However, many of these objectives, if not all, can be achieved with the collaborative character writing.
Let’s first consider the argument of prime importance—how are you going to control your larp if you don’t even know which characters you will have? What is your scenario worth if the players can come up with characters that wouldn’t fit in the plot? The thing is, none of these concerns prove true if you find and use the proper workshops for your larp. A proper workshop will enable your players to create the characters that fit in with your vision for the plot, and thus give you control over your larp. An extra benefit you’ll get is that your players will have ownership of what they created, which usually results in their willingness to collaborate during the larp, more playable and believable characters, as well as stronger impact of the larp on the players.
How can you choose and design workshops to get the characters you need? Below I will write about the factors I find crucial to designing characters.
A certain order is important, and my example is going to be in reverse order. You cannot start with a workshop on establishing relations between the characters before you at least know who the characters are. For the players to do both, they need to feel safe and comfortable in a group, with people who are sharing this experience, and that’s where exercises on establishing trust come in handy. In order to do exercises on establishing trust, you need your players to know each other just a bit off character. I find it important to create a feeling of safety between the larpers before going onto a meta-level of their characters, as this enables the players to feel more secure about their play and boundaries.
A good example of workshop order is given in an article The Workshop Pyramid, written by a collaboration of authors Maryia Karachun, Yauheni Karachun, Olga Rudak, and Nastassia Sinitsyna. The article is aimed at creating “a relatively universal structure that will help larp organizers arrange workshops and pre-larp exercises so that they will compliment the run-time in the most efficient way ” and tresses chamber and black box larps for participants with little or no experience, but as the authors say, “might also be useful for others.” A concept of the workshop pyramid is similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and counts three levels:
Building trustworthy atmosphere: On this level, the larp organizers need to answer the question what are you doing and why and how can they make your players feel safe and trust both each other and you. This level includes basic exercises that establish mutual trust among players and larp designers, as without trust, the authors claim “even well-thought scenarios can be jeopardised, especially when players’ personal boundaries are crossed.”
Creating characters and inner relationships. During this phase players are given room to discuss, speculate, experiment and get used to each others, better understand their characters and relate to them. This is usually the most time-consuming part of the workshop.
Developing a common story. This part includes exercises needed to create a story that every character will be part of, such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, playing out scenes from the larp and is the result of mutual trust between players and larp directors along with thoroughly developed characters.
The authors warn against meaningless use of exercises used just to fill in a certain level, as every workshop should “have a particular purpose and serve a common goal—making players ready for that specific larp.”
The order structure differs from larp to larp. I described a certain structure that works for me and a certain algorithm that I use; however, don’t hesitate to alter it to suit the needs of your larp.
Even if you agree with the above arguments, some questions remain. Such as what about secrecy? How is it possible to create it and play it in collaboration?
Secrecy is an important part of larp design for many larpwriters. An argument in favor of pre-written characters states, if you pre-write the characters for your larp, you can write about their secrets in the character sheets. What is not taken into account though, is the question about how big are the chances that these secrets will be revealed. In all of the larps I played and organized (about 30–40 larps in general) the players never revealed all of the characters’ secrets if they weren’t revealed between at least some of the players during the pre-larp workshops. And even though for some players the fun part was to reveal them after the larp, I adhere to the opinion that secrets in larp exist to be revealed.
A Swedish larp-designer Susanne Vejdemo wrote in her article Confessing, Gossiping and Confronting as conscious tools for a better larp that “a hidden secret is boring.” The author marks that though “characters might want secrets to stay secret for ever, but you, as players, want secrets revealed.” Further in her article, she infers a vital larp principle, which states that “a character’s goals and desires are not the same as the player’s goals and desires,” thus driving us to a conclusion that “when you have or find out a secret, you have to spread it around to at least a few persons.”
I cannot help but agree with her—honestly, I believe that secrets ideally should be revealed before the larp, between the players, not characters. There are several reasons why this is necessary. Personally, I think this is more fun to play, knowing as a player what your character should do to “accidentally” come across some other character’s secret. Sheer surprise is an emotion that we react suddenly to, without a chance to think about or analyze our reaction, and a character may react differently to the surprise than the player would. Whereas knowing the surprise in advance allows you as a player to make sure the character’s reaction alone is expressed, doesn’t put you out of your character and doesn’t hinder subsequent play. And what I find particularly vital—it’s safer. For example, if the secret that my character will come across in larp is that my child will be killed in front of my eyes, as a player I would prefer to know this beforehand. The example shouldn’t necessarily be so extreme—anything can, potentially trigger you in a larp. And it’s the responsibility of the organizers to avoid psychological trauma and take care of their players.
Considering these reasons, the initial argument about secrecy between both players and characters might not seem so crucial. However, if you still want a high secrecy larp, the right techniques of collaborative character creation enable you to have it.
An example of such workshop would be an exercise from the larp Keep Calm and Carry On, a four-hour rerunnable blackbox larp designed for 6 players that uses theatre lights and sound. The larp explores the feelings of emotional overflow people face when they are forced to keep up an image of a perfect public life as contrasted with the complications of their everyday private life. During the larp, the participants will find themselves in three dimensions: playing the perfectly “happy” royal family in the first dimension, further unveiling to the desperate “real” characters struggling to hold the family together, finally descending to the third dimension, which is the real emotional experience of the players.
This larp uses workshops to create characters. The only information that the players are given beforehand is the names of the characters, which include their family relations (for example, Duke Henrik, husband of the Queen). Each character in the larp has some dark secret(s) that they have to create for themselves. During the workshop, the players pair up to discuss their secrets. Thus, two out of six players know that the secret exists, while the four remaining have no clue about it.
If you want your larp to be high on secrets, you can leave it as is. However, if you want to add more openness to the larp, you can use the following workshop. Two characters (a pair from the previous workshop) are sitting on the chairs in two different game spaces, one of which is dark and the other is lit. The characters are sitting on chairs back-to-back, so that they don’t see each other’s faces. One character, who is sitting in dark, is at home, where they can discuss anything without the need to preserve the social mask. The second character, sitting in a lit space, is in public and cannot talk openly. The two characters are talking on the phone and discussing their common secret, one of them being open about it, and the other—using metaphors and secret words not to reveal themselves.
There are some cons in pre-written character creation that collaborative character creation eliminates. Some players just won’t read the larp sheets before the larp, and even if they do, they won’t do it carefully. So, considering the amount of work you as a larp designer do beforehand, writing and perfecting the characters for your larp, it’s sometimes just not worth it. I proceed from the assertion that it’s my responsibility that all of my players have great time at the larp. Even if all of the players but one read their character sheets diligently, one person who didn’t can affect the larp. Don’t trust your players to do their homework, but make it your own responsibility instead. With characters created during the larp, it’s easier to make the group of your players focused on the larp while doing workshops together, having group and pair discussions, i.e. walking them through the whole process of character creation. With workshops as part of the larp, everyone will be on the same page, and you as the larp organizer will always have a chance to check with your players, answer their questions, and make sure they understand the idea of your larp.
Understanding the idea is another part of character creation; when you are working on your characters as a group, playtesting some of the relationships, actions, memories, et cetera, you have the chance to calibrate your characters and the world of the larp and make sure everyone has a shared understanding of what is happening. Calibration is a term often used in relation to culture (as in Martin Nielsen’s article Culture calibration in pre-larp workshops), but I find it to be relevant for character creation, too. A character in a larp has so many facets and aspects—personality traits, background, memories, dreams, voice, physical appearance, fears, et cetera—that it is quite challenging for you as a larpwriter to keep all of it in mind and calibrate that without forgetting anything. And the possibility to try your character on before the larp solves much of the problem and you don’t have to worry that you might have created something unplayable.
An great example of calibrating the characters is given in an article Character Co-creation: Surrendering to the group by Frida Karlsson Lindgren, which can be found online at workshophandbook.wordpress.com.
Another reason for creating characters at the larp is better availability of the larp for the players. Not all the players are ready to dedicate a lot of time for larp preparation before the larp itself. This is especially true with first-time, inexperienced, or non-larpers. For example, your friend may have heard you talk about larp and has finally found time to come try it for themselves. Probably, you told them that the larp lasts for a day and even if they don’t like it, it only means that they lost one day of their weekend. However, if you load your friend with dozens of pages of character sheets and a few bluesheets they might not be as enthusiastic about it anymore. In other words, it’s hard to attract new players to larping if that immediately presupposes such a bulk of preparation.
It’s true for long-time larpers as well if larp is not a number-one priority on their list right now, you might lose your players to well thought out (and thus, very long) character sheets. Whereas in case of using workshops, a 6-hour larp actually means 6 hours, without weeks of preparation nobody warned about. This is also true of larps organized as team-building for companies: when people who are unfamiliar to larp expect to be entertained, they often expect to come to the larp and enjoy without having to do reading beforehand.
However, there is a different perspective on this: we can also argue that in commercial larps players often want the entire experience to be provided for them, so they won’t need to create anything themselves during the workshop.
Another problem that collaborative character creation solves is casting. Before trying out some larps other than Nordic ones, I didn’t even know this problem existed, as casting happened during the workshops in a form of drawing characters with the possibility to exchange them or as an open discussion between the players.
When you do the casting beforehand, it’s like putting a blindfold over your eyes. Imagine you have been cast to play a strong bond with some other character. You come to a larp, you see that person for the first or maybe the second time in your life, you act distant and too nervous to notice and develop any chemistry between you. If it’s hard to communicate, laugh, and be at ease even as players, how can you play out deep affection in this case? You can, of course, act and pretend, but there’s more to that in larping, at least when we talk about Nordic larp.
Of course, you play fictional characters in larp, but you play with real people who might put real emotions in larp, and the level of trust between you as players certainly affects the relations your characters are going to have in larp. However, this is all hard to achieve if you are playing with someone you’re meeting for the first time. The solution some larp organizers use is to run larps where all of the players are already friends. But that’s a limitation and it makes a larp community closed off to new people. Workshops on establishing trust and working on the relations together with the people you are going to interact with at a larp allow to calibrate the level of intimacy your players are comfortable with.
A simple example of an exercise on building trust between the players would be a hugging exercise which goes as follows: a larp organizer asks the players to walk in the room in a free tempo for some time. As soon as the larp organizer says “stop,” the players choose the person who stands closest to them and hug this person until it feels uncomfortable. The players thank each other after they stop hugging each other. The exercise should be repeated several times.
Another example would be a candle exercise, where players stand in a tight circle, while one player enters the center of the circle. Players put their hands forward, the player in the center relaxes and “rolls” inside the circle, supported by the hands of the other players. It is recommended for every player to take part in the exercise.
One more important angle to consider at casting is gender. Larpwriters have started designing for neutral characters; playing a gender different from your own in larp is commonly accepted. With more awareness comes more responsibility; and if you absolutely must write a larp where your characters have certain gender, pre-written characters don’t give you quite the flexibility that player-written characters do.
One of the larps designed for neutral gender characters is Inside I’m a Puppy larp, written by a collaboration of larp-designers—Nadja Trutniova, Yauheniya Siadova, Natasha Smolnikova, and me. In the larp, players play a day from the life of puppies in a dog shelter. Players are not allowed to use human language during the larp, and their “puppy” characters are designed from scratch during the workshops, which include such exercises as walking, barking, yawning as a dog of your breed, your character “memories-building” exercise, developing a sense of smell exercise, and others. To get inspired for creation of a puppy personality, players are offered photos of different dogs, collars of different colors, and quizzes, where they answer such questions, as what is their favorite food, where were they born, what is their favorite pastime.
Workshops are also crucial for establishing the mood of the larp. For the players, workshops are a transition phase, where they leave their personality behind and put on the personality of their character. Alongside with it, the overall mood of the larp is established—whether it will be a drama or a comedy, a farce or a romance. Without the transition phase, it’s hard to tune the players into the right mood, even if it’s specified in the larp materials. For example, you decide to playtest a larp with your friends. You meet, you laugh and make jokes that each of you understands, and then you start playing. If the mood of the larp is light-hearted comedy, you step in the larp easily. However, if you need to play a character in a larp with serious themes that deals with strong emotions (such as death, loneliness, loss, grief, et cetera) it might be hard to switch to the right mood without any preparation. Likewise, if you have never met the players and are supposed to play romance or close relations in a larp, it will most probably be awkward and uneasy without pre-workshopping it.
I’ve played a larp where all the players (apart from me) knew one another and had a close bond. However, when it came to playing the larp, they didn’t put the bond aside, and the larp that explored the theme of death of a close relative came to be an unexpected combination of interrupted scenes and inopportune jokes. Thus, the tone of the larp was changed.
Despite the common belief that pre-written materials that specify the mood of the larp are enough, it is during the pre-larp workshop that the runtime director can turn the larp in the required direction. When players step into the room directly from the outside world, they all have different things on their mind, and often can carry the mood they have into the larp. However, when you have workshop preceding the larp, the organizer has the ability to take hold of players’ mood and thoughts, and can adjust them to the larp, or adjust the larp to the mood of the players if it’s possible.
An example of such larp would be Keep Calm and Carry On that I mentioned earlier when discussing secrecy. This larp is designed so that any style can be applied, from tragedy to comedy. Every time I run it, we end up with a different mood and different style of the larp, which is fully decided by the players. When I playtested the larp with friends, we were relaxed and laughing a lot, so the larp turned out as a comedy; whereas during the second run of the larp at Minsk Larp Festival, the players wanted some strong emotional experience, so they chose to play close-to-home and invest some real emotions in larp. Both of the above-described runs were good and left my players satisfied and I hadn’t needed to decide on the mood and the style of the larp for them.
How did I create the larp that you can play with any style? It has a set of scenes and a set of meta-techniques that the players need to use, as well as a repeated sequence of actions in every scene. The style and the mood of every level are to be decided by the players. For example, in a scene devoted to the anniversary of the king and queen’s marriage, the characters can either fuss around, exaggerating their emotions and crowing about king’s cheating on his wife, or play a serious emotional scene, where the queen is hurt because her husband’s cheating on her, where everyone knows everything but carries the burden of silence as the royal family always has to uphold their reputation.
The last argument in favour of collaborative character creation I would list is simple, but essential to larp design: it always works out better if you try it first. You can have perfectly written characters with well thought-out aspects of their personality, detailed background and relationships, but it would still be on paper. It is comparable to learning to perform surgery: a professor who teaches a surgical class is surely knowledgeable, but to understand how theory is working in practice students would need to learn from operating surgeons. I believe that the same principle is true for larps, too: in order to understand how your character works, what emotions they have, how they move, what their social status is, et cetera, you have to try it out. And through collaboration during workshop, all this assembles into a real person—your character.
In the end, I want to emphasize that I don’t claim that pre-larp workshops are good for every larp and are a universal larp design solution. Each larp designer has their preferred tools, each larp requires different approaches, and this is only one of them. I believe that collaborative character creation fits in a certain larp philosophy that shares the values of openness and co-creation, values experience over winning, aims for emotions rather than adventures, and considers larp a co-creation process rather than a finished work of a larp designer. And since I appreciate such larps, I find this tool particularly helpful.