LARP is not “just a game.” As a matter of course, communities form around LARPs, whether around a long-running campaign game, or a group of people who enjoy playing one-shots together. Sometimes these communities become close and uplifting, but might, in rare cases, turn toxic and unpleasant. For LARP staff, ensuring their game community falls into the former category is critical to ensuring the long-term success of the group.
To examine the nature and dynamics of LARP-specific communities, I interviewed via e-mail several people with extensive experience as LARP organizers, and two social scientists who both LARP and apply their training to LARP culture.
Meet my interview subjects!
Jesse Heinig has contributed to various White Wolf roleplaying games, including the Mind’s Eye Theater system for World of Darkness LARPs. In 2004, he started Dying Kingdoms, one of the longest-running fantasy boffer LARPs in Southern California.
Aaron Vanek has extensive experience in the LARP community. He currently runs Seekers Unlimited (an edu-LARP non-profit), serves as editor-in-chief for LARP World Magazine, co-founded the Larp Census, and also works to build up the community of Nordic-style players in North America.
Dr. Diana Leonard, in addition to being a LARPer, works as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Lewis & Clark University; her scholarly work includes research on group dynamics in LARP.
Dr. Joel Thurston works as the Assistant Director for the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in his spare time participates in Dying Kingdoms as Plot Staff.
Adrianne Grady is a founding member of LARP Alliance, a pan-LARP organization intended to support the hobby. She has also done consulting work on Role Models and Knights of Badassdom, ensuring those films portrayed LARP in an accurate and positive light.
I asked each subject a variety of questions about their work in the LARP community. Here are their (lightly edited) responses.
The first objective was to get a sense from Diana regarding how communities form in general.
Q: Can you give a brief summary of how social science currently understands the formation and development of community?
Diana: During the first stage, forming, the primary concern of group members is whether to trust the group and its members. In the second stage, storming, group members test the rules of the group and the legitimacy of its leadership. In the third stage, norming, the group leader’s role tapers off and mutual investment and norms drive the group’s activities. Finally, performing is achieved, powered by group cohesion, empathy, and trust.
Groups will likely undergo periods of re-norming, during which group norms must be reinforced and renegotiated in order for the group to remain healthy and functional. Groups may even regress into re-storming, in which members evaluate whether the benefits of group life are worth the risks. In extreme cases, re-storming may lead to member exit, the formation of splinter groups, or the dissolution of the group entirely.
I suspect most LARPers can think of of times their own games went through ‘re-norming,’ or when a dispute caused an unpleasant split in the community. However, even these events, painful though they might be in the moment, don’t necessarily indicate the end of the community. As Diana goes on to explain, “If the group survives this crisis, however, it can emerge even stronger, with remaining members who have a shared vision of the group’s purpose and values.”
I was curious how a group focused on roleplay might affect the development of LARP communities in particular, so I had another question for Diana.
Q: Communities are often based on identity, but LARP is built around the idea of adopting an identity not your own. Do you think this has any affect on the development of LARP communities?
Diana: Having so many identities at play may just accelerate everything. As I said above, as players retire PCs and bring in new ones, it can cause the community to shift gears often, which can have mixed consequences. I would also argue that taking on other identities can cause meaningful attachments to form more quickly, not less. You get to know other players on a deeper level because of the intense and often fantastical situations you are thrown into in-character. For example, being battle buddies and sharing in victory and in loss can be a strong bonding experience. Due to bleed (emotional reactions carrying over from IC to OOC or vice-versa), these connections can rapidly forge strong OOC friendships. Also, since many PCs are distilled versions of themselves, IC interactions can be very informative about their personalities.
I had a similar question for Joel, though I worded things a bit differently to reflect his experience as not only a social scientist but also as Plot Staff.
Q: As someone who’s studied both social science and led a LARP, you enjoy a very unique perspective. How do you feel that being a social scientist informs your take on LARP, both as a player and a member of Plot Staff?
Joel: I think that social science research is particularly informative for collaborative efforts such as LARP. And I do believe that my training as a psychologist makes me a better staff person and player. One of the major ways in which I feel its influence is the way it causes me to check my initial reactions and examine people’s behavior more critically than I otherwise might.
For example, on the whole, people are more likely to attribute someone’s behavior to underlying personality traits than they are to the situation. So, when I see players engaging in a particular action (e.g., stabbing a defenseless enemy spellcaster), my gut reaction is to peg them as a particular sort of player or character.
But, by being aware of potential biases in my thinking (e.g., the curse of knowledge), my training forces me to consider that I have a different (and, as a storyteller behind the scenes, often better informed) perspective than my players, and their actions may be due to situational factors—such as failing to receive information crucial to the situation at hand (e.g., they didn’t know a ritual just depowered the spellcaster and she was trying to surrender).
Whether or not we realize it, we engage in community-building (or community-destroying) behaviors every time a game forms. Game staff, as leaders of the community, are crucial in guiding this early process.
My next set of questions were about forming a LARP community. I was especially interested in Jesse’s answers, as he had experience with several different LARP traditions at the time he started his own game, Dying Kingdoms.
Q: When you first started Dying Kingdoms, were you cognizant of the fact that you’d be developing a community concurrent with the game?
Jesse: When I started developing Dying Kingdoms, I set out to make certain deliberate choices about the community. I realized, as a result of experience playing in Vampire games and in some fantasy LARPs with bad players, that I needed to set expectations early on about the kinds of play that I wanted to promote. This is why I set out to deliberately make a cooperative game where players are encouraged to contribute to one another, and where all characters eventually reach their stories’ endings.
Q: What did you find to be the most challenging element of building community at the outset? Did those challenges change as the community developed? Do feel like these challenges were unique to your game in particular?
Jesse: For me, the hardest challenge in making the community was just in recruitment. Southern California didn’t really have a combat LARP scene at the time that DK was starting up—it was getting started right at the same time as a couple other games—so there were very few people who knew what it was all about. That meant lots of people were very skittish about participating. Fortunately, I had developed a small amount of positive reputation as a reasonably competent storyteller, so people were willing to give it a try. As folks had fun, they helped to recruit more players.
One of the other difficulties, though not as hard, was convincing people of the value of the retirement system. Many players at first were very averse, wondering why they had to retire their characters or being upset that they were asked to invest so much into a character only to have to put it away once it became powerful. Getting people on board with [mandatory character retirement] was a challenge, but many players had at least a little experience in other games where this had been a problem, and as a result folks were willing to at least give it a try once I explained the idea.
Riffing a little bit on the idea of challenges and communities, I asked Adrianne about any she has personally witnessed.
Q: *What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the LARP community right now? *
Adrianne: Right now, the community is still facing the need to educate the world on the various aspects of LARP and the individuals who participate. …it’s slowly getting better as social media becomes more saturated with resources and discussions. Many community members are still struggling with the challenge of finding their inner strength and confidence to project their dreams and intentions to their own liking, and reject hurtful (harmful?) elements such as theft of concepts or possessions, social discrimination, and sexism.
This is also improving as fewer people are willing to stay in the middle and are less afraid of upsetting someone who abuses. There are LARPers who study law, for example, who have been making a bigger presence in the community - both educating gamers on their rights, as well as revealing various tactics that can be implemented per issue. Other LARPers who are experienced in first aid have been more willing to lend their skills[…] Invested LARPers specializing in psychology and education are able to inspire and advise by presenting examinations of and solutions to real life social dilemmas, as well as more in-depth, accurately portrayed, in-game interactions. Continuing to provide education and support to the community and to those outside of it is the best use of time if one wishes to make a positive difference to and improve the image of the overall LARP community.
In addition to Jesse and Adrianne’s perspectives, I also wanted to get a viewpoint on the Nordic LARP community in the United States. While most United States LARPs are campaign-style and focus on narrative continuity, Nordic LARP de-emphasizes that aspect of play and instead tends towards intense “one-shot” games. And so I turned to Aaron for his take on the Nordic community.
Q: Do you notice any particular difference between the community which forms around Nordic LARP and the communities which form around boffer games?
Aaron: In general, Nordic larpers are[…] extremely inclusive. This isn’t really unusual, almost all larp communities welcome new people with open arms. However, there seems to be one key difference with the Nords: they don’t discourage noobs messing with their systems. In other words, if an outsider came in and screamed “You’re doing it all wrong! Larps should be like THIS!” they’d probably either point to an essay from the 90’s that already did that exact same thing[…] or they’d play the larp and see why the person is making the claim.
They are constantly reaching out to new groups, new people, to get their ideas and take on live action role playing. A group from Norway went to Palestine in 2012 (I think), ran some larps, and then worked with them so the Palestinians could create their own larp events. Rare indeed is a situation where people brand-spanking new to larping are able to design and run their own events within three years with the same level of respect and admiration as one who has been running larps for twenty years. Nor do I see that level of outreach from the American larp community—not that it doesn’t exist, just that I don’t see it.
They take their fun very seriously (as we all do), but they also poke a lot of fun at their seriousness.
I also was curious about Adrianne’s experience as a leader of a community that wasn’t attached to any game in particular.
Q: Is there any noticeable difference between the community which forms around LARP Alliance and the community which forms around an individual game?
Adrianne: Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and online resources like Google, Pinterest, Ebay, Etsy, and Amazon have all made communication, education, promotion, and social connection easier and faster than previously experienced. This expansion has made LARP more accessible as well, and has helped to clarify what it is and what it can be. It is seen as a sport, a hobby, an artform, a lifestyle, an educational tool, and a form of entertainment. Its uses includes classroom education, military and job training, historical reenactment, sports, and entertainment. It’s easier than ever to discover LARP’s potential and to see the variety of genres, realities, stories, and styles which exist.
Of course, the next question was to ask my subjects what advice they had for someone intent on starting up their own LARP community.
Q: Is there something you wish more leaders in the LARP community understood? Do you have any advice to someone trying to build a community within the LARP world?
Diana: Mostly I would like to articulate what leaders are already doing really well. [M]y chapter on group dynamics in LARP (Wyrdcon 2013), identified a number of practices that are consonant with what social scientists know keeps group dynamics humming along. For example, “listen up” and “afters”1 both resemble the restorative circles identified as hugely important for reaffirming community values and allowing informal leaders to emerge. Further, the circular nature of these activities may make players feel connected to one another as a group of equals. Doing this before and after an event likely helps set the stage for emotionally challenging work and ease tension after that work has been accomplished. This work is continued in often extensive online “shout outs,” which ideally serves to both bask in the feeling of community but also highlight what a valuable group member looks like (e.g., someone who helps to create fun, memorable moments for other players). Being cognizant of the important social work that is done with listen up, afters, and shout outs could help leaders to nurture these activities more effectively.
Joel: If you mean advice to someone interested in starting their own LARP, then I’d say reach out to people. I’ve found the LARP community to be one of the most welcoming and accepting group of people I’ve ever known. There are a ton of folks out there with a lot of varied experience, and they can prove a great resource.
If you mean advice to someone interested in starting a community or group within an existing LARP… well, my advice is very much the same: Reach out to people. Find out ways to connect the type of community you’re trying to build with existing structures and people within the LARP. Players love new avenues for roleplaying and exploring interpersonal (character) drama, and a great way to provide this is to tie together multiple people’s stories with an interconnected group.
Aaron: [asked specifically about Nordic LARP] I would recommend communicating with the many Nordic larpers around the world and rifling through their brains. Second, I would read the Nordic Larp book,2 and as much of the literature as you can stand, then pick up some of the scenarios. The vast majority of them are free, and more and more are being translated into English. An increasing number of them are being written by Americans like Lizzie Stark,3 Shoshana Kessock,4 Jason Morningstar,5 Evan Torner & Kat Jones, and Emily Care Boss,6 to name just a few… [T]he book Larps from the Factory7 has more than 20 scenarios ready to go, most with a very low barrier to entry and requirements for GMs. The Stockholm Scenario Festival8 also has a great collection of larps that, if not immediately downloadable, are available by simply asking the designers, who are always happy to see it run again.
Find a scenario or scenarios you like, run them. Some only need three players.
Run more, and invite more people, and have them invite more people.
Adrianne: The LARP Alliance was created before there was unification… within the community… The LARP community now has enough resources and volunteers to flourish on its own. If anyone wishes to create a community resource at this point or to meet other LARPers and try a game, social media sites such as Facebook, Youtube, and Meetup are excellent tools with which to make contact with new and experienced LARPers. Sharing talents, interests, and education has never been easier. Finding a LARP via any of the above online resources will get things started—make contact with a player or owner and ask questions. One can also volunteer behind the scenes, or offer to play smaller roles to learn the system and get a feel for the community. LARPs are happy to assist getting a new player into their first game!
And, of course, the final question!
Q: What do you think is the best thing about LARP/being part of a LARP community?
Diana: I’ve got to have two—forging relationships with people in game that carry over into the rest of my life, and that superlative feeling when disparate threads of collaborative roleplaying result in a really cool In-Character moment.
Jesse: For me, the best part of being in a LARP community is that you’re connecting with other people in a shared hobby that you can all be passionate about, and you can use that as a way to get to know people you might normally not interact with and find a common ground. Hobby communities like this are really a way to know people in a proximate sense in spite of our internet generation’s tendency to rely on virtual connections—like a knitting circle or a classic car group, this is a group of people with whom you share an interest, and you all meet in person to be happy as a group about it.
Joel: Hands down, the best thing about LARP for me is the community of people. To quote myself from a previous answer, “I’ve found the LARP community to be one of the most welcoming and accepting group of people I’ve ever known.” I’ve honestly never met another group of people so quick to welcome me as one of their own and make me genuinely feel welcome within minutes of meeting them.
The social scientist version of me from Question 1 is cautioning me that this may be a case where my personality was actually predisposed to enjoy and feel welcome in a group like LARP. But, from the diversity of the community I’ve witnessed, I feel confident standing by my assertion that the people and community are the best part of LARP.
Aaron: This might change any minute now, but currently the best thing I love about live action role playing is its power to influence and change individuals and society, almost always for the better, even if the process is painful.
Adrianne: There isn’t one “best thing about LARP,” in my opinion. But perhaps I can express my feelings by saying that LARP has incredible potential to fulfill any person’s needs and wants. It assists with mental, social, and physical development. It can be used as a tool and as entertainment. It can challenge or confirm beliefs. It gives people the opportunity to connect and grow by putting themselves in an environment that they might otherwise have not experienced.
I’m very grateful to Jesse, Aaron, Diana, Adrianne, and Joel for allowing themselves to be interviewed!
Community is an often overlooked aspect of LARP, but an element just as important as setting, mechanics and logistics. Cultivating a positive and uplifting community is key to a game’s long-term survival. Whether you’ve just started a game, are in the planning process to begin a campaign or have been on a Story Team for years, keep in mind that while setting and mechanics can initially attract players, community will retain them. Hopefully, the individuals here have provided more insight into how game runners can focus on developing their game’s community and player culture.
Rachel Judd currently lives in Southern California, where she works as an independent game designer and writer. You can see her work at http://stolen-fire.com/ or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The terms ‘listen up’, ‘afters’ and ‘shout outs’ reference social customs used by some LARPs to foster their sense of community. Listen up is the pre-game talk which reinforces the boundaries of the game—including the narrative boundaries (“This game takes place in this city”) and the meta boundaries (“No touching players without their consent”). Afters refers to the custom of many games for the players to meet up after a game has concluded (restaurants being a popular choice) and cement their out-of-character social ties, usually by talking about their shared experience at the game. Shout outs is when one player, either formally or informally, publicly acknowledges the good roleplay of another participant. ↩