When people from outside of Europe talk about the European larp scene, various preconceptions come to mind. However, the European larp scene is heavily fragmented across national and language borders, and its influence is limited. This article is about the larp scene in Croatia—a vastly different larp scene than, say, in Germany or Nordic countries—and its current status in 2018.
The first larps ever held in Croatia, as expected, were fantasy larps. When the Internet gained popularity back in mid-90s, several local role-players learned about this hobby, mainly from American sources. The first larp in Croatia was a chapter of Amtgard—only it wasn’t really played the same way as the US Amtgard larps. It was a once-a-year weekend event, like many popular larps in European countries are. It had a turbulent history and several offshoots, some of which were registered Amtgard chapters, while others were not. In present day, only one larp remains from this period, Rajski Vrhovi—a yearly event still using Amtgard rules and larp structure that’s been used since the early days, although this year has seen little combat, yet plenty of story development.
The structure for this sort of larp has remained similar. Players play one or more groups, with their personal or group stories having little (if any) effect on the general event story. The organizers set up a timetable for the event, which usually starts on Friday evening with parts of the story (“threat of the year”) being hinted at. Saturday is mostly spent wandering around the game area and trying to find and collect necessary items for the main threat-resolution on Saturday evening. On Sunday everyone packs up and goes home. Required NPCs are typically played by organizers and part-time by player volunteers. There are some exceptions to this structure, but most of the time it closely follows the plan above.
These larps once made up the vast majority of the Croatian larp scene. Several organizers organized them as campaigns on a non-profit basis, but transferring the characters and their stories between different games was allowed, and they were all played more or less in the same world. This larp scene peaked twice—once in mid-2000s, when the largest campaign had about 150 players, and for a second time in the early 2010s, when there were several organizers who cooperated, and there were often several larps per month—though most of them of the single-day variety. As mentioned previously, only one larp of this style remains currently.
Two other medieval fantasy larps should be mentioned. A project of mine, Terra Nova, was played from 2012–2015, successfully finishing the first chapter of its story. Yet the second chapter never happened, as proposed changes were very different to what was played before. Elder Scrolls Chronicles is an unofficial Elder Scrolls larp, and is not a campaign—it’s a series of one-shots set in different time periods. The event in 2017 was a major one and probably the closest thing to a blockbuster larp that was organized in Croatia. It was the first event in over two years though—and the future plans for the series are unknown.
The second major category is vampire larps. The first ones started in mid-2000s, but all of them eventually stopped; the current generation of vampire larps was started by myself in 2013. Apart from the obviously different setting and themes, their design and organization was vastly different. Player participation and empowerment in story creation were increased, and organization overhead reduced with regards to the plot. In Croatia they are mostly played as political sandbox larps, with players rarely interacting with the ruleset itself. In 2015, they practically displaced fantasy larps as the most popular campaign larps in the country, and they can still claim that.
And the final campaign larp—still played around here—is a steampunk one, with the organizer producing a steampunk Austria-Hungary setting. It’s typically a light-hearted larp, with politics, action, puzzles, and plenty of mischief involved. One of the more interesting things about it is that every event is unique, experimenting with structure, situations, and even different types of play, such as battles being represented by board games. There’s usually around 2–3 larps per year.
My Izgon project doesn’t fall neatly into any of the above categories. There have been four major event so far. The first Izgon, in 2013, was highly secretive; players had no idea what they were signing on for, except that it would be a pervasive urban fantasy larp with a five-week duration. It had its issues, but for some players it was the most influential larp of their lives. There were two sides, a solution, not a lot of resources, and plenty of mystery. A sequel was made later in the year, Izgon 2, with a far larger group of players all around the world, and a shorter, three-week duration. 2015 saw a slightly different reboot of the first Izgon. 2017 saw the short chamber larp Izgon: The Experiment, as well as a weekend larp Izgon: Ascendancy, a sequel to the 2015 reboot and The Experiment.
Each installment brought several changes to the writing as well as the playstyle. While the first larp relied heavily on secrecy, the same secrecy was not possible for future larps, which had many returning players—and the word spread out to the new players. After the first two events, I was joined as the organizer by the group of players playing the Brokers—who played a faction in the larp which provided some puzzles to be solved, for more goal-oriented players. With the rise of mobile AR games such as Ingress and Pokémon GO, the original playstyle lost some of the uniqueness. In contrast to the earlier larps, Ascendancy was designed openly—each character was a member of at least 3 different types of groups (Guild, Circle, and Origin). It was possible to have someone from a different Circle and Origin in your Guild, etc. Each of these groups had their own groups on Facebook, and some other media such as Discord. Players got access to the groups prior to the larp, in order to cooperatively create relationships and stories for their characters.
And yet these were just the visible characteristics. The best content in these larps—like in most others—were created by players. Izgon motivated some to think in different ways, to question what they’re told (as characters’ backgrounds were written in the unreliable narrator style, so there were intentional inconsistencies), to create in-character art, and more. Since the setting and materials were released under Creative Commons, we had players who created interesting projects such as a board game in the setting and a published young adult novel written from one player’s in-character perspective (which also happens to be the first larp-based novel published in Croatia, as well as to my knowledge the first Croatian YA lesbian love novel). Taken together, Izgon larps were played by larpers all over Europe, as well as in the USA and China, and there was content all over the world map. There are some players who still use their character names from Izgon as nicknames.
One-shot larps (not connected to a campaign) didn’t really exist here prior to 2011. The revolution was actually led by an Italian chamber larp for 6 players, called Love is Blue. It wasn’t very well known in Italy, but in Croatia it was nothing short of revelation, with about a hundred runs so far, meaning the vast majority of larpers played it at least once.
This larp was a direct influence for the Croatian chamber larp scene, which began developing in 2012. It’s currently the largest one in the country, recently outgrowing the vampire larp scene considering the number of events.
Most of these are short larps—around one hour prep time, one hour playtime—playable in almost any space with minimal decoration and props, and reasonably well documented and replayable. They typically feature either pregenerated characters (usually not too detailed, as plenty is left for players to fill in the blanks) or some method of quickly creating the characters.
While fantasy larps played here mostly focus on finding a solution to the problem, vampire larps on the slow rise through politics, and steampunk larps on theatricality, Croatian chamber larps mostly focus on intensity of the experience and emotion. Invariably, they have minimalistic mechanics, or often none at all beyond a few explanations of what is and is not possible.
You can see a similar approach in Arrival at Tau Ceti, where the main focus is getting into the mindset and relationships of people who live together in a very tiny space, and everything that comes with that. There are some tough questions to be dealt with, like would you have a dating life if your only potential partners were your cousins? If every relationship, affair, or breakup was public knowledge? If there’s no privacy or escape, is there a hope for a better future? Who would you be? The problem facing the characters is a backdrop rather than the main theme of the larp, and while it also serves a purpose and focus for more task-oriented players, it’s primarily a way to stir the feelings, hopes, and dreams of characters. Any “solution” to the larp will work, because the journey is what matters— as long as you focus on thinking, feeling, and acting like your character.
Some of our local chamber larps have a specific solution. But most place a hard focus on characters’ emotions. And in a way, they do this better than our campaign larps, going for maximum drama—because the larp is one-shot, there’s no impulse to play it safe for future larps. Players tend to play intensely and with more risk to characters, because that gives the strongest experience, and is more fun for others. All of this is also covered during briefing and debrief, practices we’re getting better at as the time goes on.
The rise of Croatian chamber larps led to two interesting developments. One of them was PoRtaL, the local larp conference. After its first year in Croatia, it started moving around every year, and eventually grew into the regional larp conference. So far it has been organized three times in Croatia, twice in Hungary, and once in Bulgaria, drawing visitors and speakers from a far larger region, allowing us to share our larp styles, knowledge, and techniques. The second of them was Terrible Creations, where several organizers and their friends banded together to form the first constant chamber larp team—and some time later, the first Croatian larp company.
Other Croatian larp organizers run their larps on non-profit basis; in some cases there’s a non-profit organization backing them, in other cases there’s not. The vast majority of the current larp community in Croatia is price-sensitive due to our economy (a feature shared with the rest of the Southeastern European larp community), so most larps keep their prices low and rely on volunteer work. Most larps are either free to attend, or their price is kept under 150 kn (USD $23). Yet, since last year, there have been several higher-budget projects, utilizing local castles. The most expensive one so far was the last Elder Scrolls Chronicles, costing around $100, which is still far lower than the price of most major European castle events; on the other hand, still none of them are for-profit, which is limiting to both the quality of the props and the capability of organizers to reproduce such events. A “school of magic” styled larp has been announced for later in 2018, so there’s local potential for this style of events.
Even though, when we speak about “local”, Croatia is in fact a small country, with a relatively small number of larpers, mostly located in Zagreb. This means that international participation is crucial for most of our largest larps (which by Croatian standards is anything over twenty players). At most international larps in the region, English is used as the lingua franca. Apart from our blockbuster-ish larps, plenty of other larps so far have relied on international participation, such as Terra Nova, Elder Scrolls Chronicles, plenty of vampire larps, and my own Izgon project.
Recently, some new developments have taken place in the local chamber larp scene. Several larps have been created by commission for companies who ordered them—whether as a form of recreation and teambuilding for their employees, or as a form of promotion for their product. Both of these have occurred in several other countries at an earlier time, but it does show potential that this is possible even in a scene which is largely non-profit.
Overall, there’s plenty of larp variety in Croatia considering the size of our scene. Most of these are run in or around Zagreb, however the local chamber larp scene is well represented atvarious conventions (sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, etc.) in Croatia, as well as the neighboring Slovenia and of course the PoRtaL convention. There have been several larps published online, and in English. Yet, as the scene grows, and develops new structures and techniques or adapts them from other sources, some of the old ones disappear.
Only five years ago, the local scene was completely different. Many players and organizers are different as well. We picked up knowledge and experience from other larp scenes, developing some of our own in the process. And I have a feeling that five years from now it will grow into something new again. I guess we’ll wait and see.