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How Designing LARPS trained me to become a better Game Designer

After being in the Game industry and LARP designing for more than 10 years, I can fairly say that LARPs have helped me improve my skills as a Game Designer: making a game for someone else but not you, rythm and flow, designing high level to low level...

I’ve been a Game Designer for 10+ years, and all that time I’ve been designing LARPS (Live Action Role Playing games) just for fun. Quoting the Wikipedia: A live action role-playing game (LARP) is a form of role-playing game where the participants physically act out their characters' actions. The players pursue goals within a fictional setting represented by the real world while interacting with each other in character. The outcome of player actions may be mediated by game rules or determined by consensus among players. Event arrangers called Game Masters decide the setting and rules to be used and facilitate play. 

First I want to say what a LARP means in this article. It might differ from other countries, so here I’m speaking about events that take place in a closed private environment, with outdoors and indoors settings. The duration of the events range from a day to a week, and players range from 50 to 100. I’m also speaking about traditional LARPS, not fully immersive or “Nordic” style.

So after being in the Game industry and LARP designing for so long, I can fairly say that it has helped me improve my skills as a Game Designer. Let me summarize it in several points:


Making a game for someone else, but not for you

One of the first things you learn when you start working as a professional game designer, is that the game you design should be targeted at a certain audience, and every decision should be made taking in account that. That means that even if you don’t like soccer, sports games, or children games, you have to make your best to understand what is what your players like, have fun with or hate. But when developing games, most of the time you are pretty far from your players. So sometimes is easy to forget to chose them before you, and you can make bad decisions. For example, when designing Hello Pocoyo! a Nintendo DS game, we had a mechanic consisting on blowing near the microphone to make a balloon fly. We implemented the mechanic having the development team as testers, and it worked perfectly. But when we handled it to kids, they almost suffocate when trying to make the balloon move. Even if we had lowered the threshold, it was impossible for kids.

When designing a LARP, you can use two approaches. The player requests a character, and the game day you handle her or him a background, a set of abilities and a list of objectives… That usually ends with a player having to play something that is not what he or she expected. You can be lucky, but usually not. And in a LARP, if a player is not happy with what he has, he could just be bored and stop playing (as in a computer game) but that also leads to other players being affected because all characters have their objectives linked in one way or another.

So another approach is having the players fill a form when they request a character. They know the setting of the game, but they get to chose how they want to play it. For example, we let them rank from 1 to 5 things the things that they would like to experience in the game: horror, adventure, exploration, social, love…

Then we keep a close contact with them all along the process, exchanging mails or even meetings in person where we discuss details of the character: motivations, goals… In that way, when the day of the game arrives, they know perfectly what their characters are, and what to expect. And while they play, the challenges and situations have been tailored perfectly to them. Because if a player is happy and active, it will be reflected in the rest of the players too, improving the experience for everyone. And that leads to players that would be happy to join the next edition of the game.

So what we can extrapolate to videogame design? You need to know your players: plan focus test regularly with them, listen to what they want, what they don’t like, suggestions, and try to learn from that. Because if every player that tries your game doesn’t understand or like something, or gets blocked at one point, that is the Game Designer’s fault, and something in need of fixing.


One shot game

Imagine that you design your game from scratch, and the only thing you’ve got is the GDD (Game Design Document) and some assets. And you don’t have the chance at all of testing or seeing the game till is launched. The only thing you’ve got is your imagination and trying to figure out how things would work in the game. I don’t know you, but to me that is a terrifying feeling. So many things could go wrong! In fact so many things go wrong when you develop a game!

But in a LARP, when you launch the game, is like toppling the first tile in a domino show, and hoping that the following tiles will fall in order. You only wrote the character sheets, though about events along the game, and created items for the puzzles. Once the game is live there is a chance to make slight changes in the plots, but if you didn’t plan everything carefully, the event can be destroyed by an unbalance and you get 100 angry players that paid their fee and spent a lot of money in costumes. The best thing to do is design everything carefully, and try to picture the outcome of the challenges, the difficulty of the puzzles, and if possible to test them.

So working as a LARP Designer trained me to picture game situations in my mind and try to look for every problem that might appear.


High level to Low level

When you have a large number of players, and you are following what I stated in the previous points, you need to be very careful and organized. So if you want to create an interesting game, where everybody is going to have the same “importance” from the player point of view, you need to have a global picture of everything.  Everybody has paid his or her fee, so they demand to have the same amount of fun, whatever it means for each player. So you if you have a medieval game, the lords and ladies of the castle should have the same amount of fun than the beggars, the tavern owner or the guards.

And the only way of doing that is to plan carefully every plot, or puzzle from high level to detail. You just allocate every player in the high level plots, and then, once everyone is more or less placed somewhere, start working on personal details, subplots and so on. That is the only way to keep a clean and balanced way of working.

That also means that documentation at that point should be schematic and useful. There is no need of writing long documents when everything can change. Use charts, mental maps, links bullet points… everything that can help you get a glimpse of the whole game at once, and move the information quickly. For example, in my current project, we have a document where we have every mechanic listed and the main levels of the game. We are able to move them around to plan which one will be present at which part, and have the whole game at a glimpse.


Rhythm and flow

When you are creating a long LARP game, you have to plan the rhythm very carefully. There is nothing worse than seeing some players bored because that means they have nothing to do, and they lose interest. And that is your fault as a Game Designer. You have to keep players engaged for a whole day, and that means that you have to plan ahead that they don’t solve their puzzles too quick (and then have nothing to do for the rest of the game). Also, that they don’t have too many things to do, because they can be overwhelmed with tasks and stressed.

So the best thing to do is plan events linked to the plots: lock plots with them, or just be tense or fun moments to engage bored players. Keeping a clear idea of the rhythm of the game, and alternating calm moments with tension, or funny ones, will keep the players engage for sure.

Every time I plan to design a level for videogames, I always picture the rhythm in a graph to keep track of every moment. You can see where the player is allowed to explore or to rest, when his abilities are tested or where we place some combat. At one glimpse you can check that you alternate calm moments with stress moments, keeping the player’s emotions and energies in a controlled environment.


Fast decision making

So the game starts and you think you can just sit and relax watching the players walk around playing their characters. But not! As I said before, once the game starts, is like a domino tiles falling one after the other. And with human beings, you can plan everything but they will figure out something that you didn’t even think before. So you need to be ready to improvise, and make fast decisions, taking in account that this new decision doesn’t interfere with the rest of the game and breaks another thing.

So it trained me to be bold, and evaluate the odds, resources and make decisions fast. This is very important because most of the time, in the middle of the production process there are events that we can’t control, and that need the team to react quickly and take hard decisions. It could be a shortage of funding, a key member of the team leaving the company, a publisher wanting something completely different from the game… You need to think calmly, evaluate the choices and make a quick decision. As I designer, usually can be cutting some content and even that is painful, you need to think which parts to remove that affect less the spirit of the game.


Evaluate your resources, and design a game accordingly to them

When you create scenes in a LARP you have a lot of limitations. Money, space, technology… You can imagine a monster in the woods, but unless you have the resources of a Hollywood movie, that monster will probably look funny and instead of scary. So what you should do is to be aware of your resources and use mood and ambience in your favor. Suggest and let the players fill the gaps. That is why if you want to put a monster in a game, is better to do it at night, in the forest, doing noises from the distance… and almost never showing the monster itself. Another problem you can face, that happened to me recently, is having a large terrain, lots of players but few Game Masters. That lead to Game Master’s exhaustion, and we weren’t able to track the status of the players leading to a failure in game rhythm.

So when you make games you should take that in account too. You have limited resources, abilities and manpower. Keep that in mind, and set a nice mood that lets the player’s imagination fill the gaps that you can’t with technology. And even perhaps considerate if that scene is suited for your game. Also, design a game according to your team size, funding and experience. It’s better to try to make a smaller game that you can achieve, than trying to do something that you are not going to be able to finish.


And last but not least… Design every game you can! Every experience counts!

This post is about LARPs, but I believe that every creative act has something to add to your Game Design experience. When creating something, you have to learn to keep that knowledge and apply it to your career.



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