Technology for Writing Larps Collaboratively Online

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Sometimes you want to write a larp with other humans who are nowhere near your physical location.

I’ve previously posted about Larp Writing Software, but that was more of a roundup than an analysis of each tool. This post is a summary of tools I have used for working with others, had suggested to me specifically for online collaboration, or evaluated myself with remote collaboration in mind. 

If I missed something that you’ve used to write larps at a distance, drop me a comment below and I’ll add it. 

Brainstorming and Idea Management

There are many, many online tools for brainstorming, mind mapping, and managing large projects. In the past I’ve mostly used Google documents and spreadsheets in Google Drive, but those won’t let you do more than make lists or build your own spreadsheet tools. 

IdeaBoardz is the only free service I’ve found so far for making notecard / post-it walls collaboratively for brainstorming that doesn’t require a login. It can be accessed by url without any login for the board creator or editors. It doesn’t appear to have much in the way of export capabilities, but might be helpful for initial brainstorming of ideas that you later transcribe somewhere else. 

A friend suggested Trello to me for brainstorming and project management. It has a free version and offers relatively inexpensive paid plans. I haven’t tested this tool.

Collaborative Writing

Google Drive is the gold standard for concurrent online editing in real time smoothly and this is a killer feature when it comes to writing larps together. This is the primary reason that most of my games are written in Google Drive. 

Drive is free up to a relatively generous storage amount. Personally I have a paid Google account in the hopes that it will give them more reason to never kill Drive. But with Google you never know. Paid plans start at about $30 / year. Drive has complex sharing permissions, including the ability to share things by url with editors who are not logged into Google. 

Microsoft’s OneDrive allows for concurrent editing and has a web client for desktop machines. They only support the standard Microsoft file types (doc, Excel sheet, PowerPoint presentation, a “OneNote notebook”, some sort of form) and plain text documents. I haven’t used OneDrive to co-write a large project for several years, but some experiments with the help of a friend suggest that Microsoft’s native types have reasonable online editors that can handle multiple people at once. Editing text files requires explicit saving, so that won’t really work with multiple people concurrently. If you’re willing to use Microsoft’s native formats and their webpage this is a reasonable way to do collaborative writing and editing. I have not tested OneDrive’s app to see if it handles editing gracefully. 

OneDrive has a free version with several GB of storage. Paid plans start at about $2 / month. OneDrive has complex sharing permissions, including the ability to share things by url with people who aren’t logged into OneDrive. 

Dropbox has a local version that integrates with your file system, an online interface, and an app version for devices like tablets and phones. The file system version and the app do not handle concurrent editing gracefully. In the case of the file system version, your changes can stomp someone else’s and you will not be able to see each other’s work if you both have the file open at the same time (your file system and local editor software behaves as if the file is offline!). I find the app (iOS on an iPhone and iPad) nearly impossible to edit in, but maybe other app versions are be easier to use. The web page version allows you to edit one kind of document, word docs, using Microsoft’s “Word for web” (the same tool that OneDrive offers) and that handles concurrent editing gracefully. So if you’re ok with having .docx formatted sheets you could coordinate with other writers this way. 

Dropbox has a free version up to a few GB of saved documents, which is plenty to write multiple larps. Paid plans start at about $10 / month. Dropbox has security control to share viewing and editing of files, but sharing by url only allows for viewing, never editing. 

If everyone in your team is comfortable using source control like git, you can write a larp together that way. It wouldn’t be my first choice and I absolutely wouldn’t inflict this software on anyone who isn’t already comfortable with the tools involved. 

Both gitlab and github will let you have private repositories in their free plans if you’re concerned with your materials being publicly visible. 

Some online wikis can also handle editing concurrently (since they’re meant to be used by physically separated editors in the first place), but I’ve not tested the exact ones that are available online or for free. I haven’t worked on a larp via a wiki for many years. 

Many systems that can handle multiple editors (like source control or online wikis) don’t always handle collaborative editing gracefully. Often you can’t see other people’s work until they save it (check it in / push it / whatever) and different systems will have different “merging” behavior for handling the situation where two people are editing things in the same place at the same time. This can get frustrating and painful really fast. Make sure you know how you’ll need to use the tools to collaborate with co-writers before you commit to a more complex system. 

Talking to Your Co-writers

You’re going to want to talk to your co-writers. Some communications might be fine with email or text chat, but most people will want to have audio or video chat available at some point in the writing process. 

If you are working with a small team (5 or fewer writers) almost any audio or video chat program should serve your needs. If you want details on the systems I’ve looked at head over to my post about software for running larps online

The TLDR summary is: I would highly recommend Discord for text and voice chat and Zoom or Google Meet for video chat. I’ve been told that Discord has improved their video chat a lot since early 2020: so it may be more usable than it was when I last tried it. 

For anything other than the briefest, most casual chat you will probably need a full computer available rather than a phone or tablet. It’s difficult to take or look at notes and have a video conference on a phone. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when setting up for audio or video chat: 

  • For audio communication:
    • Use headphones if possible. They cut down on noise and while most modern systems can avoid causing audio echoing, it will still happen sometimes (especially if your environment is noisy).
    • Try to find a quiet space. Close doors to block out other people or animals and avoid large echoing rooms if you can. Turn off loud fans or air filters if possible, since background white noise can make it a lot harder for you to be understood. 
  • For video communication:
    • Have reasonable lighting. Avoid bright backlighting or sitting in a dark room. Even lighting from the front will make you easier to see clearly. 
    • Put the video display on whatever part of your screen is nearest to your camera. This way when you are looking at the other people in the video chat it will look to them like you are looking at them, rather than randomly off into the void. 
    • Avoid distractions behind you. If your space isn’t conducive to focusing on you in your video, hang a temporary curtain or sit in front of a wall. Avoid having a TV or other moving screen in your background at all costs. (Artificial backgrounds can help as a last resort, but they are often distracting in their own ways, especially when they fail to green-screen around you correctly.)

Communications Software for Running Online Larps (LAOGs)

This entry was posted in LARP, tools & techniques on by .

This was written in November of 2020 by Eva with help from Quinn. Some of these details may have changed since then.

This post was updated in late November of 2020 with more details based on feedback I got about the original post.

This post was updated again in February of 2022. Most notably the pricing and free offerings of some of these systems changed.

Services are listed roughly in order of the ones we are most familiar with to the ones we are least familiar with. If you have opinions and experience with ones we haven’t looked at please leave me a comment!

A quick accessibility note: I have been told that Microsoft Teams and Zoom are the most accessible for blind and deaf people. Google Meet is also somewhat accessible for the deaf. I have not tried to test the accessibility of most of these systems first hand.


  • Breakout rooms let groups split apart from the central chat room into separate video chats.
    • There’s lag when people change rooms (a few seconds).
    • It’s easy to accidentally hang up when you’re trying to just leave a room.
    • Rooms can have time limits (both a timer when the room ends and a buffer after that for when people get kicked out). It shows a timer on the screen to remind players. Once set, the host can’t reset the timers for a room.  
  • There are several models for how people get in and out of breakout rooms.
    • In the default mode, only the host can move people to and from rooms.
    • If everyone involved has Zoom 5.3.0 or later, the host can set up breakout rooms to be open to participants to jump in or out as they like. This can let you set up video chat spaces analogous to a divided/large physical larp space. 
  • It’s trivial to change your display name as often as you want and into anything you want.
  • There’s a user option to hide non-video participants. (This can help with immersion and limit distractions, especially with the GM checking in silently on small rooms.)
  • Backgrounds are a double edged sword, they can be super cool, but can also be buggy, distracting, and weird. People with older hardware may not be able to use them at all.
  • Has global text chat and the ability to privately text chat with people who are in the same room as you. Has some options for host broadcasting to rooms and asking for “help” from the host.
    • Does not have per-room chat and you can’t direct message people who aren’t in your room.
    • The host can send messages into breakout rooms, and that appears over the screen rather than in text chat.
    • Breakout rooms also have a button of “request help” that will message the host. 
  • There are “raise your hand” and “applause” buttons that users can use to tag themselves with icons. 
  • Supports push to talk. Uses the spacebar to temporarily unmute if you’re muted and zoom has focus. This can help folks with bad audio take part without destroying your audio quality for everyone. 
  • Generally handles poor connections gracefully.
  • Has mobile support. 
  • Has gallery view and host can spotlight people. 
  • Has screen sharing (including sound sharing from your computer, easy to screw up the sound part). This can be somewhat buggy depending on what you’re sharing. It generally does not handle sharing videos very gracefully, but still images or slides work ok most of the time. 
  • Free up to 100 participants but limited to only 40 minutes in length. Paid plans start at about $150 a year. You can purchase a paid plan monthly and cancel at any time.

Google Meet

  • Has live, automatic closed captioning that each user can turn on or off for themselves. This is not infallible, but it is easily available and will usually at least get the gist of what’s happening across. 
  • Has gallery view. 
  • Has an associated global chat. 
  • Users can “pin” people to make them big on their own screen. Hosts can’t spotlight people or otherwise control your screen. 
  • Free version allows for up to 100 participants for up to an hour. Paid plans start at about $8 a month and allow meetings for up to 100 participants for up to 24 hours.
  • Paid plans also have access to some Breakout room functionality. (I haven’t tested the exact details of how this works.)
  • Can’t change your profile name easily. You will need to use access without logging in via a Private browser window. Even then you can only enter a name on entry to the chat (no changing it). 
  • Has mobile support.
  • Meet now claims to have significantly more accessibility support than it used to.


  • Hangouts now has basically no video chat. It redirects you to Google Meet if you try to make a video call with more than two people. Thanks Google. :/
  • You can invite people, but can’t schedule group meetings with it anymore. 
  • Very basic. No frills. 
  • Free and no time limit, but everyone needs to have a Google sign in. 
  • Provides audio/video/text chat.
  • Works fine for 2 to 10 people, may get a little tough to use with more than that.
  • Has mobile support. 


  • Mobile or computer support. 
  • It’s peer-to-peer, so when using video it quickly overwhelms people’s upload capacity. For most people you won’t be able to video chat with more than one or two other people without serious problems. Voice only connections tend to work much more reliably, even with many people. 
  • Has push to talk, but the setup is confusing. 
  • Can have multiple audio or text channels. Has permissions that can control who can see or go into which channel.  
  • Moderators can move users from one voice/video channel to another. 
  • You can easily change your display name. Also has a “nickname” which is server specific. 
  • Your avatar is account wide. 
  • Users have control of what channel they’re on and if they join voice chats and which one, etc. So you can use channels as analogs for physical spaces. 
  • Does not have any global audio/video chat. So moderators will need to message people privately, go into each space for announcements, or yank everyone back to a shared space to contact them all at once. 
  • Has mobile support. 

  • Easily handles many people. It’s free for up to 25 people. (Can pay to have up to 500, but it’s per user, so this can get expensive:
  • Computer only, no mobile. 
  • Has a map that you move around on. When you’re closer to people you can see and hear them. Has private spaces (tables, booths, etc.) that can have limited people in them.
  • You have a little pixel avatar who moves around. Your range to see and hear others is around 10x the size of your avatars. Normally you can’t walk through others, but you can use a “ghost mode” to move through things if you get stuck. 
  • There is a virtual space. You at least have more tools for gauging how people are interacting before approaching. 
  • You can gather people up to do things like briefing. There are options for broadcasting to a crowd. 
  • Has global chat and per-user chat. 
  • Has a find feature that gives you a path to get to other people. 
  • Users can set and change their name on the fly. 
  • In a crowd it’s hard to use the text to see anything.
  • The avatars are super tiny and hard to identify as people. You can pick an avatar, but there’s not that many and it’s a little irritating to select then. 
  • By default it’s a view of the map big with a small ribbon of videos, but how many you see depends on how big your screen is. You can scroll, but it’s not graceful.
  • You can switch to a gallery view with 9 people at a time. 
  • Really large maps can be overwhelming and people can get lost. 
  • Has spotlighting for a moderator or some they put in the spotlight to present to others. 
  • Moderators can set up custom maps. This can be great for larp, but it is also complex and painful to set up. 
  • (Lots of cool media support, clearly designed for conferences.)
  • Has an “interaction distance” and users set it for themselves. (This could cause weird issues with who can hear who.)
  • For more details of how to use as a user and facilitator see this awesome thing Quinn wrote.


  • Kind of expensive. ($270 per month for up to 1,620 guests, there used to be a 14 day free trial but that appears to be gone now :
  • Has separate “tables” that people can go to. The host can label the tables with text. Tables have a limit of how many seats they have, but a host can exceed those limits to join any table. 
    • There is a hard limit of six people to a table (no table can be larger than that) and depending on the room layout you use there can be a mixture of different sized tables in the room. Each table has one or two hidden spots that will allow a host to join even when the table is full (you can exceed six people at a table this way).
    • The limited table sizes can cause problems with being able to access people in a game. Especially with two person tables, there are likely to be problems with players being unable to contact people they need to talk to. 
    • Each table has a whiteboard by default. The host can lock it or let people who go to the table modify it. You can put video or images on the whiteboard or draw/type on it.
  • There are only a few room layouts that control the sizes of the tables. Users can move around to the different tables freely. 
  • There are time limits to how long you can have the room open at all. (Pretty short, like 2.5 hours for the cheaper versions)
    • You can do a larp longer than the limit if you’re willing to do briefing and wrap in some other system (like Zoom or Google Meet or whatever).
  • Relatively robust. When video breaks, audio usually still works, and you can move around to make it refresh. 
  • No global audio or video. 
  • A host can send global text messages that pop up in a box in the middle of the screen (this is a different interface than the global chat). The pop up is very obvious but will disappear as soon as you click, so it’s easy to accidentally dismiss this before you’re able to read it. There’s no other host broadcast options at the moment.
  • It’s easy to see who is where, even when you’re not at the particular table with them.
  • Jumping from table to table is very abrupt. You can’t gauge how the conversation at the table is going before moving there.
  • Has global chat, chat inside a table, and per-user chat (direct message a single other person). People can use per-user chat to try to communicate before going to a table (can be clunky and slow, definitely a hack). 
  • Has a few views, like room map + bar of small videos or gallery view. 
  • Has a feature where you can “get” someone. The system will tell them you are trying to get them and give them the option of either joining your table or not. Have not tested what this will do if you try to get someone while you’re in a full table, but this is a useful feature for calling a GM during a game. You can also use it to alert other players that you want to talk to them if they’re someone inaccessible.
  • No mobile support.
  • You can create custom maps/floor plans that use your own image. There is an approval process you have to submit your work to and it will take time for them to look at it and approve it. This is being used for one of the games at ExtraCon. I got a preview of the map and it is super sweet.
  • (At the time of writing, I haven’t talked to anyone who tried to host something non-trivial here. I’ll try to update if I’m able to ask a friend about this.)

Microsoft Teams

  • Has a free version with video “meeting” functionality. 
  • I’ve been told this is the best system to use if you need to cope with disability access.
  • If you’re using this with a paid company account it can record to the cloud.
  • Shows your own video only as a thumbnail.
  • Has a classroom view you can use with more than 4 participants which positions everyone together on a common background that looks like a lecture hall.
  • As of writing I have not tested this out. 


  • I have not evaluated Twitch, but it’s mostly meant for public broadcasting streaming, so it’s unclear if it’s even possible to have a private Twitch stream. 


  • Free up to 3 rooms and 50 people
  • Video chat with a spatial component, similar to, so people fade in and out as they move near/far.
  • Does not have a virtual map or avatars, just an open space that you move yourself around. People are represented by either their video or a circle with a letter in it (when they’re too far away to see their video).
  • If you want more than 4 users their paid plans start at about $50 a month.
  • Basically impossible to use if you (or your players) have visual impairment problems.


  • Free and open source video chatting.
  • Has a mobile version. 
  • Can do recorded data streams to YouTube.
  • The publically available Jitis is a non-commercial service, so there are limits to when they’ll be available or how much bandwidth they can share with you. You can theoretically install your own private Jitsi server if you want.
  • I haven’t evaluated the details of how it works.


  • This software was suggested by a friend for use when you want to make a stream of your game.
  • It’s free for about 15 hours of streaming a month and allows direct recording to YouTube (either public or private).

Culture Shock, In-Groups, and Player Bonds

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In my experience*, the beginning 10 to 30 minutes of a larp is awkward and uncomfortable, whether you’re spending it in workshops or unstructured in-character play.

Players need time to feel comfortable in their “new skin” and in the new social environment of the game. They need to develop first impressions and gauge how much other players’ portrayals fit their expectations. Players who are shy or suffer from social anxiety can be badly overwhelmed and sometimes shut down entirely. Players often have difficulties forming emotional in-groups and feeling strongly connected to other players they don’t already know as they’re struggling to acclimate to the world of the game.

I’ve watched my community struggle to find and develop tools to deal with these problems. Historically we’ve been pretty bad at documenting and discussing our tools, so there has been a lot of reinventing the wheel. Two examples of techniques that I have seen, but not seen discussed are warm-up play** and limiting player mobility to develop in-group bonding.

Warm-up play is more limited or prescribed play at the beginning of a game, usually with some writer / designer direction and a limited time period or scene goal. I’ve seen this done with something as simple as trapping two players in a car ride (both in and out-of-character) for 10 minutes before they can join the full game. On the more complicated end are things like very explicitly setting a short scene before the time of the main game and giving each player rough goals or scene direction for what to do in that scene. In all cases the more limited play gives players a less complicated situation to work out their initial unease and awkwardness. It allows them to ease into the water rather than just diving head first into the game.

I suspect warm-up play could be used more generally to acclimate people to changes in culture, drastic character changes (for example character deaths), or to introduce large time shifts gracefully during games as well. The crucial part is that you are limiting and prescribing short periods of play to insulate your players from being overwhelmed by change. Some games that are heavily limiting and prescribing play (such as games with very heavy GM scene setting) are probably already using this effect. I’m definitely curious how different kinds of limitations affect how players feel about their connection to the other players and to the story they’re creating.

I’ve also seen that limiting player mobility early in a game can lead to a very strong sense of in-group bonding, even among players who don’t know each other out-of-character. I first experienced this in a relatively large game (30+) where I was part of a smaller family (about 6 people). We were instructed to have a “family meeting” at the beginning of in-character play before we joined the larp as a whole. The meeting itself wasn’t long and not a lot happened, but it created a strong bond between the members of our family. Since then I have seen this technique used in several games to create different kinds of in-group bonds, both in larger and smaller groups, included bonding with important non-player characters.

I have generally seen designers use limitations on player mobility at the beginning of a game (so during a period of warm-up play), but I suspect that it could be used effectively to change, strengthen, or weaken in-group bonds during later parts of a game.

I recently played Here Is My Power Button and that game uses limited player mobility very heavily during the game to promote bonding between the two types of characters (the humans and the AI) and to form strong bonds between the human / AI character pairs.

I find the psychological bonding aspect of limited mobility fascinating and intend to experiment with this more in my future games.


* I play and write larps, mostly American theater-style games that emerged from the evolving traditions of older secrets-and-powers games. I’ve played other types of games and I’m friends with people who write American Freeform larps and more Nordic inspired games in the USA, so I’m aware that there are different styles of larp in our wider community.

** I think workshopping that happens in some styles of larp is at least partly taking the place of warmup play, but I haven’t seen warm-up play discussed as a separate tool for acclimating players to the game’s reality.


Horror and Gender

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Horror is hard. It can be amazing when it works, and laughably terrible when it doesn’t.

We’ve all read or watched (or in some cases played) horror that didn’t scare us. There are two main reasons why horror might not “work” 1) the horror is poorly executed or 2) the premise of what is terrifying about the horror is something you don’t personally fear.

It took me a long time to understand the second of those. It often gets mixed up with the first one, because it’s very easy to make crappy horror. I’d argue that it’s even easier to make crappy horror than it is many other genres of fiction, because the pacing and structure are so different from most of the fiction we produce in western culture. (If you want a quick primer on why some other cultures may find horror easier, this is an awesome article about Japanese story structure and how it meshes with horror.)

Culture aside, lots of people everywhere create badly made horror. It’s easy to think “oh this is just junk” when you run into something that doesn’t resonate for you. Sometimes that is what’s going on, and sometimes the horror is about things that other people fear, but you don’t. The burden is higher on how well horror has to be written to reach you when the fear it’s built on is not one you already understand.

And I don’t mean relatively simple fears like spiders. I mean things like types of body horror, certain kinds of social dangers, or internal psychological dangers that some people fear and others don’t, often because culture has or hasn’t reinforced how much they are personally at risk. A number of these fears are also taught to children as dangers along gender lines, which leads to a whole different realm of confusion in both understanding and feeling those sources of horror in stories.

A good example in the mainstream would be the Alien franchise of movies. They took a pretty good shot at taking the body horror of pregnancy and translating it so that people who can’t physically bear children will understand why it’s frightening. The monsters in Alien leverage the more common fears of things like pain, mutilation, and death to explain why carrying a child can be terrifying.

Another good example might be the Bluebeard’s Bride RPG which has been getting very promising reviews from male gamers. I haven’t yet played the game, but it seems to have translated a certain kind of feminine horror (to do with social and marital dangers and powerlessness) into something that resonates strongly for men as well as women.

These are the examples I think of first, because horror based on predominantly feminine fears is less common in our media, and these shine through as big achievements. There are also some interesting parallels to be drawn here with male specific fears and the horror that can come from them.

Please bear with me in this next bit, I grew up a girl, so some of this may be explained in a rather painfully slow way for people who understand these fears more viscerally.

There is a subset of American Christian culture that puts men in a very nasty position when it comes to sex and desire. The argument runs that men are weak and women are responsible for making sure that they are not tempted to impure thoughts or acts by dressing or acting immodestly. By contrast, people with this belief system do generally think that self control is a thing that humans can have, and it’s often expected of people far less mature than an adult man.

From the point of view of a woman that belief system is horrifying because it frames anything sexual that a man does with you as your fault, your sin, and the result of your actions, regardless of what happened. You are told that all men have the potential to be monsters, and if you can’t behave yourself, you can ruin not only your own life, but theirs as well.

The thing that I don’t think we consider quite as much is that from the point of view of a man in that belief system, it is even more horrible. Men are essentially essentially being told that they are inherently lustful with no hope of restraining themselves. If a woman arouses them, they are powerless to do anything to stop it. It’s all on the women in their life to make sure they don’t become monsters. The vast majority of men don’t use this as an excuse to prey on women (rather they just feel twisted up and super terrible about themselves), but it does explain the attitude of many conservatives in the US toward unsupervised contact between adult women and men. Because if a man is left alone with a woman who is not modest and good, what can he do? He’s clearly doomed to betray his principles and vows.

This is an extreme, but it’s an extreme that exists among a certain subculture of people. A less extreme version of this belief that “all men want is sex” is far more pervasive, and the fear that as a man you may not be in control when your genitals takes over your brain is something we teach boys in less extreme circumstances too. Not all men in the US are taught that by their parents, obviously, but a lot of them are exposed to that logic.

Why did I go on that digression into male sexual psychology in America?

Let’s go back to my teen and college years playing White Wolf’s World of Darkness (WoD) games.

I graduated from high school in 1999, which was the height of the era of explosive popularity growth for WoD and specifically the Mind’s Eye Theater LARPs set in WoD. I played quite a lot of Vampire and Changeling (and a little bit of several of the other WoD settings) during this time and it was relatively apparent to me that each of the World of Darkness games was centered on different horror themes. Each setting tried to explore different sorts of tragedies and fears.

The thing is, to me most of the settings seemed like only that: tragedies. They were super sad and terrible, but I failed to see the horror in them.

To be more specific, in Vampire of that era you were encouraged to be afraid of the “beast” inside you that could take you over and make you give in to your inherently predatory nature as a vampire and do evil and terrible things if you didn’t have the willpower to stop it.

Does that sound familiar?

It didn’t to me until much, much later. Teenage me mostly though, “that’s a stupid idea, I just don’t do things I know are wrong no matter what I might want” (and for the most part I didn’t). But I’m guessing that for some of the men at the same table that was not “a stupid idea” it was a very real fear about their own control over their sexuality.

Vampire clearly failed to convey to me why the beast was meant to be terrifying, but as an adult I can at least understand what they were going for. It also makes me very curious what else I’ve missed. I’ve played plenty of tabletop horror games that didn’t seem scary to me beyond creepy settings or vaguely startling jump scares.

Were they just mediocre games or was I missing different fears that I didn’t understand?

Why is it called Theater LARP?

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A few days ago James Stuart started a very interesting conversation on Google Plus about the phrase “Theater LARP” (also sometimes called “Theater Style LARP”). He was confused about when and why it is applied. A number of people showed up to talk about the history of the term and it’s use today. Here are some excerpts I found enlightening about the history.

For reference, the phrase Theater LARP or Theater Style LARP is used in the Chicago LARP community I belong to as well as the Intercon community that’s centered around Boston (and it has been used in both for a long time, so many people use it who weren’t in the community before it was invented as a label, including me). In the original discussion I linked to this article by Nat Budin that gives a rough overview of the games the phrase is applied to in the Intercon community more recently.

Vivian Abraham:

I remember back in the day, I ran a Vampire LARP (before the Masquerade rules were out), and we ran it in an actual theater. Theater-style LARP was an easy way to convey to the folks who owned the theater that a) we were not going to be fighting each other with weapons in their building and b) this was an artistic sort of pursuit that they might find interesting and/or generally acceptable behavior. This was in the days way before LARP became as well-known. Most gamers didn’t really know what LARP was, much less non-gaming folks. Improv theater was the common ground we could build on to explain what the heck it was that we were doing 🙂

Mike Young:

ahem  When I coined the term “theater-style” back in the 90s*, it was to differentiate it from “adventure-style” larps. In adventure-style larps, the focus of interaction was with the environment, be it npcs, monsters, or puzzles.  Theater-style larps focused more on the interactions between players.

I believe theater-style was chosen because secrets-and-powers larps have a good deal in common with improv theater without an audience and it was the best term I could come up with that communicated what larp was to people who had no idea what I did with my weekends.

Since then, the concept of larp academia has spread and the definition and terminology of larp has expanded. But that’s why it was what it was back then.

*It is possible that I wasn’t the one to coin the term, but I was the one who popularized the concept of theater-style vs adventure-style and simulated combat vs live combat, and it still bugs me to this day when people conflate them and use theater-style vs live combat, which was never my intent.

Tod Foley:

I began referring to my 1991 piece “Ghosts in the Machine” as a “Theater LARP” years after it was produced, only because I saw other people using that phrase.  But between that and what people were creating by that time, there were numerous differences.  GITM had these features:

– Three distinct tiers of plot: the top plot was a simple two-way branching story; the second tier was a set of modular circumstances for random audience characters to pursue, these were written without resolutions and dropped in whenever the Stage Manager deemed them appropos; the third tier was comprised of very simple “problem-solution” sets which could be “solved” with relative ease.

– Yes, “Stage Manager”.  We also had a Director and a Casting Crew, because…

– Distinct functional differences between “actor characters” and “audience characters”.  The actor characters were semi-scripted and their plot arcs were mostly predetermined (except for the final branch).  Audience characters were pregens which were assigned based on a short Myers-Brigg test taken before entering.

– Cutaways. At key moments in the 8-hour show, the room would go dark and a spotlight would focus on one or more actor characters who would perform a short soliloquy or dialog scene.

In short, I’d say it was closer to theater than it was to LARP, except for the fact that the audience – who were all given characters to play complete with connective plot points, key information and play money – could mess with the story freely and pursue whatever ends they wanted on tiers 2 and 3.  But the word “LARP” wasn’t in popular usage yet.  When the show was produced I called it “HyperTheater”.

Steve Hatherley:

These are my reflections on why we ended up with the term “freeform” in the UK

Mo Turkington:

In my history in the early 90’s we used “theatre larps” as a differentiation from city larps, because they were less self-directed, more framed and often held in the theatre we ran versus the bars/pubs/coffeeshops/streets among the mundies.(Note: this  had no relationship to boffer larps at all, because we didn’t know they were a thing outside of reinactments or SCA, which we didn’t at the time call larp).

Years later theatre-style started to be used to  differentiate boffer larps from non-boffer larps. They included parlor larps, MET larps, single session story larps and theatre experience larps (like, say Tony & Tina’s Wedding or How to Host a Murder events).

In my mind the term is non-functional, and I never use it, for exactly the confusion you describe, but also for the cognitive distortion I get from my past use of the word, and for the stratification loadedway it sometimes is used (in a similar vein to “art larp”).

ETA: I used parlor larp up there retronymically. At the time, parlor larp wasn’t a term in place used to describe the thing I’m describing as being part of the theatre bucket.

Mo also offered this very interesting account of doing live improvisational dramas on stage for an audience in the 1990’s before the people involved would have known about “LARP”.

Mike Young also suggested that I look through the archive of to try to trace the term.  

This is the earliest use I could find of Theater to directly label the type of a LARP (on Febuary 12th, of 1994)!searchin/$20style/ and this is the first use I could find for the full phrase Theater Style (on June 26, 1995)!searchin/$20style/ .

I seriously doubt they’re the first times people in the community used those though, as there’s some discussion about theater and how it relates to the kinds of LARP people were trying to develop earlier in the messages.

Also notable would be that “Mind’s Eye Theater” shows up in messages before people start actually using either Theater or Theater Style as a general type. Wikipedia tells me that the first edition of White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theater was published in 1993.

In my attempt to look through the archive, I also stumbled upon this account of the history of Theater Style LARP written by Gordon Olmstead-Dean in 1998.

(I was amused to see his mention of “The Live Ring Game” which was published in 1973. A game inspired by that booklet has been running pretty much continuously since the late 70’s in Wisconsin and I played in it in college. )

If anyone else has accounts (their own or from friends) of the early use of these terms I would love to add them.

LARP Writing Software

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A quick survey of LARP writing tools I know about (including some I have never used). I put these in alphabetical order and added some that other gamers told me about. If you tell me about another one I’ll add it to the list. 🙂

Stuff designed by LARPers

Akkar: this is from some folks in Norway and from what I can gleen from their page it is a web service you can install on your own server. I have never used it.

Créa’GN: I think it’s an online collaborative tool, but the whole site is in French, and regrettably I don’t read French. (It looks like the site may require a paid subscription for writers? I am having difficulty reading the page, so I’m not 100% sure on this.) I have never used this system.

GameTeX: a LaTeX based system for writing LARPs. If you’ve spent any time writing academic papers you probably either love or hate LaTeX (it is very powerful but not very user-friendly).
Edit: You can now get a copy of GameTex from or a newer fork on
You may also find this tutorial for getting it working on a Mac helpful:

Gender Swap: a tool for managing gender changing LARP characters to match casting needs, by me. This is not a full system, just a markup processing tool for gendering characters at casting time. It supports standard pronouns for male, female, they-neutral, and ze-neutral genders.

Larpwriter: looks like a web page based cloud system that can generate PDF sheets. I know nothing other than what’s written on their page.

NIMS: This is a web page based LARP writing tool with either an online or offline version available. It used to be Russian language only but has recently had an English language release. I have never used NIMS.
A Tutorial for using the system:

Querki: another online cloud service based system by Justin du coeur. Alan saw a demo of this one at Intercon and was super impressed with it. I have never used this system.

Spindle: also a cloud service system, and what I know about it is pretty much what it says on their IndieGoGo page. (As a spinner who uses a drop spindle, I <3 their logo. 🙂 )

Vellum: a collaborative writing tool developed by Nat Budin. It’s an online service based system. I have never used this system.

Stuff for general collaborative writing

Any Wiki System: Any wiki system you like will probably work fine for collaborative online editing as well. I find wikis tedious for small to medium games but some people love them. I’m in the middle of working on a game with Kathleen Leeds De Smet and Katie Zenke via a private wiki.

Dropbox: a cloud storage system for files that can be used to share collaborative projects. When used for LARPs there is the caveat that the version of Dropbox that functions in your file system can’t really handle concurrent editing of a given document (I believe their web system can). The free version of their service offers more than enough space for most writers to store many games. I’ve used Dropbox to write several games collaboratively.

Google Drive: more cloud storage of collaboratively edited documents! Google Drive is great for letting multiple writers concurrently edit documents, but you are stuck with their document format (the exporting capabilities aren’t terrible, but once you export you don’t get to edit collaboratively any more). Managing file organization is a nightmare because they have no tools for anything more complicated that “copy this file.” It does have a nice editing history to let you review other author’s changes. I’ve used Google Drive to write games collaboratively.

OneNote: a cloud storage system for notes that lets you share and collaborate with others. Katie Zenke tells me this works well for working on games alone or with other writers. I haven’t used OneNote.

Scrivener: a writing tool intended for other forms of writing like novels, but can also be used for LARPs. Julia Ellingboe tells me that there are LARP specific templates available for Scrivener and their site confirms that it will hook up to various cloud services like Dropbox to allow for multi-writer collaboration. I’ve never used this software.

Source Control Software: Those of us who are programmers will be familiar with various source control systems like Git or Subversion. To use them for collaboration you need all your writers to be comfortable using something a little more cryptic and technologically confusing. Some source control systems have only command line tools and others have relatively easy to use visual clients. Git is notable because of the existence of GitHub, which will allow you to have a centralized online place for writers to connect their copy of a git repository so you can share your writing easily. GitHub is free, but the things that you put there are (by default) visible to anyone on the web. You can give GitHub money to get a private place to put your stuff. I’ve used various source control systems at work and in my personal collaborative projects.

If you can think of any others I should add leave me a comment. 🙂

How I Cast Small LARPs

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This post was previously available on a private G+ circle.


I figured it might interest people to know the method I use to cast small LARPs with prewritten characters. The community I play in generally calls these Theater LARPs and / or Parlor LARPs*. This is something I’ve developed over several years with the help of Kathleen Leeds De Smet. She came up with the casting worksheet, which I can no longer imagine casting this kind of small game without.

The example questionnaire and casting worksheet come from our game Better Living Through Robotics, which was written at Peaky Midwest 2014 and inspired by the theme for Intercon O (Orbit). We’re currently preparing this game for distribution (by which I mean, I’ve been putting off the prep work I need to do for the last six months and Kathleen has been very patient with me). Hopefully it will be available soon. 🙂

I prefer to pre-cast games to give the players time to read their sheets and plan costumes. I try to get character materials to the players at least one to two weeks before the game is scheduled to run.

In order to figure out which characters to give to which players, I send out a casting questionnaire via email a month or so before the game. The questionnaire gives you an idea of what your players do and, more importantly, don’t want to play.

When I write questionnaires I usually focus on identifying what character traits players might find undesirable. Especially in games where some storylines deal with power dynamics or sexual taboos, I’m wary of giving players roles the aren’t able to embrace. Some stretching of the player’s mind can be good, but having a player shut down entirely because they can’t cope with their character is bad news. I put a lot of my effort into avoiding that kind of catastrophic failure.

Here is an example questionnaire.

For each part of the questionnaire, there are characters it’s most relevant for. For example some characters are written to come face to face with the stuff brought up in the Character Traits section. All characters could potentially be exposed to these themes, but they are more central for a few.

Player responses can also help you identify if a player just should not be in the game at all. Not all games are good for all players at all points in their lives. If I run into someone who has explicitly told me they can’t cope with the content I know will come up for everyone, I generally talk to them (phone or email) and make sure they will be ok in the game. I would rather people didn’t play if the game is likely to hurt them. If they still want to play with things that will push their limits I know to keep a close watch during the game to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed.

The gender and romance questions help with figuring out how you can match up romantic plots. I have been thinking about rewording these questions to be more inclusive, but haven’t gotten around to it. The goal is to let players explore the genders and romances that interest them and ideally make sure that everyone can embrace the roles they’re given enthusiastically. It’s no fun to play a romance plot with someone who shuts you out because they aren’t into it OOC.

I should also note, the example game has characters of non-fixed gender. Any character in the game can be cast as either male or female in any run of the game. I have a script that handles gendering the sheets once the game is cast. The script can also handle ze and they pronoun sets, but this particular game is only written for male and female characters.

Anyhow, once I have all the player responses to the questionnaire, I fill out a casting worksheet to figure out how to best give them things they will enjoy.

Here is an example casting worksheet.

I review each player’s questionnaire responses twice. In the first review I flag characters corresponding to anything the player marked as undesirable (for example 1 or 2 in the character traits) as a bad match for that player. In the second review I flag any of the remaining characters who correspond to things the player has marked as desirable (for example 4’s and 5’s in the character traits) as good matches for that player. After these two reviews I flag any remaining unmarked characters as ok for that player.

Once I’ve reviewed all the players questionnaires that way, it’s a lot easier to look at the rows and columns of the casting grid and see if some characters or players have limited matching possibilities. I won’t give players “bad” matches unless I know the player well and have some reason to believe that they would really like the character and simply misinterpreted the questionnaire (this is exceedingly rare!). I’ve only once ended up in a position where I couldn’t find a way to cast a game.

* The term Parlor LARP was coined by J Li to describe the Shifting Forest Storyworks games. It got awfully popular in some circles to label small games with 5 to 12 prewritten characters in a limited physical space like one or two rooms.

Failure in RPGs and Why I Love Dungeon World

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“If you can’t die then how can winning a combat mean anything?”

Failure and death. Missing blows, losing, running away…. all things that we’re told you must have in tabletop games so that combat is “meaningful.” I used to assume that when people said “meaningful” they meant “engaging and fun” or “like you were a significant part of something difficult and cool” and by that measure most of the games I’ve played have failed miserably at failure.

I have vivid memories of sitting on a couch in a friend’s basement, waiting thirty to fifty minutes between each round of combat. Often my character would attack and miss. We were playing D&D 3.5 and the GM wasn’t great at combat narration, so missing meant nothing happened. Not slightly boring things or confusing things or even bad things… just nothing. I left those games with the overwhelming feeling that I might as well have stayed home.

I would write that experience off as just being just 3.5 or just that GM, but I’ve had similar issues with other systems that present tactical combat for tabetop. Often a miss mechanically means “nothing.” A good GM will give you some narrative fluff, but functionally, you’ve still got “nothing happens.”

I suspect the designers of many of these tactical games see nothing as a neutral result. As a player who suffered from social isolation as a kid, I see “nothing” as the worst punishment I can receive. I want to be a part of what’s happening, and “nothing” cuts me off, erasing me from the scene while others fill the narrative space.

I’ve slowly come to understand that when most people say “meaningful” they don’t mean “engaging and fun.” Most people mean “mechanically challenging.” I think this assumption that games must focus on “mechanical challenge” to be fun or at the expense of fun is damaging to our overall tabletop experience.

Robin Laws (at least as of February, 2012) would have you believe that we need to be miserable to be challenged because our choices are very limited: pure success, pure failure, or partial success of the action we attempted. How we succeed and fail is measured in resource depletion (hit points, healing, etc.) and we can only have fun when we’re succeeding at the appropriate dramatic time after playing a banal resource management game.

The problem with this is that 1) not everyone likes resource management games and 2) most modern tabletop games include a lot of randomness, so players sometimes contribute highly unequally to a resource management task because of random chance that’s beyond their control. For a player the loss of agency in the face of the “power of the dice” can be very frustrating.

A game built to give people spotlight only when they succeed and to let them succeed only when randomness allows encourages powergaming and penalizes players who don’t powergame as much or as well. Powergaming is not my favorite part of gaming.* I like smashing things as much as the next gamer, but I prefer cooperating with other player characters, not getting the spotlight at the expense of others after extensive rules-mongering.

Accepting that success and failure are a pure dichotomy and resource management is the only available challenge implies that the traditional way tactical games were made challenging is the only way games can be designed. Accepting those restrictions seems like a trap. It limits how you can potentially build systems in tabletop games immensely.

The world in a tabletop RPG is very open ended. I’m not saying we need to ditch counting resources for pure narration. But managing resources doesn’t need to be the sole focus of our tactical challenge. Interesting tactics are made up of all sorts of things like planning, environmental factors, and teamwork that aren’t related to counting hit points. That’s without getting into creative use of non-realistic forces like magic.

I’m not saying we should hand out success on a golden platter with extra fluff to dress it up. The real world is messy and often the best way to learn is to work through failures. We build up solutions to climb over lots of little hurdles until we finally solve the bigger problems. That’s far more compelling than instant success!

I read an article about emergency treatment that totally changed how I look at failure from a narrative point of view. Serious complications are unavoidable in a hospital situation, but some hospitals keep more patients alive despite this. The key to their success is in how they quickly rescue patents when things go wrong. As the author put it the only failure is a failure to rescue.

This concept is great for gaming because it allows for bad things that aren’t direct “action failure” (ie. nullifying what you were trying to do), and brings a “raising the stakes” mentality to the table. Things are going to go wrong. If they don’t, the story we’re telling will sound like a boring Mary Sue fan fiction about how our awesome characters are all awesome and waltz in and win while everything is perfect.

When things go wrong, they’re not always predictable, preventable, or even directly related to what you were attempting. You may have stabbed the dire lion exactly how you wanted to, but in the process you also stumbled on her den so now she’s enraged because you’re between her and her cubs!

Acknowledging that tactical complications can be tangential means a “bad” result doesn’t need to block your original actions. This gives you more interesting ways to interact and engage with the in-game world, while leaving the system free to make more nuanced decisions about how success and failure work.

Another thing that’s huge for me at the gaming table is player agency. I want some level of control over my own destiny, even when that destiny is sliding downhill very quickly in a handcart with no brakes. I’m perfectly willing to be the person who stumbles into the lion’s den, if I either came up with the idea myself or have some choice in the matter (like I agree that trading off the stabbing for the stumbling is worth it). Then it feels like a hilarious and deadly comedy of errors, rather than the GM punishing me for something outside my control like a dice roll.

I started writing this post over a year ago and at that point I hadn’t worked out how to solve these problems. I had thoughts, but thoughts do not a full fledged game system make. Between then and now, Dungeon World (built on the Apocaylpse World engine) beat me to the punch.

Which is pretty awesome; I’d rather play and build on what they made than start from scratch! 🙂

Dungeon World has very quickly become my favorite game system and I think it deserves a bit of a love letter to talk about how it solves some of the problems I’ve talked about and makes gaming fun and engaging. It also addressses some of the shared-narrative-reality issues I’ve mentioned before.

A Love Letter to Dungeon World

Dungeon World explicitly defines the purpose of it’s mechanics, individually called “moves”, as being to bring everyone to the edge of their seat. One of the first things the rules book says about moves is, “Tension and excitement are always the result, no matter how the dice land.” Wow, does the design deliver on that promise.

The mechanical system of success and failure has been built with that “tension and excitement” in mind and it’s a stark contrast from systems that are designed with the goal of “simulating reality” or “introducing randomness.” It’s like they took a short circuit past all the things we thought we wanted to the things we needed to have fun, action packed game sessions.

In Dungeon World there are three basic outcomes of almost all rolls. Rolls are generally 2d6 with some modifiers, usually in the -2 to +3 range, and the general outcomes as described by the book are:

The Basic Outcomes

  • 10+: You do it with little trouble
  • 7–9: You do it, but with complications or trouble
  • 6-: The GM says what happens and you mark XP

This system is surprisingly nuanced, because each individual move, be it hacking and slashing through your enemies or trying to talk NPCs into doing things for you, has specific trade offs for those levels. Some of the complications and trouble explicitly include the player making choices and trade offs, giving them agency in how things go wrong or what dangers they expose themselves to in order to get additional advantages.

Some of the moves that relate to understanding and perceiving the world around you have absolutely fascinating trade offs in that they allow you to ask the GM a certain number of questions from a pre-existing list and the GM must give you an honest and helpful answer. Making a call about whether it’s more important to learn “What happened here recently?” or “Who’s really in control here?” can be tough in a very fun way!

I also want to note that the 6- result tends to be amusing and the fact that you “learn” when you fail is more of a consolation than you might think. We often laugh about “learning about failure” when we roll 6- and the GMing rules behind the moves mean that something happens to change and complicate the situation each time one of these failures is rolled. It’s up to the GM to decide exactly what happens, but it’s not a “nothing.” Often the world shifts under our feet in interesting and unexpected ways in these cases.

Dungeon World also makes a point of the fact that the game isn’t about one person at the table dictating to the others. One of my favorite paragraphs in the introduction describes the game as a conversation.

There are no turns or rounds in Dungeon World, no rules to say whose turn it is to talk. Instead players take turns in the natural flow of the conversation, which always has some back-and-forth. The GM says something, the players respond. The players ask questions or make statements, the GM tells them what happens next. Dungeon World is never a monologue; it’s always a conversation.

While moves are triggered on specific player character actions like “attacking someone with a melee weapon” in character, it’s the job of the table as a whole to agree if people aren’t sure when a move is taking place. It’s not the job of the GM to decide and dictate. Dungeon World recommends that the whole table discusses in-game reality until everyone understands and agrees on what’s happening and if a move should be used. I can’t tell you how giddy I was when I read that because it so perfectly matched my mental model of how shared realities are constructed in tabletop games.

As a Dungeon World player, you take a big part in the conversation that determines the in-game reality of the world. The GM is encouraged to ask players questions which define the background facts and history of the world and everyone works together to stay within the existing established facts about the world. The GM is also encouraged to ask players questions about their characters and there are some moves that specifically require you to justify how your character knows what they know. This may sound tedious, but it somehow turns into an awesome organic backstory generator for PCs that accretes over time. Along with the fact that making a starting PC takes like 5 minutes, Dungeon World characters are some of the most dynamic and fun characters I’ve ever seen. They’re simple to make, become deep, multi-dimensional people with surprising speed, and are easy to get attached to.

I especially love the alignment system in Dungeon World. Every character gets a choice of alignments based on their class (different classes have access to different sets) and each alignment comes with an alignment move that reflects something your character is rewarded for doing. An example of my favorite chaotic move from the Thief class is “leap into danger without a plan”. Most of the alignment moves are similarly active and they make the act of being your alignment less being and more doing. There are XP rewards for performing your alignment move, which encourages players to portray alignments in interesting ways.

Dungeon World has an explicit set of three reasons why you play the game: to see the characters do amazing things, to see them struggle together, and because the world still has so many places to explore. It codifies these goals by giving PCs overt bonds with each other that provide mechanical advantages when they work together and grant XP as the bonds evolve over time. PCs also get experience when they learn new and important things about the world, overcome notable monsters and enemies, and loot memorable treasure. At the end of each session you do an “End of Session” move where you get experience for these things and for performing your alignment move during the session. This is a very powerful motivator to keep plots moving, to continue exploring, and to actively portraying alignments.

None of this has even touched on the innovation behind the GM mechanics in Dungeon World and how they encourage putting the player characters and their actions center stage. That’s probably a love letter for another time!

Dungeon World definitely has it’s issues (let’s not talk about the Bard class… *sigh*) but on the whole it deserves the acclaim it’s currently getting. It’s a very different take on fantasy tabletop gaming, focused much more directly on having an exciting, fun adventure that includes and engages all the players. I can honestly say the Dungeon World games I played are among the most meaningful I’ve taken part in… and that’s no mean feat given the number of systems I’ve played.

* If it is yours that’s fine: go powergame with friends who also like powergaming and have fun. It’s not my thing. I don’t think I’m alone in preferring other styles of play.

Which Games are LARP?

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I’ve been learning more about Nordic LARP over the last year and over all it’s been very informative. One thing that’s irritated me is the insistence that a big swath of Nordic games are not LARP and that people on this side of the pond shouldn’t call them LARP.

I should preface this by saying I’m not trying to prescribe what the Nordic community should call their own games. That’s none of my business. What’s bothering me is when people take part in the Nordic LARPing scene, come to another community, and get upset that community doesn’t use words and concepts the same way. Words are not absolute. They only have meaning as far as that meaning is agreed upon by the community using them. While it’s good to know how the Nordic community is using them, that doesn’t define how everyone else uses them, nor should it.

In the community I take part in (the greater Chicago LARP community, which crosses over a lot with the Boston community) LARP means pretty much anything where you’re roleplaying a character and physically acting out your character’s actions. That’s not the same definition the Nordic community uses and it classifies some of their games differently than they do. While we should know and be sensitive to their definition while talking about their games, I don’t think we have an obligation to change our definition. In our community those games are LARP; how we see them is unlikely to change because we have a different view of what LARP means. It’s not productive or respectful to tell us that we need to change our definition to match that of another community.

The corollary to that is authors don’t get full control over how people classify and interpret their games. That’s just as true for things I write as it is for things written by the Nordic community. There are real cultural differences here that cause us to see games through different eyes. We should try to understand our differences so we can communicate effectively, but assimilation isn’t the “solution” to their existence.