Category Archives: LARP

Horror and Gender

This entry was posted in Horror, LARP, RPG, tabletop on by .

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?

This entry was posted in history, LARP on by .

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

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

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). I’m having a hard time finding a centralized page for GameTeX. Below are my best guesses at where the source is and someone describing the system. I have never used GameTeX (although I did use LaTeX during my graduate school days).

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.

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.