Surviving the Experience of Running a Pervasive Larp (5×5 #7)

New month, new Monday – new compilation of 25 hints, tips and tricks about larping. Before we dig in, though, let’s just keep in mind that I’ve only played two pervasive larps so far and co-GMed one (Astra Larp) – so this is definitely just a start.

Still, while the Astra experience is fresh, I wanted to note down observations and general ideas about running a pervasive larp – based on things my co-GM and I did well and things we didn’t. One of the stuff I valued the most about Astra was that we survived – not only as sane GMs, but also as a couple, even though were ready for the worst, knowing how hard it was gonna be, with the pressure, tight schedules and the general requirements of running a game of twelve days straight. So, we must’ve done at least something very, very well…

One / The ideas

#1 Make sure you’ve got the right inspiration. It could probably be said another way – know why you’re signing up for this rollercoaster hell of a project which no one in their right mind would dare work on. Still, the word “inspiration” got stuck in my mind couple of years back, when I’ve seen firsthand what lack of proper inspiration can do in larp design (there’s a difference between hommage and plain ol’ plagiarism, after all). You can create stuff from scratch or learn from the masters, but just make sure you know where your ideas are coming from – and, even more importantly, admit what inspired you in the first place. We all live in a great universe of derivative works – and not all of our hommages need to get published in the form of fanfics – some can actually be lived out in pervasive larping.

#2 Make it fun for yourself. Longer lasting, more complex pervasive larps – the kind we all drool over – are one hell of a job, and if you find a way to make it really, really fun for yourself from the very start, it will pay off later. It’s also worth noticing that, as with everything else we do in life, if you run a larp you’re passionate about, your players will recognize it and respond well to your drive. While it’s not my intention to imply anyone would run a larp they don’t find at least a bit fun for whatever reason, I vividly recall the first few “pervasive” scenarios the co-alpha and I had constructed for our yet-unnamed (but already nicknamed Jo/Žo) pervasive project – and, even more, the impact of the eureka moment when we hit on something we both found fun and intriguing and exciting at the same time – something that later turned out to be one of the best projects of our lives.

#3 Be aware of your game’s position in the whole of your (local or global) scene. Don’t claim you’re first at something if you’re not. Don’t deny your players’ previous pervasive experience (or lack thereof) – incredibly important! Don’t go megalomaniac if you (or your sleeping pattern) can’t sustain it. Don’t be afraid to be publicly recognized as a beginner or a GM experienced in some other larp form – all of our different experiences add something special to the mix, a different view, a way to expand the larping scene just a little bit. Astra larp had less players total than most Croatian pervasive larps (on average), but it sure as hell makes us no less proud – it’s just a different type of a game, one that offered previously unrecorded storytelling and gamemastering options. I honestly believe every larp counts – but honesty counts, too.

#4 Know what’s your preferred outcome. While brainstorming the larp out (we did that a lot… like, really a lot), my co-alpha/co-GM and I wrote down what we wanted our (future) players to experience, what we didn’t want them to go through, and the general direction in which we wanted the larp to go. Although in scripted, one-shot pervasive larps open ends are probably not something many people go for, there were always possibilities – what if one group gains a strong upper hand, what if a story element stays unresolved until the end etc. Had we not already decided on what we wished the ending to be like, it could’ve been a totally different experience – and a totally different larp. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you should make sure to ask many questions.

#5 Be sure you can live with the possibility of a total, complete, utter fail. As adults, we’re responsible for our reactions at what the world offers us – and as such, we should be aware of how we react to failure, right? If you honestly can’t say you’d be okay if your larp went downhill with a bang or – sometimes even worse – without a sound whatsoever, don’t do it. If you can’t stand the idea of the larp branching out into a direction you didn’t think of – don’t do it. If you know, in your heart, you wouldn’t be able to look yourself in the eye – and try another project, afterwards – if your larp ends up as a really bad Twilight fanfiction – well, don’t do it. It might just mean you’re not ready – or that you should do something smaller first.

Two / The creation process

#1 How many GMs, how many players? The two of us concluded, quite early into play, that Astra was basically a four GM larp – two people behind the screen, one in the field, one in the production & tech department. (Well, now we know.) The larp’s scale is not something you can really grasp while in the pregame phase and the GM to player ratio depends on many things – mostly, I’d say, in how much real time communication there needs to be between the players and the NPCs/ingame entities. While designing Astra, we did one thing well regarding this – limited the number of players in our heads and erred a bit on the side of caution, designing a larp a bit smaller than we could have done, since we were, after all, a team… it paid off (with interest), once the game really started in all its intensity.

#2 Make as much content as possible before the larp starts. (Oh, it all sounds so good in theory, doesn’t it?) One of the fun parts is adjusting stuff along the way, but you’ll do well if you spare yourself the time and effort needed to produce content while you could be spending both on running the game. Many of us are spectacular procrastinators – not all, mind you – and at least we should make sure to make the most of the time before the game starts. Trust me on this (and don’t ask me how I know…).

#3 Get help when and where you need it – be it tech support, outside partners or whatever your game needs. In Astra, it was contacting literature specialists because of the story’s requirements and recruiting friends in making (and acting in) some of the ingame videos. For you, it might be as random as reaching out to family members to borrow special tools for propmaking or stalking the local aquarium to see who exactly you need to ask about that obscure fish which plays an important role in your story. (Don’t blame me – blame Castle’s decapodiformes.) Don’t be afraid to borrow knowledge when you feel like you need it – collaborative storytelling oftentimes means collaborative storywriting, too…

#4 What-if scenarios are your friends… more than when you’re writing a novel. Oh, both the co-alpha and I have written novels – and if I recall correctly, her editor actually used to ask her “what-if” questions all of the time – which is why we knew we had to play the “what-if” game ourselves. Some of the scenarios didn’t ever come into play – some of them, on the other hand, landed in our laps unexpected due to some creative players – and most of the time we found the exact right answer to the puzzle at the exact right time. Who knows what would’ve happened if we didn’t play the “what-if”?

#5 Create flexible and adjustable pacing for the storyline. When you’re going to release a piece of information into the game, what if the players go too slow, what if they go too fast etc… none of that’s a given in pervasive larping. (We’ve actually asked ourselves all of these questions before the larp started!) It’s just not the same when you run a pen and paper RPG, or a chamber larp, or any game where your players are in you line of sight most of the time and the world doesn’t, basically, exist outside of the larp’s physical boundaries. Life happens, and larping happens, too – and in pervasive larping, just as in everyday life, you can predict some events, but never all. Whatever you do, don’t freak out – adjust, adjust, adjust…

Three / Going public

#1 Commit to your own game. Many of your players will know what pervasive larping means, and they will (probably) have high expectations. Others will, hopefully, be complete newbies – and newbies, as talented as many of us were for roleplaying, deserve a little extra info before the game, which is going to take time and care if you want to introduce them to larping properly. If you’re doing it – if you’re really doing this pervasive larp thing – make sure you’re able to see it through till the end. Life happens – no one expects you to GM, say, with a broken leg (although we did have one player in Astra who basically ignored a sprained ankle midgame) – but in normal circumstances (when you’re healthy and sane enough) you should do your best to be able to deliver and see the game through to the very end. “I just don’t feel like it” doesn’t really exist, not when you have an ensemble of players who have committed (probably) a ton of time, effort and love to your project. Be completely positive you can handle that kind of pressure – before the game as well as while you’re running it.

#2 Try to at least guess who might be interested and plan accordingly. You can always create your larp in space vacuum, with ideas that interest only you, with a planned pace which no one with a day job or a family could follow, with a participation fee no player on your scene could pay – but then, my friend, you’d have a lovely larp which would never leave your screen (or paper, if you’re the old fashioned type). You probably already have a good idea about who your scene consists of – find something which many of the players might consider fun, write it into your game and enjoy!

#3 Decide on how to present the game to potential players for the best impact. In games with at least a bit of surprise in the story, you can never tell people exactly what to expect, but give them at least a few hints in advance – and no, it’s not just a question of writing a good marketing copy. One of the things we did really well in Astra, judging by the outcome, was the initial application form which, among many other things, included three puzzles and cyphers which took players quite a lot of time to solve. We didn’t just offer puzzles, but asked the potential players to comment on their personal solving process, thus getting a glimpse into their way of thinking. Although the puzzles were by no means perfect (neither in design nor their use in helping us create the larp), we got a good idea about who among the players was willing to make an investment of time and effort to crack them, how hard the majority of the cyphers in the game itself should be and – we believe – the sole task of solving them probably put off some players who wouldn’t have enjoyed Astra in the first place. (Not to mention it was an awesome field test for our cypher and puzzle person – me – especially in the Hobbit book code fiasco…)

#4 Include the players ideas and wishes into the narrative. Most of the time, when you ask your players what their ideas are, they will tell you – and, as the logical next step, they will help you in making the larp closer to their hearts. Some of the initial players’ ideas about their characters (that we gathered in pregame online communication and – oh, yes – over coffee) created incredibly lively subplots later on in the game. Also, to say the least, as a GM I’ll probably never forget the James Bond movie theme that a player played for us and the private investigation office we created for another two players after asking the three of them the simplest question of them all – what does “spy game” mean to you?

#5 When choosing the online marketing platform, be sure to make it as accessible as possible. The trend of organizing larps via Facebook groups is basically the current norm in Croatia – and it works just fine, from what we’re seeing – and just a couple of larps have their own website (on free on purchased domains and hosting space). (Wait a second, it’s actually a meme…) Still, what happened to us while organizing Astra was that people. actually. googled. us. Rather, they googled their version of “larp in Croatia” and/or “larp in Zagreb” – and one of the things they found online was, well, Astra’s production blog! Random. Newbie. Larpers. (I mean, how awesome does it get? Not to mention all of the ones who applied for the game kicked some serious ass in the larp itself…) Sometimes, you have to reach a bit further than you think – to people with no previous experience, to people you’d have never guessed were, actually, awesome at pervasive larps, etc.

Four / Running a pervasive larp

#1 Get tons of sleep before the game (or suffer the consequences). Ummm… no. I’m not going to explain this one.

#2 Accept that you’re about to become an improv ninja. If the idea of improvisation scares you shitless, you might want to reconsider your idea of running a pervasive larp. Pervasive larps are like hydras, or mazes, or choose your own adventure novels with an innumerable amount of writers for all the separate subplots. Whatever you want to accomplish, whatever hard checkpoints you have in place for the larp, none of it’s really going to matter once the players’ ideas and energy start kicking in. You’ll have to adjust, and you’ll have to adjust fast, and the whole time you will still have to bee that smooth, competent, organized GM on the other side of the screen. If you’re not really a multitasker, if you think good plans are always good enough, if you think running a pervasive larp is like running your regular dungeon crawl… think again. Think hard. (On the other hand, if you’re this creative adrenaline junkie / writer / jack of all trades / larper, you’ll probably have the time of your life – like both of us had, in Astra.)

#3 When shit blows up (and it always does, even if it’s just the small stuff), repeat after me (to anyone in front of you or on the other side of the screen/line): thanks for the info, we’re in the middle of dealing with it. We actually didn’t manage to do that in Astra on more than one occasion, and it cost as a whole lot of frustration, to what purpose? You’re probably already dealing with it anyway – if you’re not, you might have a bigger problem than you think – and you just have to keep your head calm and not lose it in front of your players.

#4 Listen to your players and take special care of them. Larping is hard to begin with, and pervasive games are… well, in my experience, even harder. When you’re out there, in your everyday real world, and you’re playing for days, and many of your (“offgame”) friends are into it, too; when you’re losing sleep over whatever matters to your character because you really care about them or you’re emotionally invested in the storyline; when you find yourself spending hours upon hours of your personal, private, usually free time on this larp; when your usual pastime activities fall into oblivion; when you’re high on adrenaline and you really, really care, even though you’re tired and emotionally wasted… well, then you can only hope you have a GM who’s there to care back.

And no – it doesn’t mean you have to hold your players’ hands to guide them through every second of the larp, nor does it mean you have to be available well into the wee hours of the night (unless, of course, that was a part of the way you designed the game) or put your players’ well being in front of your own, but… it does mean you get to ask, hey, how are you doing? after an emotionally heavy scene, or hey, if you need to take time off for your work or family or cats or sleeping, let me know so we can work something out in advance. Because yeah, we done that, too, while running Astra, and to our knowledge, people had a minimum of personal and emotional negative experience in the larp – and I truly believe it was worth it.

#5 Adjust the content as you go – make it closer to the players, make sure your clues are still in place on location (if applicable) etc. While larping out in the open, you get even less control then usual, and even if you’re not that big improv ninja from before, you’ll still have to change stuff as you go, both because of your players’ actions and the impact the world around you has on your game. What if there’s heavy rain on the day you planned your citywide treasure hunt? (Thankfully, we didn’t have to answer that question this time.) What if some players get bored with the main storyline because there’s a setback in their group? Are you sure there’s nothing you can do to improve the experience both for them and yourself as the grand perpetrator of pervasive larping? (Don’t make me list all of the things we did in Astra just to make things closer to our players – but we might have a little discussion about how great their reactions were…)

Five / Postgame fun – Documentation & Evaluation

#1 Plan your documentation early on – pervasive games are still less common than regular larps, and people will most definitely be interested. You don’t have to be the librarian/psychologist team the two of us are (thus recording, basically, everything we’ve ever written in our brainstorm documents – it’s a professional thing) to record at least a little bit of every step of the way – and people might actually thank you, later, for that glimpse into the way you created your game. We’re all connected to each other in terms of experience and inspiration – and more often than not it’s worth it to communicate with other GMs, compare notes, devise alternative endings together… whatever that takes larping on the next step, as a whole.

#2 Whatever you do – do take pictures. Maybe they’ll end up in your private memories folder – oh, honey, remember how the printer died on you just a few days before the larp? – or among other, fancy ingame photos you and your players will be able to brag about in the years to come. Part of the fun of Astra were sneaky spying snapshots many of the players took all over town, and the pics not only added to the players’ fun, but they made it fun for the co-alpha and I, too – made us feel like we were there, with the players, not in one of our many “mobile offices”. In pervasive larping – as in larping in general – taking pictures is never overrated.

#3 Ask for feedback of the biggest depth you can get. There’s probably no way for you to conduct one on one postgame interviews with all of your players (although I was seriously tempted to!), but a little bit of effort in making a swift-and-sweet outro questionnaire can give you a lot of firsthand feedback from the players not prone to eloquent commentaries. You’ll hear things you’ll love, things you’ll hate, things which will seriously puzzle you (you did what to do the what at that ingame scene??), things which – in short – will help you make a better larp next time round. (Oooh, trust me – after a pervasive game which went well, can you possibly imagine not making another one? I can’t, anyway…)

#4 Own your mistakes. With Astra, my credo was that the real problem was not in the mistakes we made, but in the mistakes we didn’t realize we made, which – luckily – were not many, judging by the feedback questionnaires. No larp is perfect, and GMs who try to make theirs seem otherwise are not even worthy of the title of idjits. If you hurt someone with your larp – apologize. If you failed to see an important piece of your own puzzle – apologize. If several players tell you the exact same thing which didn’t actually work at your larp – well, that’s your cue right there… GMs are people, too – and we’d all do well to remember that more often.

#5 Use your lessons! Game organizing is like one big lifelong lesson in planning, writing, coordinating, going crazy, adjusting stuff, running all over the town after your own players… Every tiny detail you choose to do in one game is like an experiment – if it works, if you like it and if you players like it – keep it. If a game element doesn’t meet all of the three criteria, keep using it at your own discretion. After Astra, I feel like I’ve been given an exclusive insight into the thrills, dangers and infinite possibilities of pervasive larping – and I can’t wait to see what the co-alpha and I can cook up next.

By the way, you know how I tend to say “most of all, have fun” at the end of lists like these? No matter all the hints and the cautionary tales – if you’re running a pervasive larp, trust me, it’ll be almost impossible for you not to…

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