LARP Design: The Basics

A while back John Reiher asked me to write a column up on LARP game design. I told him after I got through a busy period of a lot of work that I’d oblige and write down what wisdom I’ve learned thus far. Well, that initial busy period and a few others have come and gone and I’m finally making good on my word to write an article on LARP game design. Much of what he wrote on table-top game design applies to LARP design as well, however there are some differences due to the fact that LARP is a different style of role-playing game. So, what should a person think of and consider when designing a LARP?

Designing the rules for a LARP is different that designing rules for a table-top game.
A LARP is an inherently different kind of game than a table-top RPG. Given that it’s different, how the rules are written and the amount of rules within the system is important things to consider when designing a LARP. There are four key points I noted in an earlier article to keep in mind when designing the rules: They can be adjudicated with the little to no interference to the game, helping to maintain game atmosphere and suspension of disbelief. They should have purpose and reason for existing and should be there to help enhance game play. Role-play is an art and the minimum required rules should be in place to allow for the artistic creativity and interpretation of all players to take place. LARP rules are not table-top rules, nor should they be table-top rules.

Don’t plagiarize, but borrow ideas from other games and tweak them to fit your system.
The best way to do this is to be an active player in other LARPs and read other systems that you can get your hands on.Often times you get an idea because of the way a different designer has presented a particular concept. Also, don’t just look at systems related to the genre or style that yours is from, examine LARPs from all different styles and genres. A good designer isn’t afraid to branch out from their usual genre and style if they know they’ll learn something new and exciting that could help them.

Feedback is important.
Once you have the rough draft done have a few people look over it to see if they can spot any glaring holes or problems. Make sure those you ask are gamers from different backgrounds: Casual, power, rule’s lawyer, etc. and make sure they’re good at providing constructive criticism and feedback. Do this even before you think of playtesting to make sure that what you’re creating isn’t so far out in left field that people won’t want to touch it. As issues are found, take care of those clarifications and fixes. Once the big glaring errors and problems are found at this stage, then take the system out for live playtesting.

Playtest, playtest, playtest and BLIND playtest.
Hand your rules to someone who has yet to even touch or lay eyes on your system and ask them to create a character and play a game. Likewise, be prepared for your playtesters to tear apart your system and find loopholes or poorly worded rules you didn’t think existed during the earlier editing rounds. Much like the adage “No plot survives contact with the players,” intially the same is true for your newly designed game: “No rules system will survive unscathed contact with playtesters.” Make sure that you’re playtesting the whole system and not just a portion of the rules too.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite or redesign parts.
In other words, don’t become so enamored by your own work that you’re unwilling to change it. This is particularly true after you get a significant amount of feedback handed to you or after playtest things and find a bunch of areas that need rework, perhaps even serious rework. A portion of the rules may need to be rebuilt a few times, so be prepared for that kind of editing work. Again, no rules system survives unscathed contact with editors and playtesters.

Building an effective LARP system is only a part of what it takes to run a successful LARP. The other side is the selection of your venue, who you get on staff, how you prepare decorations and props and the other post-rule system creation questions. One heads up, much like table-top system designers, don’t expect to make a killing off your system (i.e. don’t quit your day job). LARPs rarely, if ever, make money and when they do its commonly just enough to break even. Those however, are best suited for another article.

As always I love to hear feedback and suggestions for further articles. Feel free to leave a comment here at (see the link below for this article’s forum thread), write Amber at webmaster [at] mortalisrpg [dot] com or visit the Mortalis Games site to see what else has been shared or leave a comment there.

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