Against design published in the larp anthology Liminal Encounters

Solmukohta book cover 2024. Liminal encounters.

The annual Nordic live action role-play conference Knutpunkt/Solmukohta usually comes with an anthology on different aspects of larp. This year’s title was LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic-inspired Larp and it was edited by Kaisa Kangas and her team. There are many good contributions to this year’s book. I can specifically recommend “The Manifesto of Playing to Live Elsewise” by Maiju Tarpila and “Readdressing Larp as Commodity: How Do We Define Value When the Customer Is Always Right?” by Usva Seregina. Both these text dig deeper in the relation between larp and consumer capitalism.

I had the pleasure to co-write a text and present it at the conference together with Andrea Nordwall.

Andrea Nordwall & GAbriel Widing on stage.
Nordwall & Widing. Photo by Joc Koljonen

Against Design

Larp in general, and Nordic style larp in particular, is often claimed to be an artistic practice, a frontier of participatory arts. However, discourse on larp by larp organizers, larp participants and game studies researchers has, in recent years, started to frame larp making primarily as a design practice. By that logic larps are now designed by larp designers using larp-specific participatory interaction design methods. Discussions on these design methods have become the mainstay of larp conferences such as Knutpunkt/Solmukohta. Let’s discuss what this hegemony of design thinking does to our practice.

The overall project of design thinking is constructive. Design has lowered the thresholds of participation as well as enabled and structured larp organizing. In the best case, larp designers evaluate best practices and share methods. Although every step in this direction seems like a small success of self-understanding and self-improvement, we argue that the long-term consequences do not necessarily benefit larp as a culture nor as an artistic form. The current hegemony of larp as design does the groundwork for an ongoing reification and commodification of larp. Design transforms larp participants into larp consumers.

New larp projects are now pitched to participants with methods catering to various larp audiences (or rather intended target groups). Post-mortems of past projects serve the function of user experience (UX) evaluation examples to optimize the design of future projects. The design methods are reevaluated based on past successes in relation to informally segmented target groups (such as fantasy-chillout, dystopian-play-to-lose, or post-apocalypse-over-the-top larp consumers), combining setting with interaction style to form specific and recurring audiences. These target groups can then be matched to tried and tested larp design methods to successfully form an iterative and recursive feed-forward UX loop. In practice, this leads to repeating ideas and design elements that have proven to be successful, at the expense of new innovation.

In their marketing, larps can “attach” themselves to commercially successful and well-known IPs and franchises to pitch projects with similar names, using brand recognition to drive participance, forming a secondary volunteer-run streaming service experience. The success of this strategy indicates an environment where even the overall set and setting for a larp is purposefully used as a design method to drive interest in and communicate intended participation. Adopting commercially successful mass media culture is the optimal strategy for producing predictable participance.

There was a time when mass media enviously glanced at the rich culture and engagement surrounding Nordic larp. By now, the roles are reversed. When larp designers take turns riding on various commercial successes in mass media, larp becomes a cecum of Hollywood film and streaming culture. Such an approach would be highly unusual in artistic fields, where originality merits artistic value.

We argue that larp as a form is being restricted by its own success as a participatory design practice and that innovation in larp is over (other than sporadic and local). We see several reasons why larp as design practice hampers larp innovation.

Firstly, design thinking avoids conflict at all costs to deliver a product. Any kind of conflict or disagreement is considered a failed interaction design. But culture can be nurtured by conflict, and we would argue that Nordic larp developed through cultural and subcultural clashes, not through consensus-based “everything is okay as long as you know what you want” design thinking. Bring back dialectics; it’s not smooth, but it’s also not harmful.

We are concerned that larp as a field at this point is emulating some of the worst aspects of experience design commodity culture: start-up ambitions among organizers (including burn-out syndrome) and reification of participants’ social interactions: social interaction becomes a “product” that is delivered by the larp through strategic employment of larp design methods.

The idea of clarity of purpose that design brings makes larp a “readerly” practice – a practice where interpretation (and interaction) is “prepared” for the participant, rather than a “writerly” or artistic-oriented practice, open for the plurality of interpretation (and potential conflict). Clarity of interpretation is optimal for designing and delivering predictable and serviceable interaction for a defined target group. This results in predictable and shallow cultural practices and artifacts.

Remember, there are many ways to make larps. Norwegians use the word lage, a verb that could be utilized for larp making as well as for cooking a soup. Larps can be written, created, organized, dreamt up, or they can be born from artistic practice. We want to encourage a plurality of ways of creating larp.

Think about larp as a culture. It has been said that design is “the opposite of tradition.” Then maybe it’s time to value some of our subcultural traditions, the mutual knowledge of gathering and making stories come alive through our community. Here, we have to understand the limits of design thinking. For example, one of the key features of Nordic larp is trust. We have developed trust in our subculture by nurturing it for many years and events, to the point where we can say trust is part of our tradition. This makes some scenarios possible that would otherwise not be possible. However, you can not replace the tradition of trust by design. The harder you try, the further you fall when something goes wrong.

We argue that larp should not be reduced to a streamlined, well-designed experience product, but rather nurture an aesthetic field, an artistic form in dialogue with the participants as well as the culture at large. The reason larp fails to claim a culturally relevant position is because the primary focus on design optimization reduces our capacity to form an aesthetic or artistic field in dialogue with the wider culture. As an artistic form, larp makers should look for autonomy and integrity in our practice.

Stop using experience product delivery as the primary factor when evaluating larp projects. Instead, focus on how it innovates the form and how it can reshape culture by doing so. The latter is not necessarily realized through “good design”, but through good art.

Know that there is a difference between feedback and critique. We know how to give and get the former, not the latter. When engaging in society, larp will become criticized for how it, as a participatory form, approaches important issues. Be ready for, welcome, and enable criticism, not just on how well participatory methods worked out or whether the experience delivered quality time, but on how the form of larp itself can interpret and address cultural issues relevant to society in a wider context. Instead of targeting cultural and societal matters, larp has become a recursive product design improvement loop that is increasingly optimized for a decreasingly creative field.
If we consider larp-making as an artistic creation process, it does not necessarily involve problem-solving or a user-centered approach. Larps can happen through community building, collaborative creation, or even serendipity.

Author bios

Andrea Nordwall is a long-time larper, with a background in art and theatre and a Master’s degree in interaction design. She produced the first commercially available blackbox larp Force Majeure with Gabriel Widing in 2001 and co-authored Deltagarkultur in 2009 with the now defunct participatory art collective Interacting Arts.

Gabriel Widing is an artist and game designer, interested in performance, play and participation. His recent works includes the mobile based scenarios Ekstasis made with Nyxxx as well as Mobilized and Inferno Speeddate made with Nea Landin. At the moment he is working on a performance based on medieval mystic Hadewijch’s poem Love’s Seven Names in collaboration with Áron Birtalan.

6 Common Mistakes in Live Role-playing Design

This article was published in the anthology Playing Reality by Interacting Arts 2010.

DESIGNING LARPS IS A COMPLEX PROCESS and one must have courage to take on the responsibility of doing it. The players are demanding and bring creative power as well as infinite demands. I have assembled a few common mistakes that are made in larp design. If you avoid them you we’ll be pretty much on track. They are of course a generalization and there are probably exceptional situations where all of these design choices can be motivated. So rather than banning them from larp design I wish that you, as an organizer, think twice before using them. The mistakes all have a common feature: they disable role-playing. So the work-arounds would generally be focused on how to enable participant interaction by the means of their characters.


There is a revolution going on – but you are not there. Placing the characters outside the actual drama is quite strange, but still common. It is as if the organizers wish to save the players characters from drama. But drama is not dangerous, its the nerve of role-playing. This doesn’t mean that only big actions are important, the small ones can be great experiences too. Forgiving, approaching, confessing, trusting can all make nice scenes, but we must also dare to let our characters suffer and hate, murder and make love. This means placing the characters center-stage. If you write a story that is imposssible to enact within the confinements of the physical space of live role-playing you should reconsider the means for telling the story. Maybe a freeform role-playing session would suit it better. Larp is not neutral – so we must find stories that surf on the waves of collaborative improvised character interaction rather than writing up epic or cinematic narratives that in the end is forced off stage. The problems with cinematic aesthetics in larp was noted ten years ago in the Dogme ‘99 (Fatland and Wingård 1999), but it’s still a holy grail for all too many organizers.


Many organizers has an urge to ”create a world”. Nothing wrong about that, but its very common that the world is described by 50+ pages, followed by one page about the actual setting of the scenario. This way the backdrop of the story becomes very heavy and the players are afraid to improvise in a way that conflicts with the pre-written world. Neither are they helped in relating to each other. If the larp is set in a small village in the forest, you are not very supported by knowing how big army or deep religious beliefs or flourishing trade the people of the neighbouring country has. What you actually need is to be informed of the context of the actual stage: the village. Who lives there? How are they related? What are they doing on a Friday night? What are their dreams about? And for the purpose of creating drama: What are their holy cows? Who is in debt to whom?


Organizers trying to save their players from boredom through an unexpected rupture in the dramaturgy of the scenario is quite common. When organizers doesn’t believe in the basic strengths of their scenario they are tempted to save the players from boredom by twisting the whole scenario. This works perfect in most media, like litterature and film: think Trueman show, The Matrix, Fight Club etc. But in the context of live role-playing it generally fails to serve its purpose. Why? Because putting the character in front of a completely unexpected situation – Your world is not what it seems to be! – also decontextualizes the player. The message being: Whatever you have prepared yourself for doesn’t make sense anymore. This makes the player insecure and alienates her from the character, erase the genre frames etc. The player must thus rethink her character. What would my character do in this super-strange situation? How would she feel? This generally disable the interaction between the characters for quite some time.

A deceptive design has sometimes been promoted, for example by the finnish pseudonym Markku Jenti in Nothing is True; Everything is permissible – Using Deception as a Productive Tool, but the article fails to communicate when it’s a good idea to decept the players in that way. Most of the text is actually about when it’s problematic designwise or morally dubious to do it.

There is nothing wrong about strange turns within a larp story – but neither is it a problem to communicate those twists on beforehand.


Negotiations within the fiction is not a bad thing per se. But its all too common that the negotiations is about something that doesn’t exist on the actual setting, something off-stage. “I have an army of 500 men, only two days travel from here” (the larp ending in one day). “But I have an army of 800 men, haha!” This kind of non-sensible negotiations will never support good drama. How about the beggar saying: “I’m prepared to work in your shop, just for free food and lodging.” The trick would be to put the things at hand into play. What matters to the characters at this point in their life?

Political negotiations does require more abstract conceptualisation and it’s potentially interesting to play. But if you don’t think it through carefully it is likely that the players will reenact present day ideological dogmas. We have seen many times how pseudo-medieval feudal villages has turned to present-day democracies. This is of course a sound impulse on behalf of the players, but sometimes a little bit too predictable and dull. Another problem in the same direction is how a conflict between upper and lower classes in a larp story turns into an argument between social liberal and social democratic ideologies, echoing the last debate between parlamentary left and right. Sometimes the political negotiations even resemble the yearly member metings where we choose a new board for the club. Is that where we want to go within our fantasy worlds too? Another board meeting, chewing through trivialities.

I would suggest political scenarios on another level – stories about affinity, forming groups and collectives, breaking them apart, regrouping, being in conflict, making peace, going to war.

After all larp is not about D.I.Y. but D.I.T., do-it-together.


It’s rather easy to write a political scenario where 15 important people meet up to negotiate and have a nice time. It’s a lot harder to make all their servants, associates and subordinates to feel and become center stage. Extras are sweet in movies, but dull in larps. This does not mean that everyone on larps should play high status people, but rather that equal focus should be turned to all players involved, also in terms of theme. If the game has a political theme, then everyone should be involved in the political process one way or another. If the game has a social theme then social relationships should be the base for character interaction. All too often the theme of the game doesn’t involve more than a bunch of the characters. So please relieve us from “important” meetings in wich only a few are invited to play. The dynamics between open and closed rooms can be useful, but should be used with care.


During the years of manifestos (1999–2003) the theorists of the Nordic larp scene set out to find “the possibilities inherent in larp, […] unique laws; the essence of larp” (Fatland and Wingård 1999). It was like a reenactment of the early 20TH century modernist rapture in art. The problem was that we came back with a dozen of “essences”. Is it the story, the character immersion, winning the game, meeting people or making art that is the “essence” of larp? I would say that the general conclusion that came out of years of heated and friendly debates was that any of these directions can be made into the essence of larp. But, there is a but, if you combine two or more of those player motivations you can get into trouble. Thus communicating the style of play on beforehand is a win-win situation for everyone involved. If you are into intrigues and gaming you will find it pretty dull to interact with an esoteric immersionist. If you just want to hang out and have a nice time with your friends within a fictional framework, then you don’t want some maniac swinging rubber in close proximity etc. So organizing as if there was an essence in your way of doing larp is recommendable. The interaction will run smother and everyone will be content in the end.


So, why are these mistakes done over and over again? I mean this text is definetly not a critique of a certain group of organizers or genre or style.

My hunch is that we are a little bit scared by the potentials of the larp. Many organizers intentionally or unconsciously wish to «save» their participants from the larp. This happens in many ways and the consequences are most of the time disturbing or even ruining the player experience. My point here is that there is nothing fundamentally new about the design issues that I’ve tried to pinpoint.

The underlying problem seems to be that we know that it’s bad but still we do it, over and over again. Thus the philosophical/psychological twist to these hands-on design tips is to question wether we actually want involving, mindtwisting and breathtaking events, or if we are content with the stumbling scenarios that we keep on repeating? It is as if we unconsciously wish to fail to realize our fantasies, but with the right proximity. Neither too good nor too crappy. Might be that we do not really want our fantasies to come true, because that would probably have far-reaching consequences for our daily life. Our praxis is directed to almost getting there.

Are we too coward to use our full set of methods and learn from previous mistakes? Are we afraid of what can happen if we design at full throttle? I dare all the organisers out there to be even more daring in your proposals.
Let’s see how good we really are.

Thanks to A-K Linder for input.

GABRIEL WIDING teaches game design and cultural theory. He is cogeditor of Interacting Arts Magazine since 2001, a publication that aims to promote participatory artistic prac- tices and discuss its political implications. In 2008 Interacting Arts released a book in Swedish named Deltagarkultur (“Participatory Arts”). He has organized a handfull of larps, but lately been more into reality game design, working with mask play in public environments. He is also exploring the possibilities of combining role-playing with improvised dance.