Designing universes versus designing play

Kaizers Orchestra in Munich - photo by Johanna Bocher, CC 2.0 by-nc-nd
Kaizers Orchestra in Munich - photo by Johanna Bocher, CC 2.0 by-nc-nd

“Good idea – great universe!” This is one of the most common responses I get when pitching Marcello’s Kjeller, the larp I’m currently working on together with Anders Ohlson, Arvid Falch and the Larp Factory. The larp has been announced as inspired by the music of Kaizers Orchestra – a Norwegian band with a vaguely Tom Waits-like sound and lyrics that evoke film noir, Godfatheresque mafia, a rural ambience and WW2 resistance fighters. In Kaizers’ lyrics people play Russian roulette, perform the Polka in “the traditional way”, confess their sins to the Chauffeur, wear gas masks, and dance the ompa until their death in grand gypsy finales. It is a cool universe.

But will it make a good larp?At the moment, the question is difficult to answer. All those things evoked by Kaizer’s lyrics are precisely evocative – they bring up images, not facts. Finite stories, not potential play. Names, not whole characters. When Tony confesses to the chauffeur that he has fired his revolver in the cathedral of his father, I have no idea how that might be brought to happen at a larp, let alone how to evoke the melancholy and despair inherent in the song. Ahead of us is the job of fleshing out the characters, detailing out other potential events for them, and figuring out what Miss Conradas, Tony and Mister Kaizer might do for a whole evening at Marcello’s basement. We need to define how one dances Polka the traditional way, what kind of “Ompa” can be danced until death and how, precisely, gas masks fit into it all. The Kaizers universe begs to be explored, but exploration is not straight-forward. In theoryspeak, Kaizers lyrics do not translate to an interaction code (more on those later, or in my 2006 Knutbook article).

Squeezing big worlds into small larps

Yes, but must it be in middle-earth? (photo quoted from "The Fellowship of the Ring", 2001)
Yes, but must it be in middle-earth? (photo quoted from "The Fellowship of the Ring", 2001)

Plenty of larps have been based on the idea of world exploration. On the face of it, it is easier to adapt universes than it is to adapt stories – larping the “Lord of The Rings” is almost inconceivable, but a larp set in a pub on the Shire sounds highly playable.

The world exploration mode works well for tabletop role-playing, where the players can push forward into uncharted territory and the GM can consult sourcebooks or make things up as they move along. It does not work that well in larp, where the play universe is finite, set by the timing and location of the larp. Is the pub on the Shire really that more playable than any other pub set in any other universe, including our own? It will certainly lack the tragedy of Frodo, the White City, the sacrifice of Gandalf and the other elements that make “The Lord of the Rings” a good read. As for Kaizers, we can’t explore the whole world of their lyrics, only the potential interactions and non-interactions of an evening in Marcello’s basement.

A universe does not, by itself, make a larp. At their worst, they may serve to inspire unplayable larps. At their best, they form an interaction code and an interesting framework around a larp situation. At their very best but also most challenging, they might be the frame of a larp that is both playable and that evokes the same emotions as its source material, yet with more detail. I hope this will be the case with Marcello’s Kjeller – on November 14th, we’ll find out.

3 thoughts on “Designing universes versus designing play

  1. Heisann, må bare få sagt at eg syns det å skulle larpe Marcello’s Kjeller e en fantastisk bra idé, og om det ikkj evar for det faktum at eg ikkje e 18 år enno, ville eg veldig gjerne ha vært med. Det e eg desverre ikkje, og må dermed bare stå på utsiden og kikke inn. Som nevnt syns eg det var en strålende idé og eg har troen på at både universet og Marcello’s kjeller e en passende setting og tror at det at karakterene kun e navn og løse historier heller enn velutfylte karakterer kanskje spiller til deres fordel (tenker folk forhåpentligvis blir inspirert til å bringe noe av sitt eget inn i karakterene). Til slutt har eg bare et par spørsmål, svar gjerne enten på bloggen min eller på mailen eg har oppgitt:
    – Det står her at det skal være 14. November, mens laivfabrikken har eventet klart til denne lørdag (17. april). Betyr det at det har vært utsatt, eller har det vært arrangert tidligere?
    – Hvis arrangert tidligere, var det en suksess?
    – Noen sjanse for at det blir satt opp igjen, fortrinnsvis etter 6.juli i år (min 18-årsdag)?

  2. Hei Espen, og takk for interessen!

    Arrangementet ble utsatt fra 14. November i fjor til 17. April i år. Bloggposten over blei skrevet før utsettelsen.

    Siden laiven ble full, vurderer vi en annenoppsetting. Du kan signalisere din interesse på laivfabrikken.no/marcello/. Hvis det er mange som gjerne ser laiven spillt for annen gang, øker sjansen for at det skjer.

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