Understanding live role-playing / theory 101

To bind a demon, you must know its name.

How are we to design larps, to teach and talk about larp design, if we are unable to talk about how larp works, what goes on when people role-play? A lot of larps are designed and played almost unconsciously. Yes, we know how to play, we also, for the most part,  know how to design. But when people ask “how?” we resort to simplistic metaphor and simile – “like cowboys and indians with adults!”, “like theatre, but without an audience!”, “like the plot at last years summer larp, but with dark elves instead of orcs”…

This works fine for a group of friends who play and organize together. It can even work well for whole communities. Trouble arrives when people with different backgrounds sit down to design a larp together, or when you try to pass on knowledge and experience to others.

Then, it’s not enough to say what larp is like. We need to be able to talk about what larp is.

Thankfully, that conversation started a decade ago. The Dogma 99 manifesto presented the first definition of live role-playing, as “a meeting between players who, through their characters, relate to each other in a fictive reality”. (though I co-wrote the Dogma 99 manifesto, all credit for that definition belongs to Lars Wingård).

Several definitions have followed, and the interconnected discussions about what larps are, how larps are played, and how they are designed have evolved into eight knutepunkt books and a gazillion online messages, eventually even infiltrating and inspiring academic research into (live) role-playing. There was theory before the Knutepunkt books, of course, and there’s also theory outside them. Not all of the knutebooks are theory (there are also reviews, history, opinion…), and there is Knutebookish theory outside of them. But at present the Knutepunkt books form the largest interconnected corpus of ideas about larp.

In this first series of blog-posts, “Understanding larp”, I’ll recap some key points from those discussions, and emphasize the ones I find most useful for dramaturgy.  Read it as a “larp theory 101”, if you will, but keep in mind that I’m writing with the biased eyes of a larp designer. If I don’t find a chunk of theory relevant to larp design, I’m going to ignore it. If I find something relevant that’s mentioned only in an obscure footnote in an obscure paper, I’ll give it disproportional space.

I have been known, on occasion, to be wrong.

One thought on “Understanding live role-playing / theory 101

  1. Awesome. Glad to see you’re expanding on your earlier writings on the subject. Color me excited.

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