Looking for “it”

So, some years back, I held a concept-development workshop for larpers. Groups of 2-5 larpers would collaboratively develop a few keywords into a fully-fledged larp concept in half an hour or so. It worked well, yielding some 3-4 fully functional larps with the framework of a decent dramaturgy. None of those larps were ever held. Instead, every year, we see a bunch of larps with weak concepts and dramaturgies attracting players and producing strong experiences amidst complaints of their weaknesses. Why?

When purity is your only goal, it’s easy to achieve. But, as one of the workshop participants explained, it’s not enough to have a holistic concept – you must really love that concept, to motivate you into doing all the work required for it to become a larp. It doesn’t even need to be a strong concept, but the idea must have “it” – some kind of magic factor that makes you passionate about realizing the larp. This translates to participation as well. Not that many people bother to attend larps that don’t have “it”, especially not if those larps require plenty of preparation. Needless to say, “it” is different things to different people. Otherwise, we’d all be going to the same larps. But what is “it”? And how do you recognize it when you’ve found it?

Here’s a sample of ideas I’ve seen triggering passionate responses in myself or other larpers:

  • tribal society with plenty of rituals and primal screams.
  • totalitarian society, based on Orwell’s “1984”.
  • 19th century costume drama
  • mafia families in contemporary Oslo

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In my experience, the “it” factor isn’t contained in these one-liners, but in the associations they evoke. For example, it was not the idea of putting 100 players into a police-state that drove myself and Jan-Erik Dyve to organise Kybergenesis. Jan-Erik pointed out, much later, that the two of us shared a fascination for really pompous music, like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or “The Leningrad Cowboys and the Red Army Orchestra”. In addition, I had seen the 1984 filmatization of “1984”, and was captivated by the interrogation scenes – not so much their cruelty, but for their tragedy, and the way the interrogation setting allowed for powerful dialogue.

A lot of  “it” seems to come from past cultural experiences, and by the tangle of emotion associated with them. For Harry Potter fans, then, “it” might be a larp set at Hogwarths. For a lot of us, “it” is Tolkien, and hence any Tolkienish fantasy. For fans of old-school tabletop RPGs, it might come from dungeons or sanity points, and the classic sessions they evoke. Even for eclectic Nordic arthaus larps, similar resonances are at work with concepts like Hamlet Innifrån (Shakespeare), 1942 (any WW2 movie, or family history), Carolus Rex (steampunk), System Danmark (cyberpunk), etc. Most of the exceptions I can think of are larps that resonate not with fiction but with personal experience – Kjærlighet i Fornedringens Tid (all your failed relationships), 13 at the table (any embarrassing family dinner you’ve attended).

Is there an analytical way of predicting “it”? Not that I know of.

But here’s what I do when I try to figure out if an idea I have has that mystical quality: I talk about it, ceaselessly, and note the reactions of people I talk to. If the idea makes them come up with ideas of their own that fit with mine, such as a character or a potential location, the concept might have “it”. If someone else is so enthusiastic about the concept they want to make it happen, not only does the larp idea have “it” – we also have sown the seeds of a production team.

2 thoughts on “Looking for “it”

  1. Excellent post. I just saw it.

    This probably also explains why projects of the type “let’s you and I make something cool” don’t usually get off the ground at all; while projects that link two or three random individuals through a Cool Idea often get made, even if – as you say – they sometimes get made in a weird and inconsistent manner.

  2. I agree with your assessment of what constitutes “it”.

    Too often have I seen people attempt to force themselves, or other people, to become passionate about a LARP concept.

    This is hard for many game masters where I’m from, but if we instead shout out ideas until one strikes a chord with the group, and then run *that* idea into a LARP, it all works much better.

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