This year is seeing the rise of blockbuster larps in in many places around the world, but particularly within the US. I’m interested to see where the trend will go and how sustainable it will ultimately prove to be. No one knows! Based on my experience with larp communities, I have some thoughts and open questions about this style.
What is a blockbuster larp?
First, let’s get our terms straight. “Blockbuster larp” is poorly defined. In movies, a blockbuster is supposed to be BIG and SPECTACULAR, with HIGH PRODUCTION VALUES and WIDE-RANGING APPEAL. When translated to larp, I think folks use “blockbuster” mostly to refer to a production aesthetic. Typically, blockbuster larps include some constellation of the following:
- Location: A fabulous venue. Say, a castle, like College of Wizardry, the actual castle of Elsinore as in Inside Hamlet, a battleship as in Monitor Celestra, or similar. Fabulous costumes either provided or required of participants.
- Fiction: Set in an existing intellectual property, often one with a genre vibe. For example, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica, even if the larp creator has to file off the world’s serial numbers for legal reasons.
- Audience: Aimed at an international audience that includes (a) larpers and (b) non-larpers/fans. Usually, there are 100+ players per run, both for spectacle and economic reasons.
- Economy: Expensive tickets. At least $200. Required to cover the high production values, but also adds prestige.
- Format: Typically a one-off, more like a movie than a recurring TV show. Of course, as with any Hollywood movie, sequels are plentiful. Usually lasts two days or more.
- Rules: Typically rules-light, since blockbusters try to appeal to non-larpers. This style used to be called “Nordic larp,” but I’ve also seen “collaborative larp” in high usage, as the style has increasingly penetrated the US.
Since gamers tend to fight me whenever I try to define anything, let me make the usual caveats: this is not a prescriptive definition, it’s just one person’s observation on how people tend to use the term, I’m not terribly experienced in blockbuster larps, YMMV.
Blockbuster larps have BLOWN UP, y’all
2017 may well be the year that makes or breaks blockbuster larps. Certainly, the trend is gaining steam. To give you a sense of how this genre has grown, I compiled a (doubtlessly incomplete) recent history of blockbuster larps.
Basically, in 2013 I first heard the term “blockbuster larp” in reference to the Battlestar Galactica larp Monitor Celestra. By 2016 I heard of seven such larps, while this year, in 2017, there are at least 15 larps, plus at least four blockbusters trying to fill their player rosters.
How many blockbusters can the larp market sustain?
This is a big open question. Blockbuster tickets can be very expensive, from the comparatively moderate $380 plus costuming and travel to Sweden for the Jane Austen-inspired Fortune & Felicity experience to the $1,200 wallet-busting (but cool-sounding) Road Trip Larp, which includes cross-country transport during the larp for your in-game touring rock band along with hotel stays.
Given the ticket costs, a regular person probably can’t afford to go to more than a couple blockbuster games each year. This means that blockbuster larps must compete harder for the existing larp audience, expand the larp audience to new communities, or appeal to the well-heeled. How far the market will stretch is anyone’s guess.
I think this year, 2017, with its unprecedented number of planned blockbuster larps in the US, will reveal much about the public appetite for these games. Will all of them go off? Will trying to launch so many in the same year make the market collapse under its own weight? If all of them run, will experienced or new larpers swell their player ranks?
Economies of scale only go so far
My sense from informal chats with folks who run–or want to run–blockbusters is that their anticipated profit margins are very tight. Lots of the ticket price goes to cover venue costs. At the same time, high ticket prices mean players feel they can demand more. If I pay $1,000 for two days of larp, the food and the play experience better be more than just “OK.” On the other hand, high ticket prices can engender good experiences. Shelling out a pretty penny could mean I enter the larp with a “this is gonna be awesome” mindset that helps the design.
The ticket prices already feel high to me (YMMV, depending on economic situation, love of larp, etc.), and I think that if they go up too much more, they might leave the sweet spot of semi-affordability. I’ve got lingering questions about whether low profit margins will end up a necessary feature of blockbuster larp, and whether high production values and a professional staff are sustainable in the long run. We will see as our brave blockbuster larp explorers weather the market over the next year or two!
High costs reward experienced designers
I’m not the target audience for most blockbuster larps–for me, larp is at its most charming when it’s short, low production value, and cheap. I balk at paying more than a couple hundred dollars for a single larp–for $500 plus travel (times two, if I bring my husband), I’d rather see some great visual art and eat local food in a foreign country.
At the same time, I do find certain blockbuster larps extremely tempting. But the high price tag changes how and when I’m willing to pull the trigger. A $500 ticket is a substantial amount of money–it’s an investment. The higher the cost of the larp, the less willing I am to take a chance on an unknown or unproven designer.
Furthermore, the press materials for some of these games don’t do a good job of overcoming my objections–they spill buckets of ink on the venue or world, but don’t tell me all that much about the experience of the game–the design and themes, what I’ll be doing, what the creators hope to communicate. It’s no good larping in an actual pyramid if my character is going to be bored.
The US scenes are developing differently than the Nordic scenes
My sense of the evolution of blockbuster larp in the Nordic countries is that a lot of present-day blockbuster designers cut their teeth on one-shot weekend larps for 20 to 50 participants, larps that had scenography and setting, but weren’t necessarily super-high fidelity. I’d speculate that this tradition helped soften the ground for future blockbuster games, building organizer competency in design and logistics, and player competency for story-telling.
That tradition of bespoke larps doesn’t really exist in the states–our designers, organizers, and players usually come from either the boffer campaign community or the theater/freeform tradition. Bespoke, one shot larps that last a whole weekend aren’t really a thing. The ground hasn’t quite been prepared for large-scale blockbusters in the same way.
I’m interested to see whether the communities that blockbuster games create are strong enough to overcome this on their own terms. I’d also love to see the rise of a low-fi weekend tradition in parallel; I think the two scenes could very much strengthen one another.
In case it isn’t clear from the above: this trend in blockbuster larps fascinates me. I’m interested to see where they go next, what the market can bear, and how the form evolves. I’m not yet sure whether they are my personal jam–I’m attending at least one this year to explore the style–but I’m always happy to see others improving their craft and pushing the form.
What do you think about blockbuster larps? Where is this trend going? What do you think will happen to the market? Are you a convert to this style?
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