Are Blockbuster Larps Viable?

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.

I’m intrigued

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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12 thoughts on “Are Blockbuster Larps Viable?

  1. I have a few mixed feelings about Blockbuster larps. While I think they are enjoyable, and that they tap into a rising hunger for immersive experiences, I also think that that their size and emphasis on “being there” create a fundamentally limited concept of what larp is and can be. Most specifically, I think they run a good chance of focusing almost exclusively on theatrical/dramatist styles and foreground creators and producers as providers of content to a consumer player base. While these are not necessarily negatives in a given larp, I worry that these concepts will become de riguer for most incoming players.

    • I hear you. My sense is that this all stays in balance in a healthy larp ecosystem, which includes many different experiential niches. Having ONLY blockbuster games would probably make it difficult for new designers and organizers break into the hobby, since it seems to demand very high levels of logistical/legal/design/community management-knowhow. But fortunately, many of the larp scenes I’m in contact with have slots for several different kinds of design.

      • One particularly intriguing contribution to this conversation is “A Wolf By Any Other Name”, which is a 4-hour, convention-appropriate, low-to-no-costume spinoff of New World Magischola. It was a fantastic game in its own right, and will earn some prestige by being linked to a blockbuster larp, but isn’t particularly exclusionary to people who aren’t aware of the NWM lore. There’s a lot to be explored in this space!

    • In my experience that’s exactly what happens, and it’s a good thing.
      New larpers who start playing larps like these (approachable, focused on roleplay, with an emphasis on good quality costumes, themes, location and props) then have a *very* hard time taking seriously an old-school fantasy larp (wargame-minded, with an emphasis on rules and powering up, very rarely well-written)

      Please note, though, that this rarely “steal players” from other larps; most people who are drawn to blockbuster larps simply would not be interested in an old-school fantasy larp…

  2. I’ve been LARPing since the early 90s (including weekend long, rules light games in America going back to the late 90s and early 2000s, they really have been a thing), and I’m a convert. I’ve done both Magischola and College of Wizardry events, and I plan on going back.

    One thing to note is that these games are pulling in new players in much greater numbers than people realize. I went to College of Wizardry in Poland a couple of weeks ago, and I’d say about a third of the players had never LARPed before. (I don’t have data, but I talked to a lot of people there!) This is, as you note, critical to expanding the marketplace, and it’s happening in ways I’ve rarely seen in the gaming community. And a lot of the first time LARPers were, by the end of the weekend, talking about coming back and checking out the other blockbuster games out there! There’s really a desire to break out into the mainstream geek community, and momentum for just that happening.

    The other big difference in these games and traditional American LARPs is when it comes to plot. It comes from the players. Do you want to play your character getting bitten by a werewolf on day one and struggling to fight off the transformation? Okay! The organizers will not only let you, if you arrange in advance they’ll provide an NPC in full makeup to show up and play out the scene. At my game we had people summoning demons and a Fae Lord, a character turning into a Fae while we desperately tried to broker a deal to stop the transformation, werewolf attacks, witch hunters showing up, Marshalls from America showing up with a warrant for the arrest of a student who was a notorious werewolf on the lam, a ritual to restore the memories of a Satyr that had taken a wrong turn in the fae forest, an illegal fight club that got in over their heads, a Fireball Dragon tournament (a sport invented for the LARP but that you actually play), and much more, including a lot of small personal plots, romances, rivalries, and more. I didn’t see a lot of bored people, and if you were, you can just start making something up and people will roll with it. You don’t have to create any plot, there’s plenty of them to jump into, but you’re completely welcome to, and there’s no bias against new players in doing so.

    Admittedly they’re expensive – they include several days food and lodging, and subsidizing a truly impressive prop and costume and makeup budget – but I caution people trying to extrapolate from small-LARP experience and form conclusions. They’re different. Try one if you can. They don’t work for everyone, but the people for whom they work, they work better than any other kind of gaming.

    • I agree that larps like College of Wizardry and New World Magicshola are introducing lots of people to larp, but what remains to be seen–and what I’m interested to find out–is whether those new players will stick around and whether the high ticket prices will prevent some people from continuing participation in those scenes. Also, whether the new larpers will spill over into other larp communities, for example, the freeform communities that share a similar design mindset with the Nordic-inspired blockbuster games. I happen to be a big fan of freeform!

      My sense is that the GM involvement in a blockbuster like Monitor Celestra is very different from something like College of Wizardry or New World Magischola–overall, I’d guess that the involvement is lower and not oriented around providing NPCs. Different blockbuster larps also prioritize their inside/outside stories differently. Something like Inside Hamlet or Monitor Celestra seems to prioritize the inside story experience.

      I also hope your last paragraph wasn’t aimed at me! I feel I’ve had a very broad experience with larp, from running the Norwegian larp Mad About the Boy in Connecticut, to enjoying a trad US boffer campaign, designing a Cthullhu weekend larp, and participating in lots of freeform in Denmark and the US.

      Oh! And I’d love to know more about the rules-light weekend-long tradition you talk about in your first paragraph. I’ve been looking for that kind of thing, so I’m eager to hear more–where’s the right place to look?

  3. As long as theme parks continue to thrive and offer more and more immersive experiences, so will these blockbuster larps.

    From my point of view – many of our larpers grew up “cutting their teeth” on small scale, easy larps. Now they are grown up, earning money and wears suits to work, or got children. So available time for their hobbies have gotten reduced, perhaps they have been away for a number of years. For them Blockbuster larps are a perfect concept: High experience, good quality and takes a restricted amount of time.
    This is also the kind of experiences I think they would take their “non” larping friends too. Because in many ways, they show case the most impressive of our hobby/culture, with fantastic costuming, lots of hype and easy to grasp concepts.

    But that, and a growing first timer audience also puts a huge demand on the quality of product, especially the part that LARP traditionally haven´t cared that much about: Quality food, lodgings and so on. At a 1000 usd price point, you need to offer something that matches a hotel experiences.

    What I really would like to see is more of the blockbuster larps focusing on collecting post-event data and sharing that with the community as a whole. Doing that, across different larps would give potential for rapid learning and development.

    I think we will see a rise of blockbuster larps for a couple of more years, then they will be reduced in numbers (likely around a core of experienced arrangers, with new blockbuster arranging groups having a pre-audience in their own country, from smaller larps)

    But the major shift I think we will actually see in smaller scale games, that now dare to charge a bit more for their own games. Investing more in props for mood, atmosphere, and food.

  4. The reflections are very interesting, but I think there is a basic flaw in the premise: the distinction between blockbuster larp and “not-blockbuster” larp is not as clear-cut as this article suggests.

    There is a whole spectrum in terms of approachability, quality of the location, rules-lightedness, prices and other factors.
    There are many many larps that are blockbuster-like in some respects, but not so much in others. And many larps that *mean* different things when they say blockbuster.

    I feel like the blockbuster label is mostly a communication tool: when a larp group creates a particularly good-quality, “big”, meant-to-be-successful larp event, they might brand it a blockbuster larp. To tell players and potential players “guys, this is our biggest project for this year/season/whatever, you might be interested”.
    Or when a group prides itself with doing all their larps like that, they label them all blockbuster larps.
    I am not implying that it’s a marketing stunt, on the contrary, it’s an effective way to communicate players either your particular effort in a specific project, or your “style” of doing larps in general

  5. How are you defining “bespoke” when you say “Bespoke, one shot larps that last a whole weekend aren’t really a thing”? One-shot weekend-long LARPs are relatively popular in the Northeastern community (and other communities, such as the one in the Chicago area and one in Delaware.) Many have pre-written characters, but some have heavy influence from player preferences expressed on casting questionnaires, which maybe qualify as quasi-bespoke?

    • Great question.

      I think my clumsy language is trying to communicate about the extent to which we have a nationwide scene or a tradition of communication among one-shot scenes that cuts across geographical silos.

      To me, bespoke design involves using a set of techniques that is customized to the story of the larp at hand. Turning this into a “tradition” would mean that the games themselves would be open to the public or documented so that others can benefit to design advances. The weekend larp tradition in the Nordic countries appears to have started regionally–i.e. Norwegian larps for Norwegians–and thanks to concerted effort into documentation, international, and quality trailers/websites/etc., built into a pan-Nordic scene attracting participants from the Nordic countries, and soon enough, from many other countries.

      I’m not familiar with some of the scenes you mention (or rather, I am familiar with some of them, but only as runners of short larps!), and would love to know more–is there somewhere I could find more info? My understanding of at least one of these scenes–based on friends who attended an event or two–is that at least some of these scenes featured weekend larps that were invite-only, or not publicly advertised via, say, a webpage. (It’s also entirely possible that I’m wrong about this.) I think invite-only events can provide great play experiences and help generate good design, but without open calls for players or publicly available documentation they make dialogue with other scenes harder. How can you stand on the shoulders of giants if you don’t know the giants exist?

      Another element not made as explicit in the piece is that part of what tenderized the ground for blockbusters in Nordica is not just bespoke, public, weekend events, but that this event tradition was rules-light. I think cultivating design and player competence with minimal rules is crucial when we start talking about bringing in large numbers of newcomers. (Obviously, games that aren’t rules-light can provide good play experiences, but I think the required rules competence can be a barrier to some newcomers.)

      So, while I’m not surprised that there are pockets of one-shot weekend games among various communities, I would be surprised to learn that these events were (a) public/publicly documented (b) in broad dialogue with other scenes on a national level and (c) rules light. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about this–the country is large–and certainly it’s a lot for readers to extrapolate from “bespoke one-shot larps that last a whole weekend,” so I hope this helps clarify my thinking.

  6. It sounds like, by this use of the word bespoke, there definitely are bespoke LARPs one shot weekend long LARPs in the US. Lime Shirts (I don’t think they have a website) runs them twice a year at RPI, and they also get run I think annually in the aforementioned Chicago and Delaware communities. There’s also a community in Pennsylvania that just ran its second annual LARP and has already scheduled its third. These LARPs are all welcome to the public, though there isn’t an official effort to document them, a little digging will reveal blog posts (or magazine articles, if you go back enough years) from writers and players. They’re all public events. I imagine the dialog isn’t quite as broad as you had in mind, they do draw players and staff from a pretty large geographical area, and there is a small yet significant number of players and staff members traveling back and forth between the US and the UK to run and play these games.

    While most (of the ones I’ve personally played, anyway) are pretty mechanics-heavy, not all are, and I would argue that some new players have an easier time with clear cut mechanics than no mechanics, but everyone’s mileage will vary. (For ome mechanics-heavy LARPs run by Lime Shirts are pulling in high numbers of newbies.)

    For information on some of the popular weekend long LARPs than run both in the UK and the US, there’s this website: http://uk-freeforms.wikidot.com/resources

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