Advice For First-Time Larp Scholars

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics.

Who cares about larping when you could be WRITING about larp? Today’s advice is for budding larp scholars.

Claus Raasted reminds us to bow before the allknowing Finnish scholars:

Google is your best friend. Finnish roleplaying scholars are your second. But even more importantly, realizing that other people have been at this for years is something you need to accept. And while it’s definitely OK to come up with ideas that others also have come up with, it’s less welcome to claim that you invented something that it turns out that the Canadians have been doing since ’93.

Apart from that – do your research, find out what you want to write about, and make sure you don’t bore your audience to death because your university professors liked long sentences. I usually say that if you have to tell someone that what you’re doing is art to make them value it, then your message isn’t strong enough. And if you meet criticism by referring to the fact that “it’s academia”, then maybe you should find a different audience or a different writing style.

Finnish game designer Juhana Petterson says to read the books Finnish people have written/edited, dammit:

Be aware that there’s a body of scholarly literature about roleplaying already in existence. There’s ten or fifteen books you have to read so you won’t make a fool of yourself by repeating stuff that’s already been done in the US, in the Nordic countries or in other parts of the world. The joy of writing about roleplaying is that there are so many essentials still to be discovered, but things are already much more advanced than they were ten years ago.

For serious: do your research. There’s nothing lamer than not researching. Anna Westerling:

Talk to people, read books written from people inside the movement and really do your research. My experience with people writing critically about larp is that they are usually so ill-informed so their criticism falls flat.

Aaron Vanek reminds us that there are books about roleplay that aren’t written by Finnish researchers — there are other Scandinavian countries after all:

Read what others have done before you, and be sure to give these giants credit. If you are going to write critically about larp, it’s essential that you read the Knutepunkt books.

Consider the context, says Emma Wieslander:

Roleplay is a medium (or more). When you analyze literature you do Ann Rice and Herta Muller in different ways (although comparisons can be fun and fruitful). Same with movies. The Bourne films, anything by Woody Allen and Hollywood rom-com are all produced in their own contexts and should be criticized and analyzed together with context.

Writing about these medias are exactly the same. [The audience might be smaller,] as most games aren’t reproduced the way plays are and you might get a different reception as these medias have not yet achieved the status of being thought of as “art” the same ways some other mediums are perceived to be works of art to a higher or lower degree. But yay!! Go ahead and write. As the media itself is based on storytelling, all forms of text are a good thing.

Amber Eagar recommends variety:

Don’t limit yourself to one genre or style; play many styles and genres of games because each game, style and genre will teach you something different. Chat with others who study and have written about such topics and ask them their view points and debate (and I mean debate, not argue about) design theory to terminology to whatever interests you. Lastly, respect those who have knowledge and are willing to share it with you. Their view may not be exactly as you see something because larp game studies in the US is a budding field (and everyone will have their own opinions about things), but respect them for helping to pave the way for you and provide you a groundwork they may not have had.

Sarah Bowman outlines some classic pitfalls:

  • Do not make broad generalizations based on your limited experience in your region of the world. Keep in mind that all sorts of inventive and experimental forms of role-playing exist out there.
  • Try to avoid focusing on the stigmatization of role-players by mainstream society. While role-playing groups are often marginalized, emphasizing that element of the experience can color the positive elements.
  • Do not be afraid to contact other role-playing scholars. Just like in role-playing games, scholarly work is stronger when multiple voices are considered.
  • Conduct interviews with as many role-players as you can in order to get a varied range of responses. You may be surprised at the variety of perspectives and the notions you personally take for granted. Since role-playing is a first-person experience, the best way to study these moments is by talking to actual role-players, not just game designers or scholars.
  • Do not let people dissuade you from writing about ‘controversial’ material. Be proud of your work and be brave enough to share your observations with the world. .

Geoffrey Schaller, Avonelle Wing, and Michael Pucci remind you to try larp before you write about it:

Geoffrey: You cannot write about something without understanding it.  Just like a biologist cannot write about a new theory with any conviction unless they understand the subject matter, you cannot write about roleplay without some level of experience in the area.  Fortunately, dissecting dead frogs is not a requirement for RP. 😉  Dive in, have fun, and get to know your new subject from as many different angles as possible – Player, Writer, GM, Staff, etc.

Avonelle: There’s no way to understand the catharsis that comes for a well-executed scene or an artful exchange without immersing yourself in the experience first-hand.  I’m sure it’s possible to imagine it, and to come to an intellectual understanding, but until you’ve crafted a character, executed a self-driven plot or saved the day, there’s no way to properly appreciate how it feels and why it’s so potent.

Michael: Ask Lizzie Stark.  But seriously, I would say immerse yourself in the world Gonzo journalism-style and don’t try to observe it as an outsider.  If you observe it as an outsider, you just won’t get it.  Roleplaying isn’t like an organized sport where it can be completely appreciated from the outside.  A large portion of roleplaying is about immersion, and without being a part of the world, you can’t really write about the world.

And since I wrote a book, I’ll pitch in my $0.02:

  • Make your narrative compelling — put only the most interesting stuff in there. Sometimes, that’ll mean writing from a first-person perspective.
  • Don’t be afraid of complexity — if the facts don’t fit your theory just say so.
  • In addition to playing, interviewing gamers, and reading past research, do keep your eyes open so that you can write vividly about the fascinating scenes you’re sure to witness.

And it doesn’t hurt to talk to some Finnish people.


Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish journalist, tv producer and game designer. He has published three books and been translated into five languages.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Lizzie Stark is the author of Leaving Mundania, a narrative nonfiction book about larp aimed at a mainstream audience and due out from Chicago Review Press in May 2012. But you probably knew that.

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Other First-Time Guides