Larp’s Oral Tradition Is Dying

Credit: Human Writes

Credit: Human Writes

Larp is a young art form, and for most of its life, it’s been part of a largely oral tradition. This makes some sense–larp is ethereal, existing only in a particular time and place–and it’s hard to hang on to a ghost except through stories and memory. Today I want to talk about how larp’s oral tradition shapes larp culture and the emerging written tradition might change that.*

Larp is moving from a largely oral tradition to a largely written one.

In folklore, and oral tradition is one where information and cultural practices are transferred from one generation to another via speech. As a young art form, larp is just at the cusp of being two or so generations old, and as it gets older, more and more of the traditions are being written down. So I’d like to dispense with the generational requirement and say that the oral tradition in larp consists of all the wonderful tips and tricks on exotic larp mechanics and on how to play, design, and run games that are trapped in the heads of the current generation of larp elders, and have not yet been written down.

I think larp is undergoing a shift where it is moving from a substantially oral tradition to a written tradition. But, Lizzie, you say, there are lots of books about roleplaying. Sure, many larps in the US have always had extensive rulebooks, but, say, the Vampire: The Masquerade sourcebook tells me nothing about what happened at your event last weekend and how you employed these guidelines to create a scintillating story. The rulebook is the tool, but the oral tradition is what enables people to use that tool to create art.

In recent years in the Nordic countries and elsewhere, larp documentation has come into vogue. For example, the hugely influential 2010 coffee table book Nordic Larp (now available for free download) included photos and essays of a few dozen games from Nordic larp’s 15-year history. The recent Larps from the Factory collected instructions on how to make a few dozen short larps from the Norwegian scenes in Oslo and Trondheim, as well as collecting some information on the cultural context of these games. In the last two years, no fewer than four books have been published, each documenting a single run of a weekend larp, including the Mad About the Boy book from the US run of the all-women game, the Kapo book on the prison larp, the Just a Little Lovin’ book about the Danish run of a larp about the summer AIDS came to New York City and the White War book about soldiers deployed to a culturally different locale (all free downloads).

And yet, for all this writing, for all the rulebooks, documentation books, and theory books, there is plenty of practical information that has not been written down. For example, you will not find instructions on how to run a Norwegian improvised ritual workshop or an Ars Amandi (technique for using arm-touching to represent emotional and physical intimacy) workshop in print.  There is not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps; only incomplete lists of game mechanics exist; many larpwrights do not write down instructions for their games, rendering it difficult to know what has been tried; and there has been precious little written about some vital components of larp-organizing, such as dealing with problem players, how to be inclusive, and how to push scenes as an organizer to make them more satisfactory for everyone.

Some of these textual silences are simply the product of a tradition still in its infancy–folks haven’t gotten around to writing them down yet–and some of these silences are strategic.

The oral tradition has advantages.

Keeping certain information oral is a way of controlling access to the information. A few weeks ago I met an Australian game designer who liked to create intense, real-life narratives. She does not make scripts for her games, she told me, because they can produce powerful experiences for the players. She feels responsible for her creation and doesn’t feel comfortable putting it in just anyone’s hands. This means that if you want to run her games, you have to meet her, which gives her a chance to check you out and make sure you’re OK.

Oral traditions produce a chain of custody for certain types of knowledge. If I want to run a ritual workshop and benefit from the expertise of seasoned veterans, then I have to find a knowledgeable person and personally ask them for the knowledge. And they, in turn, can decide whether I am worthy and capable of both producing the workshop and respecting the tradition. It also means that I get the knowledge from the source on a personal level and can ask follow-ups and for advice. In contrast, when learning from a written document, one has only the text, which can be open to misinterpretation, and certainly can’t field your questions afterward.

Oral traditions control and confine the reach of a piece of knowledge, and this raises some interesting questions. In cultures that pride themselves on egalitarianism, is it moral or just that I as an individual get to decide what the masses can handle and what they can’t? If I create something mindblowing, should I drop that on an unsuspecting public or create a community that will view it in the right context? It probably depends on whether the technique in question is more like atomic energy–useful but hard to control and catastrophic in the right circumstances–or fire–a basic need that is relatively easy to control the bulk of the time.

Writing stuff down creates abstraction.

41NkedRSiWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write, he talks about what happened when the Greeks moved from an oral culture to a written culture–one of the rare examples of a culture adopting writing naturally, rather than having it thrust upon them. You can see the process happen through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was not literate, Plato could write but wasn’t a literate native, and Aristotle grew up in a world with the technology of writing. Similarly, their theory goes from concrete to abstract. Socrates asks famous people questions about concepts that seem concrete but are actually complex and slipper, concepts like “justice.” His student Plato knows how to write but still uses oral formats–stories and dialogues–to get his philosophical points across. He develops a more abstract theory of forms–the idea that all apples are apples because they access the form of the ideal apple–the platonic form. Then you get to Plato’s student Aristotle, and suddenly we aren’t talking about forms, but about abstract concepts like being and matter.

Similarly, in larp, we’ve started out writing down rules systems and play experiences, which seem concrete to me. Now we’re in a great age of naming subtle things about the roleplay experience from bleed (the mixing of player and character emotions) to steering (being nice to that new kid by the punch table even though your characters have no reason to talk) and other theories. I’d say these are useful abstractions because they give larpers vocabulary to talk about game nuance. There is also a lot of academic theory about larp that is impenetrable to the layman. And obviously we didn’t have that until people started studying larp and writing about it.

Writing a tradition down changes it.

“Gather round, children, and listen to me tell the story of how I journeyed to the brink of Mount Doom to throw the one ring into the lava flow. It was back in ’73, and you have to understand that I was feeling a little peckish on my first day in the field…”

When a tradition is oral, you have to experience it in whatever way the teller chooses. Maybe that involves a long, rambling start that provides lots of contextual information. Maybe that involves learning about the simplest things first, and only then learning about the complex things, if the speaker thinks that best. Oral traditions can provide a lot of deep context.

When a tradition is written, the audience has control of how they experience the narratives. You think my blog post is boring, so you skimmed to the end. I open up the instructional book on writing larps, and I skip from how to craft a compelling adventure narrative past the psychological safety section, and straight to the part that tells me how to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. As a reader, I can skip around important contextual information and the beginner’s exercises.

Written traditions also let you bypass the informative, but often very dull step of trial and error; instead of trying seven ways to make a mechanic for violence work, I can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. But this knowledge comes at the expense of a deeper contextual understanding of the work, and at the risk that I am simply blindly repeating what is known to work because it’s always been that way.

Writing down a tradition changes how the audience experiences it. I think the pan-Nordic scene is at an interesting place in its development, as the first wave of larpwrights tries to figure out how to transmit its deep knowledge to the next generation through such ventures as the larpwriter summer school. It’s coming up with pedagogical frameworks and a curriculum to teach the next generation how to do what it does, without having to suffer through 15-20 years of experimentation. And that requires codifying some of the concepts around larp design and putting that deep experiential knowledge into words, with all the consequences that entails.


* Disclaimer: Today I tread into the land of folklore studies, but I’m not a folklorist nor well-read in the field. I did bounce some ideas off of my father-in-law, who is a professor of an African oral tradition and who has taught folklore and told me about some of the common dilemmas, which appear in this post but chances are good that I’m not using language as precisely as a real folklorist would, and/or that I’m repeating ideas that are old-hat to folklorists. Your mileage may vary.


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22 thoughts on “Larp’s Oral Tradition Is Dying

  1. I’m not sure that the oral tradition is dying. The vast majority of interactions about gaming experiences are still happening through war stories and also debriefing to a minor degree. Yes, we have an awesome, developing literature about role-playing, but post-game storytelling is alive and well, as groups get together and spend hours upon hours discussing role-playing on various dimensions. Also, not many actual role-players are reading these higher-level discussions. Their mode of engagement is still more basic and connected to their local group. They may go to craft nights or other OOC socialization events. They may also participate in informal FB discussions, which is a grey area.

    For example, think about the last game any of us played. How many of the players actually wrote up play reports, documentation, or literary theory as a result of those experiences? Likely, they shared stories with their friends verbally, as those stories are less fatiguing. They still experience pleasuring in the telling/sharing with that actual person, watching their facial expressions (or emoticons if in chat), etc. I’m thinking of my last experience with the “afters” directly proceeding the game, where hundreds of people told stories incessantly at each other in person.

    • You make a good point. Sure, people will always tell war stories–you’re right that this will never go away. One thing I didn’t bring across in my text is that I’m more interested in the design tradition than I am in audience reaction here. For me, the part that is becoming less oral is the arcane mystery of how to design a larp. We’re seeing more larp reviews and critiques written–I’d liken those to theatrical reviews–but naturally, all the audience members have their own opinions too, and they aren’t afraid to share them.

  2. I think you’re conflating “I see more written LARP stuff now” with “writing about LARP didn’t happen before”… which frankly isn’t true. People have been writing about writing LARP for a long time. Metagame Magazine was publishing in the US back in the late 80’s, and that was about often about concepts, not just about specific rules or rule sets.

    You’ve also played up some implications of oral tradition as gatekeeping that I’m not very comfortable with. When knowledgable people hold back their wisdom in a discriminating manner it can often become discriminatory and problematic for the hobby as a whole.

    We live in a world that is totally different from that of the ancient Greeks, and I feel like you’re generalizing their transition in a way that has little bearing on how we communicate in the modern era. Writing has been around since before LARP as has the printing press. The digital communication revolution happened during the lifetime of LARP and it made a lot more of our writing both conversational and accessible.

    Writing isn’t always a writer-to-reader one way conversation any more. Putting the written word “out there” where others can access it is easier, and creating a conversation is a lot easier. I can leave comments on your blog. I can email people who write books or essays I have questions about. The dialog is a lot more complex than a simple dichotomy between writing and speaking.

  3. Kirsten and I were discussing something similar to this last night.
    At least your last part about “suffering through trial & error.”

    True, written knowledge allows you to bypass the pain of experimentation, but our discussion conclusion last night was that the pain of experimentation failure is necessary for a growing artist. Reading all about music does not make one a musician.

    I think and hope we are moving into a hybrid oral-written larp culture, where ideas can be written down to reach the masses, but those same masses are able to engage in the flesh often as well. I strongly suspect that I read larp documentation differently than someone who has never run a larp. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who makes or runs a larp ONLY after reading about one, not having ever played or run one first.

    Furthermore, putting larp design into words isn’t the same skill as putting larp design into practice. A brilliant larpwright might not be able to brilliantly communicate their process in words, especially if those words are not their native tongue.

    So this is yet another great article, but I disagree that we are moving “largely” to a written tradition–we are just starting to see writings on larp design, roughly from the last decade and a half.

    I also strongly disagree that larp is a young art form. You have a whole chapter in LM about Queen Elizabeth’s larp. I think the art of larping is ancient–predating writing, even–just the label “larp” (or the ugly “LARP” usage) is new.

    I think we’re moving into a Larp Renaissance, where we are reaching a critical mass of people aware of one another so we can start talking and writing about this weird thing we do, and it’s a dialogue.

    I’d like to see more interviews of great larpwrights, say, a YouTube series with them talking about their design process. Even if that discussion is written out (I’m thinking of Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock, which was a transcription of interviews of the master director), it still begins as an oral dialogue. And like “Hitchcock”, Truffaut knew enough about directing that he could ask the right questions to get to the heart of Hitch’s process. Truffaut learned by watching movies, then he was writing about them (Cahiers du Cinema). I feel we should be encouraging more designers to play and run their own larps first, and read about larp design as supplement. A very good supplement, but you have to have experience under your belt to understand the words. Maybe I’m wrong here,l but i don’t think our oral tradition is dying at all.

  4. Does a gradual shift to a written tradition necessarily lead to academicization, and eventually to larp design being generally taught rather than personally ‘discovered’? Reading about music does not make one a musician, as Aaron says, but to become a professional classical musician one does have to have formally studied the theory of music. And a modern-day Truffaut would I guess be typically reading their way through Cahiers du Cinema-derived film theory, before starting to write what otherwise would seem hopelessly jejune. Anxiety of influence is a very real threat.

    I’m torn myself, because I’ve hugely enjoyed my own experience of making up how to create larps as I went along. But then it is frustrating to see other people laboriously reinventing the wheel. Would the me of twenty years ago be attending the larp writer summer school now, rather than just going out and writing stuff unaware of the body of received wisdom? I’m not sure.

  5. Aaron: Queen Elizabeth and people before her did larplike stuff, yes, but modern larp really took off as its own art form with its own discourse in the 1970s, making it younger than radio, TV, and film.

    I agree that writing about larp and making great larps are two different skills. But I also think that great communicators can explain how to make great larps, and I think being able to communicate one’s vision effectively is part of being an artist.

    One thing I like about this community is that it’s relatively small, which means it’s possible to know most of the players and network to reach them, but large enough that there are always traditions one hasn’t heard of. I also think that having clear written instructions is really important because there are tons of people who don’t feel comfortable reaching out on a personal level.

    Mo: on a personal level, watching people rediscover fire is both thrilling–they are so excited!–but it mostly just drives me crazy. Yes, experimentation is good and iteration is a necessary facet of larp design, but I’d just as soon skip through all the really boring experimentation to get to the cutting edge.

    Eva: I’m definitely aware that writing about larp has been happening for a long time, both in terms of producing game materials and in terms of writing about roleplaying hobbies, as with Gary Alan Fine’s book from the 1970s about Dungeons & Dragons. But recently, there has been a real push to get people to write down instructions for short larps, and to document games, and to write down their methods for developing games, that is creating a larger repository of advice than ever before. I’d point to ventures like the Nordic Larp Wiki and the US Larp Wiki and to places like as part of this tradition.

    I think the oral tradition is a gatekeeping tradition. I’m not saying that it’s good or that it’s bad, only that it exists. Writing things down democratizes the spread of knowledge by making it replicable and widely accessible. There are surely arguments for total transparency and publishing everything, but maybe there are some arguments for gatekeeping too–it all depends on what one wishes to prioritize.

    I included the ancient greeks in this text as an example of how this framework can work–and because I did not want to name drop a tome that inspired my next thought without providing some context to people who had not read it. Of course we are different–we are all literate and have grown up that way–but my point is that often by writing things down, people develop increasingly complex theories. Surely, we wouldn’t have theories about how larp might interact with Huizinga’s formulation of the “magic circle,” and fashionable concepts such as steering, alibi, bleed, coherence, and GNS theory–or at least not as widely influential and discussed–without a vibrant written culture dedicated to analyzing and theorizing around larp.

    I also agree, naturally, that you can talk back to writers via a blog, but that itself constitutes an act of putting beliefs into words on a page for the whole internet to see. It’s like the micro-transaction version of publishing papers that respond to other people’s papers, which is a technology that’s been around for a long time.

  6. Lizzie, I’m going to have to disagree with you slightly based on what you’re saying in your last paragraph. There is a fundamental difference in how we communicate using words from how people say 200 years ago did. We are having conversations and I don’t see a big difference in how I communicate via an AIM chat and face to face. Yes, I get more social context face to face, but it forms the same kind of conversation. Just putting something in text doesn’t magically make it different than a spoken voice.

  7. There is not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps

    Jeff Diewald’s BYOG notes. Johanna Mead’s unsolicited advice for larpers. Steve Hatherley has a wealth of articles, originally at FLAR, now at the UK Freeforms wiki. And then there’s the stuff lost to link-rot. We’ve been pointing people who want a bit of advice to check against what they’d learned from play at these resources for years. But in this era, the way people come to write these games is to play a few, maybe read a few as well, which gives them a handle on what they do and don’t like and what they think they can do better.

    As for the rest, it might have been better to preface every mention of “larp” with “(Nordic)”. Because while they’re an influential tradition (precisely because they publish), they’re not the whole thing, and its a mistake to assume that their issues (assuming they are issues) are universal.

    • IS: I’m delighted to learn more about these several resources–thank you for linking them. However, compared to say, the number of books on how to write a novel or movie script, I would indeed say that there is “not much written information on how to design short, tight one-shot larps.”

      I’m sorry you don’t like the way I’m using the word “larp,” but as a member of several larp communities my assessment is true to my own experience. So I’m not assuming that the Nordic experience is universal, I’m writing from my own experience, which includes participating in the US boffer scene on the East Coast, the American freeform scene, the chamber larp scene on the east coast, and contact with larpers all over the world, from Brazil to the Czech Republic, Latvia, and even Palestine. As you say, the Nordic tradition publishes a lot, and this is part of why they are influential. All universals do break down eventually, and of course neither I nor any one person could possibly know everything about larp, but at least give me credit for knowing the beat beyond the Nordic community.

      Eva: I understand your point, but in my experience, speaking with people–even on the phone–gives contextual vocal tone that informs the speaker’s meaning. In my experience it’s much easier to start fights over email because something I’ve written in jest gets taken seriously, and the reader misunderstands, and then it takes twice as long to fix the slight when I’m working in text. Now I know to pick up the phone when things start getting tense over email!

  8. Also, not many actual role-players are reading these higher-level discussions.

    Pretty much. One of the problems of the Knutpunkt/academic discourse is that most of it is so divorced from actual play as to be irrelevant. So it gets heavily filtered before being introduced into the conversation. Useful concepts like “bleed” and “the 360 illusion” get picked up. Things like “diagesis” get ignored. Design techniques (framework games, workshops) and mechanics (monologues) get pillaged and adapted. Rants about the purpose of larp get left to those who care.

    Game documentation and published games are of course a different kettle of fish.

  9. Of course there’s less advice on writing one-shot larps than there is for novels and filmscripts. We’re a younger format, a largely non-commercial one, and (most importantly) there are vastly fewer such writers than there are novelists and scriptwriters. The level of infrastructure is correspondingly smaller (and basically limited to stuff people wrote down for their friends to try and steer them away from first-game mistakes).

    As for which communities you’re talking about: five of your six examples are Nordic, the other heavily influenced. So, please excuse me for drawing the obvious conclusion.

  10. Lizzie, I think the other problem I’m having with the voice / text distinction you’re making is that it implies that deaf people are fundamentally incapable of communicating with hearing people on the same level as other hearing people… and as someone who grew up with deaf friends, I have a pretty serious issue with that idea. Everyone communicates differently whether they’re speaking or typing and different people take in different streams of input in different ways. That has more to do with ability and learning style than it does the medium you’re using.

    I guess another way to put it is, the voice vs text dichotomy isn’t the same as the dichotomy between a published book and a phone call… those are only two of many ways we use text and voices.

    • I don’t think I implied anything of the sort. Yes, I think seeing people in person changes how you communicate with them. I communicate differently with my mother on the phone than I do in emails than I do in person. When you see people in person you have more contextual information about them and that changes the dialogue. When non-written communication happens, you have to receive it by actively listening to the person–and if you want to hear what they have to say then you have to at their pace and in their order. When you read a text you can skim and skip to the end. It doesn’t matter whether the voice is emanating from vocal chords or from fingers via sign language.

  11. I wonder if there’s a sense in which oral traditions must either become written traditions, or else likely eventually get out-competed by those ‘rival’ traditions that do write things down.

    Nordic larp has successfully captured a great deal of mindspace in the last few years by means of its readily available documentation. Larp traditions that prefer to stay strictly oral may find themselves relatively diminishing in recognition-value and in perceived importance.

    Socrates would be a very obscure figure today, had Plato and Xenophon not written down his teachings.

  12. Mo: You make a good point.

    I think it’s worth thinking about what “success” means in terms of being out-competed. One thing about oral traditions is that they keep culture local. Want to know how the Latvians larp? Maybe you have to go to Latvia in order to find out how they do it, if no one’s had the time or inclination to write about it.

    My father-in-law has been part of writing down a Ghanaian tradition of music. That he’s done so has not made it any more popular in Ghana, I’d say–but the culture around this music is still robust there. So it’s not in danger of being out-competed in the local marketplace. Of course, writing it down makes it easier for people in other places in the world to encounter its awesomeness. And certainly, pop music is more popular globally than Ghanaian drumming so it has been “out-competed” in that sense.

    So maybe that’s worth saying: keeping culture oral confines it locally, and that is not necessarily good or bad–if you’re mostly interested in your local community, it might be good!

  13. I guess local cultural forms are going to have a range of responses to coming into contact with a global/hegemonic form that also develops influence in that locale. In some cases they’ll remain unchanged; in some cases will engage in a dialogue, evolve in response, and maybe feed their own influence back out; and in some cases will disappear.

    Nordic larp is the closest thing we currently have to a global form, because of its expressly willed internationalism backed up by the writing thing; but it doesn’t seem too oppressive a one. Hopefully if Nordic-style larp takes off in Latvia, and by means of documentation gains a higher profile than domestic Lativan larp forms, it’ll be engaging with and learning from them rather than killing them off.

  14. I apologize in advance that this is written from my own perspective, which isn’t even Nordic – just Danish. I wish I could become more of a cosmopolitan – but I’m afraid that’s part of becoming a parent: You tend not to travel as much as you’d like to, making networking somewhat more difficult 🙂

    Anyway, some notes about the written tradition in Denmark, and what it has meant for us:
    Back in the late nineties, I was part of an initiative called ‘Project R’lyeh’. Our goal was to collect 100 Danish con scenarios and make them available online.
    Today that doesn’t sound like too much of a chore: Just write to the authors and make them send you a pdf. But back then a lot of people didn’t have internet yet, and scenarios were sometimes even written out on a typewriter. Also, since the authors weren’t invested in our project (in fact, nobody thought we’d succeed – they were wrong, we did, though it took us more than 10 years in the end!), they weren’t even willing to throw their stuff in an envelope and mail it to us. So instead we had to physically go to geographical locations all over Denmark (yeah, it’s a small country, but still…). We borrowed the only existing copy, and we went through the tedious process of OCR-ing every text and re-layouting it. It took… forever.
    Okay, but where am I going with this: The reason why we did it was that we recognised that only by gathering written material in one, easily accessible place (the internet) were we able to create a roleplaying canon. Without a canon, we would never be able to stand on each other’s shoulders. Without standing on each other’s shoulders, roleplaying would never evolve beyond a certain point. As Mo says, we’d be constantly reinventing the wheel.
    Because the convention Fastaval (and sometimes Viking-Con) were the only places that demanded of their scenario writers that they had to write all their thoughts about story and design down, our project became devoted to those conventions. Today the tradition of writing things down pretty much defines convention RPG in Denmark. The reason is that, as opposed to the oral tradition, it is more than just a flighty moment in time. It is here to stay.

    However, our larping scene has never had that written tradition (unless you define Fastaval scenarios as chamber larps, which I know that some do). That is why it has taken much longer to develop. Interesting, advanced larps were written back in the mid-nineties when I started larping. The things that are being made today are generally of the same quality as they were 10 years ago. An example is the Swedish larp Mellan himmel och hav (2003), which experimented with gender roles. (I believe Ars Amandi was developed for it). The one exception is when the larp draws inspiration from the much more developed con scenario tradition, such as the Blackbox scenario does (, or the groundbreaking Danish larp Delirium did (
    There are lots of good things to be said about the written tradition. However, Lizzie is right that we should also be aware of the things that we are missing out on. Because there are still elements of larping that language doesn’t capture.
    Norwegian game designer Matthijs Holter and I once had a conversation about the magic of what happens between two bodies that interact. In the Western world, we have always been eager to distance ourselves from the body. Thus we wind up in a struggle between physical drives and the logic of the mind (I know Freud has a term for this, but you’ll have to excuse me, my knowledge of psychoanalysis is a bit rusty). We like to think that our brain is in charge. But really, sometimes it’s not.
    When larping, we make our bodies do stuff: We become intimate with strangers, we fight, we love… And sometimes the mind gets confused, because it is, after all, connected to our bodies (or even one with them if you are completely prepared to let go of the trad Christian dualistic way of thinking). That’s when we experience bleed. That’s when we wind up with post larp crushes or irrational aversions against people who were actually just playing their part.
    Matthijs told me that sometimes in couple’s therapy, the therapist will ask the participants to look into each other’s eyes and repeat the words ‘I love you’. When this has been done enough times, people actually start to feel it! What happens in larps is sometimes similar: By doing something with your body, you might really start to feel it. And at other times, of course, you feel completely disconnected. There are no guaranties. Annoyingly, the chemistry between the players has to be right for the magic to happen. The moment has to be right.
    There is an element of roleplaying which is about physicality. It cannot be read or written down. It has to be experienced. The written tradition tends not to notice this part. However, that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t serve us well to start acknowledging it – and maybe even writing about it.
    An example of a con scenario that uses a lot of physical expression is Evan Torner’s ‘Metropolis’ from 2013 ( I really can’t explain exactly what it is that this scenario does to its players, except that your body becomes part of the world building and storytelling in a way that I consider really unique. It’s a good example of what I’m talking about: Something that might look simple, even somewhat childish, on paper – but when it plays out, it’s like magic.

    On a side note: In my academic life, which does by now seem a bit distant (ahem), I once wrote a thesis about the difference between communication on the internet and face-to-face communication. There are certainly huge differences between written and spoken text. Some examples are ‘emotive’ and ‘phatic’ language, which are difficult to use in written language (link to Roman Jakobson’s terminology here:'s_functions_of_language). And then we haven’t even gotten as far as to body language, and how it connects with empathy. Or the fact that in a dialogue, you can ask for clarification, whereas most instructive texts (such as descriptions of RPGs) are monologues.

  15. I don’t think that a majority of game design knowledge is being transmitted in written form (though I agree the written form is gaining some traction), I think considering the full breadth of larp styles that knowledge is still being transmitted overwhelmingly as an oral tradition.

    Written traditions create the illusion that they are a majority because they have more visibility by virtue of being written. As someone who enjoys reading about larp on the internet, I have access to most of the English-language written tradition out there. I can see it all, and so it seems like a lot. What I can’t see are the countless conversations and oral-retellings that are going on in larps I don’t play, even in my home state. Because of that, it’s easy to forget how dominant that form of transmission are, because you’ll only ever see the very tip of it.

    Regionally, the transmission of boffer-larp design knowledge is almost entirely through what I’d characterize as an apprenticeship model. Designers go from junior staff, to senior staff, to organizing their own events. From what I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had, this model seems to hold true through the U.S., and beyond. The local theater tradition has some written materials, but it’s dwarfed by the oral tradition and the apprenticeship model.

    • I think larp has changed to become a tradition similar to the theatre, where an oral/practical tradition supplements and is supplemented by the written world of scripts and theory. And where you have multiple sub-traditions with varying degrees of textual, verbal and physical transmission.

      On one hand, you can read an Ibsen play, and form a meaningful understanding of the text without ever having seen it performed. On the other hand, you have people like Grotowski, whose ideas (all written down) can’t really be understood unless you watch them performed by someone who was trained by someone who was trained by Grotowski.

      The inter-Nordic (now: international) conversation about larp has given us the textual world of theory, scripts and documentation. But it has also cultivated works such as “The White Death” and “The Innocents” (both by Nina Runa Essendrop) that are so intensely physical they defy words, and so deeply experiential as to render documentation meaningless.

      Things like Ars Amandi and Norwegian Ritual Improv are somewhere in the middle. They can be described, perfectly, in text – if you have the right words. But it would require very diligent readers with plenty of time to translate those words into action. Communicating those practices through workshops, or simply by doing them together with someone who was already initiated, is much more effective.

      • I agree that a script does not provide the experience of the larp itself. But to me, following a script for something like Ars Amandi workshop (or maybe even The White Death) basically requires the reader to trust the method. That to me is the magic of some of these scripts–they can look lame on paper, but if one simply trusts the method, it’s possible to transmit something wonderful and profound that approximates the original experience across the ocean. And the beauty of doing something like running a Fastaval scenario (which we do consider tiny chamber larps here, more or less) in the US is that the players bring their own culture of play with them, which transforms the text into its own haptic experience.

        I guess what I’m saying is that the methods can be explained, but not felt on paper, and the feeling depends on the culture of the players quite a lot. Anyway, I don’t necessarily think it’s bad that the written tradition is on the rise–as a writer, I take a rather pro-word stance, and I think there’s almost nothing that can’t be translated into words with care and thought. But it is changing the way we think about larp, and the ways we interact with one another.

  16. Lizzi Slark,
    I am very much eager to know your opinion regarding the benefits of oral tradition and how it has found to be linked with storytelling. I want to know how storytelling can heal the wounds of indegenous people.

    • You might want to look into the research of Gabriel de los Angelos, who is working in the field of larp and indigenous people.