The Feng Shui of Larp: The golden chair-to-butt ratio

When it comes to larp, venue matters, because spatial design is a huge part of the experience of a larp.

On some level, this is obvious. Harry Potter in a real freaking castle is way cooler than Harry Potter in a hotel room. Playing Inside Hamlet in the castle where Shakespeare set Hamlet is way cooler than Hamlet played in my apartment. All of which goes to show that the venue for a larp can have wow factor. And of course, a castle does more than merely impress the participants–it can also help them feel more in character.

Today I want to move beyond the “wow” factor and the idea of immersion though, so that we can talk about something far more important: furniture arrangement. Most of us aren’t renting out castles or battleships–we’re running stuff in empty hotel ballrooms, classrooms, houses or hotel rooms. And even in these settings–perhaps particularly in these settings–setting up the space can make or break a game. In this post, I’ll share three brief case studies that illustrate a few basics of spatial design.

Furniture Structures Space & Provides Play Opportunities

I’ve run Matthijs Holter and Fredrik Hossman’s Before and After Silence twice. In this game, participants are completely silent for one hour, but can interact with each other physically. Each participant has a different “setting card,” a tool that they use to interpret the action. So my card might tell me that we’re all silent because we’re telepaths and don’t need speech, and yours might say that we’re all waiting to be executed for a political crime in the morning.

I ran this game at Dreamation on a set that had no chairs nor tables. It went great. A few months later, playwright César Alvarez asked me to run it for his interactive theater class at Harvard. While we were setting up the space, César looked thoughtfully out onto the floor and said, “can we put some boxes into this space? I feel like we need some levels. That’s what we’d say in theater, that the set ‘needs some levels.'” There were a number of plain black boxes around, and we added a couple to different corners of the set and in different arrangements.

During the game I noticed that these boxes really allowed for some cool play. Participants perched, stood, and gathered around them. They provided opportunities for interaction and gave us something to play with. The boxes structured the space. On some level, that’s what all larp furniture does–it structures the space, and when done right it permits new sorts of interaction.

Lesson: Be thoughtful about the furniture you use. And levels are, indeed, visually striking and give players new opportunities for play. Also, theater people are smart–they would probably great sources of set design knowledge!

Too Many Chairs is Bad

Furniture does more than provide play opportunities. Bad furniture, I’m afraid, can also shut things down.

I have run Tor Kjetil Edland’s Limbo on two occasions, for about 30 participants. Limbo is a game about folks stuck in between life and death, who are choosing where to spend the rest of eternity. None of the characters know each other, so it plays like a big cocktail party about existential emotions.

In the first run, we had fewer seats than people. A snack table took up one end of the room we’d booked–a church parlor–and the other had an altar with candles and pictures on it, for quiet moments. In between, we had two lounge-like areas, with a few chairs clustered together. The participants circulated freely throughout the space, sometimes sitting, and sometimes being drawn to the snack table or the altar.

In the second run, I had less time and only a classroom to work with. We also had tons of new roleplayers who weren’t sure what to do. The entire room was ringed with chairs and couches, with a big open space in the middle. Guess what happened? No one wanted to stand in the middle of the space, and the shy players wanted to sit on the fringes of the room. Because there were more chairs than people, no one was obligated to move for politeness’ sake. Some of the more scared players sat quietly in chairs for the bulk of the game, making interacting with them difficult.

The LessonA chair-to-butt ratio of 0.5 or less means that players have incentive to move around and in moving around they talk to one another. 

Fit Your Spatial Design to the Desired Interaction

I’ve participated in four or five runs of J. Tuomas Harvianen’s short larp The Tribunal, as both a player and a facilitator. The game is about a bunch of soldiers in the dystopian future. Someone in their unit has been accused of stealing food, and they know that person didn’t do it. But saying this may get them shot. The larp takes place while they are in a holding cell together awaiting the tribunal and trying to get their story straight. It’s a tense game in which the characters argue and try to persuade one another.

In the first run I participated in, which Jason Morningstar facilitated at Gen Con 2012, we played in a huge ballroom. We sectioned off half of the space, and we had a good game. We wandered in the large space, which was big enough that we could all stand around in a large circle–that made private conversations difficult.

The next day Jason needed another player to make a second game run, so I joined again. This time, we were in a smaller room, and since he’d learned from the first run, Jason squashed the 10 of us in one third of the space, using chairs to make the boundary. That claustrophobia fit the setting of the larp very well, and being penned in made us all more tense. In the small space, we weren’t able to make one big circle for more than a short period of time–this facilitated many small conversations.

The Lesson: The way you constrain or liberate the space can greatly enhance roleplay. Before you run a game, think about what sort of interaction you’d like the players to have, and brainstorm ways to set up the space to facilitate that.

Got more hints, tips, and tricks that I missed? Post ’em in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “The Feng Shui of Larp: The golden chair-to-butt ratio

  1. …and over on G+ the wonderful Eva has uncovered another guideline–don’t put chairs up against a wall if you can avoid it, because players are especially prone to getting stuck there. If you pull them out from the wall far enough (venue permitting) than it’s possible to approach people from behind to engage them in conversation.

  2. Coming from a LARPing tradition where secrets and the flow of information are a big part of game structure, and being fond of intense one-on-one scenes, I often find too-small spaces hampering my play because there’s no room for privacy. Even in the sort of game where secrets and privacy are important, though, it’s also important not to make the game-space *too* big, though — you want enough player density to encourage frequent interactions and not have people spend all their time wandering around wondering where everyone else is.

  3. We’ve also found in our larping group (the MIT Assassin’s Guild) that the presence or absence of “private spaces” also has a huge impact on a lot of game dynamics; setting a game in something like a ballroom where you are always in line of sight of everyone and people can overhear you by just drifting closer to you, versus in a place where you have access to several smaller rooms (or even just a room with some alcoves that can break line of sight) makes a huge difference. People are far more likely to engage in diplomacy via public-speechmaking and appeals to people’s better nature if they’re restricted to a room where everyone can at least sort of see them anyway, but as soon as you give them a back corner to sneak off into, they’re going to be making private deals and diplomacy turns into a bunch of two and three way pacts that are often a lot more vicious.

    So… if you want your diplomats to form the UN and have a love-fest, put them in a big room; if you want them to start wars, put up some screens or something so that they can form little alliances in secret…