A comment on ‘Brute Force’ design of larp
I recently read this piece by Eirik Fatland and Markus Montola on what they call ‘Brute Force’ larp design. The piece analyses two larps: The Monitor Celestra and the College of Wizardry, that both received viral attention and attracted players – and commercial interest – far beyond the Nordic larp scene. Within the scene, they were also two of the productions with the highest participant fees ever, opening a route towards commercial viability (remember that these still were non-commercial fandom larps).
The reason that I want to comment on the article is that Christopher Sandberg has criticised it in semi-public. Since I can’t link to his criticism here, I will briefly summarise it: Christopher argues that the design principles brought forward as key elements by Eirik and Markus were in fact problems and design issues, and that the key to blockbuster success was that both larps attached themselves to well-known IPs.
Firstly, it’s interesting to see what Eirik and Markus are trying to do: they are trying to outline what they see as a new and potentially commercially viable approach to Nordic larp design. We may even call it a genre. Attempting this on the basis of exactly two larps is of course a bit dangerous. With a data set of two, you are bound to uncover design choices that are similar but may have very little to do with how the larps played out, and underplay crucial design decisions that may have been instrumental – but different – in the respective productions.
So, let’s abstract a bit, to see what Eirik and Markus include as common design elements for the two productions. The highlighted design choices can be summarized as
- An established IP and a cool location,
- A ‘more is more’ approach, incorporating basically every trick in the book from classical fantasy larp design, and
- Various design elements brought in from art-house Nordic larp.
What I find particularly interesting with the text is that in arguing for this as a ‘blockbuster formula for Nordic larp’, the authors prioritize quantitative evaluation over the experience of the individual player. Celestra faced problems with individual players being extremely dissatisfied, and both larps have been described also by players that enjoyed them as ‘not very good larps’. In selecting a quantitative approach, the authors deliberately take a step towards mass-market approaches of larp evaluation. They are establishing a ‘Candy Crush’ attitude towards the study of larp, where Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry stand as models for larps that people are willing to pay for playing – but not necessarily like. (I don’t mean that this was a design strategy from the designers, nor that these were bad larps. It’s the approach to analysis I’m talking about.)
From this perspective, the central question becomes if there is a design approach emerging here that is at the same time key to success for the many, and a source of problems for the individual. Markus and Eirik seem to argue that there is, whereas Christopher argues that the problems can, and should be, eliminated. I think we can isolate the core issue as ‘plot trains’ and I need to dig a bit deeper into the highlighted design features to get at the controversy.
Firstly, the established IP. No controversy here. All three agree that this is a good thing, but not only because it generates hype and viral attention. Where old-style fantasy larps came with extensive world creation documents (the infamous ‘wall of text’), the use of well-known IPs means that the players already understand the world and knows how to act in it. Without much preparation, the players are able to co-create the fantasy and escapism that is a fundamental factor in the positive experience for these larps. A cool location – a battleship and a genuine castle, respectively – has essentially the same effect.
The controversy arises from the ‘more is more’ approach. Included in this design feature are things like overt command hierarchies that can be adhered to or subverted (teachers vs students, officers versus privates), prepared conflicts (rebels vs reactionaries, enemies and allies), secrets and quests given as personal information beforehand, and plot twists and quests introduced during play through NPC characters. Both larps used all of these, in abundance, and the effect was that there was “a lot going on all of the time”. Crudely summarising Markus and Eirik, they argue that this is at the same time a problem and an asset: while this means that there is always something to do and a plot to catch onto, the risk is that your attempt to play on a certain plot collides with another group on another quest; you ‘get run over by a plot train’.
But this must happen in traditional fantasy larp as well, yes? But this is where the last design feature comes in: these weren’t designed to be traditional larps. In particular, both productions included instructions to ‘play to lose’. As Eirik and Markus point out, this instruction is a very strong indicator of a larp that emphasises drama and narrative over competitive / gamistic play or even simulation. (Compare this to when Bøckman depicts a dramatist player as someone who “decides this would be a fine time to make a dramatic scene, and sacrifices him selves for the town, without regard for the role’s agenda”.) Furthermore, both larps combined this with rules of combat that emphasised its narrative rather than competitive role.
Thing is, dramatic play is hard. In a previous post, I discussed how dramatic play emerges from a mutual engagement in collective storymaking. It requires a fair amount of agency and negotiation. In this context, being run over by a plot train is not just irritating but outright destructive. If you play to win and lose, it still makes for a good story. If you play to lose and fail to do so, you end up with no story at all. (Christopher’s critique is more elaborate than this, but for me this is a core issue.)
Will the problem go away? The blockbuster formula article may be mistaken in concluding that the ‘more is more’ approach is a key feature. College of Wizardry indeed toned it down a bit in its later runs, in particular by making NPC-initiated plots less important. But it is also possible that these games work well for players that go with the flow, who react more than act. The sheer abundance of content will ensure that there will always almost be something to do, some plot train to board. If the goal is to create decent experiences for many, it may be less important if the design strategy sometimes backfires for the individual player.
Bøckman, Petter. “The Three Way Model“. As Larp Grows Up (2002): 12-16.
Fatland, Eirik and Montola, Markus. “The blockbuster formula – Brute force design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry”. In ed. Nielsen and Raasted: Knudepunkt 2015 companion book, 2015. Available here.