What a Group of First-Time Larper Tweens Taught Me
The past week, I had the pleasure to run a larp summer camp aimed at children and youths ages 10-15. Over the span of the week, a group of five kids designed, built, and played their own larp under my supervision. It was a blast teaching them about character creation, plot, story, playing to lose and to lift, and much, much more. Rather than talk about that process, however, I want to talk about what I learned. Because despite, or perhaps thanks to, their age and inexperience with larp design, these kids taught me a lot about the design process, co-creation and teamwork.
Sagalinn as the ship's AI Apollo . August 2019
Lesson 1: Designing respect to unleash creativity
Facilitating group dynamics is a fulltime job. I thought I was perfectly prepared for it the first day of camp, and showed up armed with a short set of rules to assist me. I reckoned they would be basic enough for the kids to follow them without feeling restrained by too specific instructions. The rules were, in essence:
Show each other kindness and respect.
Always include everyone.
Trust and listen to the camp leader (me).
Over the course of day one, I realised these rules were absolutely worthless. Why? Because although the kids wanted to, they had no idea how to follow them in practice. They didn’t mean to be disrespectful, rude or excluding, but I hadn’t given them the tools to either notice when they were or fix it. I exchanged my vague rules for clear directives, like “listen to and look at the person who is speaking” and “wait until everyone is finished eating before you start playing”. Instead of saying “don’t do that” when they did something wrong, I told them what they should be doing. The difference was profound and instant. I think this is an important lesson to bear in mind when designing intercultural larps. Respect and kindness do not mean the same things for everyone, so using directives rather than vague umbrella terms should ease the culture clashes at international larps.
Stating and enforcing clear rules and boundaries also gave the kids more agency and freedom - they knew what kind of framework they could move within and didn’t have to restrain themselves out of fear of doing wrong. This foundation also made it easier for me to reinforce my authority as the camp leader, because I knew that the kids didn’t break any rules by mistake. When they disobeyed me, it was always as a test to see if I would let them get away with it. However, that never happened, and thus they learned to trust my word, realising there was no use to argue or whine. Instead, they had to rely on their bargaining skills and compromise with me about things such as cleaning duties and break times.
I was forced to trust my own leadership skills in order to create a safe space for these kids to unleash their creativity in. Being the core structure of this constellation left no room for self-doubt. In the future, I hope I will bring this lesson with me as I design new larps - I have to trust my own design choices and rules so that my players feel they can trust me.
Lesson 2: Sometimes there is no fix - and that’s okay
No larp is perfect for everyone, and for one of the kids at camp, it didn’t work out. Our budget production was not high-level enough to keep them immersed, we couldn’t live up to their expectations and they struggled to enjoy themselves. Being a solution-oriented larp organiser at heart, I immediately tried to isolate the problem in order to fix it. Could we tweak the game design? The story world? The character? But no matter what I proposed, this kid wouldn’t have it.
“There is no fixing this”, they said. “It’s not your fault - there’s just nothing you can do.”
It took some time and several other attempts by me, but finally, those words struck a chord. Maybe it isn’t always a design flaw or character trait that causes a player to lose interest in your larp - sometimes, it’s just not their cup of tea. Sometimes, they expected something different and simply aren’t interested in something else. Instead of trying to fix a non-fixable problem, I should have been putting my focus on running and improving the game for the majority of players. Now, they lost precious play time because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I can’t fix everything. This kid didn’t hold me accountable or blame me for this, they were just stating facts. I was the one complicating things by reading too much into it and assuming it was somehow my fault. At the larps I design in the future, I want to remember this. I want to remember I can’t fix everything, and that it’s okay when I can’t - as long as I try.
Lesson 3: The real treasure was the character development we found along the way
I was insanely proud of the larp this group created, but what hit me even harder was how much they themselves had evolved over less than a week. At the end of the camp, the messy kids automatically cleaned up after themselves, the loud and aloof ones were attentive and noticed when others started speaking, the shy and quiet one spoke with confidence and told people to listen to them when interrupted. I observed a whole new level of comfort and self-confidence in all of them as we said goodbye for the last time, and they were aware of it too. One kid said they struggled to be creative before coming to the camp, but that this had unleashed their fantasy. Saying I was touched would be an understatement, and I hope they maintain this development as they return to their mundane lives and go back to school. Larp can really change lives - sometimes not through the game itself, but through the physical and mental process of designing and/or playing it. The themes of a larp don’t have to be profound to have an impact - people can leave your larp a changed human being even if they spent most of the time just shooting invisible bullets at invisible robots.
Bonus Lesson: Children can be innovative, attentive and bloody brilliant larpers
Some of you may know that I have a passion for intergenerational storytelling. Halfdan and I hosted a panel about it at KP19, and some common concerns we noticed was the doubt that children could stay in character, contribute to play, or take things seriously during a larp. The kids at Larp Academy this week proved all of them wrong. They were invested in their characters and unafraid to play on both their strengths and weaknesses. They played each other up without me even having to teach them how to, and they took their own creative initiatives while NPCing for each other and solving in-game problems. In short, these kids used play techniques and co-creating improvisation in ways many experienced adult larpers struggle with.
Tale of the North Wind was the first intergenerational larp I have designed, and I was delighted at how well it went. Of course, there are things I would change in the design if I were to run it again, but overall adults and children interacted well with each other and the plot worked out for all of them. After running Larp Academy twice this summer, my faith in the future of larp and trust in young, new larpers have only increased. The next generation of larpers are here, right now and they’re ready for us - if only we dare let them in.
Sagalinn Leo Tangen
Avalon Larp Studio.
 First time hearing this term? Don’t worry! I had a Nordic Larp Talk where I introduced it earlier this year. You can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/Ku5eMaFs2CQ
 I should probably do a write-up of this someday.
 These changes will all be included in the package we are working on publishing.
Photograph by Nadina Dobrowolska, Horseradish Studio