Building dramatics

Author: Susanne Gräslund

For me the pure essence of larp is the dramatics - the actual course of events. Throughout my years as a larper, now more than ten, I have been arguing with a lot of people about this and I must start by saying that I fully respect those who consider other aspects, like the atmosphere or the adventure, more important. I like those things too, but for me larping is first of all action, a story that we tell together, and secondly, the environment. Most larpers agree that it is important to have a plot, but all too often the dramatic work is put aside because the organisers don't have the time to make it thoroughly enough. Practical things are of a higher priority, and the result is just another larp with no meaning and no goal, where the participants may have fun anyway or they may not.

I think it is important that all the players are implicated (sv: delaktiga) in the course of events. How then, can you build up the dramatics of a larp so that you guarantee or at least make it very probable, that everyone will take active part in the common storytelling? In this article I will mention what others have said before me on this issue and then I will discuss how I think this can be accomplished. Firstly, what I call the dramatic web, the sum of all the characters and the connections between them, has to be created. Secondly, fateplay can introduce a touch of unpredictability and to direct the players a little bit if needed. And finally, you can use a lot of narrative techniques to stimulate the play as it wears on.

The traditional way

The Swedish tradition has been to order the participants in groups, such as the elves or the village peasants. The single player has never been that important, except for a few that were given leading roles. This makes the larp more stable since it is independent of most of its players, but when you choose not to give your participants responsibility, then they won't feel very important either. And a player who doesn't feel important usually doesn't have very fun or even worse, they try to be important anyway and take over the whole play by some overwhelming action. Many say this is the essence of larp, that anyone can do whatever they want and that it doesn't matter how it all ends. I also like this aspect of freedom, but usually it takes more than it gives and often results in that the main part of the participants are being run over by a few dominant ones.

Another Swedish tradition is that the participants usually write their characters all by themselves. Their material is then sent to the larpwrights who try to put this sum of wishes together. Many players send their ideas too late or not at all and so, for a large bunch of their participants, the larpwrights have no information at all, which makes it hard to make good dramatics. This system gives a lot of freedom to the players, but the drawback is it usually gives a large jumble of characters with few or no connections between each other.

For really large larps, with several hundreds of participants, I think it is hard to make good dramatics for everyone, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try anyway. Engaging more people to write and co-ordinate characters could solve this problem.


In the beginning of larping the intrigues were often about finding an object or a person or winning a battle over another group. Nowadays things have changed a bit and most players that I know of want to experience feelings, but there are still a lot of opportunities never used.

All stories are about people, their problems and their hopes. It can be in shape of an adventure, but it has to be the fate of a person as well. Knappnålshuvudet, that I was one of the main organisers for, took place in our world in our time and there we used themes such as crushed dreams, drug dependence, religious and moral dilemmas - universal issues that we all are affected by. These could be used in any setting, but you rarely see them in other genres. At Fantasy/medieval larps the issues are often much less complex and I don't know why it has to be so. A contributing thing may be that at contemporary games there has to be an interesting story for the game to be anything more than our usual lives, whereas at Fantasy games a nice environment can make up for bad dramatics. Fantasy as a literature genre is usually about good and bad, and personal problems are just too insignificant compared to saving the world. But are they really? Can we really relate ourselves to the common problem of saving the world? Or would a problem such as your best friend becoming a drug addict be more engaging? I guess this is also a matter of age. Young people tend to like the black/white perspective of the world, whereas older people generally appreciate a grey-scale.

Three levels

In "Saga mot verklighet" by Henrik Summanen and Tomas Walch, a three level system of dramatics is described. The first level is the political one and contains the main plot, f ex a conflict between two countries as there was at Nyteg, earlier organised by the authors. At the second level you find groups of people and their social conflicts, and at the third level are the single characters and what Swedes call the personal intrigues. Summanen and Walch's idea was that one level only could influence itself and the one closest to it. Level three, the single players, should not be able to influence the main story. The reason for this was that they had had bad experience of dominant larpers taking over the game and destroying a lot of opportunities for other players. With their system, the larp became less vulnerable. As far as I know this worked out quite well, but those on the top running the main plot spent more time carrying out this responsibility than playing their characters. Another outcome was that the players who had little to do with level one or two had a greater need for a personal intrigue.

At Knappnålshuvudet we also used a kind of three level system, but slightly different. The first level consisted not of a main story because we chose to have none. Instead we had a common framework, a place and a neutral course of action that went on independently of what happened. At the second level were a couple of groups, but most characters didn't really belong to a group or at least not only one group. We had what we called quartets or short stories (sv: noveller) that consisted of about four people, one angel and its human wards. The wards had something in common, but not necessarily a very obvious connection. We always thought of the dramatics as a collection of short stories. There wasn't one main thread, but about fifteen in parallel, winding in and out of each other, sometimes crossing and intertwining. On the third level were the single characters that were all stories in themselves. They were usually very closely coupled to the short stories and therefore these could be placed somewhere between the second and the third level. The Knappnålshuvudet concept worked fine, except for the times when the writer and the player had very different visions. Also, we didn't have enough angels, and so many quartets and other groups had too little of the stimulation that the guardian angel should have given them.

Organising the dramatic web into levels may seem boring, but it is a good way of visualising it. Making it more theoretical also makes it easier to discuss and I haven't found a better model than this level system yet. And to come further in the development of larp, dramatics it is important for us to get common discussion tools.


The two models of the dramatic web mentioned above have much in common, but there exists one big difference - the perspective - if you look at the structure from level one or from level three. Many larpwrights tend to observe their work from level one and create a main plot first. Then they make the connections between the groups, and finally they write intrigues for the single players. Often there is not enough time to make something for everyone, and so a lot of players go without individual driving forces. Players who take a lot of initiative don't have a problem with this, but others will.

A main plot will always create a couple of main characters and a large bunch of walkers-on. The first group will carry the responsibility of the main course of action on their shoulders, usually a heavy burden, and the second group will always believe that the real game is taking place somewhere else. A common saying is that every larper plays the leading role in her own play, but for most larpers this is not true. More people than you think just walk around, afraid to take initiatives, watch the others and hope to be stimulated in some way. A common pitfall for many is the tendency to create secretiveness. You know all those boys in black coats sitting in the dark corners at the inns trying to look mysterious. I think it is a way of trying to be important and interesting for other players, as I wrote about in the beginning of this article. I am sure many of these larpers are perfectly happy with this, but I would want something else, both as a larpwright and a player.

So far we have looked at the structure of the dramatic web, but now I will try to focus on the single junctions - the players - and the communication between them and the organisers. The Norwegian manifesto, Dogma 99, has many aspects and among these a lot of thinking about the relationship between organisers and players, is included.

Dogma 99

This program was originally made to develop larping in new directions by forbidding old conventional solutions. Dogma 99 turned against the competitive way of larping and the hierarchy of characters that develop when you have a main plot that you can be more or less part of. To avoid these two, Dogma 99 declared that there should be no secrets in the game. Everyone has a right to know everything from the start, and when all are aware of the greater context, they can act together towards the goal. The hierarchy is thus avoided and the meetings of characters become the important thing.

The try to focus on the interactions between characters is interesting. Many larpwrights spend a lot of time writing long texts about their world, defining as many details as possible. This textbase, which is the sum of all written material that is distributed to the participants, can give a lot of things to improvise from, but wouldn't it be better to focus on making improvisation material from the start? In my opinion more important for a larpwright. Skip the list of kings and queens and try to make vigorous (sv: kärnfullt) improvisation material instead. Connect characters; write texts about things that people can use during the game, give them driving forces. The old history is nice as a background, but it is only a background and too many details will only restrain the players' improvisation.

However, one mustn't forget that one of the greatest tasks for a larpwright is to communicate the vision of the game to the participants so that everyone is striving towards the same goal. The textbase must therefore focus both on delivering the vision and giving improvisation material.


Many players tend to get stuck in a certain kind of character and in a common pattern of action. Fateplay is a way for the organiser to direct the players and thus both break their habits and make the game more unpredictable. A cautious player can get a little bit braver and an often too dominant player could be made to act more low-key. Fates are usually orders to do something, but they can be very different. It can be anything from "choose a man to fall in love with and be attentive to him" to "be by the bridge over the stream at midnight". The first fate is not likely to fail because it is dependent only of the player herself, while the other, supposedly made so that the character is going to meet someone, might easily fail if the other person doesn't show up. The meaning of fates is to force the player to develop her character during the game, to do unpredictable things, to connect characters and to encourage players to take initiatives they wouldn't have taken otherwise.

We used fates a lot in Knappnålshuvudet and what we learnt is that you have to be very careful while making them so that they do not easily fail. A missed fate will make the player very uncomfortable because she doesn't know how important it was. Therefore the larpwright has to give the players information in advance how important the different fates are and what to do if they fail.

Narrative techniques

Now that we have created the dramatic web, the groundwork, it is time to spice it up with dramatic tools to stimulate the game. There is really no limit to what you can use; objects, letters, phone calls, scenography, in-game music etc. Realistic things have been used a lot and few larpers have anything against it, but surrealistic features, such as background music and video clips on the walls, have always been met with a lot of scepticism in the strivings towards a greater realism. However, I think that for non-historical plays in particular, there is much to be gained here. Using sound and music is a very good way to create an atmosphere, and to help the players keep up the illusion. At Knappnålshuvudet we created the womb, the gate between heaven and earth, where the angels could communicate with God via sound and vision. Physically, the womb was situated in a rock shelter and made up of a large tent of white opaque cloth. It was lit up by coloured floodlights form the outside and always filled with sound - electronic music composed especially for this by two people from "Elektronmusikstudion" in Stockholm. The sound and light effects were coupled to the storyline of the womb and there were usually about six people handling everything from the outside when the angels were there, following and responding to their actions.

We also used a lot of dreams when the angels at night-time took some of their wards to the attic, playing surrealistic scenes for and with them. I don't say that these things could be used with success at all larps, but I think that it could be worth trying if you think it would fit into your game. Surrealism is good as long as you can relate it to realism. A dream gives depth to your experience when you wake up again.

Final words

If you focus on the single characters and make up interesting stories for all of them you will create a solid ground for your play. You will have to take care to make up a character gallery that fits well together, and draw maps of connections to make sure that no one will be an outsider compared to the others. Working like this you will create a dramatic web that will catch all the players, and it is very likely that most of them will be implicated in your game. Of course you have to have a good framework; a good concept for your scenario, but as soon as you have that it is important to focus on the single players, since they are the ones who are going to experience it. As a larpwright, try to imagine what everyone will experience during your game. This doesn't have to come true in the end, but if you have given it thought, then you will discover the weak points of your dramatic web. Everybody wants to have a lot of possibilities, stimulation and driving forces. If you make sure to give the participants this, then they are very likely to be happy.

There are several ways of making good dramatics for larps. What I have discussed here are only a few things that I have experience of myself. I hope that I may have inspired other larpwrights to think a little differently of what they are creating and for whom. Larping is only in its childhood, and there is a lot of experimenting still to be done.

Author: Susanne Gräslund