Designing an old school Nordic Larp

This was originally posted on Story Games as "[LARP] Designing an old school Nordic Larp" on the Story Games forum on December 11 by Jukka Koskelin aka "Merten".

So, this is an actual design thread of yer old school Nordic character immersive LARP, focusing on how LARP is designed and why things are done how they are done. Examples are based on Isle of Saints, a World of Darkness LARP we did several years ago.

This is a longer series of posts which I'm thinking to split up in several topics:

  1. Why, what and how? The vision
  2. Roleplaying contract, rules and how LARP's are different from tabletop playing
  3. Initial concept design and iteration
  4. Main plotlines, groups and group level plotlines
  5. Characters and character level plotlines
  6. Actual play, GMing the LARP
  7. What worked, what did not work and what should be improved

Feel free to drop in a comment at any point, especially on things that needs more detail. Or if you think there's a topic missing.

1. Why, what and how? The vision

Isle of Saints was a one to two days and nights long LARP for about 60 players, organised by team of three writers. It was also what's known around here as a city game - a LARP where the play area is a whole city and sometimes beyond that. The two other guys had done a similar, if smaller, project before in which I was a player. So Isle of Saints wasn't the first citywide LARP in Finland - I know of at least two, possibly three, earlier projects and I had participated in one of them, a Mage larp that was kind of a test drive and and prequel to IoS.

The game was held in Helsinki, which doubled as the capital city of Isle of Saints - an imaginary island in middle of Atlantic Ocean. The cities were identical copies and the players were instructed to think that the streets matched and internally think that the street names fitted the setting.

IoS was based on White Wolf's World of Darkness, mostly Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension, though not on the Minds Eye
Theatre-versions of them. One of the reasons we wrote the LARP was to fix things that thought were not working well enough in the MET-based LARP's we'd been participating.

Some examples of things we wanted to avoid or do in a different way:

Change the rules. Minds Eye Theatre is, for a character immersive play, a very clunky set of rules; it basically takes the Storytelling system tabletop rules, streamlines them a bit, changes dices to RPS-test and tells you to roll with it. In essence, it brings a tabletop-paradigm to a LARP with not that good results, since LARP's are very different beasts. More about this in rules -post.

The "Elysium-syndrome"; LARP's tend to happen in single physical place, which is a bit ankward for a large group of players and characters. Players have to fake reasons to stay in the playing area even if it's clear that their characters would not stay there. So either you hang around, with no reason, or go out from the game.

The "Only Vampires Allowed"-syndrome. It doesen't really feel that you're a beast in the top of the food chain if the only people you meet are other beasts in the top of the food chain. Where's the personal horror and predatory feeling in that? We wanted to simulate a full city in World of Darkness, with several different supernatural factions not entirely aware of each other, and with lot of humans mostly unaware of supernatural beings. In essence, we wanted "the masquerade" that works.

We wanted to avoid a large social gathering with obvious plots happening during a fixed period of time; in other words, we wanted to simulate few days and nights of life of the characters; not the least exiting days, more like starting slow and then acclerating the pace.

We decided that we'd want to have around 60 players and that the game would be invitation only; we picked an initial list of players whom we know would have the same idea of Live-Roleplaying that we had. We also had to take into account matters like playing space (players that could provide their aparments for playing) and travelling (players with cars). We drafted initial budget, calculated the participation fee and discounts for players providing apartment or a car.

We didn't really spent a lot of time pondering on how we wanted to do things; two other writers had one similar game under their belt and we reviewed what worked in it and what did not, what to do in same way and what to improve.

2. Roleplaying contract, rules and how LARP's are different from tabletop playing

So then, roleplaying contract. While there is no formal social contract, signed in three copies, in the Finnish LARP scene, there is a very strong mutual understanding of How to Play. It was developed in early to mid 90's and sort of written out in the Handbook for LARPers, published in 1997 by the Live-roleplayers assosication, in the article "Psychology of live-roleplaying" by Toni Sihvonen. The article basically spelled out the character immersive playing style.

The actual roleplaying contract is this:

"The mutual understanding that helps players to immerse; you cannot judge players attitude based on how his character acts."

Which pretty much gives the player a free ticket of playing a character based on his interpretation of it and that this interpretation cannot be challenged. What you see is what you get. Pretty much every LARP is based on this understanding; it's kind of an oral tradition - aside from the mentioned book, people learn to organise live-roleplaying by attending games done by other organisers, and the tradition gets passed on. Most of the players in 90's actively played and developed the culture, and the contract can be seen as an essential building stone of LARP's; it's not really questioned.

Like all contracts, this one gets broken, players have different agendas, and confusion ensures. We decided to skip the confusion by doing an invitation only LARP and inviting people we knew beforehand.

Rules. No Minds Eye Theatre for us; MET is basically a light version of Storytelling system, with a different resolution mechanics. There are several things that didn't work for us:

So, the replacement rules were these (a short version of the original document):


The basic rule for LARP's; if something endangering (for players) is happening, you should "Hold". Everyone hearing this, shouts "Hold". Playing stops.


If a player starts his sentence by saying "True", it means that something affecting your character will happen. Player then describes what happens. For example: Pat has flavoured Kim's cup of coffee with a healthy dose of laxative. He hands her a cup and says: "True: When you've drinked that you'll be hit with a strong case of diarrhea in fifteen minutes". Kim will then spend some quality time in toilet.


There is none; you will be in your character during a game. If you really, really need to say something as a play, but your fist above your head and say it.

"The world around you"

You'll map the real city names to Isle of Saints city names; same goes for city districts - downtown is downtown, suburb is where the workers sleep.

If you want to interact with non-player characters (like calling your mom if she's not potrayed by a player", you will call this cell number and introduce yourself tell whom you're trying to reach. GM's will answer and play the NPC.

If you need to check something from the GM's, you call this cell number.

Please don't harass people not playing the game; be gentle when interacting with them. You know other players by batches, which tell their apparent age and if he's ethnically different from the player.


Based on simple number comparision on scale from 1 to 5. Some things, like melee weapons, give bonus to the combat value. Character with higher value beats the crap out of the other character.


Getting beaten means that you might lose consciousness and it'll hurt like hell. Getting stabbed with something means that you need first aid. Getting shot means that you're really hurt or you die. What happens and where you're hit depends on the situation; work it out between the players.

"Common sense"

Please, use it. A lot of instructions on how to behave in public places and how not to swing around your cool replica weapon in the railway station.


Do not cheat. Cheating and getting caught is a good way of getting yourself a status of Personana Non Grata and committing a social suicide.

"Supernatural powers"

Now, this is another failing point for MET and a hard thing to accomplish in LARPs in general; how to simulate something that not possible or easy to act out. MET uses the resolution system to achieve this and we ditched that. We basically toned down supernatural powers and allowed only one or two powers per character - all of them used with the "True"-rule. So mostly social and mental powers. We rated the powers from one to three and wrote the usage instructions on the character backgrounds; roughly explaining what the power does, what's the value for it and if the character was able to resits use of some kind of power and in what level.

Supernatural powers were not included in the general rules; only characters who had them, knew about them, and how to use or resist them.

"Everything else"

Anything not detailed in the rules or character background was left to player discretion; they had the option of calling a GM if they wanted.

Jason Morningstar: Are there ever conflicts in the interpretation of "True"? Example - you poison my coffee with laxatives, and in fifteen minutes I dutifully go to the bathroom, but return only a moment later. Your intention was to delay me but it was not achieved.

Not that I'm aware of (but I'm only aware of what I've seen or heard), at least in the few games I've been either or running or playing, in where the rule has been used. The wording of what happens is the responsibility of the player invoking the word. The interpretation is done by the receiving end. This is usually not questioned; the results can be bitched about after the event, but rarely happens (or, again, I haven't heard).

Jason Morningstar: How does the overall LARP consensus social contract differ from the Jeepform one?

You mean the Jeep Truths and Pieces of Cake in Jeep Dictionary? It differs a lot.

Jeepers do not emphasize character immersion (forgetting you're player); they use a lot of metagame-technicues and can juggle with character ownership. Story is a central element of the JeepForm; LARP's, as such, don't have central stories (though they might have central plotlines; the emphasis of these is kind of an rairoady-thing). And so on. JeepForm is a kind of mix of live-action playing and tabletop playing, maybe more the latter than the former.

In short, LARP's are very chaotic and very dispersed. Jeep games are (based on what I've seen and read) very focused and heavily constrained by the form. I'm not really an expert on Jeep things; haven't adopted the mindset, yet.

3. Initial concept design and iteration

After the vision has been decided, we had the rough number of players and basic concept for the game (setting, logistics, idea for what kind of game we wanted to do), we set down to do the concept design. Basically, it's brainstorming, setting design, character concept design and plot hook/structure design.

We started with the setting; what kind of place Isle of Saints was? What was the history, both normal and supernatural one. Isle of Saints was modelled after the Over-the-Edgish island-state of Al-Amarja, with the somewhat kooky secret society and paranoid stuff ripped out and replaced with "enlightened" western dictature; take the Kennedy family and give them dictatorial powers. The island was set about 400 miles east from Newfoundland. The main GM, responsible for the setting, wrote about six to seven pages of setting background, mostly "fluff" for reading and establishing tone and theme of the place. It included instructions on how to map the imagined setting into the real life counterpart.

Then we brainstormed the major character groups, factions and initial plot hooks that would tie these groups together; the possibility of conflicts.

And then went to to brainstorm character concepts within the groups, relationships within the groups and relationships spanning from individual character in one group to characters in other groups. We did this iteratively; sat down four or five times, tossed character concepts, possible plot hooks and relationships, took notes and at the same time pondered about what could be realisticly achieved. We had a rough estimate of playing spaces at this point, which we also included to the brainstorming; this large communal apartment could be used for this, this small city apartment for that. We also started looking at the player list and casted players to character roles.

At the end of concept design phase we had:

An example picture of internal and external relationships of the Detective Squad (click for large image):

Jason Morningstar: Did you do R-maps for all sixty characters by group?

We did not draw relationship maps of every character, no; instead we had a list of character concepts with the relationships typed into them. I did draw maps of my characters, but I don't know if other writers did similar thing. The drawn maps did not have all relationships them, we added relationships later in the writing process.

The picture is not an original one, just a reverse engineer, from the written characters. I don't have my written notes anywhere, anymore, just the written characters.

So, the concept list was something like this:

Mike Freyd, detective

And so on. Character concept just had possible relationships, which were then shaped by the individual writer.

Jason Morningstar: What was the casting process like?

Good question, I forgot to add this.

In the casting process, we had list of players and list of characters, which we tried to match, taking several things into acccount:

And we iterated, iterated and iterated again, until we had casted all the players.

Jason Morningstar: Did you have initial information from the players to guide you? For example, were there people who specifically wanted to play vampires, or wanted to be challenged across type?

Aside from knowing the players, no -- and we didn't tell them what they'd end up playing either, because we didn't advertise the game as WoD-LARP, just "Isle of Saints: A LARP set into modern times, and we aren't telling you anything else". We wanted the masquerade-aspect to work starting from the players, so after we had done the casting, we offered them a limited character concept of "You'll be playing an older, well-established gentleman with lots of connections" (The Prince) or "You'll be playing a sort-of internal security detective, with firepower, dark suit and attitude" (a MIB operative).

This resulted in few players wanting to play something else than what we offered, since they didn't like the initial concept, which was fine with us. Most had the attitude "you'll do the characters, we'll play what you give us".

After the event, this did lead to some feedback from players feeling they got support roles and not central roles, which I'll get to in the problems-section.

4. Main plotlines, groups and group level plotlines

The character groups were:

Camarilla vampires, seven or eight characters and several mortal servants
Sabbat/Anarchist vampires, three characters and several mortal assosicates
Technocracy mages, six or seven characters
Tradition mages, six or seven characters
Polices, six characters, one nonplayer character
Criminal gang, six characters
The Artist Gang, five or six mortal characters
The rest characters were mortals in different small groups or connected to other groups

The characters were divided to three writers roughly according to groups; I wrote, for example, five camarilla vampires, three sabbat vampires, five police detectives, one tradition mage and five other mortal characters (son of a detective, husband of a mage, boyfriend of a sabbat vampire and three office workers).

Main plotlines or -hooks were written in the concept creation and further detailed in the character writing. These were things we GM's more or less set in motion in order to bump different characters and groups together and create situations. Some of these were pre-set events around which the LARP was built, happening in playing spaces. Some examples around the camarilla vampire group:

Main event for the most mortal characters and a good amount of other characters, from almost every character group, was an engagement party of a young couple; a young, talented artist and his girlfriend. The Vampire prince of the city had set his eyes on the young artist and his trusted servant had been sponsoring the artist for some time, and was now ordered to bring the boy to see his unnamed patron during the engagement party.

The camarilla vampires had received a tip of a police detective who had been spying uncomfortably close to them and been in contact with someone who obviously had knowledge of their power structure; their game started with a meeting in which they were to decide what to do with this. The detective himself was a non player character who was bound to go missing in one way or another. This would put the other detectives on the edge.

A camarilla vampire dealing with criminal underground had set his eyes on a certain statue and wanted the criminal gang to break in to the apartment where the statue was supposed to be. The owner was a retired techoncracy agent, and breaking into his apartment was bound to get that group intrested. However, the statue had accidentally been delivered to his neighbour, an outwardly normal office worker, with delusions of grandeur and international espionage business.

One camarilla vampire had found out that her childhood friend hanged out with the sabbat vampires and wanted to meet her. The sabbat vampire(s) wanted her to defect and were arriving to town both to see her and check the status of their informant (who was blackmailing the police detective).

The detectives had open cases: they had seek and detain orders for one camarilla vampire (not knowing that he was a vampire), shadowing orders for several criminals and domestic disturbance case for one of the tradition mages.

And so on. The plot hooks did not have a scripted endings; just the setup, initial directions and character goals or needs. Some of them appeared to be character level plot hooks, but with the amount of hooks they were bound to collide at some point. We wanted to set so many wheels into motion and have so many relationships that the events would drive themselves onward and in turn, create more events.

The tool for controlling the events was an simple one; we used pre-determined starting times for characters and pre-determined times for meetings. Some examples:

The Prince

Friday 19.30 - an emergency meeting called by the Sheriff (game starts)
Saturday 18.30 - Servant Blackwell brings young William Morgan to meet me at Elysium
Saturday 19.30 - Prince's reception at the Elysium

Mike Freyd, detective

Saturday 14.30 - lunch with son Jens at the Burger Joint (game starts)
Saturday 16.00 - Work shift starts
Saturday 16.30 - Meeting of the evening shift
Sunday 03.00 - Work shift ends

Jens Freyd, detective's son (hanging with the criminal gang who're bound to call him at some point)

Saturday 14.30 - lunch with dad at the Burger Joint (game starts)
Saturday 18.00 - a pre-emptive beer with the work mates (the office workers) at Bar Old Hat
Saturday 19.30 - William's and Anna's house party (will turn into a suprise engagement party, but Jens doesen't know that)

We used the different stating times and meeting times as a pacing tool, which both allowed us to keep track on the start of the events and gave us times when certain character groups were in certain places. Apart from that, the game was mostly out of our control.

Jason Morningstar: Why were certain characters designated NPCs?

Because they were hardly more than plot components; we anticipated that there's was a strong probability that their in-game time would be very short and they were really out there only to kick things forward.

For example, the camarilla vampires knew the identity of the blackmailed police detective and were bound to do something about him. This is where we did script a bit; if they wouldn't make a move, the detective would probably have bounced off in any case. The vampires did make a move and invaded his house, did a rough interrogation (the detective was played by the lead GM, the only one of us three who did not have an active NPC-character in them game), and took him in custody. We guessed that spending two nights and a day locked up somewhere would not be exiting for a player.

For the other police detectives, though, the blackmailed detective appeared as a "real" character in their briefings and was in no way potrayed to be an NPC. So when he did not show up at the start of the shift, we figured they'd get worried, and checked him out - and find his busted-up apartment.

The second NPC - the retired technocracy agent, was only a target for the criminal burglary, and a link towards other technocracy agents, who got an alert from his security devices and went to check his apartment, only to find out that someone had broken in it. The criminals did manage to accidentally kill the poor old man, handling him a bit roughly and triggering a heart attack.

Two other NPC characters were played by myself and the third GM; we tagged along two large groups, the vampires and the mortals going to the party, in order to provide GM-backup if needed, and to monitor the events.

We did end up with few player characters turning into NPC-like characters, unfortunately, which was certainly not planned, mostly because of communication problems. They just got isolated. I'll follow this one up on the problem-section.