The Mixing Desk of Larp

By Martin Nielsen and Martin Andresen, with the help of the LWSS community
Third edition, July 2016

The Mixing Desk of Larp is a framework for raising the awareness of design choices among larp designers and a pedagogical tool for teaching larp design. The general idea is to break design choices down to dichotomies where a larp positions itself somewhere between the two extremes. We believe this gives designers a better way of structuring their thoughts, applying larp theory in practice and communicating design choices.

The main idea of the Mixing Desk of Larp is that a larp designer is like a sound technician. Just like the sound technician can adjust the faders of a mixing desk to increase or decrease the volume of different instruments, the larp designer adjusts the faders of the Mixing Desk of Larp through their design choices.

The framework is flexible, meaning that which faders you include can change from larp to larp. In this article, we are describing the faders that are used as examples at the Larpwriter Summer School 2016. We believe these are all faders that are relevant for most larps in the Nordic tradition, but the reader should feel free to add or remove faders to better suit her design tradition.

It is crucial for the understanding of the framework that the dichotomous variables of the mixing desk use ordinal scales of measurement. A fader position cannot be translated into numbers. In different cultures and design traditions, there will be different opinions of what is a high or low position on a fader in absolute terms. It doesn’t make sense to say that some position on a fader is “twice as open” as another or “half as much minimalism”. However, it should be possible for a group of designers to agree if a certain design element would increase or decrease the position of one of the faders. Similarly, it is possible to use the framework to compare which of two larps has the higher position on a fader in relative terms, given that one have knowledge of both larps.

By using the Mixing Desk tool, we want to make the language for constructive discussions about larp design more accessible. We hope to enable groups of designers to talk about the nuances in design, about the pros and cons of different design patterns, rather than “good” or “bad” design. We believe that The Mixing Desk of Larp highlights the variety of possible design choices, and that designers who use the tool become more aware of how they usually design, or their “default fader positions” - thus becoming more able to make conscious choices rather than designing on auto-pilot.

The level of detail can vary greatly depending of the number of faders used. With the faders we use at the Larpwriter Summer School, several aspects are combined into one fader. For example, there is a single fader for openness, from transparency to secrecy. This is meant to indicate the aggregate level of openness in the larp. For designers who would like to analyze their larp on a more detailed level in terms of openness, it could be split into faders for character openness, pre-planned events openness, in-game openness, meta techniques openness, project openness and so on.

When larp designers introduce a new design element, it will usually influence several faders. For example, if the designers consider whether to use tape on the floor to portray walls rather than real walls, this influences both the level of the openness and scenography fader.

Like all models, the Mixing Desk of Larp is a simplification. We do not believe that all larp design choices can be fully represented by combinations of dichotomous variables, but we do believe that dichotomous trade-offs are a fairly reasonable simplification to ease the understanding of complicated topics.
Version 3, July 2016

Video presentations

These are the filmed sessions relating to the Mixing Desk of Larp from the Larpwriter Summer School 2016:

The faders

Readers are of course free to add their own faders or remove the ones they don't like, but these are the faders we used at the Larpwriter Summer School 2016.

Communication style
Verbal vs. physical

What kind of communication style does your larp encourage? Is the common way to interact through talking, or is it through physical action and body language? Communication style can be adjusted through the characters, through workshops, through environment design, or through communication with and among the players prior to the larp. Physical communication fosters immersion through use of several senses while verbal communication enables players the ability to formulate more complex dialogue. Verbal communication is often more precise, and useful when it is important that the players have a harmonious understanding of the fiction.

360° illusion vs. material independence

How realistic surroundings do you need to play the larp? This fader can been split into two parts: The absence of non-fictional elements (“noise”), and the presence of fictional elements. With environment, we mean everything the players can sense, such as scenography, sounds, players, smells, tastes etc. However, in practice environment design often relies mostly on visual and audible environment.

Some larps focus a lot on surroundings or scenography to support the vision of the larp, while other larps introduce few or no elements of scenography.

At the same time, some larps strive to remove unwanted elements or visual noise, while others place no requirements on this. Thus, to be close to the extreme position of 360° illusion, you both have to have an accurate scenography and no visual noise.

Using environment actively can add a lot to the experience of the larp, but the stricter the design prompts a specific environment, the harder it will be to find a venue to play the larp. Designing for material independence will mean you can more easily find a venue for your larp and it will require less planning in terms of theatrical properties (props).

The black box tradition strives towards removing “noise” while introducing only the most necessary elements in the environment and highlighting these. With limited scenography, the few items that are there usually attract more attention. The black box approach of reducing noise but still not trying to represent the environment in the fiction will have the aggregate effect of a fader position towards the middle.

Culture creation responsibility
Player vs. organizer

The players always have a say in interpreting the culture where the larp takes place. But how much freedom will the organizers leave the players in defining the culture? Some larps let the players create the culture “from scratch” through workshops. Others give the players a few clues, perhaps by basing the culture on already existing fictional or real cultures, by giving out texts to read or by basing it on previous larps. Others again goes far in orchestrating the culture and leave to the players only the finer interpretation and calibration of the cultural understanding.

Cultural understanding is difficult to convey with words, being it spoken or written. The players will generally have different interpretations of how it works. Playing it out usually will give the players a more calibrated understanding. When the culture is co-created with the players, this calibration will take place in the process, while when the organizers keeps control over the culture, it will be necessary to invest more time in the methodology for conveying the culture and calibrating the understanding of it among the players. However, with player-created cultures, an active facilitation is usually necessary to create a fiction where the culture is far away from what the players are used to.

Character creation responsibility
Player vs. organizer

To which extent does the organizers leave it to the player to create their character? Some larps let the players create the characters from scratch, usually under guidance, for example through a facilitated workshop. Others give the players a few clues, perhaps a few lines of text, a name, a prop or a picture, and let the players create from there. Others again give full descriptions of the character and leaves only the fine interpretation and calibration of relations to the player. A character can be described with for example personality, goals, background, relations or function. It is possible to give the players more control over some of these aspects, while retaining organizer control over other aspects.

Conveying the complexity of relations is difficult with words, being it spoken or written. When the players have little influence over the creation of relations, it will be necessary to invest more time in the methodology for conveying the relations and calibrating the understanding of them among the players.

Organizer created characters will mean more control for the organizers. This can be used to support the vision of the larp, to counter stereotypes, to strengthen the alibi for the players and to ensure a variety of characters. A player driven character creation process can achieve some of the same when guided by facilitators.
Runtime direction
Active vs. passive

Some organizers consider their job done when the larp has started; then, they leave everything in the hands of the players. Others influence the larp in different ways as it goes along. Does your design prompt for an active or passive director? Direction might also be of different sorts: the discrete ones, like sending instructed players into the larp, adjusting the lights or putting on different background music, or the intrusive ones, like stopping the play and instructing the players to do a scene again differently.

 Player motivation
Gamification vs exploration

What motivates the players in your larp? Is it a collaborative activity where the participants play for the intrinsic value of exploring stories and actions together, or rather a game that you can play to win?

Having something to win or a goal to obtain, be it individually or collectively, can be an easy way to motivate players, especially for beginners. The patterns of gamification are well known to most people.

On the other hand, you often get more interesting stories and stronger player experiences when the players focus on exploring new ways of interaction rather on relying on maximizing the chance of "success". Oftentimes this involves collaboration - for example, by deliberately getting their characters into trouble, i.e. “playing to lose”.

Gamification can rely on game mechanics borrowed from the worlds of competitive activities such as board games and computer games, or it can simply use social dynamics to decide the outcome of the game. For example, a larp centred on a political game or centred on a social conflict. With the latter design option, the larp does however not apply gamification methodology and it will usually rely on playing style in the player group whether they will play the larp as a game or not. In these cases, the pre-larp workshop is crucial in encouraging a playing style that fits the designer’s vision.

Loyalty to world
Playability vs. plausibility

The world is where the fiction in the larp takes place. It can be made up of stories, characters, rules etc. It is never possible to convey a complete world, so the players will make up parts of it as play goes on.

When the world is established, it will prompt what is plausible. The larp world can rely on the real world, on various fiction or be built from scratch. When building a world from scratch, nothing will be implausible when you start. But as the world builds up and is conveyed, they will get used to a “fictional realism” of this world. They might then be unwilling to accept certain new elements as “implausible”. When designing based on existing fiction, or on the real world, the players will even more so have an impression of what is plausible or not in the larp world. But even when designing from scratch, players will often “import” their understanding of how something works (for example a social dynamic) from other fiction or from the real world.

We sometimes chose to deviate from the world we have created or chosen to increase playability (including for artistic/poetic or practical reasons). When doing this, we need to consider the tradeoff between plausibility and playability.

When making a larp about the 1800s, for example, having a female factory owner might not be highly implausible. However, it might be very playable – creating lots of interesting drama and intrigues for the players to use in the larp. In most larps, you leave out the characters that would be less interesting to play, even though it would be plausible to have them there. Sometimes, you make unlikely twists to make the outcome of a story unpredictable. How true will you be to your world? A plausible story might be a requirement for players to believe and immerse into the fiction. However, the players also need interesting play, and often the least plausible setups create the most drama.

Character as Mask (Bleed-in)
Differentiation vs. thin characters

A player acts in the larp world through a character. This character can be purposefully very different from the player, it can be very similar to the player -- or anything in between. As a designer, do you use elements from the players’ real lives in the larp , or do you deliberately try to maximize the distance between the character and player?

Having a clear differentiation between the player and the character is for many people the heart of role-playing, acting “as if” someone else, walking in their shoes, seeing experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes. Furthermore, clear differentiation gives the player a stronger alibi during play. They can explain their actions as arising from that character.

Having thin characters, which is also referred to as “playing close to home”, is the opposite strategy. Here the idea is to use the players personal experiences or background to create a strong emotional experience. Thin characters can be a useful way to shift focus from the character to situation.For example, if you want privileged school children to experience what it is like to be a refugee, you create characters that are similar to the players in all expects that they are refugees.

Strong emotions can be created both with differentiation and with thin characters. When using clear differentiation the aim is to help the player experience the world from a differnt point of view. Design with thin characters replicates and amplifies the players own emotions by removing some of the protective shield of the character. It brings the larp closer to reality, or ‘transports’ the player to a strange place (ie. let’s the player play themselves in a fantastic situation is a larp).

When the emotions or opinions of the player affects the character it is discussed as bleed-in. When the character’s emotions or opinions affects the player, it is referred to as bleed-out. Accidental bleed from player to character happens when the character is similar to the player without it being designed on purpose. Design for thin characters requires knowledge of the players background. An example of practical application can be a workshop technique where players are instructed to tell a co-player about a difficult relation they have in the real world, and then are instructed to create a similar relation between their characters.

Representation of Theme
Stories vs actions

A central theme is what is at heart of your larp; what you want to convey, show or examine by making the larp. It is easy to confuse the central theme with the genre, world or culture of the larp. You might for example think that you are making a larp about a specific period in time (such as "the cold war") or about a certain genre of fiction (such as "fantasy"). However, if you look closer into your motives as a designer, it often turns out that you have something much more emotional or conceptual in mind. Thus, your larp about the cold war might actually have the theme of solidarity with the ones you love, and your fantasy larp might actually have the theme of how racism works.

Sometimes, you want or need a story to frame your theme. Sometimes, stories are superfluous to convey your theme. You might then focus on designing actions rather than stories. This is not the same as not giving the players characters, but rather, it is about letting your rules for actions become your "story", ie, alter the functions of regulating interaction that a story would normally have. If, for example, you have the theme of examining the boundaries of the human body, you could make a whole larp where the players try to levitate in different ways without ever involving any traditional story elements.

For themes that are less central, but still important to the larp, you will again make the choice of designing primarily stories or actions. How these stories and actions are understood will vary greatly depending on what you choose to do with your main theme.
Intrusive vs. discreet
Is the larp conducted only by players acting out their characters, or are mechanics added? Mechanics can be added to start and stop play, for the sake of making the play more interesting, for replacing actions or objects to modify the pressure on players and/or enable actions in the fiction that the players are not able to carry out and to start or stop play.

Mechanics can for example be used to inspire the players, give them information during the run of the larp, open up possibilities by making it possible to carry out actions by symbols that the players otherwise would not do. Mechanics that transmit information to the players, but not to the characters are sometimes referred to as meta techniques. These mechanics also influences the Openness fader.

The presence of mechanics in the larp can be discrete, for a more fluent flow of play and less interruptions. Or intrusive, where intensity and interesting story twists are given priority over the flow of play.

Both the amount of mechanics and frequency mechanics influence this fader, but also to which extent they are aesthetically adapted to the larp, and whether the mechanic can suspend play for many or all participants, or if it only applies for those who opt-in themselves.
Pressure on players
Hardcore vs. pretense

Is the larp designed in a way that makes it likely that the characters will experience situations that, if played out, may violate the players comfort zones? The presence of such situations make up the larp’s base pressure on players. However, the use of replacement mechanics modifies the pressure on players. Replacements can be actions, objects or just instructions.

Common examples of themes that may challenge the players’ comfort zone (and thereby increase the pressure) are: Hunger, violence, sleep deprivation, shelter deprivation, sex, drinking, and drugs. If you want to include these elements in your larp, how do you do it?

Do you put the pressure on the players as well as the characters by using real alcohol, real food deprivation, and waking people at night? Or do you shelter the players from the pressure of the characters by using replacements like fake alcohol or telling the players to pretend to be hungry or sleep deprived?

Different replacements modifies the the pressure in different ways? If you want to replace the phenomenon of waterboarding, there will be more pressure on the players if the replacement is getting sprayed with cold water than if it’s going out of play and getting told that your character was tortured. While rarely used in practice, a replacement mechanic can in theory modify the pressure so that it is harder on the players than on the characters (e.g. when the character drinks beer, the players drinks vodka).

Severe pressure on players usually undermines the players ability to role-play and enjoy other aspects of the larp. However, it also allows the players to experience what their characters experience with all their senses and the whole body.

Pressure on players may also lead to the players to steering their characters away from doing things that they would otherwise do. This means that avoiding replacements can be a way of avoiding certain actions. For example, in a larp where there is no replacement mechanic in place for fighting, the threshold for engaging in a fight will be much higher, than in an environment where everyone are carrying boffer swords. Thus, the pressure on players restricts the presence of fighting in the larp. However, avoiding replacements in order to discourage players from the actions is a dangerous strategy in terms of player safety.

The higher pressure incurred by opting in to an action, the less frequently will the players do it. If the purpose is to have many people experience the action in question, the designers need to consider the combined effect of the pressure and the frequency in which people will opt in to experience it. Usually a replacement that reduces the pressure but increases the frequency of the action is desirable.

Final words

The Mixing Desk of Larp is a work in progress. It’s a pedagogical tool aimed for presenting and structuring some of the most important design choices of larp in a convenient form. We thus believe there are plenty of other faders that could be part of the Mixing Desk, and would emphasize that the framework is open to extensions.

Some of the extensions and design choices that we have been playing with for a future version of the Mixing Desk are more faders that deal with game mechanics (amount vs. type); chronology and representation of time; degree of pervasiveness; utilization of random elements; and player freedom. Probably, there are other faders that are much more useful that we just haven’t thought about yet. Use your experience and imagination and adapt the model to your own larp writing style!