Transparency in Larp Design: Risks and Rewards
As a larp designer, I struggle with the concept of transparency in game design, or how much I should reveal about the game design process. In business branding in general as well as in larp, there are pros and cons to announcing concepts (and selling larp tickets) before you fully develop the process. The determination about the level of transparency can be a very personal one for the designer (and/or design team) – and one that can affect your larp’s bottom line.
If you debut a design concept without full documentation, you may come under fire for having unanswered questions, or for having no clear strategy about certain topics – everything from inclusion to rules systems, safety issues, and even the types of characters participants can play.
If you dive in with a complete design and accept no player input, you’re going to turn people away. The system, setting, and rules are already ironclad. You run the risk of appearing inflexible rather than decisive and confident, and participants may want to codevelop your larp’s world.
These aren’t judgments on design practices – it’s just a fact of larp design.
Finding a happy medium varies depending on your player base, design team preferences, and the type of larp community you’re engaging.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a designer involves learning how transparent I should be about each game I design.
I’ve learned that it’s especially important when I’m designing solo. I still kind of need to invite people around the table for a drink.
Am I really ever a sole designer? Not really. In fact, the ‘thank you’ section is the first thing I write in my game documentation. That’s because others have listened to my ideas and provided feedback, even informally, and I try to recognize that.
Each larp, though, requires a different level of sensitivity to that, based on the themes of the larp and more. Sometimes I’m a subject matter expert on the genre. Other times I’m not. That means I’ll need different levels of help and transparency based upon the game I’m playing.
Transparency Means Exposing Weaknesses
I’m selling tickets to a game taking place in Regency England.
I’m not a subject matter expert on that era, and especially not on the experiences of people of college in Regency England (and in general).
I have general ideas about how to make my larp inclusive, and I also understand that historical eras are not going to feel comfortable for everyone.
This means exposing a weakness in not only my expertise, but in my genre choice, and admitting that I don’t have all the tools I need to build something alone. It can also affect a designer’s personal brand.
Player Input Before Playtesting
What I’ve found is that regardless of the size of the effort, players enjoy being part of the design process. Some even want to contribute more (time or money) for the privilege of impacting the play in this regard. Discussion seems to be the most valuable for me in terms of feedback, but players also enjoy being engaged via surveys and polls.
The goal is to make an event that meets expectations and fulfills the players’ needs (whether it be fun, immersive, intense, challenging, or more than one of those things).
This also means altering the marketing message – or adding to it – during the input phase. You’ll need to make decisions as a result of transparency, and that also means being clear as you further refine and define your idea.
As a designer, it’s important to know what you’re open to changing and what you’re set on. I’ve learned to pick a few concepts I’m intent on retaining, then think of a few things I’m open to changing. I also intentionally leave some aspects of the larp development entirely up to the prospective participants, either because I have no preference or experience in designing that type of thing, or because I have no preference and would rather enable the players to make their own choices – not just about what their characters do, but about the story and gameplay itself.
This type of agency also encourages players to provide more feedback post-game, and they often express the reasons behind their likes and dislikes rather than stopping at joy or displeasure with certain elements.
Competition is a drawback to game design transparency if you’re hoping to fill seats or make profit on your game. Since larp design represents a significant portion of my income, I need to be mindful of competitive efforts in innovative larp niches. There are times to codevelop, coordinate, and even collaborate with other game designers, and there are times to keep things close.
There are now several larpers who pay to play just about every game I make. There are a dozen or so more who follow all of my efforts. They want to help, even when they are unable to participate. People reach out asking how they can help if they can’t play or if they do not prefer the genre I’m designing in at the time.
Private feedback is essential. I find closed, initial feedback to be more significant and useful than playtest feedback in many instances. To accomplish this, I create a Facebook group as soon as I have my design document and summary complete, then begin asking for feedback immediately. With some experiences (like my digital larps), I already have the formatting down, so I’m asking people individually more about the content and how it fits with the genre.
And in the full interest of transparency, I’m still pretty new to game design, at least in the freeform larp sense, with just a few focused years in my favor. I’m sure there are many points I missed about transparency – so let’s discuss in the comments. How transparent is your game design style, and why?