[Note from Mo: this is a guest post, written by the very wonderful Rei England.]
The risk of CoViD-19 and the resulting lockdown may have put a temporary halt to the style of LARP we are most familiar with, but that doesn’t mean LARPing must stop.
Our wonderfully creative community is already experimenting and finding new ways of writing and running games. I have come to believe that it is possible not just to adapt and overcome the challenges of the online medium, but even to find positives in the tools and possibilities available.
I do not claim to be an expert, but I have written, run, and played in several LARPs since lockdown began, and I offer here a guide to some of the ways I’ve seen LARPs being done and my own thoughts and experience of different techniques.
Making Use of Video Calls
Video chat seems to be the obvious starting place, and the closest equivalent to in-person contact. When you can see and hear each other, it is easier to feel that you are interacting with real people, and to communicate with body language and facial expressions. However, group video calls are also extremely tiring, tend towards awkward pressure-inducing pauses, does not allow for smaller individual interactions, and often leads to people talking over each other. Even one more player makes a difference to the difficulties of using a single large video chat.
It can be helpful to write a setting where the features of the video chat are diegetic. ‘Together Forever’ by Karolina Soltys, Patrik Balint, and David Owen is a game of online dating in a dystopian future where virtual interaction is the norm. In my game ‘Disconnected’, characters are trapped inside shards of reality and talking using communication runes. Here, the occasional awkwardness of a group video chat adds to the game experience, and technical glitches can be attributed to the crumbling state of reality.
Issues with people talking over one another and awkward group dynamics can be addressed by writing a game with a strong structure to the scenes, or else a setting that aligns with having someone moderate. Council meetings, group therapy sessions, and team debriefs work well as settings for a more structured group level chat and can enable slightly larger games.
I would advise that video calls can otherwise be good for small intimate games, or else within a structure intended such that only a few players may talk at any one time; for example, your video call is a holodeck recreation featuring a few characters while the investigation team have their own mics and video turned off to observe without intruding. Or perhaps you could use video calls to play out flashbacks designed to explore the relationship between two or three characters rather than intended to include the entire group.
Useful Features of Video Chats
It’s not all about mitigation: there are also some features of video chats that could be used to enhance your game. The ability to display everyone’s character name and other information on their image can be very useful. Some video clients -for example Zoom – allow participants to set a background image to appear behind them, which can be used to great effect; you can put yourself inside a laboratory, a library, or even in space. Be careful about relying on backgrounds however; they require a relatively plain real-life backdrop, and some webcams are less good at making them work.
‘Makeup Moments’ by Gerrit Reininghaus makes use of the way video chats usually also show you your own face by seeing it as a mirror, turning the video chat into an apt representation of a group of friends getting ready to go out together. ‘Outscored’, also by Gerit Reininghaus, instructs players to be in a darkened room illuminated only by the light from the screen, and allows players to change the colour of the lighting to demonstrate the character’s current social standing.
When the video is diegetic, you can make use of the limits of the point of view to great effect. What’s happening ‘offscreen’ where you can’t see? Imagine: a character’s screen goes dark, there are some sounds of shouts, maybe a scuffle. Then after a few minutes of silence their screen returns and they have no memory of anything having happened. Or what about a character taking a call with an NPC or apparently dealing with a crisis, with the other characters only witnesses on the screen, shouting advice but unable to intervene?
Most video clients will also allow for chat messages alongside the main call, offering an opportunity as a meta communication tool. When I ran ‘Disconnected’, I monitored the game unobtrusively by turning off my mic and video, and used private messages to direct the players when needed by telling them when their character had uncovered a new memory or worked something out. Chat was used very differently in ‘After Dark’ by Mo Holkar, where characters must remain quiet and use chat to talk while observing each other through video. In this game, characters switch off their videos when they die, though they may still message with memories of their characters.
Some video services such as Zoom or Discord also allow for the creation of ‘breakout’ rooms: smaller video chat rooms to move players into for parts of the game. If you want to create several rooms that play can move between, you should be aware that players tend to congregate into one large room for fear of missing out. If you want to encourage smaller separate scheming, you might want to limit the numbers in each video room. You may also need to work out how this will be managed; will the players assign themselves to rooms or will someone need to do this? How well does this work with your chosen video client?
Other Online Mediums
Video calls are not the only way of playing games. Several games have used voice only calls to great effect. In ‘Tankers’ by Sarah Cook, characters are people who are physically in dark isolated tanks while their minds pilot spaceships. Players lie in darkness and talk on headsets using voice only, taking turns to have a ‘spotlight’ moment. The game ‘Long Time Listener, Last Time Caller’ by Jeff Dieterle also uses audio; this is run almost like a miniature horde game, where a radio talk show host takes calls as a catastrophe begins to engulf the world.
If your game is designed to take a small amount of time over a series of days, you could also allow players to make posts, which could include video or audio posts; for example, an early online game based on Big Brother had players post their video room scenes. You could use a blog service, which can also allow for players to post using different avatars or even anonymously. Don’t discount Facebook as a medium for roleplay, potentially with a built-in messaging service and event scheduling system. ‘Uneasy Lies The Head’ by Ben Walker, Susan Bailey, Zach Hauptman, and Daniel Bockelmann has nobles post vignettes as short video blogs which can then be commented on as other players speculate on answers to questions and rumours they’ve heard; each video begins with the character ‘receiving’ the crown from the previous noble, and ends with the character ‘passing’ the crown to the next.
Text based interactions are another alternative. Discord can be used for text-based chat channels, though if you’re using real time chat for more than two or three characters, the short, quickly written text tends to scroll past and out of sight while you’re still concentrating on writing your response and it can be difficult to process everything. If you want to rely on the dense exchange of information in your game, I would suggest either making sure this happens in a one on one conversation, or that you use a different text based tool that will slow things down, such as a forum setup sorted by specific conversation topics, or simply asking players to write ‘letters’. Actual texting can be a low-pressure alternative to chat rooms, and something many people are familiar with that can be done more casually at any time.
You can enhance the main interaction mode with other tools, or mix things for different effects; for example, my game ‘The Astrovision Song Contest’ uses video performances interspersed with chat based scheming and private messaging. One thing you can do online is to share documents, co-create images, introduce pre-recorded videos or sounds, or otherwise make use of files. My game ‘Tale As Old As Space’ – a sci-fi retelling of Beauty and the Beast for two players – is designed to be run without a GM; events are introduced using passworded files that are unlocked as the game progresses.
‘Thread’ by David Kibblewhite is a game that is mainly based on text chats but makes excellent and seamless use of a variety of tools. In this game, the characters wake up in locked rooms able to communicate only through a chat thread on a monitor, with an additional out of character channel accessible only by the individual player and their GM to allow players to communicate actions. Meanwhile, players open a browser tab with a streamed audio, prompting events via a shared soundscape – and suggesting the possibility of giving different players links to different tracks with slightly different events. There are some additional text and audio channels initially hidden from the players but which become visible at different points in the game, and some pieces of information available in the form of short video posts.
As you can see, there are lots of potential tools available to an online game. When designing a game, consider the way your game play will be structured and the type of game play you need to design for within that structure; for example, you might choose different ways of facilitating workshops, flashbacks, group wide events, and scheming or private conflicts.
Taking Care of the Players
Online play takes a lot of concentration, so when you design your game structure, remember to build in natural breaks at least once an hour. The extra energy demand combined with the emotional stress of the current crisis can mean that players find that either they are unexpectedly unable to play or that topics can cause more distress than they usually would. Not only do I strongly recommend the inclusion of some basic safety signals for ‘OK’ and ‘Not OK right now’, I also suggest that unless you have a reliable list of replacement players on hand, you design your games for accommodating varying numbers and allow for players needing to munch on something or vanish for a few minutes if they need to rest. I have had to reschedule games several times to get a run to work!
There are some clear accessibility advantages to online roleplaying. It costs less; it does not require mobility; it’s easier for people with unpredictable or chronic conditions to commit to a few hours online than an entire trip; it allows for play across different time zones. You may get players who would have otherwise found it very difficult or even impossible to attend! But it also carries challenges, particularly under the current circumstances. Not everyone will be able to gain sole and uninterrupted screen time. Some people may not have good webcams, mics, or speakers. Be careful not to require the use of too much screen space; if players are constantly flicking back and forth it might make it harder to stay engaged.
Additionally, consider the accessibility implications for heavy reliance on either audio or visual input. If you use a video chat, think carefully before using a setting where characters’ mouths will not be clearly visible, and remember that people tend to talk over each other unless explicitly using turn taking protocols or hand signals to respond. Set up alternative routes for communicating if possible; for example, pre-prepare captions for sound effects.
One thing you may not be used to considering is processing and the related cognitive load. The time it takes people to process what has been said and work out responses can be a problem for online games. I particularly find it difficult in text-based chat where words are scrolling past quickly; others will struggle more with video or audio. Processing is harder for people who are tired or stressed, and for players who are neurodiverse or have cognitive impairments. You can include features to slow things down if you need to, and offer the GM ways to make sure nobody misses anything important or moderate the session; for example, minions or psychic visions that can be used to steer things or introduce information to be sent to an individual player.
Running A Game
First thing’s first: sort out your tech. Make sure it works, both for you and your players; check in with them for accessibility requirements and limitations of your game. Send some sort of quick guide to your players to make sure they know how to do anything they may need: for example, install apps, log on, change their screen name, and check private messages. In my experience, sorting out tech problems during game time takes up more time than you might expect; budget for that.
One thing that might be helpful is to have a designated tech person who is not the person running the game. Have this person sort out tech problems, putting players into sub rooms, timing, basically any mechanics that involve tech, carried out according to the GM’s instruction. As a last resort, it might be useful to have an alternative ready to go. This doesn’t have to mean a different platform; perhaps you have a player without video on, set up browser-based access or make sure tools can be accessed from a different kind of device, or use a video client that will allow dial-in; that last one saved one of my runs.
It’s easy right now for people to forget dates or unexpectedly run low on spoons. Send out plenty of reminders, make sure your players know what they need to do by when, and plan for possible dropouts. During the game, be prepared to deal with interruptions, tech issues, and people needing a rest or a snack. Include a break at least once an hour and encourage players to stretch their legs, have a screen break, go to the toilet, and grab a drink. Be kind to players – and to yourself! – and remember that the people are more important than the game.
Your players may need more care than usual. Introduce safety signals at the start of the game. For video play, it can be harder to catch eyes or notice verbal signals, so adding in an obvious visual option is a good idea. Ask your players to mentions characters by name when they are addressing or replying to a specific person, and use distinctive names and avatars; this can help people with facial or voice recognition.
Your players may need more facilitation, particularly if you’re playing via a large video call. It may help if you have in mind a broad structure for how you expect stories to unfold or how the experience should feel at different points in mind; keep an unobtrusive eye on things and guide players if they get stuck, though give them a chance to explore something if it seems like they’re running with it. Make sure you have easy access to all the information you need; often printing things out is the best way to have things handy without having to flick between things on screen.
Before the day of the game, run a tech check. Make sure you are able to turn on and use whatever platform is being used for the game, and ask if there is anything you’re not sure how to do such as changing your screen name or avatar or how to send private messages. Speak to the GM about any accessibility needs or any themes you might find difficult to play.
For the game, think about what you might need available; it may be useful to print out character information as a handy guide that doesn’t require you to flick to things on screen. Have a glass of water available. Online play can be as immersive as in-person play, but it’s surprisingly helpful if you are able to prepare your own space: consider the lighting, setting, small props, and perhaps make use of video backgrounds. One of my players even went outside for a backdrop of a dark sky and an apparently empty skyline! An in-character ‘anchor’ for you to touch or look at might help to stay engaged; for example, a particular item of clothing, a mannerism, or a tactile prop.
During play, you can help other players get a sense of feedback and interaction if you display emotions in ways that are more easily spotted, but you need to be careful about interrupting or speaking over people. If you’re playing on a video call, you can make reactions more visual: pace up and down, shake or nod your head, wave your arms, put your face in your hands. In screenshots of ‘Viewscream’ by Rafael Chandler, you can see that players often lean in close to the camera, eyes wide, to heighten fear and tension. Take care not to cover your face when speaking or compromise sound quality.
It can be difficult to tell who is speaking to who; change your screen name to match your character, and mention characters by name when talking to them or directing touch towards them by reaching your hands towards the camera. Remember to make use of the screen as a medium; for example, you can change angles or jog it around to simulate running. In one of my runs, a player made up a spooky ‘off camera’ event as an excuse not only to take a short break, but to come back with further information for the game.
Speaking of taking breaks: attention is often harder to maintain in online games, so do what you can to help with that. For some people that might mean turning off any other tabs and notifications. For people like me (I have ADHD), sometimes the best option is to have something on your desk to fiddle with when your brain needs a new source of stimulation. Take breaks or grab a snack if you need to, though it’s courteous to let the GM know if you’ll be away from the keyboard. Take care of yourself, and be kind to yourself.
Running A Con
I have not myself attempted to run an online con, though I have attended one, and I have designed and run a successful birthday party. Most of this section is based on those experiences and some suggestions; I may have missed standard resources and ideas.
I know I’ve mentioned it several times in this guide, but it really is important: interacting online takes more energy and concentration, and people tire more easily. I would advise not running too many events in one day, and factoring in breaks in the schedule. You might want to spread fewer slots over more days. You can also automate some of the scheduling management; for example, you can set up a Discord bot to automatically open shared rooms for specific games at set times for a specified list of players, and with a command to send participants their personal timetable on request.
Make sure attendees and GMs are familiar with available tech. Write and post short ‘how to’ guides. If you can afford it, you might want to pay for a few con owned accounts to make use of some services: for example, you can purchase Zoom logons and perhaps pay for the webinar features to allow for streaming. Have someone available to offer tech support, and a dedicated channel for asking for tech help.
As with running a single game, there are potential advantages to a virtual con: lower costs and mobility requirements mean more people may be able to attend, and it’s possible to accommodate greater numbers and international attendees. However, audio and visual accessibility is a particular issue. Look into possibilities for using closed captions or interpreters, and consider whether particular tools are compatible with text readers. Discord is an otherwise excellent tool, but it’s not good for blind users.
It can be difficult to get a sense of a shared social space instead of just disconnected online events. For my birthday party, I had a few specific scheduled events available to everyone, and in between, I had several text channels with activities in each and a series of audio/video channels named after rooms of my house and with limited numbers. The ability to wander in and out of smaller chats and join in with group activities was really helpful for getting that feeling of hanging out with friends.
You can also try to encourage a sense of community and anticipation before the con. Perhaps you could set up a place for people to post their own suggestions for events, online resources, and tips! What about a place for people to request and offer costumes and props, where people can plan their game experience together? Or organising some mini workshops or offering supports, networking, and prompts to people wanting to forming little writing teams?
Some possible channels or events that people could attend at the LARP con itself:
- An introductions/guest book channel for people to post a bit about themselves and leave a message to the con
- A squee post so that people can share things they enjoyed about games and events
- A post for people to place photos of their costumes or screen shots/short videos from games (with the consent of participants of course!)
- A channel for people to arrange to play board games with each other, with links to online board gaming sites, and the ability to start small audio chats within the con server for the game players
- If you’re on discord, there are a number of bots for running games. I wrote a few for my birthday event, for games of Apples to Apples, Slash: Romance Without Boundaries, Pictionary, and a storytelling game. These worked well because they’re the kind of games that are casual, can take large numbers, and people can drift in and out of or wander off for a few minutes without disrupting the game.
- Launch/closing events designed to allow for a large audience. Ask people not speaking to mute and moderate speaking carefully, asking people to raise hands. And take turns. You might want to stream these rather than try to use a large video call; there are a number of tools available for audience engagement with webinars, allowing for audience questions, polls, and private text chats.
- A music hour for dancing or karaoke; it’s surprisingly fun to jump around on screen to music with other people doing the same. Though if you’re doing karaoke, it will have to be one person singing to music being played on their own computer, otherwise it will all be out of synch because of the lag!
- Some sort of digital swag available for attendees
- You could integrate some game designed to encourage interaction on the server; for example, there are Pokémon based bots for Discord that occasionally post new Pokémon on channels that players can ‘catch’, then train them and fight each other.
A summary of my own conclusion is that I would use Zoom for video-based games (I have a paid account), and Discord for a general server with integrated channels. I will go into some more detail and a few other kinds of tools below.
Discord is an extremely useful tool. You can set up a server with text chat channels as well as audio and/or video rooms. You can also set up roles and permissions, so that some of the ‘rooms’ in your game can’t be seen at all by certain groups. Better yet, you can also customise it with the use of ‘bots’: users run by code that can be added to your server to run various things for you, such as setting up timed events to be announced in the channels, playing soundtracks, sending players private information in response to command words, and automating letting players in and out of rooms in response to things. You can find existing bots, or code up a new one.
Discord is an excellent tool if you’re making use of different mediums like multiple channels and text and audio channels. The downsides of Discord are that it’s a bit of a learning curve to work out how to use, and if you’re intending to run a game which is pure video call, it’s not the ideal tool; the video quality can be a bit sketchy, especially with a low connection speed, and run into technical problems. Additionally, Discord is difficult to use for people who rely heavily on text readers.
For video play, I am most familiar with Zoom, whichworks well, supports closed caption integration, and is quite reliable and good quality for video. It has a number of useful features such as support for backgrounds, the ability to create smaller video ‘breakout’ rooms, private messaging to individual participants, and the ability to share and edit a whiteboard. It is also possible to set it up to allow users to log in via a browser, and as a backup option, players can also phone in to be in the chat via sound if video isn’t working for them. The main downside (now that a number of the big security concerns have been addressed) is that unless someone pays for a Zoom account (£14 a month), you can’t access all the features and calls will be stopped after 40 minutes; though if you pay more, you can also use their webinar features. Webex and Microsoft Teams are other professional end services for conference calls; as far as I can tell, both are pricier than Zoom for similar features and are less integrated and harder to use, though Team works better with other Microsoft products.
Generally, paid video calling services are going to be of better quality than free ones, or else the free ones will be limited in numbers or to particular OSs. Jitsi is quite popular: it’s free, open source, and easy to use in a browser, though it does tend to pick up background noise in the audio and quality can become difficult for large groups. Skype allows for up to 50 people in a voice call and many people already have it; it also enables the use of backgrounds. Google Meet is a professional-quality product and currently free to anyone with a google account, but this is scheduled to end at the end of September.
I’ve found very few alternatives to using Discord as a general integrated server. Slack is a possibility and video calling is better quality and more reliable, however it is very pricey for the same features, and though you can create a video chat, you can’t set up audio channels to pop in and out of like in Discord. There are a number of online conference tools such as AirMeet, HeySummit, and 6Connex; these all cost money, and most of the benefit is on the side of making and streaming webinars.
If you’re looking for tools to integrate audience participation into webinars, the ones I found were Brella, Slido, Whova, and Hopin. These tools allow for things like comments, discussion, questions, polls, ice-breaks, chat, and audience profiles for social networking.
While we may not have chosen to be confined to virtual LARPs and some styles of games do not translate well, the story isn’t all negative. Virtual LARPing has some advantages, particularly over allowing some people to join in who would otherwise not be able to play at all, and some interesting features and potential mediums that online games can make use of in ways that enhance play.
I believe that our community has it in us to rise to the challenge and even flourish during lockdown. I have already discovered so much creativity and a variety of game styles available, and I am very much looking forward to playing some more.
‘Discord for LARPers’ https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NB-c9hYLxbAosMzQrDCSXSnX1kXVbZZo6H0CAd2PCP8/edit
‘Quick Guide to Using Zoom’ https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Bp7Nq6Sj16KOHryGpHlYGBkcVM6CEfUEL_43mNU0uUQ/
‘A Manifesto for Laogs – Live Action Online Games’ https://nordiclarp.org/2019/06/14/a-manifesto-for-laogs-live-action-online-games/
‘LARPing Online’ https://fairescape.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/larping-online/
‘Resources for Moving to Online Play’ https://forums.gauntlet-rpg.com/t/resources-for-moving-to-online-play/
FB Group ‘Social Distancing – RPG/LARP Resources’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/2584479148486328
FB Group ‘Remote, Digital Larps, and Live Action Online Games’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/428265511139343
Game Jam to write social distancing LARPs https://itch.io/jam/social-distancing-larp-jam
TGI LARPs https://geekinitiative.com/tgilarps/
 Note from Rei: I intend to try to code up a bot with a few things that might be useful for UK Freeform games, such as managing what objects/money people are carrying and activating some special abilities. Let me know if you have ideas for tools you think would be useful!