Axial tension character design in On Location

On Location is a standalone weekend larp that has run twice, in the UK: in December 2017, and January 2019. The website is here:

The initial designers were Karolina Soltys and Mo Holkar.

Before reading much further, you might want to look at an example of what the character briefings are like:

On Location explores, among other things, themes of fatedness vs free will; attachment to the world vs detachment from it; and social connection vs standing alone. When we started designing the characters, we wanted to empower players to explore these themes by creating fruitful tensions among the characters’ individual viewpoints and philosophies of life.

The axes

We set up three axes, with positions as follows:

  1. What is the character’s view of how their future is shaped?
    1. Predominantly by the playing out of FATE
    2. Predominantly by the exercise of WILL
  2. How does the character view worldly things – possessions, physical enjoyment, etc?
    1. They have an ATTACHMENT to things of the world
    2. They rise above such things, being driven rather by INTELLECT
  3. How strong is their need for other people around them?
    1. They need to be CONNECTED
    2. They are NEUTRAL about it
    3. They are happy, or prefer, to operate ALONE

Each character was then assigned a set of views by taking one position from each axis: for example, ‘Fate, Attachment, Connected’; or ‘Will, Attachment, Neutral’.

This created 12 unique combinations. Then for each combination, one of the elements would be dominant in that person: so that ‘FATE, Attachment, Connected’ would be a different approach to that of ‘Fate, ATTACHMENT, Connected’.

(We didn’t allow Neutral to be a dominant element, because we wanted to end up with 32 unique characters, not 36.)

We started assigning shorthand archetypes to each combination. So for example ‘Will, INTELLECT, Neutral’ was The Scientist; ‘Fate, INTELLECT, Neutral’ was The Philosopher; ‘FATE, Intellect, Neutral’ was The Doomed. But we didn’t complete this exercise, because we realized we didn’t actually need it for the larp.

The characters

The 32 characters in On Location are the cast and crew of a film, waiting at its location for the director to arrive so they can start shooting.

We assigned the 32 axial combinations to characters based on their task and position within the group. So for example, ‘Will, Attachment, ALONE’ went to The Femme Fatale; ‘Fate, INTELLECT, Neutral’ to The Stills Photographer; ‘Fate, ATTACHMENT, Neutral’ to The Ingenue; and so on.

We then wrote the basic character backgrounds based upon this set of positions. So the background for The Femme Fatale explained why they had this view of the world, and how it might manifest in their behaviour, goals, and drives.


We wanted interpersonal play within the larp to be driven by a solid network of tensions, which we built up using the characters’ axial positions, using a regular and symmetrical pattern.

So looking at The Femme Fatale (Will, Attachment, ALONE), she has the following:

  • A major relationship tending towards positivity with The Fading Star (Fate, INTELLECT, Connected);
  • A major relationship tending towards positivity with The Sidekick (FATE, Attachment, Connected);
  • A major relationship tending towards negativity with The Psychotherapist (Will, INTELLECT, Neutral);
  • A major relationship tending towards negativity with The Journeying Hero (FATE, Intellect, Connected);
  • A minor positive relationship with The Subject (Fate, ATTACHMENT, Connected);
  • A minor positive relationship with The Assistant Director (Fate, ATTACHMENT, Alone);
  • A minor negative relationship with The Art Director (Fate, Intellect, CONNECTED).

And each other character has a similar set of relationships predefined. We then wrote a briefing for both parties on the relationship, explaining why it was like that and what each of their perspective was on it, etc. See here for how it worked out with The Femme Fatale:

The network

So the idea of this network of positive and negative tensions was partly to generate play, but also to hinder any kind of consensus emerging. The characters in On Location are trapped in an existential dilemma, and if they come to an early agreement (or even if most of them do) about what’s happening to them, how to handle it, or what it means to them, that would remove some interest from the remainder of the larp.

So we set up the network such that if the general mood of the larp starts to stretch in one direction, the tensions of friendships, rivalries, and differing outlooks will pull it back. Of course, characters will change and evolve during the course of the larp – so it is likely that by the end, there will be a disturbed balance, as a result of character journeys. But it’s not desirable for that to happen too early on.

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