Virtual LARPs

The demand for continued LARPing during the Pandemic of 2020 meant that LARP designers, including me, experimented with LARPing across the Internet. With text and video, using Discord, Remo, Kumospace, and Zoom, we LARPed. This inspired me to design and write LARPs that run virtually, playable across the Internet:

Additionally, The Barbecue and A Second Chance for Wings have run virtually several times. Both of these LARPs are available for download.

All of these LARPs are designed to run virtually, but almost all of them have also run at in-person events as well. Each format has advantages and disadvantages in running the games, but neither format precludes intense and powerful role playing magic.

I am continuing to experiment with the format. I'm definitely continuing to play them whenever I can. They can be as engaging and intense as in-person LARPs, and I get to play with some of my favorite distant and even international friends.

But how does this work in practice?

For most of these LARPs, we use Discord. Jordan and I have a Tales of the Future Discord server, which we use for several of our games. This is what the server looks like in my MacOS laptop Discord app:

As you can see, there are several sets of channels. While I'm in the waiting-spacetime text channel, where I can chat with others in the LARP, I also am connected to the voice and video Tales of the Future channel. If I turned my camera on, I would be visible to everyone else in that channel. I can hear everyone in that channel, and can speak to them as well. This is where most of the role-playing and drama happens.

There are very specific additional channels used in some of the LARPs. In The Journey of a Single Step Made Quadrillions of Times, there's a Tale that takes place involving two different starships in the Deep Dark of interstellar space. The crew of the Octavia have a dedicated Octavia video channel for their use, and the crew of the Iron Bender[1] have a separate dedicated Iron Bender video channel. Because of incompatible tech and languages, the two ships can only communicate using the ship-to-ship text channel. You can see all of the channels here, because, as a GM, I have to have access to all of them. The players only see the channels that are appropriate for their characters.

Discord also allows you to change your name on any given server. Since I'm the GM, I can make that explicit for this server, right in my name. We ask the players to change their name to that of the character before play starts, so it's obvious that Alexis is playing "The Glorious Teres (they/them)" as a non-binary centuries old despot, bored with their rule. The character is not explicitly gendered, so it can be played by anyone, with a gender they see fit for the role.[2] This may be "One Sparkling Mountain (One)," for races that have non-human genders, as in this race with four of them. This also makes the characters more accessible to the players, who can play the role as they want to, regardless of their personal gender identification. This was really important to me, allowing me to play female characters, even as I wasn't yet publicly out as a transgender woman.

This name change is especially important where the character names and genders are chosen by the players before the start of play, usually as the result of some pregame workshopping and character building. Since the game materials weren't written with names and genders, the name on the screen may be the only place to find it.

Other LARPs can use more elaborate mechanisms. Culture Crash runs on a Discord server managed by one of my UK co-authors and co-GMs. The LARP requires a bot to help us manage the several interesting spaces in the game and the items you can find in them. The bot allows the item descriptions to vary based on the race of the character. A "glowing green rock" might be an important cultural artefact[3] to one race and just an unusual, slightly radioactive crystal to another!

Some games provide background images for use with the video conferencing tool. When I played News of the Apocalypse over Zoom, we were all playing reporters for KRMK TV, so we all had the station's logo behind us as we reported on the crazy things that were happening in our city.

LARPers have been experimenting with video conferencing tools with spatial representations. Before Kumospace raised their prices prohibitively for occasional use, several LARPs ran using it. In Children of the Stars, episode 3 of the Fermi Paradox LARP series, our GM built the conference layout with several rooms, with lockable doors between them. Each of us had an avatar we could navigate through that space. (He even built a virtual bar with virtual coffee and alcohol, that your avatar could drink!) As we moved our avatar closer to the avatars of other characters, we would be able to hear them, quietly at first, then louder, just like we were walking through a room towards someone. If I needed to find someone, I had to walk around until I saw their avatar, just as if I was searching for someone in a real, physical space.

The pandemic led to several impressive video conferencing tools, and LARPers have made use of them in novel and interesting ways. I'm always looking for ways to make use of technology to improve the experiences in my virtual LARPs, even as I make sure to design them so they can still run in an in-person environment.

There are tradeoffs in virtual LARPing, just as there are in in-person LARPs. You can make the sense of isolation much stronger virtually than you can when space-constrained in person. You can't have the physicality of shaking hands or handing someone a physical item. You have to focus on the actions that work across this interface. The surprising thing that many of us learned is that you can still have powerful, intimate, emotional, personal interactions despite LARPing through your camera, your microphone, and your screen.

There have been some terrific LARPs written for this medium, and I've been fortunate enough to have played in several. I like to think I've written a couple of those terrific virtual LARPs. You can also play with your friends across the country, across a territorial border, or across the ocean, right from your couch — and that is definitely worth it!


[1]: The actual name of the ship is the Iron Bender's Fire Along the River Between the Golden Mountain Ridges, but that's way too long for Discord. It's also a very subtle science fiction reference that may only make sense to me, but it makes me smile every time I see it.

[2]: The greater Intercon community has a large LGBTQ+ contingent, and players rightly wanted to be able to play their characters as they present and identify themselves. That's why almost all of the characters and games I've written since 2011 are not specifically gendered. They are up to the player to inhabit as they see fit. I warn potential players:

There are no gendered pronouns in the game, which means two things: the gender of the role is open to the player to define and inhabit, and those roles may have important and significant intimate relationships with others in the Tale. If this is a concern for you, please talk to the organizer of your event.

It does make the writing a little bit harder, but it's become second nature to me. I also write a lot of alien characters, some with genders that aren't human. Amusingly, that makes it harder for me to write gendered human characters when I want to, usually for fiction. However, it definitely makes casting much, much easier!

My goals are accessibility and inclusion. Between 2011 and 2023, I've had just one player bow out of a game because they were unable to even consider role-playing a gay relationship for a single 15-20 minute Tale. I've had far more players thank me for the opportunity to shape their characters in this way.

[3]: As the sole American on the project, I had to learn and use the proper English spellings, as defined in the UK, such as "artefact" instead of "artifact." There were also times when I had to ask for American translations for some of the British words and idioms I didn't understand. We hope the resulting work is accessible to everyone, regardless of their understanding of English.