The summer I was 14, I saved the world for the first time. I also attempted to destroy it, spied on the Illuminati, and journeyed into the underworld, all in the span of two weeks. That’s what happens when you go off to a summer camp for live action role playing or “larping.” I went back every summer throughout my teen years, playing dozens of characters in different worlds. It wasn’t long before I was writing games of my own, both for my friends at home and for the camp, the Wayfinder Experience. Over a decade later, I’m a professional larp writer and serve on Wayfinder’s Story Board, helping mentor up-and-coming teen game writers as they create new worlds in which to tell stories and explore who they are.
I’ve run many games of my own, both at Wayfinder and elsewhere, and have learned a great deal about how to create a meaningful experience for teens before, during, and after gameplay. One of the joys of larp design for teens is that their feedback is immediate and obvious — their reactions to design choices are rarely subtle. So here are some takeaways that are relevant not just to larp design but all kinds of game creation for teens.
Design to Support Identity Exploration
One of the most powerful elements of larping is the act of embodying a character that you as a player help create. Sometimes you start from an existing character outline and sometimes you create one from scratch. Regardless, you are an active participant in the creative process, adding details and backstory and identity elements. Players of all ages use this as an opportunity to explore, but teens especially experiment with different possible versions of themselves. They might try larping as a more confident person, or a person with a different gender presentation. Often, these experiments help them test the waters, seeing what it feels like to be who they want to be — or who they could become.
This kind of experimental identity play shows up as soon as players are offered the slightest opportunity to impact a character. When I was in middle school, I loved the video game Chrono Trigger. The only choice I had as a player was to set the characters’ names, but you bet I chose my own for the main character, and set the other party members’ names to match those of my friends. I wanted to pretend that I could be that adventurous hero, even before larping gave me the opportunity to embody that hero physically.
When you are designing games, consider how your design allows for or encourages the character creation process. What elements of personal identity can players bring into the game? Will those choices have an impact on the game? Will their choices be reflected and respected, or ignored and contradicted by the game as designed? Giving players the freedom to experiment with their self-representation can be a profound tool for exploration.
Design to Support Storytelling
A larp isn’t just one story — it’s as many stories as there are players. Player each experience their own storyline, all in parallel with one another. This gives players the freedom to seek out different kinds of narratives, and teens will always gravitate on their own to the stories they find compelling and rewarding.
When I was a camper, my best friend always made sure his storylines revolved around epic romances, often ending tragically. He’d find another player or two, create a love triangle, and dig in deep, seeking out a kind of play that I had little interest in. I was more drawn to the political machinations, the schemes and betrayals. But I couldn’t help wondering what my friend found in those romances, so I started trying to play with similar narratives. That exploratory process started helping me figure out my own identities.
Over the years, I’ve seen teen after teen find themselves drawn to particular kinds of play. The types they choose are often very revealing, whether or not the players are consciously aware of it. Allowing that kind of freedom as the designer can be hugely rewarding. If your game design gives players the freedom to seek or create narratives within the larger structure, they will naturally gravitate to the places they feel comfortable and find ways to explore and play.
While many larps are designed as escapist fun (a worthy end goal in its own right!), some designers build larps with education as the cornerstone. These “edu-larps” can take many forms, from short scenarios to be played in a history classroom up through full weekend-long, immersive adventures. There’s a boarding school in Denmark built around edu-larping! Even larps that don’t have education as their primary focus can bring in useful tools from edu-larping, though, and help teens grasp important lessons.
A key concept from educational larp design is creating structures that players can use to build their own lessons — what educators call scaffolds. These scaffolds help guide play, both in and out of character, and come in many forms. They could take the form of backstory provided before the game starts, structured decisions with clear options, or just about anything else. Some scaffolds are straightforward, such as providing a moral choice about how to treat a captive prisoner, while others might be subtler, like including characters who are struggling with complex emotional challenges that might mirror the lives of the players.
Years ago, I ran a game set in the mind of a teen girl, with the characters embodying her memories, personality aspects, hopes, and fears. The fears manifested as demons, but as part of the character design, each could be redeemed into a positive version. Isolation could become independence, stagnation could become stability, and so on. One young player confronted the fear of change, and in a tearful scene helped it become growth and moving on from pain. She sent me an email a week later thanking me for the game. She told me that her mother had died recently, and the things she’d been shouting in that scene were very real. The scaffold of the demon’s redemption gave her a path she could use to transform her real grief and build an emotional outlet that she could carry forward into her life after the game.
Healthy scaffolding gives guidance that encourages productive avenues of exploration without feeling restrictive or overly didactic. A well-built scaffold can lay down a framework which teens will use to ground their own exploration. The truth is that most games are full of scaffolds, but many are unintentional. An often overlooked part of the game design process is to take a step back and consider what lessons and narratives your design is actually scaffolding. Are there particular choices your characters are making? Are there options that your design closes off or encourages? Are there ways your mechanics and themes are at odds?
You can never (and probably shouldn’t try to) completely control the lessons that your players will take away from your games, but good scaffolding can encourage the ideas you want to support.
Provide Recaps and Debriefs
Whether or not game designers realize it, the gameplay experiences doesn’t always end when the game itself does. Most larps have some kind of post-game wrap-up, whether it’s a party or a diner run or a more formal debriefing process. Wayfinder uses what we call a de-rolling workshop to help ease our players out of the fantasy world and back into their default realities and lives. The next day, we have a story circle where everyone shares their favorite moments from the game and the writer provides an epilogue or closure.
These kinds of recaps serve a number of useful purposes. On a psychological level, they provide a sense of closure, which is helpful both for players whose stories ended cleanly and those who wish they had a more satisfying ending. The storytelling process also helps create emotional distance, separating the player and the character, which can be necessary after emotionally intense games. Game theorists often talk about the concept (coined by Johan Huizinga) of a magic circle, a space for play set aside from the real world. Recaps and formalized debriefs help players transition back out of the magic circle.
On a more practical level, recaps also help players spell out important lessons they learned from the game. This is especially useful with younger players, who may not have realized the game’s relevance to their real lives during gameplay. Prompting them to consider the parallels with their real lives once the game is over can help them carry that awareness forward. It also gives them nice clear stories they can take home to their parents.
Here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned for designing meaningful experiences for teens:
- Allow players to participate in the character process, or at least provide space for them to apply their own concepts to the existing characters.
- Give players options to seek out narratives that they find compelling, and pay attention to what they gravitate towards.
- Provide your players with scaffolds for them to build lessons from. Give them clear choices, and consider the ways your design supports or undermines the lessons you want to be imparting.
- When the game is over, take time to recap the game with your players, both to help transition them back to reality and to help cement the ideas you want them to carry forward.
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