Design Document Essentials

(Featured Photo by 85Fifteen on Unsplash.) As much larping goes in the direction of freeforms and one-shots, design documents have become an essential part of larp design, but still aren’t things discussed much in the greater North American community. I’d argue that EVERY larp could use a well written, ten page design document which sets up the basic play style, themes, player expectations, and any other must-haves. For those unfamiliar with a design document (and for the purposes of this blog because it actually could be defined a lot of other ways), I consider it an essential guide to any given game which introduces the players to what they should expect in the larp, how they fit in the game, how to interact with the world, and main themes of the story. A player should be able to click on a game’s website, open the design document, and know within a few pages if this game is for them or not.

I’m going to Real Royalty Larp in April to do a full review of the game, but Hanging Lantern has put together a really lovely design document not just visually but organizationally. Natasha Borders, Jeff Steele, and Benji Michalek are the writers (and directors of the event). They clearly took a lot of things they learned from their first run and their players needs in designing the piece. You can find the full document here if you want to give it a scan yourself. The only thing I’d say I dislike is the fact that it’s so long, but their culture and location readings aren’t necessary if you’re just trying to figure out if you want to play the game. They’ve combined a design document with a player’s guide, which is a popular style of doing it these days. The things I particularly love about it are the first 11 pages and THAT is what I’d consider the meat of the ‘design’ document. In that section you get proper credits, a good taste of the theme (both visually and in written text), the MUST KNOW mechanics of how to play the game, off-game conduct rules, and an understanding of how a player will be a social part of the event both in and out of character. They’ve also managed to present this information in visual ways (see page 11) so people who visually learn over reading have a better chance of retaining the information. I have to give a nod towards Eskhaton Larp as well, if you want to see another well organized document which sets player expectations well right up front, it’s here.

So, having seen those examples, what are the essential pieces that need to go into a document and how do you write them brief enough that you don’t lose the attention span of prospective players? That’s the balance any game designer has to wrestle with. I was speaking with a few other designers about the fact that it seems incredibly rare that any player has read and retained an entire design document before a game, so it’s incredibly important it is that we pair these things down to the MUST KNOWS. Longer player’s guides can go into the depth of the factions and history of the game, but an up front design document (that can be used for marketing as well as player preparation) should be an easy read of a dozen pages at most. Here’s my opinion of the must haves, but I’d love other designers to weigh in with responses if you think I’ve missed something big:

Credits: No one designs in a vacuum. Most of our larp ideas have been developed and tested by other people and it’s important to give a nod to where credit is deserved. These generally end up in the very first page like crediting authors in a book.

Where, When, and How Much: I’ve had so many larpers complain, upon seeing the release of a new larp, it’s nearly impossible to find where/when it’s happening and how much the thing costs! While it might be on your website, or in your Facebook event, or a million other places, it’s ABSOLUTELY worth putting it into your document. It only takes a few lines of text and will let a player immediately know if this event would be even possible for them to attend geographically or financially. Hiding costs has been used as a technique to intrigue players and draw them into a survey before, but I don’t believe that lack of transparency is helping anyone. If there are scholarship tickets or financial help, let them know here as well. Lastly, if you’re game is a campaign or isn’t certain the exact dates, give them a link to where this information can be consistently found.

Themes: Next, tell the players what the themes and genre of your game is going to be. Keep it to a paragraph or two (an elevator pitch, so to speak), not a five page saga about every detail of the world you want to explore. If you can’t distill the thematic elements of your game into two paragraphs, chances are you are trying to tackle too much at once and it’s difficult to do a dozen different themes well in a single game space. Page 7 of the Real Royalty guide tackles this in a beautifully succinct fashion. Three paragraphs not only tell me what I need to know about the in character genre but the out of character play style. It demonstrates how the chosen out of character mechanics support the in character themes of their event.

Code of Conduct/Policies: How are people expected to comport themselves out of game at your event? What sort of space are you creating for your players? While it saddens me that we still have to reinforce rules such as no sexism, racism, ageism and disrespect of people’s gender/pronouns, etc, we still see these issues in our larps time and again, so we need to lay it out in clear text this is not acceptable behavior. Once the social contract policies have been written down, it’s a place to also put in any genre or theme policies (example: Real Royalty’s “Tech Free Weekend” policy) that may intrigue or bother players about the game.

Out of Character Warnings: Is this an event where there will be liberal drinking, lacking clothes, or big special effects without warning? If you know your event is dealing with specifically triggering topics, play spaces that might make people uncomfortable (alcohol and sexuality being the first two that come to mind, but even strongly structured caste play could be problematic for some people), or big effects which could trigger health issues like asthma, let people know. This is the chance to warn prospective players right up front of things that could be hard-no’s for their play experience before they get too deeply invested in your game.

Essential Mechanics: How do people play your game? Is it strictly consent negotiations? Are there terms to ramp up or cut back on the action? Do you use stoplight mechanics, the look down, the OK check in, or any other of the well known negotiation mechanics that pervade the scenes these days? A brief introduction as to how the players can expect to affect the game world and build story with other players helps everyone prepare for the style of game they are being presented. If you are a more stats/points based boffer larp, this is where you’d nod to a longer rulebook and discuss your design strategy as to how points interact with the world. Is it made to be a gameist design where stats win the day always, or is this a design where stats are there to support the narrative and can be changed/set aside as needed?

Once you have presented all the above sections in a concise format, share it with your design team and pick over the bones. Slim down anything unnecessary or fluff language. Double check that you have included ANYTHING your design team considered essential when first concepting the game. Share it with a few potential players and ask them if they are left with any other questions after reading it over, or they have a clear set of expectations and know everything they need to make a decision about joining the game world. Once all that’s done, then you have a solid design document you can release to the public for marketing, announcement, and to help all players engage with your world as quickly and smoothly as possible.


One thought on “Design Document Essentials

  1. Cthulhu Mom says:

    As a prospective player I would LOVE to see more games adopt this. A frustration point (as you mentioned) is that while all of this information may be “available” it is rarely all in one place and I don’t have time to go to three different locations and piece together what you are trying to do. Having it all in one place and summed up so I know if this is the right experience for me would make decision making easier. As a game runner, knowing that I have a go to document to explain the game is an invaluable marketing tool.


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