LARP and Renaissance Faires: What They Teach Us About Participatory Experience Design

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, May 12th, 2014

Society for Creative Anachronism

It’s nighttime. The forest is dark around you, alive with only the sounds of small creatures and the rumble of an Orc army marching through the darkness to go to war against you. You and your companions, a group of elves clad in medieval armor and armed to the teeth, wait anxiously in the tavern while the force approaches. Soon, you’ll take to the battlefield to test skill and nerve against one another. Your weapons of choice? Bird seed filled packets that represent your spells, swords made of foam and PVC piping, and maybe even an odd NERF gun if the world context allows it. Welcome to the world of live action roleplaying (LARPs) and their distant cousins, Renaissance Faires.

SCA Queen with Greyhound

The popularity of Game of Thrones, True Blood, and many otherworldly television shows, movies, and book series underscores the fact that both American and global audiences are hungry for entertainment. Fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal stories and worlds capture our imagination. Historical worlds from Vikings to a loosely interpreted 17th century Caribbean in Black Sails have been popularized in recent television seasons.

LARP battle

LARPs and Renaissance Faires seek to bring these worlds to life in a way that’s full participatory or experiential for guests. The storylines and worlds that are created vary, but often have a high fantasy or pseudo-medieval component. Each takes a different approach. LARPs are most similar to tabletop roleplaying games you may be familiar with, such as Dungeons and Dragons. However, the fun is taken off the page and brought into the real world.

The events are closed, story worlds and adventures created for the pleasure, engagement, and fun of the participants. Events are often held at venues such as Boy Scout camps off season. They are closed to the public. Buildings are transformed with staging – banners hung on the walls, heraldry and lights creating a different ambiance. Participants dress in a manner consistent with the times, and with the individual characters that they play. Plot teams create stories and run individual encounters. The players focus on the stories of their individual characters, portraying those characters and adhering to a specific set of rules that governs how they move through the world.

Renaissance Faires singers

Renaissance Faires are slightly different in both execution and intent. These are more of interactive theatrical productions. The in-character staffs are likely to be a mix of actors and vendors hawking medieval style weapons, clothes, and other treats. The environments are created to invite in the public and entertain them with plays, medieval improv, and period appropriate shopping. Some Faires, such as King Richard’s Faire in Massachusetts, boast full-scale jousts. Many of the patrons are families, there to delight young children with make believe. But others are period enthusiasts that adopt full personas and costumes. Another option that sets out to accurately recreate historical worlds is the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).

Player LARPing in Platemail

LARPs, Renaisssance Faires, and organizations like the SCA provide fascinating models of experience design. How do teams of people come together to provide the framework for another world, one of total immersion and make-believe, in which players come together and help to bring it to life? It’s through a shared sense of fantasy and a willingness to engage in pretend and play. By tapping into people’s passion for history, fantasy and cosplay, these experiences transport players into another time. When creating a themed world, it’s important for experience designers to recognize which popular fads and interests will create the ideal conditions for participants to let go and fully participate in the experience.

Images courtesy of SCA,, Realms of LARP


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