In-Character Art

My first panel on Friday morning of Intercon N’s PreCon was “In-Character Art in LARPs”.

I suggested this topic months ago, and was quite excited to sit on this panel.  I asked around in person and online for examples of in-character art to share with people, and put together some notes and a photo gallery to share on a projector with the audience. A few people had suggestions for topics and examples to go over, and one LARPer graciously agreed to join me on the panel.

Unfortunately, the panel was more or less a wash. For one thing, the projector turned out to be of low quality, the images it produced were not very clear, and no matter how we fussed with the color controls, we couldn’t get rid of the heavy green tint.

But far more significantly than that, we had an audience of one person through most of it. I think we had two for a brief portion in the middle.

I will say, to the panel’s credit, that the markers and paper I brought to encourage people to think artfully and doodle while listening seemed to go over quite well.

I admit I’m disappointed, but I’m still passionate about the topic. I love LARP, and I love making art. So even if this topic doesn’t have as much of an audience as some of the other PreCon topics did, I’m still writing a post to include all of the various thoughts and examples of in-character I prepared for the panel, on the off-chance there’s someone out there who would be interested.

The idea for this panel came to me during a discussion with a fellow LARPer. He was brainstorming ideas for a boffer LARP and asked me to help him come up with a list of ways to entertain PCs in a boffer campaign that do not require that all important resource of boffer LARPs — NPCs. Or, at least used a bare minimum of NPCs. (I.e. one, maybe two, to appear and interact with the PCs for only as long as it took to introduce the activity.)

The obvious, classic example (in my experience, anyway) is puzzles. Providing PCs with some sort of puzzle allows them to sit in the tavern during down time and keep busy with in-character activity. Puzzles often take the form of riddles to solve, maps or letters to decode or translate, or toys disguised as props. They pop up in theater LARPs from time to time as well, (though in theater LARPs, from time to time they aren’t diagetic.)

Performance art is another fairly common example. Players can pass the time with music, storytelling, or dance. They engage in  it on their own, for its own sake, or perhaps as part of a plot, if, say a magic ritual requires music, or fairies show up and demand to be entertained, either in exchange for a gift, or to deter them from carrying out a threat.

Other possibilities include providing games for players to play, such as board games or card games, or perhaps gamble over (bonus points if it’s an archaic game that reinforces the flavor of the setting.) I’ve seen NPCs set up underground boxing rings (dueling or other competitive sports work, too). This keeps the PCs busy either sparring against one another, or watching the matches. Additionally, I have seen players draw up treaties or contracts, and spend time debating the terms.

Creating in-game art seems like it ought to be an obvious addition to this list. Personally, if someone hands me markers and paper, or a bit of clay, or beads and string to make jewelry, I could easily stay entertained for hours without needing a single NPC. But I was hard pressed to come up with examples of LARPs, either boffer or theater, in which my character had a specific reason and guidance to create art, during an event.

And I think that’s a pity. Not just because I personally would love more opportunities to create art. There are a slew of advantages that creating art during a LARP can offer. I realize this isn’t for everyone. In fact, I know of a particular LARPer who dropped a campaign because he heard that we would be carving pumpkins during an event, and he took it as a sign that the LARP was not for him. (To be fair, there were other factors involved in his decision, but this was at least some small part of it.) But not every activity in a LARP needs to entice every player. Sudoku seems to pop up in LARP all the time, and I know several LARPers who hate sudoku. So why not art?

My goal for this panel was to inspire both LARP writers and staff and players to consider bringing art into their LARPs, to see it as another potential tool in their tool box. For clarification, I recognize that an enormous amount of art is done before, after, and between LARP events, especially in the categories of making costuming, set dressing, and props. It’s part of what I love about LARP. And much of it is even meant to represent a character’s own handiwork. But in keeping with my goal for the panel, I want to focus specifically on art that is done during an event, in-character. I also recognize that performance art, such as music, acting, storytelling, and dancing, is a great way to entertain players. But it’s already fairly well utilized in LARP, so I’m choosing to focus on visual art.

Besides keeping players busy, what sort of advantages can having players create in-character art during an event have?

Art can provide a means to explore, develop, establish, and reinforce your in-game cultures. One of the primary ways we study historical cultures is through the art they left behind, and it speaks volumes. We can determine information about what lost cultures considered important, what they considered beautiful. We can determine how they differ from other cultures. We can learn about the role religion plays in their lives. We can learn about their attitudes towards sexuality through their art. We can learn about their attitudes towards the other cultures they have interacted with.

We can use art to make our in-game cultures feel deep and nuanced and real, by providing examples of art from them, and having players produce their own contributions to their characters’ cultural art.

In Cottington Woods, for example, the prominent religion of the setting is that of the Written Word. Priests consider recording events to be their sacred duty. It occurred to me that in a culture where scripture is sacred, it makes perfect sense that people would put effort into beautifying scripture, and therefore illumination might be an art the priests practice. (My character is trying to become an illuminator.)

Similarly, the types of crafts a culture produces is a reflection on what sorts of resources they have, or what they need. A culture with an abundance of sheep might have knitting as a popular artform. A culture that exists in a place with long winters might also have knitting as a well developed art, as wearing knit winter gear is something that everyone needs.

Alternatively, if your LARP is set in a real culture, either current or historic, providing players with art projects native to the cultures present in your game can help create a more immersive atmosphere. (Folding origami, for example, could help players feel more immersed in a Japanese setting. Together, a large LARP cast of PCs might try to fold enough cranes to make a wish.)

Another advantage in-character art offer is that it produces prop, costuming, or set-dressing. I’ve seen a number of LARPs encourage PCs to come up with and create symbols for their factions, whether it’s symbols representing their order, or flags representing their country of origin. Clockwork Skies had an in-game contest to design a flag for the expedition that the PCs were all on. (Usually, the entries are produced between events, but with the right materials, it could be easily be done during an event.) This can provide the staff with flags and banners to hang around in-game spaces. (Even better if it helps a staff cover up out-of-game wall decorations that are part of the space their renting.)

Many costumes guides I’ve read online suggest trying to build your costume out of pieces that hold meaning to your character, perhaps by making up short stories to go with them. Having players create pieces in-game, (perhaps simple jewelry?) provides them with accessories for costuming and an in-game story for how they got it. A great way to encourage PC interaction might be to have them create pieces not for themselves, but as gifts to give other characters. Perhaps your in-game culture has a holiday in which it is traditional to give a particular form of handcrafted bracelet to a person to whom they owe thanks. That might make nice fodder for role play.

In Endgame, there were rituals for spells of protection that required characters to share the greatest sources of light and hope in their lives, and sources of fear and darkness. Having these confessions be part of the ritual really encouraged great roleplaying. I think a crafting component that characters could carry around as a reminder might be an interesting way to experiment with it.

And lastly, creating art is an action players can take as their character that can be completely diagetic. Providing players with more options for actions that they can do exactly as their characters are doing often helps with immersion. It’s 100% WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”).

Which brings me to my next topic. Some players, like me, will happily create art just for the fun of creating art, but other players might enjoy it more if there is specific in-game (and possibly explicitly mechanical) incentive. (Especially if they can’t conceive of their characters as artists.) Here is a short list of ideas for ways to incorporate incentives to create art into a LARP.

  • As part of a magic ritual.

This is probably the most common in-game incentive to create art, especially in fantasy settings. Think of all the times you’ve seen people draw runes, or alchemy circles, as part of a casting a spell. I had a character who drew runes on her face that granted her magical armor. I usually represented them with rub-on tattoos I bought from vending machines in supermarkets. But in retrospect, bringing art kits or special markers for drawing temporary tattoos (some art stores sell them — Michael’s has them) to a LARP and taking the time at the beginning of the events to draw intricate runes might have been a fun, in-character experience.

A LARP running in Virginia, called Ascendant, has an entire class based around producing pieces of art as a means of casting magic. Virtuosos can awake magical potential from the beauty they create. Examples of crafts include wood carving, stonework, bone carving, leatherworking, weaving, sketeches, paintings, poetry, mosaic crafting, and origami. The works of art become talismans which may be given to other characters, and they produce different effects depending on the themes worked into the art.

  • As a gift to NPCs, or to appease them

Imagine learning that the king is coming to your PCs’ humble village, and without the money to buy something expensive, they instead work on a group project to present to him. Or a warlord is rumored to be headed towards the village, and the PCs decide if they create something with his likeness as a tribute, he’ll annex them rather than slaughter and pillage. Fairies might demand to be entertained, or else they’ll curse the PCs. (Fairies can be fickle like that.)

  • To add prestige or reinforce your presence in your locale

Art installations are one way to increase the prestige of an institution. Setting up flags might also lend weight to your PCs claim if they are settling uninhabited land, but enemy NPC factions are trying to do the same.

  • As a means of passing coded messages

PCs could communicate with compromised NPC allies. Perhaps they might include Morse code messages in a beaded necklace. The Dan Brown books have tons of examples of using art to convey secret messages.

  • To affect popular opinions

Commissioning works of art has historically been a way to influence public opinion of political figures. Art can be a form of propaganda that stirs the masses to revolution. (I played in a theater LARP once where producing and reciting poetry in the public square could alter the course of the LARP — mechanically, it boosted the combat scores of the rebellion. Visual art could be used the same way.)

  • To boost morale.

Displaying pieces of costuming bearing the standard of a combatant in a one-on-one fight might mechanically improve a combatant’s score.

  • As part of a contest

An NPC might offer prizes of money or artifacts to whomever produces the piece of art they likes best.

  • To produce evidence.

If your LARP’s setting allows for photographs, your players might use them to have a criminal NPC convicted.

  • As your character’s career.

Cottington Woods requires all characters to have a mundane occupation in order to support themselves, and while most characters do not actively engage in their careers (such as farming or shepherding) during events, artisans could easily do so.

One of the significant downsides to incorporating art projects into a LARP is that it usually requires materials, which adds cost to running a LARP and requires someone to be responsible for procuring and transporting them. (Unless, I suppose, you’re planning something like holding a LARP on a beach and involving sand sculpting, or it snows during an event and snow sculptures become an option.)

One can either have the staff foot the bill, ask PCs to chip in, or shift the budget around to cover supplies. Cottington Woods asked players to volunteer to bring in pumpkins to carve. They only asked for one per cabin, which I think was a smart way to handle it. That way those who didn’t want to buy and bring pumpkins didn’t have to, so long as at least one other person in their cabin was willing to. Carving a pumpkin was an excellent choice for a project, I feel, because it was easy for multiple people to collaborate. (And in practice, I believe we had an abundance of pumpkins. Of course, it helps that this event was right around Halloween.)

One could probably ask any players who wanted to participate to bring in supplies, but if a staff uses that tactic I would still recommend that staff bring in some supplies to cover people who forget, and to make sure whatever in-game benefits the art project provides aren’t excessive, so that those who aren’t able to procure supplies (either for reasons of time or money), along with those who are too self conscious about their own perceived lack of artistic talent (there’s always someone who insists, “no, I can’t draw!” or the like) aren’t unduly penalized in-game.

This brings me to examples of in-game art projects. Some of these were done with guidance from the LARP staff, but some of these are simply the players bringing in their own ideas for art projects into the LARP. As much as I’m hoping to inspire LARP staffs to include art in their LARPs, I also encourage players to initiate their own projects, if the structure of the LARP allows for it, for all the same reasons as I listed above. (And working on art projects during downtime can keep a player immersed, instead of just tuning out of the environment and feeling like you’re dropping out of character.)

I hope some LARPers will find the examples that other LARPers shared with me as inspiring as I do.

  • First, some pictures of carved pumpkins for the Halloween event at Cottington Woods.

Lit lanterns in the wood.

Carving the pumpkins was a lot of fun. It afforded the players a nice opportunity to express something personal about their characters. The triple line on the pumpkin on the left is the symbol of one of the families in the LARP. The pumpkin on the right was mine — I carved a wind-up key to represent my character, a wind-up doll who came to life. The pumpkins were left by the entrances of our cabins (and in my case, a tent). The denizens of the woods in this LARP hope that on the nights when the spirits and fae are most able to draw near, they will not visit harm upon the homes that have left out glowing pumpkins as gestures of respect. I really liked the way this project developed the culture of the LARP’s setting, and the glowing lights visible at night created a really beautiful, and somewhat eerie touch to the atmosphere.

Colored paper lanterns might be another way to create this eerily beautiful lights-at-night effect when pumpkins aren’t in season.

  • During Izgon 2, the two week long, international LARP that I participated in last fall, the writer/sole GM asked some of the players to draw their own interpretations of our character’s surreal home worlds. While drawing my character’s interpretation of her beloved community of White Pillar, I realized that she probably felt a terrible longing for her home, and a fear she’d never see it again. Drawing White Pillar helped me realize and express that side of her.

Top row: Fire Cave by Ty’ris, craypa on paper. Bottom row, l to r: White Pillar by So’haya, craypa on paper, White Pillar by Ko’ris, pencil on paper

Seeing some of the beautiful artwork from players in Europe was also very cool. You can see some of their art from both the first Izgon and Izgon 2 here, here, and here.

  • This next one is a bit of a silly one, but I played in a LARP called The Minotaur’s Labyrinth, which was a lot like a scavenger hunt. One of the tasks the Minotaur gave us was to create some sort of gesture of homage to his greatness. A number of players wrote poetry, or sang songs for him. I tried to put together an impromptu idol out of clothing from my suitcase, a chair, my sneakers, and a quick sketch of a minotaur face on some paper. …I guess that’s sort of another form of art one can make without purchasing supplies in advance.

Homage to the Minotaur

  • My last personal example is the personal journal of my Cottington Woods character, as mentioned above. When I have downtime during the LARP, I sit in the tavern with colored markers and gold and silver pens, record what is going on in the Woods, and try to illuminate the pages. (It’s typically a bit rushed, as one never knows when wolves or vampires might attack.) Other LARPers have described keeping journals to reflect their characters’ emotions and draw and record crime scenes.

An unfinished page from Quill’s journal

pages from Quill’s journal

  • Other players have described bringing some art form or another with them to LARPs to engage in during downtime, including weaving, crocheting, knitting, and spinning wool.
  • One response to my request for examples came from Jacqueline Leigh in New Zealand, who described drawing the guy that her character had a crush on while pretending to be practicing calligraphy. Art is a great way to express one character’s feelings for another.

Art by Jacqueline Leigh

  • The gallery below is a series of paintings done by Jeff Diewald during a vampire LARP, in which he played a Toreador painter named Virgil. The paintings reflect Virgil’s psychological progression, and they include images of things the character missed, such as the sun. (It slowly sets from one painting to the next.) Jeff describes painting while LARPing as something that produced unique roleplaying experiences, and painting as his character helped bring out latent talent. (He describes a similar experience with other characters and their talents, such as writing poetry while playing a poet.)
  • Some players have played photographers in LARPs. While they can be out of place in many fantasy and historical LARPs before the 1820s, but if it fits into your setting, it’s not only a great art to engage with during events, it can also produce some really great images to share afterwards.
  • An automaton (read: steampunk android) in one LARP who had lost her memories left out piles of paper and crayons in the tavern. Players drew with them over the weekend, and eventually they were put together in some sort of book as part of the process to restore her memories. I’m not very clear on the details, but it sounded like a cool idea. I’d love to do something similar with fabric markers and squares of fabric, to put together into a simple quilt that reflected the in-game community of a LARP.

(I was also hoping to share some of the cool examples my fellow panelist had, but I’m still waiting on permission to share her photos of the artwork and descriptions here.)

Putting together my notes for the “In-Character Art in LARP” panel introduced me to a lot of cool ways art projects have been used in LARP. Art can inspire and inform great roleplay, and LARPing can be great inspiration for producing art.

I’m hoping to hear about and experience more great projects like the ones people shared with me. Readers are more than welcome to share more cool examples in the comments below. Any and all thoughts on in-character art during a LARP event are also welcome.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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8 Responses to In-Character Art

  1. aaronvanek says:

    Were you the only larp expert on the panel, or was there someone else? 😉

  2. Rick Pierce says:

    Cool entry. I think I’m going to break responses into pieces because it started so many trains of thought. The first one is that I wanted to share with you a link to another LARPer with a wide open journal. She too draws sketches during game time to help her remember things that are going on. A few examples can be found here:

  3. Rick Pierce says:

    This got me thinking about the differences in art and music in LARPs. Let’s just for this discussion forget that music *IS* art and run with the easy definition of art as the tangible arts. Why is it a little easier to get music than it is art at a LARP and why is it hard to get either?

    I think there is a difference and two similarities that stand in the way. The first similarity is that staff members are not as comfortable running music and art plot because they don’t have a lot of people (staff or NPC) that feel they are competent at them. They don’t want to run something that won’t be good because they’re not good at it or run something that won’t be fun for the players because they don’t feel they can do it justice. I’m not sure how to overcome that one.

    The second similarity is one that’s not really quite so obvious. They’re actually both performing arts. The thing about music is that you practice for it in advance. You create your performance several times before you put out the “good” one in front of an audience. With art you get one shot at that “good” performance.

    That’s where the big difference comes in that scares a lot of people. With music you put it out there and then it’s gone. It might be partially flawed but the impression that went out in front of people is what sticks with them, not the individual notes. With art, they see you performing it and every little bit of that performance is still there when you’re done for them to examine and potentially criticize. That’s scary stuff, says the musician. 🙂

    Not only that, but as a musician you can “hide” in a group of performers and no one will know when you don’t perform perfectly. With art, there is no safety in numbers; more scary stuff.

    I’m not afraid to stand up and play a flute or recorder alone in front of LARP crowds for hours (and often do), but I have to admit, the idea of putting my artwork in front of other people scares the crap out of me. I’m not sure how you can work around that issue.

  4. Pingback: Dreaming of the Woods | FairEscape

  5. Pingback: Intercon Post-Event Report Part VI: Friday Afternoon at PreCon | FairEscape

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