It’s Not Just a Game: Karin Tidbeck on How LARP Turned Her Into a Writer


Photo © Henry Hustava

I owe my writing career to play-pretend. More specifically, I owe it to LARP, that vast laboratory of story. It goes like this:

When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in imaginary worlds. I found them more interesting than my own. I could lie on the worn corduroy couch in my room for hours, fantasizing about wandering into the forest to find a world of epic dramas, strange creatures and danger. I played pretend a lot, sometimes with others, but often by myself, in the forest close to my house. My life was about story. It both functioned as an escape from the everyday world and a way to make sense of what happened in it.

When I was nine years old, my big brother recruited me to try out his homemade damage tables in a roleplaying game. I died horribly in various ways. I didn’t like that part. What I did like was the fact that we walked around in another world and told a story, and I could affect what happened. It was a perfect complement to my own games.

There came a time, though, when playing pretend just didn’t feel real anymore. My stick was no longer a sword; the concoctions I made from mashing herbs together were no longer magical. The forest lost its mystical quality. I was acutely aware that something had changed. The door to other worlds had closed. I was stuck in a reality that allowed no magic. I kept myself immersed myself in fantasy and science fiction, reading with envy books about people who found a door from this world and into another. Adulthood loomed in the distance, a dull prison devoid of magic.

Then when I was in my teens, I discovered that there were people who still played pretend. They called it LARP. For my first game I was plonked down into a medieval fantasy village for five days. I was a barmaid at the local tavern, in a cheap cotton shift, with a linen cap on my head to hide my short haircut. I spent my days serving beer out of a barrel, turning rabbits on a spit over a fire pit, getting tipsy in the evening from someone’s homemade apple cider. I went home with an inflamed Achilles tendon, a myriad of mosquito bites and a profound sensation of having come home. I could play again, and other people wanted to play with me. We could tell stories.

In the two decades since then, I have been a noble in the court of king Claudius, a KGB officer, a sexologist in a 1970’s commune, the artistic director for a silent movie team, a digital ghost, and many more. It started out as a means to escape the dull contemporary world, but it has become something more: an exploration of possibilities.

To a lot of people, LARP is about adults who faff about in a forest with rubber swords and throw imaginary spells at each other while referees count hit points. Sure, that’s a thing. So is lurking about in bars dressed as a vampire. But there are also social experiments in science fictional worlds, occult bureaucracy in Hell’s anteroom, political conflict in 1970’s communes, and awkward family dinners. What I do is known as Nordic LARP, a playing style that focuses on storytelling and immersion. It’s not a game you can win or lose, it’s a story you explore as a group. And it’s by exploring stories in this way that I became a writer.

In 1999, I was recruited to write characters for a LARP called “Knappnålshuvudet”, which was about humans and angels in a modern setting. We were set with a monumental task – to create 10-page characters for each of the players. I found myself writing short stories for them. I realized I was good at it. I’ve mostly written short stories and novels since, but I’ve also continued to write characters and stories for LARP and branched out into interactive storytelling as well. Most recently, I wrote the interactive story game “Mage: Refuge” for White Wolf. The element of exploration and experiment has bled into my writing, and also a love for exploring characters: different modes of thinking, different ways of experiencing the world.

LARP continues to influence my writing on several levels. It helps me create better characters; when you can literally walk in someone else’s shoes, when you can see someone’s motivations and feelings from the inside, you can better understand what another psyche might look like. Something tremendously important that LARP has also given me is the skill of improvisation. Nordic LARP uses a lot of techniques found in improvisation theatre. Impro is a great way to exercise the imagination, and it helps to break down the impulse many have to block ideas that seem too silly or weird in favor of something that may sound better but is lifeless and artificial. To quote impro guru Keith Johnstone: I learned that the first idea was unsatisfactory because it was (1) psychotic, (2) obscene, (3) unoriginal. The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal.” Some of my best stories have come out of ideas that seemed too weird to function, but that I went with because of this principle.

There’s a misconception that playing pretend isn’t the adult thing to do. Responsible adults don’t pretend to be someone else than they are. They don’t faff about in space ships or cry over an imaginary broken heart. I’d argue that we are creatures of story and play. And that some themes, some questions, are better explored through play.

LARP turned me into a writer, and continues to make me a better writer. I will continue to play pretend, to bring stories to life with others, and emerge back into reality enriched with story.