Alleged Entertainment

World of Blurbcraft

What’s the single most important thing you’re going to write for your LARP?
It’s not the world description. It’s not the game system. It’s not the character sheet for the villain, or the main hero. It’s not even the GM manual.
The single most important thing you will be writing is a 2-3 paragraph description of the game for prospective players. The irony of the situation is that in almost all LARPs, the blurb either gets written first thing, before the writers really know what the game will be like, or last thing, when they’re rushing to get it out the door.
In this article, I’m going to try to convince you that that’s a big mistake, and discuss some ideas about Building a Better Blurb™.

A Case Study in Blurbiage

I think that I have never heard
a poem as lovely as a blurb.

[Setting] is a [place] where [people] [do things]. A [place] of [qualities]. A [place] where for [time period], [positive attribute] has reigned, and [negative attribute] has seldom been seen.

Legends say that once, at [a point in the far past], there was a [conflict] between [evil force] and [current ruling party]. Fortunately for the [people], [rulers] were triumphant and [villain] was vanquished. And now everything is [positive attribute] and nothing ever goes wrong, because this is a LARP.

But something strange is going on!

What could be behind [recent event]? Some say it is [obviously false theory], others that it is [even more blatantly false theory]. Why have [strange entities] begun showing up around [town]? What about the [ongoing crisis]? And of course there could not possibly be any truth to the [rumor that is clearly the uberplot of the game].

[Title of the game] is a [length] [genre] LARP for [x] players. Join us for an [overblown metaphor] in which [improbable events] will occur, lives will be changed, and the fate of [place] might just be forever altered.
OK, so it’s a cliche, but behind all cliches is a good reason. Let’s take a look at what this template is doing:
  • The short poem at the beginning sets a mood that (hopefully) the rest of the blurb will follow.
  • The first paragraph introduces the setting in which the game takes place.
  • The second paragraph provides historical background on the setting as well as giving some not-so-subtle hints at the main plot of the game.
  • But something strange is going on!
  • The second-to-last paragraph gives a sampling of some of the plot threads going on in the game, as well as whetting the reader’s appetite for more.
  • The last paragraph gives some out-of-character logistical details and a call to action (in this case, to sign up for the game).

So what is it for?

Blurbs serve at least two important functions: to inform, and to sell. Looking at the previous list, we can see that by the end of this blurb, ideally, the reader will:
  • Have a feel for the mood and genre of the game (information)
  • Know some key facts about the setting and its history (information)
  • Have some idea about what sort of plots to expect (information)
  • Know the game size and length (information)
  • Want to know more, and understand how they can find out (selling)
  • Realize that something strange may in fact be going on (selling)
These are all potentially important things, but aren’t necessarily crucial for every game. Space is limited, so you certainly shouldn’t put in something you don’t think is either important for your players to know ahead of time, or will help sell the game. Conversely, if there’s important information that needs to be conveyed, or if there’s additional stuff that may be appealing for potential players, by all means, put it in the blurb.

Sidebar: But it’s a GAME SECRET!

There are some games that play their cards very, very close to their chests and reveal almost nothing in the blurb. Oftentimes, this is because they include a big surprise that they don’t want players to be aware of ahead of time. Such games might be called “twist” games, or less charitably, “bait and switch” games. Since you’re going to drastically change the rules in the last section of the game, you can’t write an informative blurb, right?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s bullshit.
There is a very long tradition of this style of LARP, and many new games are written that way all the time. And they often have good blurbs with lots of information in them.
My personal rule of thumb is the “one-hour” rule. What information will every player know an hour into the game? That information is fair game to include in the blurb. Obviously, that includes any common background material the game might have. It also means that if there are quasi-secrets that will come out almost immediately, you may want to mention them.
For example, Fire on High has a major, game-changing Thing That Goes Wrong 10 minutes in. I don’t mind telling you this; in fact, I want you to know it before playing. If you didn’t know, you might be really unhappy with us for including it, because it would violate your player expectations. Our blurb strongly implies it (although it could probably mention it more clearly).

Writing a standout blurb

Having written a Generic Blurb template above, I’m going to come out and say this: please don’t use it. Seriously, it’s not a good thing for every LARP blurb to read the same way. It’s perfectly possible to write a good LARP blurb that accomplishes all the same things without falling back on formulas.
For example, go take a look at the blurb for Blackout at Intercon J. Seriously, go look, I’ll wait.
Now this is a blurb that both informs and sells, but doesn’t read anything like the Generic Blurb. It even manages to work in plot information: the systems readout gives you a pretty good idea of the first batch of problems you’re going to have to solve.
Similarly, we’re trying something new with the blurb for 10 Bad LARPs: C-Section. In addition to our usual 10 Bad LARPs blurb stuff (which is mostly informational in this case), we’ve embedded a video trailer. The trailer actually doesn’t say much about the game itself, but it does certainly convey the mood, and, I hope, sell the game.

Practicing what I preach

If you’ve gotten this far, you may be wondering: “just who the hell is Nat to talk about this anyway? He’s been personally responsible for some not-so great blurbs himself. Also, he writes about himself in the third person too much.”
Well, it’s true. And after I finish this post, I’m planning to go through some of our past blurbs and see if I can’t improve them. If you have any suggestions, I hope you’ll comment here or ping me directly.
So, go write some great blurbs worthy of your great LARPs!

Comments imported from DISQUS

Susan, on 10/05/2009 at 10:41 AM
I agree with most of what Nat had to say here, and, believe me, the hardest blurb I have ever had to write was for a game where all the big exciting things are super secret. How do I sell a game when I can't tell you why it's exciting?

However, I believe in striking a balance. I think an hour into a game is far too long in a four hour game, plus there are some things that the GMs might think are obvious, but that players manage to hide somehow. What I will give is strong hints at interesting reversals, and genre hints (for example, letting people know that they are in a fantasy setting even though not every character is aware of magic). I'm ok with giving out information that almost all players will know or strongly suspect on reading their backgrounds and characters.

On the other hand, some games have almost no secrets, and, for those games, sometimes the hard part can be avoiding putting too much information in the blurb. If people have to read 4 paragraphs of background to know what the game is about at all, most people will lose interest.

Eric Johnson, on 10/05/2009 at 10:45 AM
I may end up in the minority here, but I'm actually not a huge fan of Blackout's blurb, though I would definitely say that it's better than most blurbs.

The question that I most want a LARP blurb to answer is "What will the experience playing in this LARP be?" Is it just going to be people talking around a table or is it going to be running around function space collecting widgets? Is the LARP puzzle heavy? Is most interaction competitive or cooperative (or is this moot)? Is the LARP mostly about character development, reacting to external stimuli, internal poltics, or something else entirely?

When I'm looking for a LARP to play I'm not searching for a genre (again this almost assuredly puts me in the minority) but for the type of LARP experience to expect, and I don't think genre is a particularly good indicator of that.

So, to use Blackout as an example again, here's what I get:
  • It takes place on a space craft of some sort. Not sure if it's realistic or fantastic though, so I can't glean much from this.
  • It takes place in the dark. This is good to know, as it seems to be a big part of the LARP.
  • It involves "a substantial amount of interaction with (the) environment." I want to say this will be solving puzzles in the dark, but that's really just a guess.
So while I'm somewhat intrigued by this blurb, it hasn't convinced me that I want to spend 4 hours there. So really the question becomes "Do I want to spend 4 hours in the dark in a LARP by Alex Bradley and Dave Kapell?" Which is a fine way to make a decision but doesn't really get you away from the "author is more important than blurb" I see a lot.

Nat Budin, on 10/05/2009 at 10:46 AM
Thanks for your comments, Eric!

While I agree that that information would also be useful to have in a blurb, I'm not sure how one would really do it in this case. To note, even the classic-style Something Strange Is Going On blurb doesn't really answer those questions.

To further complicate matters, I'm not even sure how to rate most games against those sorts of scales, particularly since the experience is far from uniform across all the players, and for many characters, entirely dependent on other players' decisions.

How would you rewrite the blurb for, say, The Game of Empire?

Dr.Nik, on 10/05/2009 at 10:46 AM
Nice outline and points.
As at the RolePlay Marshall for carnage, I do a fair amount of editing of blurbs. Some of them are so bad, but I know the game is good! So, how to tweak? I agree that the key points should be covered: Setting / Genre , General Style / Form of Play, and basic plot or theme. Outside of those three factors, I think that the actual execution is up to the GM, convention, and audience.

Eric Johnson, on 10/05/2009 at 10:47 AM

I agree that this is a hard problem to solve, and I think the Blackout blurb does much better than the standard "Something Strange is Going" blub in addressing it. I'd just like to see better. :)

I'm going to pass on doing a blurb for The Game of Empire as I have never played it and therefore don't think I can do it justice in a blurb. Instead I'll give you a new blurb for The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste (by all accounts a good LARP to use, since most people have played it and can react to the blurb with that knowledge):
In November 1872, the brigantine Mary Celeste was found abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean with its cargo untouched and under full sail. Over the years, many bizarre theories have arisen to explain what happened on that fateful voyage, from aliens, to sea monsters, to time travelers. But what if they were all true?
The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste is a classic four hour LARP featuring broad, high-weirdness characters on the final evening of the ill-fated voyage. Expect a high level of mauvering and plotting as you try to sort friend from foe and complete your goals before your enemies do, all while dealing with a series of events that may spell doom for the Mary Celeste.

It's far from a perfect blurb, but I think it conveys at least some of what I'm looking for. That said, I'd love to hear comments, revisions, or completely alternate takes on it. Could be a fun exercise in blurb writing. :)

Nat Budin, on 10/05/2009 at 10:48 AM

Cool, thanks! I agree that's a major improvement informationally on the existing blurb. (I had to dig a little to get to the existing blurb; Foam Brain has a copy of it here for anyone who's interested.)

While the extra information is welcome and useful, my preference would be to include it in a more in-character style. Here's a stab at that:
November, 1872. The brigantine Mary Celeste is found, abandoned in the Atlantic, with its cargo untouched and under full sail. Many bizarre theories have arisen to explain what happened on that fateful voyage, from aliens, to sea monsters, to time travelers. But what if they were all true?
Do you dare board the Mary Celeste for its last four hours at sea? You'll meet diverse, high-weirdness characters on the final evening of the ill-fated voyage, all of them maneuvering and plotting as you try to sort friend from foe and complete your goals before your enemies do. Will the evening's events spell your doom?
The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste is a classic four-hour LARP by Jim MacDougal. It has been run over 100 times worldwide.
Eric Johnson, on 10/05/2009 at 10:48 AM

That's also a nice blurb, though I'm biased against it based on another personal preference. I like in-character information to be communicated in an in-character way and out-of-character information conveyed in an out-of-character fashion. Again, I don't profess to be in the majority on this topic, though.

Side note -- is there a way to subscribe to comments on a post? I feel a bit like a stalker currently...

Nat Budin, on 10/05/2009 at 10:49 AM


Fair enough. Personally, I like my blurbs to be as diagetic as possible. It's also arguable that that stuff isn't really OOC information, since the character will in fact be experiencing all that stuff, mostly.

Regarding comment subscriptions: Good idea, and I've implemented it. The radiant-comments extension didn't support it, but I've written a patch for it and deployed it here. If it works, I'll be requesting that the radiant-comment authors pull it in. For the curious, my changes can be seen here.

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