How I Got This Job: LARP Designer
Once I was finished with emails answering questions about the design of our spaceship, I heard distant musket fire. Another idea was calling out the war in me—the war all creative types face. Do I spend my life working tirelessly to build someone else’s dream, or do I fully dedicate myself to my own?
I’ve constructed this dream, and people believe in it enough to play there. I’m fortunate because they’ll even pay me for it.
I help people learn about themselves through collaborative storytelling in the form of LARP, or live action role playing games.
Earlier today, I spoke with a business partner about a monumental possibility for my small business: to write, produce, and execute a blockbuster LARP, allowing people to immersively experience and explore the historical setting of the American Revolution here in Philadelphia. A LARP permits participants to adopt the roles of characters to co-create a story. It’s kind of like being the main character in Dungeons & Dragons – only you act out your interactions live. In the types of games I write and produce, the majority of the game rules are about safety and consent, allowing an inclusive and achievable experience.
How did it happen?
Storytelling is my life. Like most writers and creative types, my early life involved a healthy dose of make believe.
In seventh grade, I attended a school trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. The assignment for that trip forever changed the way I’d think about history, education, storytelling, and the experiences of marginalized people throughout history and today.
We were told to journal our Williamsburg experience through the perspective of someone who might have lived then and there. We were permitted to choose our own narrative, so long as it was accurate and somewhat realistic. There were many options: the privileged life of a gentleman, or the hard and unjust experience of the slave. I chose to think about what life in Colonial Williamsburg would have been like for someone like me: a white woman permitted some education; a woman with an Irish background. As I explored Williamsburg with this character “Anna” in mind, I imagined her life, replete with fallacies of capitalism and the dreams of my ancestors. Anna married young, as women did. I imagined she was prettier than me; perhaps born without nearsightedness as I had been. Like me, though, she was a bit clever. She married a doctor and took up midwifery.
Looking back on it, I realize how much Anna’s role as a doctor’s wife says about the early expectations pressed on me as a young woman writer. And that’s the spark—the magic of storytelling—when we participate in it only to illuminate struggles and inequality in our real lives.
I went on to explore theatrical and musical forms of expression throughout high school and college, penning stories, sonnets, and plays. This was 2003; I saw that paper was on its way out.
My first full-time job out of college involved reviewing manuscripts at a self-publisher. What made it solvent, though, was its revolutionary innovation: this company was among the first to produce and distribute ebooks. My 24-year-old self had it in mind that I could do just as much with even less—but I was young and still afraid to try. My fears were reinforced when my job was outsourced to Cebu in the Philippines. I’d hoped to stay for life: to run the production department or perhaps the entire company. I loved books; I loved helping writers become authors by bringing their stories to life; I loved the rush of an expedited edit at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. That passion and dedication didn’t matter. Why pay me $24,000 per year when they could hire someone abroad at a fraction of the price? I trained my replacement, packed up my desk, sent it to her, and made the personal mistake of moving halfway across the country for a guy. A common theme, that—sidetracking my ambition and making it less so that a man might feel comfortable.
Out in Michigan, the recession hit fast and early due to the region’s reliance on the automotive industry, and I used my publishing management experience to work at Starbucks. But it was always about the story, and every customer had one.
Following the end of the relationship, which inevitably happens when I diminish myself for the benefit of a man’s insecurity, I moved back to Philadelphia. I never settled for the counter job or the admin work I seemed to get, and finally I won a job at an academic publisher because I wanted it so badly that I leaned over the desk and told the hiring manager “I bleed ink.”
I liked the job and the prestige of being a production editor (an arbiter of words), a role which allowed me some control in life, as though I was a character playing out my own traumas. I developed a new relationship—once again, against my better judgment—which had its share of challenges, including the shared experience of a car accident. He swerved to avoid a deer and we hit the wall at 60 miles an hour. My life was once again changed. In pain, I couldn’t work a full-time office job. However, life had given me a push in a direction I’d already decided to take, as I was making more money at night as a freelance writer than I was at the full-time job. At this time in 2010, the entrepreneurial desire was strong, and my partner had a stable job with health insurance benefits.
That ten-year relationship, which included a marriage, taught me a lot about storytelling. Through my ex, I learned about LARP. The first game I attended focused on rules-heavy combat, but I was asked to participate in a more theatrical element in the game. I was hooked and everything was about the story.
As I coalesced from my car accident injuries, I had to take a bit of time away from combat LARP, though I still performed an out-of-game role on staff of a LARP called Seventh Kingdom IGE. I was a marketer and blogger who grew the game with measurable results. Sitting in special folding chair with my arm in a sling, I built not only a freelance business, but also a community centered around Land of Free Ulster, a text-based historically inspired role playing game. At its height, this free game (run in chat rooms) had 60 participants organized into divisions.
More than once I said about it: “I wish I could get paid to run this game. It is my passion.”
Along came Panda, the all-too-cute nickname for Google’s signature algorithm update in the world of search engine optimization (SEO) and content creation. When this happened, content mills and keyword-focused sites such as Demand Studios, Examiner.com, and Yahoo! Contributor Network closed. My highest paying gig at the time was with HelloMetro, a site that paid me to provide a local’s perspective on Philadelphia’s attractions. Most of my writing was not spammy, including the work I did for HelloMetro. However, the change affected all of these sites and work grew scarce.
My interests became even geekier: at Examiner.com I covered both LARP and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One day, I went into a comic book store to purchase some Thor comics. I was 30 years old. The man at the counter said, “If you’d like to know more about Thor, you should ask your big brother.”
I went through the experience that many women face: why did I feel bad when he was the one who should be ashamed of his sexist behavior? This resulted in the foundation of The Geek Initiative, a blog for and about women in geek culture. I had no way to monetize the new blog and my marketing skills were still amateur, but there was interest in the topic and I began building the community.
With freelance work dwindling, I headed back into the office, writing small business websites for a large company. Once again, I got the sense that I could run the digital production process more efficiently. I had the desire to innovate, but I was just a regular employee. Occasionally, management took my suggestions and I was contributing to the productivity of a corporation—not to my own dream.
Craving stability while my marriage started to collapse in 2015, I saw the signs of outsourcing readily approach. I headed to a lower paying position for a company focusing on empathetic game design. They made a Facebook game and I assisted them with social media management. I was hardly professionally satisfied and the effects of the 2010 car accident lingered. I’d gone from a management role at a self-publishing company to a small business owner to a social media assistant. I wanted more and this galvanized me to put greater effort into The Geek Initiative. I worked full time, handled freelance gigs, and built TGI as my own brand at the same time while developing multiple chronic illnesses.
I covered conventions like New York Comic Con (NYCC) and Wizard World Philadelphia as press, networking with the gaming industry at large while I expanded my role and influence in LARP.
After ten months as a social media assistant, I accepted a higher paying role as blog editor of an international marketing company. There, I refined my SEO skills and improved my marketing knowledge. I created an entire content management process and workflow for the company and became a veritable badass in content marketing. When my plans failed to align with the company’s, I accepted a role as a content development specialist for a content agency. This virtual role allowed me to focus on my health. I finally received diagnoses of PCOS, hypothyroidism, and rheumatoid arthritis, coped with the divorce, and grew my freelance writing and editing.
I became more involved in LARP as well, with this flexible role allowing me to explore new types of games. After attending New World Magischola, I threw myself into the concept of self-discovery through freeform LARPs and continued to naturally network and publish on the topic. Inspired, I began developing my own games, first writing the feminist LARP “She’s Got a Gun” which I ran at Double Exposure events and later at Gen Con 2017, to acclaim.
Those ideas from childhood were rolling around again, though. My freeform LARPing experiences had stirred memories of that Colonial Williamsburg assignment. The political situation after the 2016 election had left me feeling listless – then angry. I began thinking about my time at the very preparatory school that George Washington’s adopted son attended. What did that legacy mean?
To me, it meant creating an opportunity for people to explore their identities in the face of potentially losing their right to do so. I generated the idea for “Intrigue & Independence” and wrote a design document all Jerry Maguire mission statement style.
Amid this passion, I lost my job at the content agency. They’d transferred me from an editing workload to a sales role, and it was a terrible fit. I still needed to pay rent. I didn’t have the money to pursue production of “Intrigue & Independence” because to crowdfund a game, you first need a few assets: a location (which costs money to secure) and insurance, which is legally required.
A couple months ago, after some tears in an airport on the way back from Gen Con while my flight was delayed, I spoke to a friend about life: why love hadn’t worked out for me and how I kept diminishing my ambitions for partners in my relationships. I’d had a lovely opportunity for a stable life with someone else in a Southern state. My freelance income would have been more than sustainable—but ultimately the trust between us wasn’t there and, as my friend put it:
“You’re in love with your dream.”
I came home to my loving dog and my roommate, who is building her own business, and I took a day to write down my idea after applying for office jobs.
I created CHARIOT LARP to honor my dreams and my adversarial and inspiring circumstances. CHARIOT LARP is meant to be accessible to people like me: those in chronic pain, those who don’t always feel welcome in traditional LARP settings, and those who don’t have a budget for the high production blockbuster LARPs. It happens all online in a sci-fi setting, where players (and their characters) communicate via video conferencing. While LARPs and other role playing games have done this before, I am the first to run a paying game which is also streamed on a public platform (Twitch) for viewers to see.
The game’s first two runs filled quickly. Now, I spend my time empowering players to create this game world, hopefully learning something about empathy and themselves along the way.
Tara M. Clapper is Game Designer, Editor, Founder, and Publisher at The Geek Initiative, an online community for women in geek culture. She lives in the Philadelphia area. Visit TGI at geekinitiative.com.