Monday, July 18, 2016

Women with Initiative: J Li

Today's Women with Initiative feature is with J Li! J is a designer primarily in larp, and her recent work has been really fascinating! Her work on emotional immersion in larp has been a significant focus, specifically looking at formats and design elements that capture the experience of Chinese action/fantasy films and anime where there is intense emotional, situation-reaction content. Many of her games are parlor style larps, and her current projects Mermaid and Keymaster use structure and design to encourage specific behavior and emotional involvement. She also has some really cool work on Pattern Language for Larp Design. I asked J a few questions and her responses are below!

What inspired you to start working on Larp Pattern Language and what uses do you think it will have?
This question is actually more like, what inspired me to stop not working on it? :-)

I've always broken down my games in design patterns. For many years, when people would ask me for design advice, I would rattle off numbers and shapes-- make sure this person has that many subplots, arrange your room this way, this thing won't work unless you add more complexity to balance, etc. I think it just came from writing and running a ton of games (I got started making secrets & powers games at Stanford, and there were a lot of them), just common trends that came up. I could visualize it all in my head.

A few years ago, I realized that most people don't necessarily visualize things the same way, and also that if I wrote about them it might be useful shortcuts for other people. I knew that Jason Morningstar had a similar design philosophy, so I approached him about giving a panel on it. Once we started planning, it became pretty clear that there's actually a lot of content there.

Since then, we've gotten a lot of requests to expand it to tabletop-- which actually makes a lot of sense, because it's really just about human-to-human live interaction design. If you look at visual design, it's a very advanced field with a lot of key patterns that people use all the time, like grid layout, color theory, typographic principles, etc. And of course architecture is where it started.

My dream is, as larp becomes rapidly more mainstream, for the patterns that we're surfacing now to form the groundwork of fundamental design theory for live human narrative/creative/social interaction. Someday, live interaction design 101 can cover topics like group size and player energy management, that would be awesome.

Your collection of parlor larps is stunning! Where do you find ideas for larps and how have you developed the concepts?
Thank you! I'm actually not sure how to answer this question because ideas are not really the scarcity for me, but I'll give the literal answer:

For me, the fire and fuel behind all larp comes from the human drive to feel significant. The desire to be valued, impactful, great in some sense-- not necessarily larger than life, but deeper than life? I'm really sensitive to this feeling. So when I look around me, you can see it latent in the way people behave, the stories we tell, the things we do and don't mention...

The desire to make high-stakes decisions or pass judgments. The desire to be beautiful or hideous. The desire to let go of responsiblity, to be destroyed, to be in the spotlight, to hide, to give up, to try something ludicrous... I pick one that seems to be scarce lately, and make a game about getting to experience that.

Keymaster is about raw desire to be important and dramatic. Mermaid is about making moments of harsh passion while not having many options. Argentin is about getting to interpret your own identity without having a future.

So more specifically:

1. I have this deep-experience component mentioned above
2. I combine it with a strict structural element to elicit it unnaturally strongly (like "you can't move" or "you're going to die")
3. I add an atmosphere that I would love to write or play in, like the ruins of a historical desert empire (Fires of Emsi) or the nature/civilization tension between a raw ocean, the people who survive beside it, and decadent inlanders (Mermaid).

What are your favorite parts of developing larps and examining their elements?

I love the patterns, and I love the part that's just directly creating beauty-- making the atmosphere happen and wrapping it in a unique way around each character. Giving the character a "taste". And also setting a balance between that and making the character inhabitable by player interpretation.

Thanks so much to J Li for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading this and like checking out J's work. 


J Li Contact:

Website, Caldera Games
Spiritual Games Project

This post was supported by the community on