What is LARP?
LARP stands for Live-Action Role-Playing. The way I usually explain it to others is “like Dungeons and Dragons, but in real life.” Basically, instead of saying “My character the elf ranger attacks the monster with her sword,” you dress up as an elf ranger and attempt to hit another person dressed as a monster with your fake sword. LARP events are a ton of fun as a player character (or PC), but tackling them from the other side of the curtain can be intimidating, or at least mysterious.
How do the people who dress up as the monsters know how much health they have? How do you come up with the story for players? How do you account for the fact that this story is happening in real life, not just in peoples’ heads? These are the questions the plot team, also known as the non-player characters (NPCs), must answer.
The plot team of a LARP essentially takes on all the roles of a Game / Dungeon Master (GM / DM), distributed among many people. As a member of plot for Zenith LARP, CMU’s on-campus LARP campaign run by and for CMU students, I’m happy to give you a step-by-step guide into how we plan an event so that you can start planning your own. I’ll use the season finale event planned for Saturday, April 20th as an example throughout—you’re welcome to come and play to experience the outcome of our work for yourselves!
Find a place
First, you need to find a place to hold your event. This is straightforward for bigger LARP organizations, since they or one of their staff members likely owns a property or they otherwise have a location where they regularly host events. For us at Zenith LARP, since we play on campus, we always start by walking around campus and finding interesting, out-of-the-way (i.e., where we won’t get in the way of other students or faculty) places for an event. We also need to plan for weather—an event hosted indoors will be very different from one hosted outdoors, if only because you’re less likely to have big open spaces indoors.
We look for places that have enough wide spaces for combat, and that help the players imagine the setting—for example, the basement of Doherty is great for a mysterious labyrinth of ever-shifting passages. The location will often inspire the story as well—we found a hallway in Wean cluttered with furniture, boxes, equipment, and other objects that instantly made us think of a shady back alley filled with trash, and from there crafted a story where the players had to pass through the slums of the city to get to their destination.
For the upcoming event, we decided on Flagstaff Hill almost right away. It’s a large open space, perfect for a Lord-of-the-Rings level huge final battle, with a lovely view of Pittsburgh to make players feel like they’re outside of the city. There are rarely enough other people that we’ll have difficulty finding enough open space for a fight, and if it is crowded, we can move into a slightly smaller open area nearby in Schenley.
Create a broad story
You might do this before finding a location, especially if you have some flexibility in your location (like if you can leave campus), and then make the location fit the story. But like I said above, the plot staff of Zenith is always looking for new and interesting places to play while working around the other people on campus, so we create our story around our location.
We start by deciding on the overall beats of the story. How do we want this event to end? What happened in the last event? What are the current plot threads of the campaign, and how can we tie those into this event? At this point, we’re not worrying about what exactly the players are going to fight or when. We’re deciding on the overall plot.
We want our season finale to end in a big all-out battle and siege worthy of the end of the semester. In the last event, the PCs tracked the source of mysterious mechs going haywire to the villain’s lair outside of the city, but the villain fled. So, the plot hook for this event is that mechs are now going haywire all over the city, the villain has retreated even further outside the city to a proper fortress, and now the PCs must make their way through waves of defense automata to the villain to stop them before they turn all the mechs against the city and destroy it. Flagstaff Hill feels out of the way, the stone pavilion at the top makes a good fort, and fighting uphill will make the PCs feel like they’re battling their way through tough territory even if there’s not that many actual enemies.
Decide on encounters
With your location and overall story decided, it’s time to decide what exactly you want to happen during the event. Zenith is still in playtest mode, so we frequently need to build in encounters to test different mechanics like stealth or traps.
Many other LARP events I’ve been to put a high emphasis on combat. Modules or mods (think of them as analogous to quests or dungeons) are almost entirely based around a series of combat encounters. However, I find that pretty tiring, so I like to limit our half-day events to 2-4 combat encounters with plenty of non-combat encounters to break it up.
I am a big proponent of role-play encounters (it’s my favorite part of LARP), so I make sure the players get in at least a few chances to role-play during the event. Not just hanging out in character at the tavern or wherever, as in many other LARP events, but chances to interact with NPCs or other players in a way that impacts the plot. For example, I’ve talked to a god, gone on trial to defend another PC against the death penalty, and given the PCs an opportunity to talk rather than fight their way out of a situation. Role-play encounters are a great opportunity for characters to use their non-combat skills, like faction alignment in Zenith (by saying “You can trust me, I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” to get information from a criminal, for example). And they’re a fantastic way to make players feel special by truly making them feel that they’re a part of the story.
I also try to provide other non-combat, or exploration, encounters: like stealth, tracking, or disabling traps. These keep things interesting, provide a break from combat, and create another way for players to use non-combat abilities. For example, in one event a player had an ability that let them see and detect traps—but never got a chance to use it and was disappointed. In our next event, two of our three PCs had the same ability, so we planned for two different trap encounters each filled with over a dozen traps. Similarly, players who feel like they’re bad at fighting and are bored by role-play have a lot of fun in stealth encounters.
Obviously, change your encounters based on the event and the players—we had a stealth-heavy event once that had only 2 large combat encounters, but it worked well because we didn’t have a good PC team for combat (all offense, no defense or healing). In comparison, we are planning for a big battle with a few skirmishes leading up to it in our final event, not only because it’s a big event but because we know there’s a healer PC who can keep the other PCs up and fighting. We also started planning for stealth encounters in each event because players have a lot of fun with stealth sections.
Encounters often depend on the location—stealth worked great in hallways where players could duck into doorways or around corners but is harder to implement outdoors. However, varying the kind of encounters you give players ensures that there’s something for everyone to enjoy, which is necessary when you don’t have a consistent group of players (which is what happens in Zenith). In general, I try to plan 2-4 combat encounters, spaced out with at least 2 role-play encounters and 1-2 exploration encounters, for a half-day event.
Combine story and encounters
Now that you know what encounters you want to happen during your event, think about how they fit into the overall plot that you came up with earlier. You may have figured this out already or in tandem with all the other parts of this event covered so far, which is great! That’s how I work. But in general, I find it easier to put specific story onto encounters rather than the other way around.
For example, we want 3-4 combat encounters in our final event. Two of them are for the final battle—one is the uphill siege of the fort, and the other is the final boss battle after they’ve made their way in. We want one or two more combat encounters, so perhaps the PCs encounter Blighted animals in the wilds, which brings in another plot thread of the Blight, and it’s a known hazard when one ventures outside of the city, which helps worldbuilding.
We want around 2 role-play encounters: one is a moral decision on what to do with the villain, and one is an interaction with NPC heroes as they decide on their plan of attack for the fort. We want at least one stealth section, so maybe the players need to sneak their way up to the fort once they get close, avoiding enemy patrols.
The only specific story sections mentioned above that we had planned beforehand were the siege and boss battle—the rest we came up with after we decided on encounters. Form (story) follows function (structure).
Don’t forget the details!
Obviously, there are a lot of details involved in planning an RPG event of any kind. But in my experience, LARP depends a lot more heavily on improv than a tabletop game—you don’t have notes you can reference, and people can do pretty much anything they want without limitations of mechanics. Health and safety always come first, no matter what, but besides that it’s all up in the air. So, here are other considerations for planning LARP events:
PC abilities and backstories.
The point of LARP is to make players feel like heroes, so design around them as much as possible. I already mentioned the example of incorporating traps so that the PCs with the ability to see and disable traps feel special instead of useless. Working in PC backstories is important too—in our upcoming event, one of our players works for the evil corporation behind all the problems of the season, so we’re working in a separate personal mission and possible conflict for him. Beyond that, if you know the players who are coming to your event, you can design around their preferences—i.e., if you’ve got a group attending who loves solving puzzles, throw in a puzzle or two.
Plot team abilities.
Unlike D&D, combat and other encounters depend heavily on the NPCs’ actual abilities, so they must be designed with those in mind. For example, I both dislike and am bad at melee combat. All my experience in LARP is playing spellcasters who fight at range, so our combat encounters must always have a ranged enemy NPC—they cannot all be melee fighters unless I am playing a different role, like an ally NPC. However, I love role-play, so we can design an RP NPC for most encounters secure in the knowledge that I can step into any of those roles.
Number of players and plot team.
Experienced tabletop GMs know to balance combat encounters based on the size of the party. However, LARP encounters must also consider the size of the plot team, since they are actual human beings throwing themselves into combat, not hordes of imaginary goblins. Practically speaking, that means it will be difficult to run an enormous clash of two armies with only two NPCs and three PCs. We make up for it by scaling up the abilities and HP of enemies accordingly when there are only a few people on plot team, and by planning for a few “waves” of our two-person NPC team to simulate a big battle (only a few, though, so we don’t tire ourselves out). Sadly, that does limit our RP encounters as well—we can’t have a courtroom drama with judge, prosecutor, defendant, attorney, and jury with only two people unless we switch hats very frequently. (Not recommended.)
Numbers, NPC names, and other nitty-gritty details.
Eventually, you’re going to have to actually come up with the HP of enemies, how much damage they deal, whether they do special attacks, etc. You’ll also need to create names and motivations for any NPCs that PCs will be interacting with beyond murder. Plus, you’ll need to know what kind of loot or information they can give or drop.
I know this is standard GM stuff, but it is especially important to write all these details down ahead of time because everyone on the plot team needs to know it. Sure, I can improv Thug #2 for a role-play scene, but it’s better if I already know what would make Thug #2 attack the PCs vs letting them pass, and also to have a name for Thug #2 when the PCs inevitably ask, because I am bad at coming up with names. (This may be a passive-aggressive dig at my fellow NPC / GM who hates writing things down, but it truly is important—unless you have a troupe of professional actors on your team who share a telepathic bond, write down your details ahead of time.)
So there you go, an extensive (but by no means exhaustive) guide to planning your own LARP event. I tried to highlight what makes planning a LARP event different from planning a tabletop RPG event, but if you have any questions or think you spotted something I missed, feel free to leave a comment. In general, because LARP is, after all, live-action, GMs must account for the real-world aspects—location, combat, physical abilities, etc.—before jumping into the story, versus the story-first planning I typically do as a tabletop GM. LARP is a weird combination of realism and escapism, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding as both a player and an NPC. After all, you’re not just telling the story—you’re living it.
Thanks for reading! And let me know in the comments if you’re interested in coming to Zenith LARP’s season finale on April 20th!
Photo: Participants in the live action role playing game ‘ConQuest of Mythodea’ fight on a battle field near Brokeloh, Germany, 07 August 2014. Around 8,000 of them assembled for the live action role-playing game (LARP) which is scheduled to last five days. Peter Steffen—picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images