There are now over two hundred publicly available theatre-style larp scenarios, the vast majority of them available for free. These represent only a small fraction of the total corpus of such games. Pre-written games, whether publicly available or acquired privately, can be an invaluable resource for establishing and growing a larp community and presenting a diversity of larp experiences.
This article will examine the process of producing a pre-written theatre-style larp. It will examine sources for pre-written games, things to look out for when assessing a game’s suitability for your local larp community, what changes (if any) might need to be made, and what to do afterwards. Finally, it makes some suggestions to authors on how to encourage other people to run your game.
Assuming the answer is “yes,” you basically have two options. You can come up with a great concept, then spend anywhere from a weekend to a couple of years conceiving plots, writing character sheets, and testing mechanics. Or, you can skip that bit and run something that has already been written.
In this article, I’m going to talk about the second option. The concept of running pre-written games has been around for a long time: the Interactive Literature Foundation, one of NEIL’s predecessors, founded its gamebank in 1993 specifically to make games available for this purpose (Dean 19). While the ILF gamebank has disappeared, there is a growing culture of publication amongst GMs, and there are now over two hundred publicly available theatre-style games, the vast majority of them free. If you want to learn to produce a game, feed a hungry local larp community, present something different, or just take a break from writing, there’s probably a game there for you. And if none of them suit, the web has made it easy to find out what has been run elsewhere and to contact authors to ask for a copy. In short, there is a world of choice, and it is easier than ever before to run out of the box.
Where can you find pre-written games? There are three basic options: purchase, online lists, and approaching individual GMs.
There are several sites selling commercially published theatre-style larps. DriveThruRPG lists over twenty scattered across its “larp” and “Live-Action Roleplaying” categories. The UK-based Freeform Games has almost thirty, while Peaky Games and Paracelsus Games each have a handful. Pricing is highly variable. On DriveThruRPG larps range from “pay what you want” to US$12, with most in the US$5 - $10 range. Peaky Games charge a flat £5. Paracelsus is more expensive, with its main product, The Dance and the Dawn, costing US$35. Freeform Games targets a slightly different market —office parties rather than gamers—and their larps are priced to suit, at between US$30 and $50. Despite the different target audience, they are still larps, written by larpers.
There are also a large number of larps available for free on various internet sites. A collection of links to these is maintained at the RPG.net Wiki. NEIL runs an online Larp Library. More recently, an “International LARP Exchange Project” has been established with the explicit goal of sharing games between the major US, UK, and New Zealand conventions. At the time of writing they are building lists of available games, both published and available upon request from GMs; by the time this is published they should have a reasonable list of games available.
Finally, there’s the hard way: approaching individual GMs. The easiest way to do this is within your local larp community; if someone has a great game that hasn’t run for a while, or which they don’t plan to run in the future, ask them for a copy. Alternatively you can follow the international larp community and keep an ear out for what’s been run, or look through the lineups of past conventions (such as Intercon, Consequences, or Chimera) for interesting-looking games. Most convention websites include GM contact details, so it’s easy to email them and ask. When asking, be polite, and be specific about where and when you’d like to run their LARP. Also ask whether there is money involved and what will happen to it; some GMs are happy for their games to be run at a convention, but not standalone for profit. Also be prepared for failure; many games, even those which have been run multiples times, are never quite fully written up to the satisfaction of their authors. But it never hurts to ask, and you may prompt them to finish the job.
Having acquired a game, the next question is whether you can actually run it. This isn’t just a question of whether it’s all there and whether there are GM notes or a background sheet to go with the character sheets, but whether it’s a good match for your local community.
Start by asking yourself the following questions: what’s the gender balance of your local larp community, and what are their preferences around crossplay (playing characters of the opposite gender)? What sorts of rules and plotlines are they comfortable with? Are there any that they are uncomfortable with and prefer to avoid? What do you normally warn them about?
Then, ask those questions about the larp: what’s the gender balance of the characters (and are there any cases where a character is unnecessarily gendered or can be swapped without problems)? What rules does it use, and are they a good match? Are there a lot of plotlines which your players won’t like, such as romance; some communities love it, others hate it, and the definition of a “romance” plot varies wildly. Are there plotlines—such as sexual violence, discrimination, or religion—you will have to warn people about or which will make people not want to play it?
You will also need to check whether there is runtime advice (frequently absent in many self-published larps), plot summaries, and prop documents. These are often missing, because the GMs have this stuff in their heads and often don’t write it down. A failure in this area—on the production advice—isn’t necessarily a problem if you know how to run a larp. You can work out the plots and how they interact by reading the character sheets, recreate prop documents from descriptions, and make your own GM cheat-sheet to help you through runtime. It’s rules, gender, and plotlines that tend to cause problems.
If you’re lucky, the game you’ve acquired has plenty of gender-neutral characters, clear and simple rules, plots your players will cope with, and you can run it right out of the box. If not, you may need to make some changes. Before doing so, check the game license (if any); some authors do not permit changes to their work.
Rules are the easiest problem to solve. Systems are rarely tightly integrated with characters in a theatre-style larp, and it is usually a simple matter to rip out a rules system you don’t like and replace it with one you do. For example, The Moorstepper on Lloegyr (Hart) uses a version of the Mind’s Eye Theatre system. When I ran it, I hacked it to use live combat with latex weapons, something NZ larpers are generally comfortable with and which suited the nature of the game. All this required was giving people a number of hit points. A friend has done the same to Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste (MacDougal). And while the Shifting Forest Storyworks “parlour larps” are frequently run in New Zealand, no GM here has ever used the existing mechanics.
Regendering characters is the next easiest change. Often characters are gendered for no real reason and so their gender can simply be swapped. However, it will be more difficult to do in settings with hard gender roles. One thing to be aware of is that swapping character genders will change the orientation of any romance plots, but whether this is problematic or simply a matter of casting preference depends on your local larp community.
Sometimes you may want to add material to games, such as extra props. For example, The Tribunal (Harviainen) uses an act structure, with a short pre-scene set in the characters’ barracks to establish hierarchies and normalcy. Relationships with distant family are relevant to some characters, so I tried to highlight these by adding a mail delivery to the pre-scene, with letters being delivered in-play to some characters. The letters were crudely censored, highlighting the military environment and authoritarian political atmosphere. It was not a necessary change, but the game has a culture of hacking and experimentation (Harviainen 33).
If you can’t get enough players, or you decide that a particular character concept just isn’t workable, you may need to delete characters. This can simply be a matter of telling players on the night that character X isn’t there and they should ignore any reference to them on their sheets. If you actually need to delete characters, then you will need to edit a large number of character sheets. Read everything first, just to be certain you know what to remove and where. You may be able to salvage some plotlines from the deleted characters and add them to survivors.
On very rare occasions, you will want to add characters. This is often easier than deleting them, but can be difficult if a game is tightly plotted. The best advice on this is to look for people mentioned on character sheets who aren’t actually present, or to look for plots where someone can be tacked on without the other parties necessarily knowing about them. Maybe someone else is also looking for that MacGuffin; maybe there’s someone else looking to defect. Above all, keep in mind the author’s vision for the game. You don’t need to stick to it, but doing so can avoid tone and genre-clashes.
To give a concrete example: I recently ran A Game of Thrones: Blackfyre Rising (Patten) here in New Zealand. The game has a very hard-gendered setting, but our players didn’t quite have the right gender ratio. Some of it was dealt with by crossplay, but in the end, we deleted a male character whose plotlines didn’t quite work, and added a female character. The character had already been mentioned on various people’s character sheets, there was a natural “place” in the game for her, and her plotlines meshed nicely with everything else. In the end, the character sheet almost wrote itself.
A more complicated example: Flight of the Hindenburg is a large (65-player) 30’s pulp “mash-up” larp originally run in 2007 (Alevizos et al). The gender ratio of the New Zealand larp community has changed significantly since then, so when I acquired a copy to re-run in 2014, it needed significant work to ensure it had enough female parts. After re-gendering every character who could be arbitrarily re-gendered, and re-skinning more as female equivalents while preserving their plotlines (e.g. Dick Tracy became Carrie Cashin, substituting one fictional detective for another), I still needed more. So I added appropriate actresses and pulp heroines (Marlene Dietrich, The Domino Lady), in each case hanging them off existing plotlines. The net result was consistent with the original “pulp and actors” vision, while making the game more suitable for a modern New Zealand audience.
Assume you’ve done all the above, and actually run a game. What is your responsibility to the people who originally made it afterward? In my opinion, it depends on how you obtained it. There are no obligations towards authors of commercial products—you give them money to be free of such things. But if you’ve downloaded a game off the web and the author has provided contact information, or you’ve requested and been given a copy, it’s generally polite to drop them an email and let them know how it went. If you’ve made significant changes, such as adding characters, you should also provide them with a copy of any new material so that they can use it in future runs. If you’ve created additional material for a game, such as a soundtrack, and there are no intellectual property issues, you may also want to consider sharing it for the benefit of future GMs.
So much for the advice for GMs. What about for authors? As a larp writer, what can you do to encourage other people to run your game?
The first and most obvious step is of course make your larp available. You don’t have to commercially publish it, but you can just stick it on the web by sharing it in Google Drive, hitting the “publish” button on Larpwriter, or even uploading it to Larp Library. Or you can let people know you will supply it upon request, either by word of mouth in your local community or more formally through the International LARP Exchange Project.
Apart from availability, the next step is to make it easy for people to run by writing down everything you need to run the game. This means not just the character sheets, rules, and background documents, but also casting advice, setup information, runtime guidance, plot summary, a printing and stuffing guide (what to print, and what to put in each envelope), a blurb, and anything else you think a GM might need to know. Trenti (153–159) has a good guide, or alternatively you can look at what’s provided in the average game from Peaky or Freeform Games. If you’ve done this a couple of times, you can simply incorporate it into your writing process, and it becomes a discipline, a way of getting the information straight for yourself as well as future GMs.
Make your game easy to change by providing editable files. This can be tricky if you’ve done any work to pretty up your larp or used non-standard fonts, but providing the text in an editable format makes it much easier for future GMs to tweak character genders and splice characters in and out according to their needs. They will need to do this, so you might as well make it easy for them. Otherwise, they’ll simply copy and paste from your PDFs, even if they have to crack them to do so.
None of this guarantees that someone will run your game. But it does make it more likely.
Alevizos, Nasia, Katrina Allis, Nick Cole, and Frank Pitt. Flight of the Hindenburg. 2007. Live action role play game.
Dean, Gordon. “ILF Game Bank.” Metagame February 1993: 19–20.
DriveThruRPG. Web. 26 August 2015. <http://www.drivethrurpg.com/>
Freeform Games. “Our murder mystery games”. Web. 26 August 2015. <http://www.freeformgames.com/our_games.php>
Hart, Ryan. The Moorstepper on Lloegyr. 2006. Live action role play game.
Harviainen, J.Tuomas. “Infinite Firing Squads: The evolution of The Tribunal”. The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. Eds Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted. Copenhagen: Rollespilsakademiet, 2015. 30-33.
Harviainen, J.Tuomas. The Tribunal. 2010. Live action role play game.
International LARP Exchange Project. Web. 26 August 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/groups/116297192053019/>
Larp Library. Web. 6 September 2015. <http://library.interactiveliterature.org/>
MacDougal, Jim. Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste. 1993. Live action role play game.
Paracelsus Games. “Theatrical experiences”. Web. 26 August 2015. <http://www.paracelsus-games.com/theatrical-experiences/>
Patten, Kirsten and Jamey. A Game of Thrones: Blackfyre Rising. 2011. Live action role play game.
Peaky Games. “Buy our games”. Web. 26 August 2015. <http://peakygames.wikidot.com/buy-our-games>
RPG.net Wiki. “LARP scenarios”. Web. 25 August 2015. <http://wiki.rpg.net/index.php/LARP_Scenarios>
Shifting Forest Storyworks. “Parlor Larps.” Web. <http://www.shiftingforest.com>
Trenti, Lorenzo. “Boxing a Larp”. Larp Frescos Volume II: Affreschi moderni. Eds. Andrea Castellani and J. Tuomas Harviainen. Florence: Larp Symposium, 2011. 153-159.
Malcolm Harbrow is a New Zealand larper. While he sometimes likes to (be) hit (by) people with rubber swords, he mainly writes and runs theatre-style larps. He has presented games from the USA, UK, Finland, and Norway to his local larp community, and his games have been run in New Zealand, the USA, the UK, South Africa,and Lithuania. His larp resume can be read here: http://larpresume.boldlygoingnowhere.org/people/IdiotSavant/