Harnessing the Glowing Rectangle

Using Mobile and Computer Technology in LARP Play
by Matthew Webb

We are living in an interesting and great time in live action role play. In addition to the growing visibility of our hobby, unprecedented amounts of graphic and communications technology is available to organizers and players in the form of mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets. With portable computing becoming so cheap and accessible, many larpwrights and designers are turning their eye to them, seeing how these devices can be integrated into the live action experience.

The great news is mobile technology can be leveraged into the LARP experience by almost anyone to different degrees. But there are important pitfalls and limitations to consider before taking your game down this path.

I have been experimenting with integrating technology into LARP for over five years now, as well as collaborating and trading notes with games from Prague to Los Angeles, and am currently heading the groundbreaking Planetfall science fiction LARP, which makes use of dedicated mobile apps and augmented reality to create an immersive and automated game experience. That road has given me some strong lessons I hope to guide you with here.

Should you use technology?

This is the single biggest question—should you use the power of technology in your game? Mobile and computer technology is very tempting. It is new, interactive, and flashy. But not every game is suitable for it.

The largest consideration is genre. Science fiction, from space opera to cyberpunk, is the most obvious choice to integrate computers—they do not break immersion and are easy to justify. For decades, movies and television have told us the future is going to be made up of glowing rectangles. Modern and post-apocalyptic games can also integrate them easily, depending on the game’s background story.

Medieval fantasy is one of the most popular genres and one of the most difficult to integrate without harming immersion. Technology has to be hidden, but the careful use of facades and set dressing, as well as limiting exposure during actual gameplay, can leverage these into a fantasy game.

Even if your genre does not easily allow for the immersive use of technology, online software and apps can still offer you easy bookkeeping, player communication, and downtime management in campaign games—though this can be a serious undertaking, as we’ll talk about later.

Some Basic Rules

Here are my basic rules for integrating technology into your games:

Rule 1: It will take longer than you think

How long do you think your new software will take to write? Come on, be pessimistic. Okay, now double that. Are you relying on someone else, especially a volunteer, to do the work for you? Okay, double it again. If you are not particularly technical, double a third time. Then maybe you are close to what is needed.

Software development takes time. Part-time volunteer software development takes an eternity. Most games that have an active and useful integration of technology have owners and founders as the programmers themselves—and even then, it just takes more time than you think.

Rule 2: Plan for the future

Don’t do the same work twice if you have to. In software development, we refer to problems in old approaches holding us back as “technical debt”—a hole you’ve dug due to the way you chose to do things that you now have to dig yourself out of if you want to be more efficient, effective, or expandable.

Don’t be afraid to tear down the old code and spend the time to make new software that does everything you want.

Rule 3: Create flexible solutions

Don’t do anything twice if you don’t have to. See if a generic solution is just as easy as a specific one. Want to build prerequisite skills for using certain items into your character databases? What about prerequisite races, alignments, et cetera? You could come up with a far more flexible tagging system to integrate that required (or banned) characters with certain tags for everything from race to political allegiances—and you went from creating a one-off solution to a powerful, useful tool for managing the game.

Rule 4: Use computers and people for what they are good at

Computers are good at storing and processing information. They are good at following large amounts of preset rules quickly. This covers a lot of rules systems in the LARP hobby, especially the parts that aren’t very much fun. When possible, leverage computers to take crunching numbers or looking up things out of the hands of a person.

Humans are extremely good at weighing their chances and making decisions. Use computers to put decisions into the hands of the player, not take them away. The best dynamic is often that the computer presents available choices and limitations, which the human decides upon and the computer executes.

Strategies and Approaches

Most approaches to using technology in LARP fit into a few categories, requiring differing levels of commitment and time on the part of the developer. With overviews and examples, I hope to give you some ideas on what can be integrated into your game, or in a game you play.

Within the Game

Computers and mobile technology are integrating themselves into actual LARP gameplay in a variety of ways, and they can be great additions as both centerpieces and helpers. There are many ways they can be integrated into your game, with varying degrees of complexity.

The Pure Prop

The simplest and easiest to integrate is the pure prop. Little more than a looping animation on a screen or on a phone, these are often remarkably effective additions to any costume or scene for science fiction, cyberpunk, or related LARPs. Most app stores feature “scientific scanner” gag apps. A more ambitious player or staff member can use game engines such as Unity to set up a looping animation with some simple reactive buttons that do nothing other than cause a visual effect.

Magical effects can also be created using mobile technology with some set dressing. Particularly useful is an old magician’s trick called Pepper’s Ghost. You’ve likely seen this before—a ghostly translucent apparition floats due to being a projection being reflected against a piece of shiny glass. This effect makes it easy to create “holograms” or floating glowing shapes as magical effects.

Manually Controlled Effects

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Some games effectively use technology but have a staff member running the show and controlling the technology at all times. This is often a trick using an off-the-shelf piece of technology.

In a Call of Cthulhu game I played many years ago, the “command line” for a computer was actually an IRC chat room. The computer’s responses were provided by a staff member in the other room. A simple ‘trick’ but an effective one, since it allowed the players to interact with a fictional computer system, but it still required a staff member’s attention.

The Czech LARP Shards (Vano et al) has a wonderful example of a manual solution giving a incredible digital effect. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi game, it featured conversations with NPCs via a communications viewscreen prop made out of a projector. These communications were handled elsewhere on the site, via a live video feed from a camera and makeshift studio.

These are great solutions, though they require a great deal of time and organizer support. But they can make for a very enjoyable experience.

Single Purpose Programs

Now, we take the first step toward fully automated computer-augmented LARPing. It is extremely easy to utilize mobile computing and other technology to create single-purpose obstacles, puzzles, or information sources for a particular plot. If the players need to hack an ancient pre-war computer or bypass a complex computerized bomb timer, you can use technology to make a completely in-game experience that does not break immersion. Computers are also great locking up information—a computer that only gives you information if you have the right passkey, for instance.

There are two ways to approach this—repurpose other apps to stand-in, or make a custom program.

Don’t be afraid to repurpose existing games and software. Mobile games come in many varieties, and free simple puzzle games abound. In Planetfall, in-game scientists were scrambling to analyze an alien virus, and we wanted to make a game be the mechanic for doing the analysis. We attempted to create a custom program, but given time limitations, we instead found a 3D puzzle game for free that had a suitable sci-fi looking interface. The players still loved the struggle and experience, and only had to be given a note that they should contact the staff once they had completed the puzzle.

Building a custom program is more time-consuming but allows for you to control the entire experience. With limited programming experience and an off-the-shelf game engine, simple interfaces and basic games can be created. Generally, the more simple the interface, the more you should consider creating a custom program. A simple keypad puzzle can be made in minutes. An engaging DNA analysis minigame might be too ambitious.

Smoke and Mirrors

One step beyond the one-shot puzzle, you can create interesting effects by faking a fully functional program quite often. Coupled with good art and design, very shallow solutions can be very effective. The computer interface might be little more than a web page or a Flash animation.

For example, the Czech LARP Shards (Vano et al) featured a mechanic around manipulating and discovering resources via a satellite network. They created a basic interface via a web page, styled as a futuristic control system, overseeing hundreds of satellites. However, it was simply a web page with a great many buttons that displayed information if you clicked on a “sector” to scan. The sheer volume made hints as to what sectors to scan valuable in game, but the actual technology was ridiculously simple.

Especially for short-run and one-shot games, these solutions are perfect. They don’t require any risky programming, use well-established technology and yet given a fully-automated interactive experience for the player. But the kinds of mechanics and puzzles they can implement are limited.

Taking Over Systems

One of the most time-intensive but rewarding applications of technology to a game is when you hand over entire areas of mechanics to software. But, this requires dedicated developers offering their time and expertise to the game.

The American science fiction LARP Spite (Northwest Roleplaying Games) utilizes a web interface to handle money transfers and hacking in-game. These hacking mechanics form a core part of their gameplay, and are a completely self-running part.

That’s perhaps the most powerful aspect of these fully-integrated systems, that they minimize organizer involvement, yet are guaranteed to behave exactly as they are intended. Automating gameplay is an extremely powerful way of creating interesting gameplay and complex interactions while lessening staffing requirements.

Fully Augmented Gameplay

This is the Holy Grail of LARP and technology—a game which is run almost entirely via smartphones, tablets, and computers. Many experiments are currently underway, but in my opinion, the most we will see in the near future is games which mostly run on computers.

My game Planetfall is taking steps toward this, integrating a custom mobile app which handles almost all of our core mechanics, from healing wounded characters to analyzing strange alien lifeforms. Most of the interaction takes place through QR codes attached to props or scattered around the site, allowing the players to scan, get customized information and interact with the game world without staff involvement.

I cannot overstate how time-consuming this approach is. The Planetfall app took roughly half a year of dedicated development before the first game, with a lot of learning experiences along the way. Also, equipment requirements are a concern—requiring every player to have a smart device poses a barrier to entry, but one that is getting lesser and lesser as time goes on.

What about digital combat?

The use of computers to handle LARP combat is a very difficult problem—and the technology simply is not there yet. Some companies have begun to develop LARP-like electronic games. Sabertron was a popular Kickstarter for electronic boffers that would record hits; and companies such as LyteShot are creating Bluetooth enabled beam guns for virtual combat.

However, these technologies are not ready for competitive play yet. Sabertron is easily spoofed and cannot handle more than one-on-one combat, and existing laser tag systems have limited range and capabilities, especially in daylight. Real-time simulated combat of the accuracy and fairness that players would want is currently the province of high-end military and police training systems. Expensive systems such as MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) represent the state of the art. One player’s equipment can cost thousands and the manufacturers of such systems are focused on government customers, not commercial products.

Will LARP combat one day be handled by computer? Maybe. But not any time soon, though I hope I am proven wrong.

Management Software and Databases

This is likely the most pervasive and oldest form of computers being leveraged in LARP, and is so ubiquitous, I won’t spend much time on it here. I first encountered a full-featured LARP management solution as early as 2000, with the World of Darkness desktop application Grapevine (http://grapevinelarp.com/). But even before then, spreadsheets and database applications have been part of the LARP runner’s toolkit for most of the life of the hobby.

More and more, these databases are moving online. Attempts are being made to make a ‘generic’ online LARP database that is customizable and usable for most games. But they suffer from the limitation of how ‘generic’ they can really be. For example, Larpwriter (http://www.larpwriter.com/) focuses on story games and one shots; but would be of less use to a large campaign game.

Some games simply make use of shared online spreadsheets to track characters, but more and more games are using custom-made databases and web-based submission forms to handle character submission and approval, but a truly generic but LARP-focused solution has not presented itself. Maybe it will soon, but these custom databases are a well-established part of the LARP manager’s world; if that is the limit of how you want use technology, get a talented web programmer and a database then have at it.

Character Creation

While many games will allow characters to be submitted through websites, it is rarer to find one where the character creation process itself is automated. Usually, the character is entered by hand after being made with written rules; the final math and approval is done by a staff member.

There’s a simple reason for this—character creation is complicated and hard to validate in most traditional systems. Keeping track of prerequisites, available skills, limits placed on a character due to previous choices, all gets very complicated very quickly. What is easy to write into a rulebook is hard to “explain” to a computer sometimes.

As a simple example, in your game, you can write the line underneath the “Great Orc Howl” power that “only orcs may take this power.” You’re done. You just have to remember that rule when approving characters. But computer programs are notoriously intolerant of “one of kind” cases. You would need to start building a system into the character creation software to check to see if any limits are on a skill, and you need to start defining those limits in a fashion the computer can interpret and you can update as you see fit.

Now, you must add a special command for whenever the computer adds a skill to a character sheet to check for the prerequisite trait (“being an orc”) and you must also have a way to outline those prerequisites and read them. Oh, and if the player changes their mind and changes their race, you either have to drop all skills and force them back a step…or write a function to drop all the racially specific skills.

And that’s just for one particular type of character creation rule. Don’t despair, though, this approach is very powerful but it is time consuming to write and each new type of limitation you want to add for the system will require some work.

If you are designing a LARP from scratch and you know this is how you want your character creation to work, you can design around the use of computers instead of trying to make the computers interpret and work around traditional character creation—and do things that are onerous or impossible with a book-based creation system.

When I was creating Planetfall, I was able to create a complex life path system, where players created their character’s biography through character creation. They spent points on each step of the way on skills based on their choices for their character’s history. There are even secret life path steps that can only be revealed through specific combinations of skill spends and life choices. In a book form, outlining over a hundred different life steps would be tedious. But since I made the system for online character creation only, the computer knew what choices to reveal and what skills to make available. This is because sorting through large amounts of information based on criteria is something computers are really good at.

Online Action

Some games, such as my own Planetfall LARP, have moved to even more ambitious online enhancements. While between-game role play in forums, chat rooms, and email are a decades-old staple of LARP, some have moved to make the time between games into an online gaming experience in and of itself.

Campaign games often allow between-game actions, but with some work and the implementation of an online system, this process can be completely streamlined for both the player and the game owner. Players can be engaged in predetermined downtime activities and served information based on their traits—their faction, their skills, or whatever else you can imagine.

Done well, this can make a campaign game more engaging and also easier to play. Your game can be accompanied by a miniature online multiplayer game that can engage players while also lessening the need for valuable staff time.


Marc Andreesen has famously said, “software is eating the world,” and those teeth are finally beginning to find live action gaming. As we move forward as designers and organizers, it is tempting to see software as the magic solution to many problems. And it is a powerful solution to many problems.

But I hope this article helps both creators and players understand what goes into the process, its limitations and its possibilities. It is a very exciting time as virtual reality, augmented reality and live action converge, allowing for new forms. But we must take care to do it right, and I hope my experiences and insights into the growing use of technology helps clear the way for you to choose how to integrate technology into your game.

You can learn more about my own technology-enhanced game at http://www.prepareforplanetfall.com.


Planetfall LARP. 2016. “Planetfall”. http://www.prepareforplanetfall.com/.

Spite LARP. 2016. “Spite LARP”. http://spitelarp.com/.

Larpwriter. 2016. “Larpwriter”. http://larpwriter.com/.

Grapevine LARP Management Software. 2016. “Grapevine”. http://grapevinelarp.com/

Andreessen, Marc. “Why Software Is Eating The World.” WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 20 Aug. 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

Matthew Webb is the creator of Planetfall and owner of its production company, Incognita Limited. He began LARPing when he was 17 years old with Call of Cthulhu Live. He is a professional software engineer, working with the Department of Defense developing applications to support military training exercises and education. He frequently applies some of his knowledge from live action role-playing and gaming to his professional field. A native of Austin, he lives there with his wonderful domestic partner Stephanie, her daughter Belinda, and two black cats.