Running A LARP At A Convention, Logistics And Sanity

(or)

What Do You Mean We Have 20 Characters for 50 Players?

Introduction
Running a LARP at a convention can be very rewarding. It's a great way to meet new players, maybe even recruit a few new ones to your regular LARP. It's also a chance to play with ideas that might not work in a long-running game and – let's be honest here – a fun way to show off some of the cool plots you've created.

But it can be enormously stressful and even disastrous without adequate preparation. I've been running live-action events at gaming conventions for several years now, and have played in more than a few, so I know what I'm talking about. If you want to avoid some of the common traps that can turn your potentially enjoyable event into a confusing mess, take a look at these few lessons I've learned.

If, after reading this page you're not totally turned off to the idea of running a LARP, you might want to check out LARP Pitfalls and Clawing Your Way Out of Them. It's much longer than this essay, but gets into greater depth about LARP problems and solutions. Also, for you Lovecraft nuts, there's Instilling Terror Without Making A Fool of Yourself - How To Run A Cthulhu LARP.

Planning The Event
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare. There is no quicker way to destroy your own enjoyment of a game than by staying up for 96 hours straight just before your event, frantically assembling props and untangling plots. Personally, I like to have at least six months to get ready for a convention, and there are some events on my calendar that will be over a year in preparation.

Plan your game in the following order

After the first three steps are completed, go as mad as you like with incidentals – extra props, costuming, etc. Of course, each phase is not clearly separated from the other. Plot and character creation usually occurs simultaneously, and your plot will indicate your basic prop needs immediately. The trick is to know your priorities and to stick to them.

Keep the Plot Simple and Fun, Ditto for the Rules.
A one-shot game offers a mixed bag of opportunities. Since the game isn't part of any established continuity, you can be as grandiose as you like, with no consequence on any other events you're running. However, an event of only four - or six, or eight – hours can also be limiting. There is not much time to present plot lines which is only good news for those of us with very short attention spans...

For a six hour time-slot, I'll assume that the first hour will be taken up by pre-game tasks, such as assigning characters and explaining the rules. The first hour of game-play will be taken up by the GMs laying down the groundwork and letting the characters get to know each other. After that first hour, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war – or whatever. The players will appreciate it.

A few words on player-focus: Usually, everyone is excited to be at a convention, distracted by the presence of fellow gamers and worrying about whether or not they can get into that game tomorrow morning. It's a part of the convention atmosphere and there's nothing you can do to fight it - not without being perceived as jerk, at least. Be aware that your players might disappear for short (or not so short) periods to say ‘hello' to a friend, or to sign up for an upcoming event. If your plot is one that demands constant attention, make sure your players know this before the game starts. Better yet, write a plot that has time for buddy and bathroom breaks. Short lulls will not kill your game.

Combine the above with the fact that your players might be completely new to the setting and system, you want to keep the plot quite simple. As you might know, players are perfectly capable of amusing themselves on what might strike you as a very austere plot. It helps that many gamers are quite forgiving of convention events, as they understand the many factors involved.

Ditch the complicated Roman-succession realpolitik drama that features two dozen different factors and go with "Who killed the Emperor?" featuring six suspects and a Senate in an uproar.

You want your plot to be something that can be solved by only half of your PCs – you never know what kind of turnout you're going to get, or how participatory the players will be. The plot must also be very flexible. I have learned, the hard way, that heavily scripted events derail very quickly.

The plot should be something that can be easily run in a few hours – allow time to explain rules and for players to warm up to the setting. Make the plot goals something tangible. Give them a mystery to solve, an antagonist to thwart, a valuable prize to be won, that sort of thing.

I don't mean to belittle atmospherics, far from it. Ambiance and well-rounded characters will encourage your players to achieve whatever goals they must, but there has to be a goal in the first place.

On the Use of Written Materials
Overexcited players do not absorb handouts very well - they're too eager to get started on the game! Generally, you won't want to be handing your players more than two pages of printed material - be it house-rules, game setting or character background. That two-page limit includes your game mechanics, so I highly recommend you go over that verbally with your players as a group. This also gives them a chance to ask you a few questions about your setting and get to know you a bit better.

Game Size.
A game for two hundred vampires sounds like fun, but will most likely be a logistical and organizational nightmare unless you have a huge support team. 200 players means 200 characters that have to be created, dozens upon dozens of plot lines to be crafted, and where are you going to get all the assistants you'll need to administrate the rules? A good rule of thumb is one GM/assistant GM for every five players. Trust me, it works.

For your first games, keep them small. I wouldn't recommend more than twenty players for your first convention event.

Resist the Temptation to Be Distracted!
A big pitfall for me is that I'm easily distracted by the ‘cool prop' factor that drains my budget long before I've covered the basics and the character plots. Often, when bogged down in the essential minutiae of a game, I want a diversion, and that brand new smoke machine/thrift store/insanely complex plot device etc is usually it. Grit your teeth and get back to what has to be done. After all, the coolest props in the world won't help you if you have no plot.

When I just can't resist the urge to spend a couple of days working on costuming - which is my big time-sink - I'll at least try to keep my minds on the characters I'm sewing for and see if any plots come bubbling up while I'm pinning seams. The technique works more often than not - no doubt some subconscious-association thing - and it alleviates my guilt for not working on the game, directly!

Make a Budget and Stick To It.
My husband and I have faced financial ruin because of our love for cool props and our big perfectionist streak. Learn from our errors!

When buying props and supplies for your event, ask yourself these questions.

If you answered ‘yes, yes, exceedingly' then go ahead and buy it! But if you have any other answer, think first.

Smoke machines are re-usable, but how often are you going to need one for your troupe? If you happen to live in a vampire-troupe rich area, as I do, you can probably rent it out to them. The same cannot be said for the dozen paper maché pith helmets bought to help costume a LARP set at 19th Century archeological dig. No, I didn't do that, I swear!

To lessen the financial impact of a prop-heavy game, buy things in advance, if you can. It's a good way of spreading out your expenses over time, and you're going to be better-able to make spending decisions if you're not in a huge rush.

Beware last minute expenses. After spending only $200 to get ready for a large Cthulhu LARP, the gang in Serious Moonlight was feeling pretty good. But in the 48 hours before game-time, we spent over $150 getting last minute character-packet supplies, name badges, drinks and snacks (when we realized our location had no food supply), film for cameras, etc…

While I'm on the subject: Little things you are going to need, but never think of:

Try to anticipate everything you're going to need, and add twenty percent to the projected cost.

Costuming Isn't Everything
Now, I love costuming. Sewing is my favorite hobby and a trip to the thrift store to find costuming elements for a game is one of my favorite things to do. Costuming can make or break an event, particularly one with a historical setting.

That said, keep in mind the rule about keeping a budget - and keeping your priorities straight. No-one will care that they're wearing authentic 19th Century garb if you forgot to finish the bit of the plot which reveals the identity of Jack the Ripper. Gaming folk are an imaginative bunch, so don't be afraid to rely on those imaginations to get you past a lack of costuming. And don't be grumpy about a lack of costuming.Non-costumers are probably more phlegmatic than I am about that last point...

If you are determined to outfit an event, please take a gander at my costuming tips for a whole bunch of suggestions- and here are a couple of quick-and-dirty tips in the meantime:

Know Your Location
If possible, ask the convention staff to give you details about your gaming-space in advance of the day itself. At one event, Serious Moonlight was promised adequate space for thirty players, plus staff and we planned accordingly - only to be jammed into a conference room half the promised size and without much-needed electrical outlets. A few polite inquiries to the convention staff and a visit to the convention site (if possible) can save you some unpleasant surprises. This is doubly true if you are going to need such things as variable lighting, or multiple electrical outlets.

If you are planning anything truly whacky - like gory special-effects, or the use of dry ice or a smoke machine - you must talk to the convention organizers as far in advance of your event as possible. What if the convention locale has smoke detectors? They're not going to appreciate your setting them off during your game - ditto for frightening non-convention hotel guests with displays of bloody horror during a Cthulhu Live event.

If you are using radios, make sure you're not going to be treading on an in-house wavelength. If you're in a hotel, ask to speak a member of the engineering or security staff, and they should be able to answer your questions.

Always respect your hosts. A cool game-idea is not worth the risk of becoming known as "That guy who got SciGameCon banned from the entire Hilton chain of hotels."

At the Convention
If you're at the typical held-at-a-convention-hotel event, I recommend you reserve a room (in as far advance as possible) for yourself. You're going to be stressing out enough without having to worry about where you're going to be sleeping. Share crash-space if you have to, but if you can afford it, get your own room, as – if you're anything like me – you're going to be sick of the sight of people by the end of the game.

Check in, sit down for a second, have something to eat. And, throughout everything, drink lots of water. Save the booze for post-game celebrations - if you're of legal age, that is! Then go crazy getting ready to run your event.

Have your logistics done by game day. Do not tell yourself "Oh, I'll finish it at the hotel" as that belief is pure folly. When you get to the convention site, you're going to be wanting to settle down in your room (if you're lucky enough to have one), setting up your game space, saying hello to your friends, maybe even sleeping! The stress caused by not being completely ready on game-day can make GMs want to kill each other. I know, I've been there. Be a happy GM, sacrifice your TV/online time during the week before the convention to finish character preparation. You won't regret it

With luck, you've already seen your space, and it's fitting for you needs. Your characters, props and plots are all ready to go. That's it, right?

Wrong.

How is the convention handling registration for your game? More to the point, are they going to give you a list of who has registered, so you can verify that the rightful players get in? Or do you have to take it on faith?

Be prepared to handle a lot of players asking to ‘add-in' to your game. Usually, I'll create six or more extra characters that can easily fit into the plotline and I'll keep those in reserve. You can handle extra players any way you like. If you have the time to speak with them individually, you can pick and choose based upon what kind of players they are and if you think they'll have fun with your event. Or – more likely – post a signup sheet and say "First there, gets there".

Be hard on deadlines. If your game is listed to start at 6:00PM, start at 6:00Pm and hand out unclaimed spots by 6:15. It's my opinion that if an attendee has gone to the trouble of making it to the convention, they can easily be on time to my game. Hanging around for so-and-so's buddy who's coming-any-minute can push your game-start back indefinitely. Meanwhile, the timely players are getting punished for being prompt and are getting bored and restless.

When the game starts, introduce yourself and your assistants to the crowd. No matter how rushed you might be, take a deep breath and speak for a minute or two. An outwardly calm and enthusiastic game-master has a positive effect on players, whereas a crabby one can make the players feel unwelcome, and unsure if they want to participate. Alas, I usually fall into the second category, so I let someone else do the introductions while I'm gnashing my teeth in the corner. Players aren't as stupid as GMs hope, at times, and they will sense a disturbance in the gamer-force. Keep that in mind before you open your pre-game commentary with a stress-induced tirade.

Assigning Characters
Do you intend to pass characters out randomly? If so, you can skip this section. If not, you must give some thought – before the convention – as to how you want to assign characters.

If your game is not too large – say, thirty players or so – you and your assistants can take the time to talk to every player for a few minutes and get an idea of what they like. Does a particular player like to be a man of action, or the introverted seeker of the obscure. Write a few questions to ask each player, if you think it will help you while you talk with them.

If you have oodles of time during pre-game (and stranger things have happened) take the time to interview each player, jotting down their name and likely character matches and then consider them all as a group. It can be rather annoying to hand out your major protagonist to the first player who enters the room, to discover that the last guy who showed would have been perfect. Some GMs don't mind taking that risk, but I like to avoid that if possible.

And it's Off!
Your characters are getting deep into the plot, you duct-taped the wobbly altar of Quetzlcoatl into something resembling stability and the convention staff have promised not to wash your mouth out with soap if you curse too much. Everything's going well. Now what?

Circulate amongst the characters, keeping an eye on key plot points. For this reason, I recommend that GMs do not take on characters, unless those characters are relatively unimportant to the plot. You are going to be too busy while the game happens to be an integral character. You're going to be adjudicating rules decisions, explaining plot points – "The floor is made of stone, not carpet, sorry" – and ensuring that the dry ice in the fountain doesn't run out. Unfair as it seems, your game will run a lot more smoothly if you remain the Game Master, not a character.

If your players get stumped on a plot point, don't be stingy with extra clues via apt means. This is a one-shot game, your players are going to be awfully sore if they don't solve at least half of the challenges presented to them. I know there are some GMs out there who don't agree with me, but to heck with ‘em. This is my point of view.

If players are getting bogged down in a rules-debate, solve it for them quickly and make whatever decision is best for your plot. Politely remind them that the point of the game is to have fun, no to follow rules like a new religion. I've always advocated the "Shut up and play" sect, myself.

Your plot had better be flexible, as players will always do the unexpected. A convention game is the last place you want to railroad people, as they won't like it, nor will they stick around if they're not having a good time - that is the flipside of one-shot events: players will rarely grit their teeth through a game they're not enjoying, as there is no hope that next episode (as per a regularly scheduled game) will be any better.

Keep in touch with your assistants, if you have any. As I have elsewhere in my collection of LARP advice, miscommunication can sink a game very quickly. If one of your PCs has accidentally opened a gas valve that is now slowly leaking asphyxiating death into the room, you and all of your assistants need to know that! Ditto if another character gets the bright idea of heaving a brick through a window to air the place out.

If your budget is particularly lavish, look into picking up some two-way radios. These can be particularly useful if your event is spanning a large area - such as across a crowded hotel. Radio Shack offers severalhand-held radios, starting at $30 each and up like a kite from there. If you have friends in the stage-tech biz, they might have radios that they can loan out. As stated above, check with the convention Powers That Be before using any radios to ensure you're not broadcasting "Did that bomb in Professor X's room go off yet?" on the same wavelength as used by hotel security. You might not get a chance to explain misunderstandings before the police are called....

The Treasure Has Been Won/The World Has Been Saved/The Monster Has Been Killed
Congratulations! You did it! They did it! Yay!

Thank your players for coming and sound like you mean it. I wish I didn't have to remind people to do that, but I know that I'm usually tired and discourteous by the end of an event, and I'm assuming you are all as human as I am. If there are any dangling plot elements or outstanding questions, answer them now. No-one likes to be left hanging and the players are probably burning with curiosity about the true identity of Jack the Ripper – or whatever.

If you and your players have the time, ask them to stick around and discuss the game with you. Ask them what they enjoyed, and what they think could have been improved. This information will prove very useful if you're feeling masochistic enough to do this again. Take notes. You're probably quite tired and won't remember much after a few hours.

Collect e-mail addresses and phone numbers. If your game went well, and you intend to do this again, some of your players will want to hear about it. Some players like to stick to a few favorite GMs, or style of game, and it's always nice to have a few regulars who you know passing well – you know how well they can play and what characters will suit them as soon as they walk in. A cadre of a half-dozen followers can make a game a lot easier, if they're good players.

Conclusion
I hope I haven't frightened anyone away from running a LARP event at a convention, but it makes me wince to see a potentially good idea blown to flinders by an inadequately prepared game-master. Now you have an idea of what should be done, and you'll probably have a lot more fun at the event for all of your caution. And fun is what this is all about!

Good luck, and thanks for reading this far!

Author's Homepage More LARP advice

email: jo(at)skaro.com