Running a Live Action Role Playing Game (LARP) at a convention can be very rewarding. It's a great way to meet new players and even recruit a few to your regular LARP. It's also a chance to play with ideas that might not work in a long-running game, and to show off some of the cool plots you've created.
However, it can be enormously stressful and even disastrous without adequate preparation. To avoid some of the common traps that can turn your potentially enjoyable event into a confusing mess, here are a few pointers.
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. Six months is not too long to get ready for a convention, and in some cases more than a year will be necessary.
Plan your game in the following order:
Craft your plot.
Create your characters.
Determine your basic prop needs.
After the first three steps are completed, go as mad as you like with incidentals, extra props, costuming, and so on.
Of course, each phase is not clearly separated from the other. Plot and character creation usually occur simultaneously, and your plot will immediately suggest your basic prop needs.
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, 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, 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 actual game-time will involve laying down the groundwork and allowing the characters to get to know each other. After that first hour, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. The players will appreciate it.
A Few Words on Player Focus
Usually, everyone is excited to be there and distracted by the presence of fellow gamers and worrying about whether or not they can get into that other game tomorrow morning. 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 up-coming 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.
Combine the above with the fact that your players might be completely new to the setting and system, so you want to keep the plot quite simple. 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, and understand the many factors involved.
Ditch the complicated Roman-succession realpolitik drama that features two dozen different factors, and go instead with 'Who killed the Emperor' with six suspects and a Senate in an uproar. Players will rarely absorb more than a page or two of written data when getting ready for a game, so any background - plot or character - beyond that might be wasted.
That two-page limit includes the rule system, which should be read out with your players as a group.
Your plot needs to be something that can be solved by only half of your players, and which can easily be run in a few hours. You never know what kind of turnout you're going to get, or how participatory the players will be. It must also be very flexible. Heavily scripted events derail very quickly.
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. Ambience 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.
A game for two hundred vampires sounds like fun, but will most likely be a logistical and organisational nightmare, unless you have a huge support team. 200 players means 200 characters that have to be created and dozens upon dozens of plot lines to be crafted. And where are you going to get all the narrators you'll need to administrate the rules?
For your first games, keep them small; not more than 20 players for your first convention event.
Resist the temptation to be distracted by cool props. These can drain your budget long before you've covered the basics. That brand new smoke machine may offer a welcome distraction from the hard grind of preparation, but grit your teeth and get back to what has to be done. After all, the coolest props in the world won't help if you have no plot.
Make a budget and stick to it. When buying props and supplies for your event, ask yourself the following:
Will the game fall apart without this?
Is it re-usable?
If it is re-usable, how likely is it that you will run another event that will re-use it?
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? The same cannot be said for the dozen papier mâché pith helmets bought to help costume a LARP set at a 19th Century archaeological dig.
To lessen the financial impact of a prop-heavy game, buy things in advance, if you can. Try to anticipate everything you're going to need, and add 20% to the projected cost. Beware of last minute expenses.
If possible, ask the convention staff to give you details about your gaming-space in advance of the day itself. A few polite inquiries to the convention staff and a visit to the convention site 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're at the typical 'held at a convention hotel' event, reserve a room as far in 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. If you can afford it, get your own room, as you'll probably 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 until after the game. Then go crazy getting ready to go.
Have your logistics done by game-day. Don't tell yourself 'Oh, I'll finish it at the hotel'. This is pure folly. When you get to the convention site, you're going to be wanting to settle down in your room, 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 Game Masters want to kill each other. Be a happy Games Master and finish character preparation the week before your event.
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.
Be prepared to handle a lot of players asking to 'add-in' to your game. Create six or more extra characters that can easily fit into the plot-line and 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 post a sign-up sheet and state, 'First come, first served'.
Be hard on deadlines. If your game is listed to start at 6pm, start at 6pm, and hand out unclaimed spots by 6.15pm. If an attendee has gone to the trouble of making it to the convention, they can easily be on time for a 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 will get punished for being prompt and become bored and restless.
When the game starts, introduce yourself and your assistants. No matter how rushed you might be, take a deep breath and speak for a minute or two. An outwardly calm and enthusiastic Games Master has a positive effect on players, whereas a crabby one can make the players feel unwelcome, and unsure if they want to participate.
If you intend to pass characters out randomly, you can skip this section. If not, you must give some thought beforethe convention as to how you want to assign characters.
If your game is not too large, say 30 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 the pre-game period, 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.
Lights, Camera, Action!
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.
Circulate amongst the characters, keeping an eye on key plot points. For this reason, it is best if Games Masters do not take on characters, unless those characters are relatively unimportant to the plot. You're going to be too busy while the game happens to be an integral character. You're going to be adjudicating rules, making decisions, explaining plot points 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 Games 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. 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, not to follow rules like a new religion.
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.
Keep in touch with your assistants. Miscommunication can sink a game very quickly. If a character 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.
The Treasure Has Been Won/The World Has Been Saved...
Thank your players for coming and sound like you mean it, even if you're tired and feeling discourteous by the end of the event. If there are any dangling plot elements or outstanding questions, this would be the time to answer them. 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 all 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 favourite Games Masters, or style of game, and it's always nice to have a few regulars who you know because you'll 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.
It's a Wrap
It may sound like a lot of hard work, but it's better than seeing a potentially good idea blown to flinders by an inadequately prepared Games 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.