Lessons from the LARP – A Tabletop GM at Intercon F

From Dr.Nik

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0317

A Brief Word From Johnn

Newsletter Poll – Plain Text or HTML?

I plan on making changes to the e-zine and web site. If my current schedule is an indicator, these changes will take place in the year 2050. But, they will eventually happen.

I’d like to streamline some parts of the newsletter publishing process to save time. Saving time helps ensure I can continue to put out the newsletter in the future.

Rather than just forging ahead though, I’d love to hear what you want first. If the changes make things easier and better for everyone, then we all level up!

This week, can you e-mail in and let me know:

  • Would you prefer the newsletter in HTML?
  • Would you prefer the newsletter stay plain text?

Thanks for the feedback!

Battlestar Galactica – Holy Cow!

The new series is awesome. Why I waited this long to check it out, I’ll never know. Thanks to seasons 1 and 2 on DVD though, I’m quickly learning. If you haven’t watched this show, I encourage you to give it a try. Not only is it entertaining, but it’s full of great NPC and plot ideas.



Johnn Four
[email protected]

Lessons from the LARP – A Tabletop GM at Intercon F

Dungeons dragging you down? Detailed mazes, mysteries, and NPCs difficult to make work? Take a LARP break and learn the value of great role playing again. I recently attended Intercon F to do just that.

What’s a LARP? My best foil from the con explains on her website:

The “live-action role playing game,” or LARP to the clueful, is a surprisingly popular activity. When asked what LARPing is, I often answer that it is a cross between an improvisational theater experience and a group playwriting workshop. Stereotypically, there are predefined characters, a setting, costumes, and even some props! There is no script (at least, not usually), but every character comes with a background, interests and goals. — Spirit Chrysalis (Recreation).

I am not new to LARP. I have run a few in my time as a GM, but I am primarily a tabletop GM. Back in the early 90’s I started the Usenet listing that later became www.larplist.com. I had not attended a LARP con in the last 12 years, so I decided to attend Intercon F, an all LARP con that took place March 3-5, 2006 in Chelmsford, MA.

As a tabletop GM, I rarely get the chance to play so much. Even when attending other conventions I typically run games all weekend long. Taking a break to actually play and enjoy the weekend was wonderful! The writers of the LARPs provided worlds and characters that the players then expanded and developed throughout the course of the games. The scenarios were well thought out and an inspiration to dig into. I learned a few lessons from this LARP con and want to share them with you.

Use Props Or Prop Cards

This was the most valuable thing I learned the entire weekend. Using a simple 3×5 card with a description of an item is a great way to inspire role playing. Have your players each look at the item card and then discuss it in character.

Holding a tangible object in front of the player helps develop their character response. You could take it a step further and also draw or include a picture of the item to pass around. Oftentimes, the image is a simple Google or FlickR search away. This simple tactic can help bring out more in character role playing.

A simple way to start building prop cards is to print our four or more to a page. Most word processing software has templates for business cards. Use such templates and write out descriptions of the next horde of treasure. If players lose a card, they lose the item (until added to a permanent character sheet).

The prop technique works even better if you can get a replica of the item to pass among the players. Check out the “out of season” sale section at your local craft, fabric, or big box store for marked down items that might make good props. A well stocked prop trunk is a valuable tool in your GM arsenal.

Here is a link to some prop cards I used throughout the weekend: Intercon F – Prop Cards

Changing Perspective, Player vs. GM

Roland, High Priest of Rentai, emotional man of action. Cassio, Son of Elder Adviser to neighboring Baronies. Retired Admiral Nigel Pinnacle, Devious Do Good. Peter the Satyr, Valentine Town Musician.

Playing these four roles, and interacting with scores of other players, was completely amazing. There is nothing as informative, inspirational, and effective as walking a mile in another’s shoes. Every once in a while, you should play games different from your own. If you already do this, great! Branch out some more. Just as watching movies, reading books, trying new genres, and visiting new locations help stimulate creative scenarios, LARPing dramatically improves your NPC development.

By submitting yourself to play in a LARP, you experience different techniques, persona, and tactics you don’t always have a chance to enact as GM. The players will try and manifest different methods of bringing out their characters. Switching from rolls to roles will provide a rich opportunity to play and learn different character development and presentation techniques. It will strengthen your willingness and ability to enhance NPC interaction with your tabletop group.

The chance to enjoy deep and detailed character plots for a few hours can and should inspire you to bring out more role playing within your own sessions.


Many of the writers presented mystery and puzzles in the form of secrets. Various characters had a piece of information they initially felt unwilling to share. The other players had to interact and find out what would change a reticent character’s mind to learn the clue.

In tabletop games, we resolve this through a simple check for intimidation, diplomacy, sense motive, or a spell to read the mind or charm the target NPC. Before changing the rules on your players, let them know those skills or techniques will not work. Make the players interact and find out what makes the NPC a character before they get their information, clue, or object. Perhaps the NPC has a specific immunity or is too experienced and skilled to have the “usual” methods work. Work in some plot hook, favour, or trait to which the players must appeal to succeed with that NPC.

Puzzle Them

Puzzles within the games I played were extremely varied. Some puzzles were simple search for items to complete a spell. Some were as complex, such as learning the rules to a game a room of 15 players were playing. One puzzle was a simply figuring out a number code based on clues.

My favourite puzzle of the con was composed of several smaller puzzles. The initial setting was a maze of offices and cubicles represented by tape and tables on the floor. Throughout various parts of the maze, people had challenges to meet. The players had to get pieces of information from each area to advance to the next area and solve the maze.

The next time your players need to meet someone official or well known, have them navigate a maze of bureaucracy and NPCs. They will get bits of information and clues for the final encounter. This is a simple way to engage the players with a handful of basic archetype characters for that organization or group. This type of interaction can greatly develop an NPC group personality, organization, and history.

Sometimes puzzles and encounters can drag on. You must pace them to keep the game moving. If a puzzle is too difficult or obscure, players get frustrated and lose interest. Dramatic tension and delay can be used in any genre, but should not harm the general flow of the game. To incorporate a puzzle into your game, replace an appropriate obstacle with a puzzle. Instead of a roll or two, give the group a brain teaser to solve! In addition to providing a change of pace and tension, puzzles provide a way for the group to interact and build a sense of team.

A few simple example puzzles:

Using standard math symbols, make the following statement true:
1 _ 9 _ 9 _ 2 = 4


Examples of Challenges to use a puzzle for:

  • Magical Seal or Ward
  • Door or Gate Lock
  • Computer Network Security
  • Activating a device

Reader Challenge: Send me your three favourite puzzles or puzzle sites, and we’ll post them as tips in the following weeks. Sponng at gmail is where to contact me, or e-mail Johnn.

Make Them Tick

I mentioned the characters were well written and detailed. One of my characters was 14 pages of text and background. Another character was 8 pages. This level of detail provided a setting to base the actions and responses to the other players in the game. In addition to the background, players in the LARPs typically had several goals and motivations.

One of my characters wanted to recover secret documents. Another character wanted to attain the most power he could. A third character just wanted to have fun with the ladies. I could go about achieving them in any way shape or form within the game mechanics. So how do you translate this to your NPCs? Provide specific but flexible goals for them.

You must motivate them. What makes the local rogue fence happy or sad? Why does she take stolen goods at all? Does she have personal goals and objectives? All Named NPCs should have 3-5 motivations that help define them on the fly. These can be general or specific:

  • Make 300 gold.
  • Get revenge on the Duke.
  • Spread the word of their patron/god.
  • Drink every known wine in the country

In the LARPs I played in, everyone was a named PC and had a detailed set of motivations or objectives. I’ve found this tactic works very well for my more flexible gaming environments, especially modern day and future, where NPCs should be active and dynamic. NPCs are not static, like the shopkeeper in a video game. NPCs should have sets of objectives or motivations that keep them doing what they do. Bring your NPCs to life by having them mentioned in the media or as an active part of their community. Provide your players with something for your next NPC, conglomerate, or region:

  • A local news story revealing a motivation
  • Blog posting or comment revealing a trait
  • Media profile segment revealing involvement
  • Proclamation from the marquis posted in town

These methods build story background, provide clues, and foreshadow plot. This technique, when used in a LARP, provides a method of intertwining characters and motivations, which often results in conflict and increases depth of story lines. You will find by putting in just a few sentences of background and motivation, you can slip into the NPC role with ease and grace.

The Foil

A foil should be based against a primary PC or character. Magneto against Professor X, Lex Luthor against Superman, The Joker against Batman. The foil character is not a “one shot kill and be done” NPC. It is a fully developed antithesis to the hero or PC group. The foil returns time and again on or behind the scenes. The foil acts as a primary nemesis to the heroic group.

Two of the characters I played were villains and ended up being foils. I had an excellent time machinating with both of them. One of them loved conflict and power. As a driven high priest, I submitted to the dark god and helped keep him from being banished while gaining power and influence. The second was a scoundrel in an admiral hat. There I lied and cheated my way through character objects with no remorse.

What made both characters come alive? Direct conflict with other players in a dynamic and changing environment. In the first role I was against an entire council of 15 other players. In the second role, I had a single nemesis that all would fear, and another that was quite capable. Having a foil is as simple as having a well-thought out boss enemy catered to the PC group.

Develop your boss enemy into foil status! Make them shiny and do not throw them away. In addition to their motivations, provide them a character and organization background. Tie the foil NPC into the player’s backgrounds. Make the foil flesh by adding information: names of books, clues about plot points, and information about the PC group. This type of simple development will help provide personality and background to the game world.

For their minions and multitudes, NPCs such as commoners, tribes members, or a general local archetypes, I would only highlight a few traits and also note the point at which they flee (typically when they have taken 25-50% damage).

Get An Assistant GM Or NPC

In the smallest game I played, there were less than a dozen characters. Even this game had two GMs to run it smoothly. When you have an important NPC or group, get an assistant to play them. The assistant helps gamemaster and maintain the personality of the NPC.

You could also have someone interested in joining the game play an NPC for a few encounters. Having an extra brain to help contribute witty comebacks and combat tactics is usually a good thing. When the party is assaulting the temple, have a less experienced GM handle most of the peon cultists and soldiers. A more experienced assistant GM could be tapped to handle the cult leader and lieutenants. I have rarely used an assistant GM in the past, but the few times I did, it was very effective. If you have done so in a tabletop environment, please let me know how you implemented it and what the results were.

Some ways to have an assistant GM:

  • You run the game, they run the NPCs
  • You run the NPCs, they run the combat
  • When a party splits, each GM handles a group
  • One GM is the information and story source, one GM is the rule interpreter
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My experience at Intercon F benefitted my GM and player skills. I strongly recommend you learn from the LARP community and use these techniques to bring greater depth and life into your NPCs and encounters.

Dr.Nik is the president of Carnage 9 From Outer Space! Fairlee, VT, USA. November 10-12, 2006. Carnage 22 – Killington Grand Resort

He writes a blog that includes his gaming interests at:


You can email him sponng AT gmail.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Media Based Games

From Leslie Holm

Everyone has heard the hoary old chestnut, “You know you’re a roleplayer if you shout out during a television show ‘He can’t do that without a +1 sword!'”  Well, you know you are a gamemaster if you can’t watch a movie or show without shouting, “That would make a great game!”

I’ve been roleplaying for over 30 years, and I’m just plain tired of the quest to retrieve the sword, or the Enterprise encountering a new species, so I’m searching the media for ideas. There are already plenty of Buffy, Matrix, Charmed and Stargate, but there are hundreds of other ideas.

Want a modern RPG? Law and Order would be perfect for 4-6 players. You could have 2 or 3 detectives, a couple of DAs, a judge, and one or two players could even be the jury. See if they handle the case the way you expect them to; you might really be surprised. Another interesting modern RPG would be House–a group of doctor detectives–if you’ve a medical bent.

Dr. Who is perfect, of course. Start with the Doctor and Rose, and pick up a few more passengers along the way – all from different times. Now you have ready made settings from world history, and to spice things up, you can visit other planets as well. Along the same lines, how about Sliders or Quantum Leap?

Remember Roswell? Aliens here on Earth lends itself to thousands of scenarios. Lost could be terrific. Veer off in any direction that takes your fancy.

Tired of modern and Sci Fi just doesn’t grab you? Try Wild Wild West, only with 4 or 5 secret agents working together. Get as crazy as you want with mad inventors and pit your agents against them.

The next time you are stuck for an idea for a game, just peruse the TV Guide. The ideas are boundless.

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More On Hidden Rolls

From Warren Tamerius

Thank you for an excellent resource. I look forward to receiving your e-zine each week. In the reader tips of the week, Secret Rolls to Maintain Mysteries by Dan’l Danehy- Oakes makes good points and carries it through by providing thoughtful solutions.

A variant I use in my current campaign requires random d20 rolls from the players at the beginning of each session. A list in my campaign notebook is kept of 20 or so rolls for use in the current session. I begin by carrying forward the unused rolls from the previous session and then having the players generate the replacement rolls for the current session. As they use the rolls up during the session, a line is drawn through each used random die roll.

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From Michael Downey

At the beginning of each adventure, I have a chart of character stats I ask the players to fill out for me. This chart includes name, class, race, gender, level, alignment, base attribute ability bonuses, saving throws, and bonuses for skills.

With this bank of information, I can make secret rolls for a player, but what is more fun is to ask a player to simply roll a d20 without telling him why and then add the appropriate bonus.

This has several  intended results:

  • It helps me to decided what happens to the character.
  • It alerts the player that something is up.
  • It immediately prompts several questions from the player.

The first question is always, “What was that roll for?”, which is inevitably ignored. The next few questions are more in-character, like “What does Ragnar see?, What does he hear?, etc.

  • It brings players back into character.
  • It reduces table-talk to zilch real fast!
  • It entertains me immensely.

Don’t forget the evil chuckle/grin after such rolls!  ;o)

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From Simon Neville

I have a spreadsheet with a column for each player. Each column holds 30 numbers. I get each player to roll a d20 30 times and record those numbers. As these numbers get used up, I fill in their space with black to ensure I don’t use the same roll twice.

This works extremely well since the party never knows when I am making checks.

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Gamer Podcasts

From Buzz

The Sons of Kryos, is a must-listen for any gamer, doubly so for gamers with an interest in indie RPGs.

Skin Care with Natural Cosmetics

Have Games, Will Travel is also fantastic.


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People Generator

From Janis Maggs

I came across this generator and thought it might be useful for those playing d20 Modern. It generates a complete name (with first/last names weighted so more common ones are generated more often), address with city/state/zip, telephone # (with area code and prefix that match the generated city), birthday, and mother’s maiden name. While there might be a lot of illegitimate uses for this, it also seemed like a great way to generate quick yet detailed NPCs.  http://dev.allredtech.com/fakename/

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Make Gods Individual

From Sam Radjabi

I thought I might add a cent or two to the religion debate.

How many Christians are all the same? How many Muslims, Rasta-followers, and Pagans follow exactly the same set of beliefs, life-styles, or worship schemes? Even in a single family (real world 🙂 the differences between individuals are huge, hence, individual!

I greatly dislike D&D core rulebook ideas where you simply go and buy magical services for a fixed sum of gold, or where there is a standard set of beliefs, descriptions, ideas, and pictures of each god.

I prefer an approach where you outline a god’s powers and personality in the form of a set of aspects, functions, and attributes.

Each time you and the players are confronted with a situation where a god/religion description is needed you roleplay it. For example, have the priest, farmer, girl, or whatever NPC deliver relevant concepts of the god in their own words based on the aspects you created for it. While creating a temple description and depiction of a god, roleplay the architect, artist, sculptor, etc. all seperately, crafting a simple but individual mind-set for each. Thus each of your temples will be rich and memorable.

Real world examples:

  • All churches do have altars, but hardly two look alike.
  • Of each Hindu god, you will find hundreds of thousands of different statues, and before the times of cast concrete, I guess all looked different.
  • The altar (mihraab) of mosques is generally a deeper part of the wall facing Mecca, but the exact shape of it is variable, as are the decorations.
  • On Greek vases, there are many different ways a single god is depicted. Just look at the pictures of this article: Zeus.

All depictions should share some of the god’s aspects and attributes (lightning bolt in the Zeus example), but there are even different ways of drawing a lightning bolt!

All in all, what I try to say is that one should stay away from standardized descriptions, not only for gods and temples, but for magic and monsters as well. This way, your campaign can be much more realistic and believable for you and your players.

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Index Card Tip

From Ian Toltz

I get a little long winded here, so I’ll just summarize this tip real quick: Use index cards to help and remind players who aren’t that familiar with the system. For example, craft an index card listing their attack options, another index card listing special abilities.

Anyways, I just finally got around to using index cards in my game, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. It was a little daunting trying to figure out how to use these things as an actual play aid rather than just another abstraction.

I think I finally hit on a good use after the game when I was helping a player make a new character. This player isn’t very comfortable with all the rules, so he’s always shied away from complicated things. After a series of godly rolls though, I convinced him to give a Thri-Kreen Monk a try (D&D 3.5 edition).

To make things simpler for him, I made cards for all his limited use abilities, such as poison, stunning fist, and various psionic abilities, which all explained how to use them and had check boxes for keeping track of how many times he’d used them each day. The index cards allowed me to be more verbose and clear than I could on a character sheet.

In addition, by having something tangible sitting in front of, him he’s more likely to remember to use them when it’s advantageous to do so.

I also used two different cards to enumerate his different attack options, which were unusually complicated given his race and class. He has to choose between using unarmed or natural attacks (which took me about a half an hour to figure out myself and I’m still not positive about).

Before the next game I might create cards for all the different combat maneuvers you can make during combat, such as charging, grappling, disarming, and give them to all the players. One tends not to remember to use such actions, and so combat can get a bit boring and static.

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Moving From Socialise To Play

From Shane Hyde

Someone wrote a few issues ago they had problems with making the transition from socializing at the beginning of the game to starting the game and getting in-character. Here’s what I do.

I’ve got a couple of tools I use to get the players to get focused, stop talking about Lost on TV last night, and pay attention.

Theme Music

I can’t overstate the importance of theme music in my game. It sets the mood, sets the theme, and says to the players, “This game has begun!”. Currently, I’m running a World Of Darkness game set in Modern Day America. I’m using Breaking Benjamin’s ‘So Cold’ as the theme song. We’ve played 19 sessions so far, and it’s still running well, and the players love Breaking Benjamin (shame about their other songs :(). I n a parallel story for one of the players (same setting, same game, different character, lower mortality…) I use Evanescence’s “My Immortal.”


This takes a little preparation, but is something that adds depth to the world, the story, and everything else. I prepare a written introduction (usually around 600 words) before each session that deals with something else that is happening elsewhere in the game. It doesn’t even have to be relevant to the characters – just a little something that illustrates the world is populated by more than just them and the NPCs. Consider it like that little bit you’d get at the beginning of the X-Files just before the credits.

Even better, relate it to the story. Or relate it to the characters. Or feature an antagonist. Even if the antagonist is in a bar or eating a burger, you can also follow their inner discourse.

I use it to introduce thematic elements in the game as well…just a little something to unify the story and make it feel more complete. I also use it to imply the characters are in danger when they’re not. Even more fun.