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LARP Experiments #2 - Gimmicks Print
Written by Nick Huggins   
Jun 26, 2009 at 07:24 AM

Nick talks about LARPs with gimmicks.

At the most base level, a theater-style LARP (and pretty much every LARP we run at a convention in Ireland is theater-style) is a bunch of people in a room talking. Now you can put a bunch of window-dressing on it... the room's a spaceship, the people are aliens or cyborgs or orcs. But it's still a bunch of people in a room talking.

You can view that as a strength of the genre, but me, I get bored easy. While with tabletop I can switch the system. LARP suffers for not having "system" as such in this regard. And so a bunch of LARP types use "gimmicks" to introduce elements which make a game more memorable or make it stand out from the crowd. This article is mainly a discussion of gimmicks have been used in games and what they brought to the experience.

I'm defining "gimmick" here as something which doesn't actually affect gameplay as such. I couldn't categorise a rules system as a gimmick; but the use of costume for no reason other than as "set dressing" is definitely a gimmick.

Many gimmicks are taken from the world of theater - For ease of discussion I'll seperate these into lighting, set dressing, costume and makeup.

Set dressing is perhaps the most obvious of gimmicks to use in a LARP. Having something that looks like what it's supposed to be is better than having something that looks like something else. We don't often get the ability to set dress the environment in the way perhaps we'd like to, by virtue of expense and permission. Usually the best way is to write a game knowing what environment you're going to be placed in. But we can do props and costume easily.

I'm inclined to suggest that the best props are small - I'm thinking of the ornate keys that Gar Hanrahan used for his LARP "Masks" a long time ago, or the "firefly jar" that Meg Hilko used to represent a container of radioactive material in her game "Dragon in the Poplars" at gaelcon last year (2008.) A more esoteric example would be the "alien being" that Aoife Brown produced out of a cake box in the middle of her microLARP "Damn Trekkies" with the miniLARP group last year - I *think* it was lemon jelly wrapped in clingfilm with some flashing lights inside - But man was it ever effective! I'm pretty sure we all just stopped and gaped at the thing for a minute or two before we went back to playing.

Costume is a mixed blessing, in my opinion. While sometimes you can use costume to sell your game, to make it more immersive or memorable, you can also use it to make your players remember your game for an entirely different reason. In my own game "Contagion" at Q-Con (1997? 1998?) I encased poor Gar in a painter's coverall, dust mask and protective goggles (it was a hazmat suit!) over his clothes. It was a hot day and I'm pretty sure he remembers nothing other than sweating three or four pints over the course of the game's three hours. Looked great - not very practical. In my game "Enemy At The Table" at Leprecon 2007 I asked some of the rubber sword LARP crowd to come in costume. I got some *amazing* results - very impressed with the likes of Paul, Fergal, Dave, Eoin and Cat for what they came out with. I'm less happy that most of my memories of the game were of how badly the costumes contrasted with the painted raw brick walls and flourescent lights in Goldsmith Hall.

Lighting is another thing that LARP can borrow from theater. Telling a ghost story? Turn down the lights. Want to freak your players out? Turn the lights out altogether. There have been a number of "blacked out" games run at cons in the last five or ten years, enough that I'm not going to name names and run the risk of leaving someone out. Instead I'm going to talk about a game that Oli Bird ran (which I think was also called "Masks", actually) where he used an overhead projector to seperate the room we played in into a light area and a dark area. The game was effectively played with good characters and bad characters, and without specifically saying it, the bad guys started to lurk in the shadows, the good guys hung out together in the light. Very memorable for all that the game was minimalistic in other ways.

How about taking things not from theater, but from other games systems? There have been a number of games using cards to represent items - Meg Hilko's Jawa trading game, for example. A LARP where all the players are jawas trading various items between each other. Trading in that game became almost more important than the role-playing element itself! My own "Cheops 2 - The Coming of Grendel" (I used to like long titles) had a trading card game representing the out-of-game power struggle between the characters in the game itself. Some LARPs use game systems taken from more table-top elements, the obvious example being the Mind's Eye Theater product for LARPing the World of Darkness.

So are you thinking of running a LARP? What can you do to make it stand out from the pack? Will your players remember the game in five years' time? Your writing and game design will make you stand out, but if you use a gimmick you may get the ultimate accolade of being "that game with the thing! Wow! It was amazing!"

User Comments

Comment by GUEST on 2009-10-27 14:57:59
Bit late to the site (strangely difficult to find good Irish gaming sites). Anyway, nice read. I'm hoping to write a larp (well my second larp) soon and its nice to read practical discussions on larping tools

Comment by GUEST on 2009-10-28 05:40:25
Thanks for the kind words! I hope we can keep the discussions coming! Is there anything in particular you'd like to discuss? - Nick.

Comment by GUEST on 2015-11-22 04:12:53
/ A wedding can crltainey be a great incentive for getting in shape. If you follow the above for your wedding, chances are that you will continue following them after your wedding and be on a healthy path the rest of your life.

Comment by GUEST on 2015-11-22 09:06:45
JG,I think you are right. Its really diluicfft to come up with a single metaphor for all games, but I think that is because they have different inspirations. White Wolf has traditionally used theater terms and metaphors, and they have a large live action contigent of their fan base. Dungeons and Dragons is based on a war game, and they are still publishing special rules for minature only battle. Systems like Gurps focus on creating a universal system, where almost anything goes. Mutants and Masterminds is focused on bringing a superhero to life. Each system is best explained in its own way, and it is diluicfft to explain games as a whole. Fear the Boot created a series of short podcasts that can be burned to CD and used to introduce the concept of role playing. Its something you can consider handing out. I find it better to sell a specific system or even a specific game. We will likely try to tackle the topic eventually with a different take.

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Last Updated ( Jun 26, 2009 at 07:49 AM )
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