So You Think You Can Run A Parlor LARP?


I used to play in a local fantasy LARP. I was a gypsy fire mage embroiled in the desperate fight against the encroaching Void. A few days after the event where I had been secretly poisoned and blackmailed into questing for an evil tome by DarkEvilRaven McBaddy (name changed to protect the innocent), I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Disease. Due to my chemotherapy treatments, I could no longer join my fellow LARPers out in the wilds of our local state park. After so long enjoying the world that I was a part of saving, I was stuck inside where the LARPs were restricted to some version of World of Darkness: Vampire, Werewolf, or Mage if you were lucky. Don’t get me wrong. Clan Tremere will always hold a special place in my heart, but every single one of those games had the same exact plot. A person can only play the same game so many times before it becomes a chore. I spent 6 months in treatment, LARPing when and where I could, thinking that I was resigned to a new home in the Camarilla.

I was wrong.

I learned a lot during that time, and reflected on what parts of a LARP were really important to me as a player. The fantasy LARP was physically taxing, and while it was always fun, it seemed to be unfair to someone trying to roleplay the character they WANTED to be when they were too clumsy to do so in reality. In all of the Vampire games that I played, the rules allowed you to forgo physical abilities, but that lead to rules over-complicating the game and taking away from the roleplaying. I like to think that it was fate which introduced me to Cthulhu Live during this difficult LARP crisis. The rules were simple, far easier seen in action than explained, which even when explained took only minutes. The rules weren’t there to define the game, they were there to resolve conflict. That simplicity called to me. It made it easy to bring people in to a game, and not to be burdened by remembering lots of rules. I spent the next ten years running games for my friends, introducing them to the system. They were little more than esoteric murder mysteries at first, but soon we quickly realized that we could expand it to anything we wanted to run. I never went back.

There are obvious differences in running a small LARP in your living room to the large fantasy campaign LARPs, but there are some important changes a storyteller needs to make in order to make it successful.

1) Avoid Combat.

Generally speaking, the apex of any LARP event is the epic battle that brings everyone together to fight whatever evil forces may be infesting the world this weekend. A Parlor LARP is no different, but most rulesets used tend to bring a screeching halt to the roleplaying as soon as combat happens. Players normally hate this. Storytellers normally hate this, too.

Combat in a Parlor LARP should be an occurrence, not the purpose. (Unless you’re running a Fight Club scenario, in which case, you have a completely different Rule #1.) That is not to say that you should not prepare for combat to happen, because it will. Combat is inevitable. Find the rules that work best for your group and your game’s dynamic. If you need to, tweak whatever rules that will make the game run more fluidly. The simpler you can make the rules, the easier combat will resolve. The easier combat resolves, the quicker your players can get back to roleplaying, which is what they came for in the first place.

The role of the storyteller is to keep the story moving. If the story is peppered with all sorts of duels or fisticuffs even before the players get a hold of their characters, the storyteller is going to have bad time. (Think of how annoying it is when a streaming video keeps buffering. Now imagine if those pauses were just part of the video. Then it has to buffer so you can watch the buffering parts, and you just never get to the story. It’s not even worth watching, right?) The constant stop and go can be tedious on both the players and storytellers, especially given that Parlor LARPs are run in a shorter time span than other LARPs. In the end, combat happening is up to the individual player. You can’t control their choices, nor should you. Ever. However, you can do your best to give the players other options to work through the plot. After all, hitting things isn’t the only way to make something dead, and throwing punches isn’t the only way to solve a problem.

tl;dr: Why? Because combat can suck away precious role-playing time. If it happens, try to make it as quick and easy as possible.

2) NPCs are unnecessary.

NPCs have a place in every LARP. There is always a reason to bring one in. A group of good NPCs can make a LARP unforgettable. (A group of bad NPCs can do the same, but in an entirely different way.) When you are writing for a large group of players, you need a large group to play the antagonists. They can easily deliver plot, while just as easily be the fluff entertainment for the event. It is all up to the storyteller and the game.

On the down side, NPCs can also be a crutch. Need someone to be in charge? Just make an NPC! Something went wrong? Blame it on the NPC! Hole in the plot? Fill it with an NPC! They can be abused, and often are, sometimes overshadowing an entire event for no particularly good reason. They should be there to make a player shine, never to outshine a player.

If you are thinking of using an NPC in your Parlor game, ask yourself if it is needed. What purpose does this NPC serve? Does that character have to be an NPC? Could you flesh the character out more and give it to a player? Can the reason the NPC is written be changed to something else that doesn’t need to involve a person?

tl;dr: Why? Because there is nothing an NPC can do that you can’t allow a player to do.

3) Prepare for multiple outcomes.

The beauty of a LARP is bringing people together and seeing what they do in any given situation. The problem with a LARP is that people in large numbers can be dangerous. Brilliant, but dangerous. Chances are that the players will try to outsmart you, or will figure out some crazy loophole that you never even considered. Let them. Reward them for it. Turn the story you were trying to tell into the story that the players created.

You should be never be guiding the players to a set outcome. Smart players know what is happening, and will resent you for it (Maybe that’s just me). Prepare for options given the different choices that could be made during the game. Think of it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” for your players, instead of setting up the epic final scene for them to act out for you.

tl;dr: Why? Because your players will surprise you. The way you see things potentially unfolding is normally never how it happens. Try to prepare.

4) You are running the game, not playing in it.

Chances are that if you have chosen to run a LARP, it is because you are a LARPer yourself. Whether it is due to inspiration and passion, or just to try and run a better LARP than the last one you were at, the choice to run a LARP is not one to be taken lightly. Even a small Parlor LARP can take months to prepare. (Let’s not even go into prop/supply costs!)

The biggest mistake you can make is to believe that you can run a LARP and play in it at the same time. No one wants to ruin anyone else’s fun time, and taking their storyteller away from a scene messes it up for the other players. Remove yourself from the role of a player and take up the noble mantle of “ST”. You never know when an assassination attempt will happen, and a storyteller should be available for anything those crazy players do. Trust me, if you put enough plot into your game, you won’t have time to miss playing.

tl;dr: Why? Because a storyteller needs to be available at all times for any player issues. If the only storyteller is playing a character, that isn’t possible.

5) Trust in your players.

This can be a tricky one. Many character concepts get rejected for being too overpowered (Werewolf-Mage with a chaingun for an arm that shoots plasma lasers), or for simply not fitting in with the setting of the world (Werewolf-Mage with a chaingun for an arm that shoots plasma lasers in Middle-Earth). Whatever reason there may be, any LARP that allows players to create their own characters will always have to deal with making sure that character can work in the game. From a game in someone’s living room, to those insanely epic Nordic LARPs, every single character has to be approved by someone.

In a smaller setting, such as a Parlor LARP, the storyteller has a closer watch on the players and can make sure things don’t get out of hand. This does allow the storyteller to take some wider liberties with character backgrounds and power levels, if they wish. While there are some Parlor games that let the player create the character they wish to play, there are more often those that instead choose to provide pre-generated characters. This may feel like taking away the players’ choice, but it does make certain that they play an integral part in the event.

If you are going to write the characters for your LARP, have fun with them. All those crazy ideas that seemed too overpowered, throw one or two of them in there. Remember, there is no player that wants to destroy a game. They all want to have fun. Everyone wants to be a special snowflake. Give the players the chance. Trust them with the opportunity to play the bad guy. Let them mess around with having crazy powers. Believe in them as a fellow role-player, respect their creative freedom, and you will be rewarded with fascinating and impressive scenes that the players are enjoying. In the end, that should be why we run LARPs.

tl;dr: Why? Because your players make your game, and when all is said and done, that is all it is. A game. Why shouldn’t we have fun with it?


2 thoughts on “So You Think You Can Run A Parlor LARP?

  1. Re: #5 – give them a chance to play something non-normal – give the social butterfly the tough-talkin’ bruiser; the bruiser the investigator and thinker. Give them some freedom to do something different!

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