How to Write a LARP Scenario Part I: System and Structure


Googling “writing a LARP scenario” or “larp scenario design” returns a number of great lists of scenarios for download and some good articles on theory, but nothing like the solid GM advice that you would find if, say, you wanted to know how to write a campaign or encounter. Lacking a rough outline or method, I’ve been forced to look at the scenarios and LARPs I’ve participated in and try to deduce guiding principles and processes from there. This series of articles is an attempt to help fill that gap with my own trial and errors. Your mileage may vary, so please comment with your own questions and suggestions!

Part I: System and Structure

Last time I posted a short teaser about the LARP I’m running in early December for my college’s Role-playing Guild (of which I am president). At first, I anticipating expanding my “Sasarindō” tabletop campaign/scenario of Gempei War-era battle, betrayal, and intrigue. The basic premise is that you have two warring families and a faction (or two) caught in the middle, and they clash across the Japanese countryside as Emperors are cloistered and captured. Yet as I pondered the event further, I ran up against a number of limitations:

  1. How do you crystallize five years of conflict into one court scene?
  2. How do you ensure each individual character/player has enough goals and clout to keep them actively involved in the scenario?
  3. How do you manage characters who are built around filling combat niches and make them useful in a party atmosphere and venue that can’t handle combat?
  4. How do I convey the history of the conflict to a group who won’t want to do homework and won’t be able to discover it easily in-game?

A Matter of Medium

Quite simply, I realized that I couldn’t tell the same kind of story I could at a table, and that campaign vs. one-shot considerations asides, there was an inherent difference between tabletop and live-action role-playing.

The Role of the Gamemaster

Obviously, the game master would have to have a different role. Instead of being the prime narrator and plot-driver that characterizes normal games, she would be reduced to arbiter and counselor. The agency is instead played in the players’ hands. Some game systems have rules that do that (like Houses of the Blooded), and other play groups will tend towards that by virtue of player composition, but at the end of the day it’s the GM who has the monopoly on information. By sheer virtue of sitting down at a table with dice most players expect to react to the game, not guide it. In a LARP, however, the GM can’t be in all places at once, the party is inherently split, and shouldn’t seek to instead guide the story as a character lest she look like she wants to make herself the star.

The Role of the Player

Now they have the Power. What they say, goes, quite literally, as they have to rely on their words to drive the story with the occasional help of the dice or Style. But most people will flounder given complete license with no goals to guide them. You’d end up with something more akin to an improv comedy skit than a story to be told. I don’t know about you, but the very structurelessness of improv scares me. Give me a framework, though, and I can manage myself once I get past the awkward part of “I’m a character now.”

Unless you’re a legit actor or veteran LARPer, you’ll likely have the same trepidations if told to make up your character and motivations on the fly. Will it be too boring, too contentious, too heavy-handed? The GM bolsters the players by providing a foundation and suggestions in the form of backstory and goals.

The Role of Combat

Let’s face it, most role-playing games have more rules for combat than anything else, and thus the emphasis is clear. You build characters to be optimal killers, with less feats and class features dedicated to exploration/wilderness survival and fewer to social maneuvers (a simple Bluff/Diplomacy/Intimidate skill check covers most conversation possibilities). The Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying game is a notable exception, with equally complex social combat rules.

Likewise, the stereotypical and oft-ridiculed LARP is one where the fighters carry boffer swords and hit each other with them. Whenever the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild has to explain the LARP section of our budget during budget hearings, the organization funding officers ask for an elaborate explanation mostly with the intention of embarrassing us and trying to reveal that stereotype. We can usually sidestep it by calling up the Mystery Dinner Theater analogy. And in our case, and in the discussion of these articles, that’s certainly more the kind of game we’re playing.

Realism vs Abstract Depiction

I for one feel a little ridiculous hitting people with foams swords in a serious context. I still feel a little awkward bargaining with other characters in a literal/live action context. But I can get into the mindset of the latter more easily, as do my fellow guilders. It’s also much easier props- and rules-wise to forego or diminish the importance of combat. Finally, given the wider player-skill/character-skill divide on martial and magical aspects, which demand abstract depiction and more imagination, negotiation and intrigue just seem more realistic and thus, more believable and immersible when you’re playing a live action game without costumes and legit/stage weapons.

These players have the realism bit down, and I can totally see them getting immersed in combat without feeling silly.

A Feasible Solution

I found my answers when I set my sights on a different samurai role-playing game (also authored by John Wick), Legend of the Five Rings. The assumptions and setting lent itself particularly well to the LARP format, giving me flexibility with scope, an horizontal power structure, combat in context and a framework to present the goals that guide play.


How do you crystallize five years on conflict into one court scene?
The simple answer is, you can’t. In a LARP things have to happen in “real time” with the exception of such devises as flash-backs, skips, and theatric pauses. You thus only have 3-4 hours to work with if it’s a one shot, 3-4 hours a week if you’re running a chronicle, and are limited to the types stories that can be told in that span. No one event in the Tale of the Heike pitted the clans against each other in their entirety, much less in a court setting, without some heavy liberties taken on my part. And there were the other problems to consider as well.

In an L5R context, I can call the party a day in the life of a “Winter Court” and be done with it. One dinner, one story. A hundred thousand endings.

Horizontal Distribution of Power

How do you ensure each individual character/player has enough goals and clout to keep them actively involved in the scenario?

In “Sasarindō,” you see more of a vertical hierarchy within each Clan, with the patriarch, his close advisors, and the rest of his vassals. L5R has the advantage of making delegations the norm, so that you can have two-four representatives from each Clan, of which there are seven. You now have a horizontal distribution of power, giving each character more clout within his Clan and at the court more generally.

Combat Characters in Another Light

The bodyguard, ninja, and monk each can also have a purpose within a social setting, as well as unique means to achieve the Clans’ ends.

How do you manage characters who are built around filling combat niches and make them useful in a party atmosphere and venue that can’t handle combat?

You have to limit the kinds of characters who play. Instead of having a falconer/archer who reigns in combat but takes a back seat in social situations, you have to make each character have a social “function.” I will go into character creation in depth in a later article, but to address the question now I realized I had to frame warriors as they stood relative to society. That means bodyguards and duelists who protect the courtiers, lieutenants who command the armies, and scouts who can report the situation on the ground to those that would act on the reports (the champions and generals). Of course, courtiers are given the most options, ninja and monks are also viable, and shugenja act as courtiers who have a few “tricks” up their sleeves as opposed to bonuses to pursuade.

Set-up and Build-up Combined

How do I convey the history of the conflict to a group who won’t want to do homework and won’t be able to discover it easily in-game?

At first I was going to create a primer booklet detailing the origins of the Gempei War in condensed form, but I decided that would ultimately be analogous to requiring literacy tests at the polls. To encourage participation, I had to minimize obstacles to said participation. Given that most players won’t read campaign wiki’s/guidebooks in the first place unless it’s to post their own character’s stories, I wanted to keep the background info to a minimum.

Instead, the background is built into the Clan goals themselves. In a short sentence or two, you want to achieve x because of y during your time at the Winter Court. You need to trade for Koku to feed your armies, negotiate border disputes, hunt down enemies or attack a philosophy that threatens your ideology. How you go about that goal is up to you and your fellow teammates, but there you have your basic motivations and the story behind them. I’ll talk a little bit about the metagame and structuring the rules to encourage Clans to accomplish their aims in a later article, but in a nutshell the way you score a game and write the rules encourages or discourages certain behavior.

A Different Kind of Game

By trying and failing to implement one story, I’ve discovered how the roles of the GM and Player, combat and context, change depending on whether you’re playing live action or tabletop role-playing games. Scope, horizontal power distribution, character types and set-up/build-up all have to be taken into account when shaping a scenario, and picking a system to suit.

Next time, we’ll look at character creation and conflicts and how to enlist your players to help you build a cast and determine the kinds of stories they want to tell.

One Response to “How to Write a LARP Scenario Part I: System and Structure”

  1. Laraqua says:

    Really good advice here and it all fits with what I’ve learned as a Storyteller of a Vampire: the Requiem LARP.


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