Category Archives: tools & techniques

LARP Writing Software

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A quick survey of LARP writing tools I know about (including some I have never used). I put these in alphabetical order and added some that other gamers told me about. If you tell me about another one I’ll add it to the list. 🙂


Stuff designed by LARPers

Akkar: this is from some folks in Norway and from what I can gleen from their page it is a web service you can install on your own server. I have never used it.

Créa’GN: I think it’s an online collaborative tool, but the whole site is in French, and regrettably I don’t read French. (It looks like the site may require a paid subscription for writers? I am having difficulty reading the page, so I’m not 100% sure on this.) I have never used this system.

GameTeX: a LaTeX based system for writing LARPs. If you’ve spent any time writing academic papers you probably either love or hate LaTeX (it is very powerful but not very user-friendly). I’m having a hard time finding a centralized page for GameTeX. Below are my best guesses at where the source is and someone describing the system. I have never used GameTeX (although I did use LaTeX during my graduate school days).

Gender Swap: a tool for managing gender changing LARP characters to match casting needs, by me. This is not a full system, just a markup processing tool for gendering characters at casting time. It supports standard pronouns for male, female, they-neutral, and ze-neutral genders.

Larpwriter: looks like a web page based cloud system that can generate PDF sheets. I know nothing other than what’s written on their page.

NIMS: This is a web page based LARP writing tool with either an online or offline version available. It used to be Russian language only but has recently had an English language release. I have never used NIMS.
A Tutorial for using the system:

Querki: another online cloud service based system by Justin du coeur. Alan saw a demo of this one at Intercon and was super impressed with it. I have never used this system.

Spindle: also a cloud service system, and what I know about it is pretty much what it says on their IndieGoGo page. (As a spinner who uses a drop spindle, I <3 their logo. 🙂 )

Vellum: a collaborative writing tool developed by Nat Budin. It’s an online service based system. I have never used this system.


Stuff for general collaborative writing

Any Wiki System: Any wiki system you like will probably work fine for collaborative online editing as well. I find wikis tedious for small to medium games but some people love them. I’m in the middle of working on a game with Kathleen Leeds De Smet and Katie Zenke via a private wiki.

Dropbox: a cloud storage system for files that can be used to share collaborative projects. When used for LARPs there is the caveat that the version of Dropbox that functions in your file system can’t really handle concurrent editing of a given document (I believe their web system can). The free version of their service offers more than enough space for most writers to store many games. I’ve used Dropbox to write several games collaboratively.

Google Drive: more cloud storage of collaboratively edited documents! Google Drive is great for letting multiple writers concurrently edit documents, but you are stuck with their document format (the exporting capabilities aren’t terrible, but once you export you don’t get to edit collaboratively any more). Managing file organization is a nightmare because they have no tools for anything more complicated that “copy this file.” It does have a nice editing history to let you review other author’s changes. I’ve used Google Drive to write games collaboratively.

OneNote: a cloud storage system for notes that lets you share and collaborate with others. Katie Zenke tells me this works well for working on games alone or with other writers. I haven’t used OneNote.

Scrivener: a writing tool intended for other forms of writing like novels, but can also be used for LARPs. Julia Ellingboe tells me that there are LARP specific templates available for Scrivener and their site confirms that it will hook up to various cloud services like Dropbox to allow for multi-writer collaboration. I’ve never used this software.

Source Control Software: Those of us who are programmers will be familiar with various source control systems like Git or Subversion. To use them for collaboration you need all your writers to be comfortable using something a little more cryptic and technologically confusing. Some source control systems have only command line tools and others have relatively easy to use visual clients. Git is notable because of the existence of GitHub, which will allow you to have a centralized online place for writers to connect their copy of a git repository so you can share your writing easily. GitHub is free, but the things that you put there are (by default) visible to anyone on the web. You can give GitHub money to get a private place to put your stuff. I’ve used various source control systems at work and in my personal collaborative projects.

If you can think of any others I should add leave me a comment. 🙂

How I Cast Small LARPs

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This post was previously available on a private G+ circle.


I figured it might interest people to know the method I use to cast small LARPs with prewritten characters. The community I play in generally calls these Theater LARPs and / or Parlor LARPs*. This is something I’ve developed over several years with the help of Kathleen Leeds De Smet. She came up with the casting worksheet, which I can no longer imagine casting this kind of small game without.

The example questionnaire and casting worksheet come from our game Better Living Through Robotics, which was written at Peaky Midwest 2014 and inspired by the theme for Intercon O (Orbit). We’re currently preparing this game for distribution (by which I mean, I’ve been putting off the prep work I need to do for the last six months and Kathleen has been very patient with me). Hopefully it will be available soon. 🙂

I prefer to pre-cast games to give the players time to read their sheets and plan costumes. I try to get character materials to the players at least one to two weeks before the game is scheduled to run.

In order to figure out which characters to give to which players, I send out a casting questionnaire via email a month or so before the game. The questionnaire gives you an idea of what your players do and, more importantly, don’t want to play.

When I write questionnaires I usually focus on identifying what character traits players might find undesirable. Especially in games where some storylines deal with power dynamics or sexual taboos, I’m wary of giving players roles the aren’t able to embrace. Some stretching of the player’s mind can be good, but having a player shut down entirely because they can’t cope with their character is bad news. I put a lot of my effort into avoiding that kind of catastrophic failure.

Here is an example questionnaire.

For each part of the questionnaire, there are characters it’s most relevant for. For example some characters are written to come face to face with the stuff brought up in the Character Traits section. All characters could potentially be exposed to these themes, but they are more central for a few.

Player responses can also help you identify if a player just should not be in the game at all. Not all games are good for all players at all points in their lives. If I run into someone who has explicitly told me they can’t cope with the content I know will come up for everyone, I generally talk to them (phone or email) and make sure they will be ok in the game. I would rather people didn’t play if the game is likely to hurt them. If they still want to play with things that will push their limits I know to keep a close watch during the game to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed.

The gender and romance questions help with figuring out how you can match up romantic plots. I have been thinking about rewording these questions to be more inclusive, but haven’t gotten around to it. The goal is to let players explore the genders and romances that interest them and ideally make sure that everyone can embrace the roles they’re given enthusiastically. It’s no fun to play a romance plot with someone who shuts you out because they aren’t into it OOC.

I should also note, the example game has characters of non-fixed gender. Any character in the game can be cast as either male or female in any run of the game. I have a script that handles gendering the sheets once the game is cast. The script can also handle ze and they pronoun sets, but this particular game is only written for male and female characters.

Anyhow, once I have all the player responses to the questionnaire, I fill out a casting worksheet to figure out how to best give them things they will enjoy.

Here is an example casting worksheet.

I review each player’s questionnaire responses twice. In the first review I flag characters corresponding to anything the player marked as undesirable (for example 1 or 2 in the character traits) as a bad match for that player. In the second review I flag any of the remaining characters who correspond to things the player has marked as desirable (for example 4’s and 5’s in the character traits) as good matches for that player. After these two reviews I flag any remaining unmarked characters as ok for that player.

Once I’ve reviewed all the players questionnaires that way, it’s a lot easier to look at the rows and columns of the casting grid and see if some characters or players have limited matching possibilities. I won’t give players “bad” matches unless I know the player well and have some reason to believe that they would really like the character and simply misinterpreted the questionnaire (this is exceedingly rare!). I’ve only once ended up in a position where I couldn’t find a way to cast a game.

* The term Parlor LARP was coined by J Li to describe the Shifting Forest Storyworks games. It got awfully popular in some circles to label small games with 5 to 12 prewritten characters in a limited physical space like one or two rooms.

Tools for Tabletop: Narrating Descriptions

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So the player characters are tromping through a giant mushroom forest this week… what do I say to them? I need to tell them about the forest, but what words should come out of my mouth? Stopping with, “You walk into a giant mushroom forest,” won’t convey the world I’ve built in my head at all.

Narration advice I’ve heard includes: “read more”, “play lots of games and emulate your favorite GMs”, and simply “practice.” These are great suggestions but they don’t work for everyone. The anxiety jitters I feel when I sit down to GM haven’t gone away despite doing all those things.

After a lot of struggling, I found more specific narration suggestions in the writing community. Much of this post is based on the content and structure of a post by N. Strauss. Similar ideas and variations of them are discussed, in different terms, in this article by Stephen King from 1980 (link may be unreliable). I also found useful tips on scene goals in this post by Chris Eboch.  I condensed and reframed their ideas to more directly apply to tabletop RPG narration.

Many of these techniques are for describing physical places or people and most generalize to describing anything else that’s physically perceptible: creatures, spell effects, plants, prophetic visions, etc. Don’t feel limited by the exact examples I picked.

Before a game I sit down and write short bullet lists of three to eight items for places and NPCs the players are likely to run into. When I narrate I incorporate the points from the lists. I sometimes create more than I need, but no single place or person takes long. The things that I prepare ahead of time are much more vivid than things I come up with at the table.

Use specific details in your descriptions.

Imagine I’m GMing and I say, “Your party reaches a small village”, what are you picturing? Form an image of the scene in your mind.

Suppose I said, “Your party reaches a small gnomish village. All the homes and shops are diminutive but sturdy and well built.” Is the picture in your mind’s eye a bit different now?

How about, “Your party reaches a small gnomish village just as the sun begins sinking beneath the horizon. The diminutive homes and shops are sturdy and well built but strangely quiet. Doors are closed, windows are shuttered, and you don’t see anyone in the streets.” Is this place giving you a slightly different impression? Would your plan for what to do next change based on these details?

Specific details help the players take in the world the way they would if they were really there. Details also help players figure out how to begin reacting to the world and investigating new places and people.

Choose the details carefully.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking more details is more better, but a flood of irrelevant details will blot out the bigger picture and bore the monkeys out of your players. At some point they’ll tune out your “boxed text” or, worse yet, become actively disruptive in an attempt to make you stop talking.

Pick details that make the picture clear without overwhelming the players. If you’re worried about camouflaging something in the scene, like a trap trigger or hidden loot, make the environment more complex and interesting instead of padding the description with irrelevant details.

A competent trap builder would know better than to put an obvious pit trap in an otherwise featureless 10 by 10 room. Likewise, players don’t need to hear about the size and shape of every barrel in a storeroom if none of them are relevant to their quest or contain anything interesting.

Choose details that differentiate.

Just about every fantasy character has a race, so if you tell me a woman is an elf that doesn’t help me to picture her or know how to react to her. If you tell me she’s a thin elf in traveling clothing carrying a bow, I have more of an idea of who she is. There are still a lot of elves that could describe. If you also tell me she has a scar across her left eye, a medallion of the local neutral elven god around her neck, and an air of disdain about her when she looks at the non-elven party members, I have a much clearer impression. These details distinguish her from other elves the PCs will meet in their travels.

When you have to describe something, ask yourself how is this _____ different from all the other _____s that my party will run into?

Use details that suggest a bigger picture.

If you describe a tavern table as unpleasantly sticky, with a visible layer of grime that hasn’t been cleaned in years, I’m likely to assume the rest of the building is in a similarly disgusting and flea infested state. If you tell me that a cavern is scattered with fresh bones I’m likely to assume that a dangerous predator lives here… and could be coming back soon!

Keep the situation beyond the immediate scene in mind when you describe the surroundings. Include details that foreshadow or offer clues about things you want the players to know or guess.

This holds for characters and monsters as well. Scars, clothing, colors, patterns, and adornments can suggest their history and allegiances or foreshadow their future plans and loyalties.

Describe things the way the characters would perceive them.

Different player characters are likely to notice different things in the same situation. You can add a lot of flavor by giving a player additional description specific to their character’s history, unique skills, or physical position in the environment.

For example, a rogue may have a sharper eye on the details of security, like locks and guard patterns, or they may notice how easily NPCs could be bamboozled or pickpocketed. Someone who grew up locally might be quicker to pick out strange changes to local traditions. A shorter race like a halfling (or someone who’s been knocked to the floor with a well timed punch) will probably have an easier time seeing a paper pinned to the underside of a table. 

Don’t force the PC to mechanically test for this information. This isn’t hard for them to notice; you’re telling them about things they can see easily that others would have a more difficult time perceiving.

You can pass PC-specific description to a player in a note or verbally. If you start passing notes it’s up to the player if they want to share the information truthfully with the others. If you tell them verbally the other players will know, whether or not their characters find out. Each strategy has it’s strengths and some groups handle one or the other with more grace.

Incorporate all the senses in the description.

Picture a scene in your mind and imagine the visuals of what the characters would see there. If you also think about how it smells, what temperature it is, and what it sounds like it’ll feel more like a real place. Sounds, smells, and other tactile cues don’t need to be ominous or strange. A bakery might smell of cinnamon, or closing a door might dampen the noise from a party the characters are sneaking out of. The existence of the other senses will better connect your players to the moment and can give them hints to what’s happening around them.

This particular piece of advice is a bit trite, but used with the other techniques, it creates more immersive and vivid descriptions.

Tell players what they perceive, not how they feel about it.

When you GM it feels easy to describe things in terms of reactions or judgments. I can’t count the number of times GMs have told me non-player characters were “sweet” or “trustworthy” when my first reaction was they’ll more likely than not push me into a volcano if I turn my back on them. As a GM you don’t get to dictate how PCs feel about the world. Nine times out of ten if you try to tell them how to feel they’ll ignore you anyway.

Pushing value judgments also isn’t an effective way to describe things. “You see at a scary castle,” isn’t going to make your players feel fear. Instead choose specific details that are intended to make the castle sound ominous and uninviting.

“After hours of trudging up and down you round the curve of a last hill and get your first glimpse of the castle. It’s still about a half mile away, up the twisting, winding path on the mountainside. The castle’s foundation juts out from the rocks of the cliffside so that half of it sits over empty air. In the shadow of the mountain it’s hard to make out the exact shape of the castle walls, but you can pick out the dark roofs of the jagged tower tops silhouetted against the sky. The wind picks up and you can hear a faint whistling or howling from somewhere within the castle’s crumbling stones.”

If you describe a scary castle, the players will feel the fear on their own.

Phrase descriptions in terms of what the PCs perceive. Avoid describing things with value judgments (“nice”, “ugly”, “beautiful”, “kindly”) or feelings that imply a character’s reaction (“scary”, “infuriating”, “lovable”, “confusing”). To get a specific reaction or value judgment from the PCs, focus on describing details that would cause you to react that way or make that value judgement.

Note: There are some times when mechanics like magic dictate how a character feels. Those are an obvious exception here. It’s still important to give the players some agency. Yes, the mechanics may say their character must flee from the dragon in terror, but while terrorized and fleeing different characters are going to react differently. Tell the player the restrictions of the mechanic and let them narrate their own (re)actions under those restrictions.

Describe things with a purpose.

Narration is a powerful tool. It can help you to move the plot forward, create moods, give players big pieces of information, or subtle hints and nudges in new direction when they get confused. You can pack a lot into each scene.

In a tabletop game you don’t always know where the protagonists are headed. Sometimes the players expect a scene to be important, and it doesn’t match where you thought the plot was going, so you don’t have anything planned. You can still strive to make the most of whatever situation the party wanders off into.

You can use a scene to:

  • advance the current plot
  • advance the over-arching plot
  • give the characters important information
  • give the characters hints or rumors about the over-arching plot
  • reveal something about the PCs or NPCs
  • reveal something about the world
  • develop a theme or foreshadow a future event
  • set the mood

When you imagine a scene for the first time, pick one to four of these goals you want to accomplish in the scene. You’ll need to decide the specifics of the goals, like what future event you’d be foreshadowing. When you come up with your descriptions be sure to include at least one or two details that support each of the goals you chose and, if possible, a few details related to what the players are likely to want from the area.

Revealing things about the protagonists in tabletop games is slightly different than in books. It can be prompted by something the GM pulled from a character’s backstory and worked into the current plot. It can also be spontaneous and player driven. When I run long term games I compile lists of themes and elements players have built into their characters. Using these same themes and elements in the plot or incidentally in the world can give the players opportunities to build on their characters, without pulling the development out of their hands. 

Setting the mood in a scene is crucial in some genres and it’s different with a table full of players than a single reader. I try to slowly build up to mood changes over several scenes in the way that a good horror story builds up normality. For horror and unease specific mood, I’ve found that weather, light, and heat related descriptions can have a profound impact on how players feel about about a place. Often how uneasy my players are is directly proportional to how normal vs unnatural the weather and temperature is. For example, if the party enters a shop, it can also be dark, strangely cold and damp, or smelling of mouldy books.


Put your descriptions in terms of what the PCs perceive. Include specific details and pick enough of them to illustrate important things in the scene without going into all the irrelevant minutiae. Decide which details to use by asking how the specific thing you’re describing differs from similar ones the PCs have seen or will run into. Use descriptions including multiple types of sensory information (sight, sound, smell, touch, etc.). When possible offer individual PCs different details geared toward their personal view of the world. If you want the players to feel something or make a value judgment, focus on describing details that would cause you to feel those feelings or make that value judgement. 

Decide if there are situations or future events beyond the immediate scene you want to foreshadow. Pick one to four specific goals you’d like to accomplish in each scene.

Don’t worry if you only use some of these tips at any given time. A scene in a tabletop game doesn’t need to be a perfectly nuanced and polished masterpiece. The purpose of descriptions in RPGs is to convey the important details to the players, not write a book.

What about all that other narration that’s not description?

There’s a lot to narration that’s not description of the static physical state of things. Action narration, combat narration, and effectively role-playing NPCs are each their own cans of worms that I’m not going to open right now. Depending on my motivation I may write about more of these in the future. 🙂