4 Tips for Live Action Game Design

The way I got started doing game design was not the typical path. It started with building Live Action Roleplaying events, 11 years ago, now.  Over those 11 years, I’ve learned a TON about game design, many principles apply across all types of games.

Every game designer makes mistakes.  Below are four of the most commonly made mistakes I see (and have made) in running LARPs, and how to fix them!


Mistake #1: NPC Theater

This is probably the biggest problem I see in LARPs.  Game staff love to play NPC’s, but will often take it too far and act almost as if their NPC is a hyper statted, uber godlike PC.  They do all the interacting, and it takes away from the PC’s enjoyment and ability to influence their world.  Not good.

Protip #1:  I never ever create an NPC unless they are directly tied to a player’s enjoyment. If that player goes away, the NPC also goes away because otherwise no one cares.


Mistake #2: Getting Attached to Your Idea

We’ve all done it. We write a plot that is so clever, so brilliant, that we’re sure everyone wil lose their minds about how awesome it is when they put all the pieces together.  Trouble is, this NEVER goes according to plan.

Protip #2: The players are right, I am wrong. If I put out a plot and it gets twisted, I go with whatever that twist was and make it true. A lot of times what the players came up with is better than what I wrote, anyway.


Mistake #3: Railroading

Its come down to the final battle and you need the 8 pieces of whatever in order to cast the big spell. Problem is, one player decides they don’t want to put in their piece of whatever.  So you force them somehow, or take away the choice.  Hooray! No. Not hooray.  That is bad plot writing.

Protip#3: Never railroad.  Players should always have the choice of how things go, especially from a meta-plot perspective.  Forcing them into anything is a bad, bad idea. Sometimes this means completely throwing out every idea I had about how something would go, and mostly it means being ready for any contingency and able to adapt on a dime. One of the beauties of a live action game is that there are infinite possibilities for how people can react to something- you are not limited by a computer interface.  Leverage that and make it work for you, not against you.


Mistake #4: Information Scarcity

A game designer gives information to one player, confident that soon, everyone will know and be able to share and figure it out.  Repeat after me: this is crazy.  People LOVE having secrets and rarely share outside their group of friends.

Protip #4: Triple-seed everything.  Most information fails to get past the first person you gave it to, so I try to three-prong-attack every important plot and make sure to hand it to different player types, groups, etc.



What are some of your biggest design mistakes and how did you fix them? Or what design mistakes do you see happen over and over? Any tips for correcting them?

3 thoughts on “4 Tips for Live Action Game Design

  1. Blue

    The only one of these I don’t agree with is information scarcity. Let me instead propose that information shared will invariably be either

    A) Lost forever – as you described
    B) Shared with everyone

    You will notice A more when it’s important and you want everyone to know. You will noticed B more when it’s supposed to be an in-game secret. My belief is that they are about equal but A happens when people think they have something everyone knows because it’s SO HUGE AND IMPORTANT they don’t bother with it, in which case, yes, triple seed.
    B happens when you want it to remain a secret because people want to show off to all of their friends that “I know something others don’t” and invariably just wind up telling them anyway.

    It’s perfectly natural when you think about it.

    To avoid A… what you said holds. To avoid B… well, just pick your audience carefully and consider telling the player in question to please not share OOG so you can make it more fun.

  2. Dolsen

    Railroading is always a tricky one. Sure, in an ideal world it doesn’t happen, but I think tabletop is really the only format you can really accomplish it. Even in a LARP, you need to have some structure in order plan out props ahead of time and keep everyone more or less on the same page. And a little bit of railroading does provide stronger narrative, which is a plus in my book, though I recognize your mileage may vary, especially among explorer types of players. A good GM does it with a light touch or creates the illusion of player agency through enough properly placed incentives, but I feel a balance must be struck. It’s not good for a single player to hijack a game and ruin other people’s fun either, but hopefully the problem is solved during the writing process by asking enough hypotheticals, e.g. what if a PC intentionally doesn’t complete the widget? There should be an alternative plan for that.

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