Setting The Stage For Your Live Action RPG


There are a lot of elements that go into a successful LARP: well-crafted plots, intriguing characters, exciting NPCs. But one aspect that's often overlooked is the one of ambiance - atmosphere, for those of you who prefer plain language.

Suppose you're running a Cthulhu Live game set in a mysterious abandoned manor house. Which setting is going to get your players in the mood? A brightly lit cafeteria at the Booster's Club, or a cold and gloomy room with boarded over windows and strange noises emanating from the walls? Set the right ambiance, and you're halfway to a successful game.

Ambiance doesn't have to be expensive, nor does it have to be all-consuming. There are several ways in which a game-master - and the players - can ratchet up the atmosphere in a game. Those can be broken down into lighting, sound f/x, set dressing, props and costuming. Let's go over them one at a time...



    If you're running a horror game, or something set at a nightclub/temple/den of vice, turn down some - but not all - of the lights. Simple darkness goes a long way to setting the right mood for an event. Have you ever been to a bar that's lit up like a CNN set? Nope, and that's why.
    Borrow as many strings of Christmas lights as you can get your hands on. Everyone has at least a few hundred of these things in their attic. String them up here and there throughout the room - very festive!


    Buy some colored light bulbs and put them into the fixtures instead of regular white bulbs.
    Buy blacklight/UV fixtures, and plug those in - careful, they run very warm, so they should not be left near anything even remotely flammable, and left to cool completely before handling.
    Go to your local photo or theatrical supply and buy a couple of sheets of colored gels. Gels are a little expensive, but very reusable. Attach them with wooden clothespins over your light fixtures - or use some other not-too-conductive clip.
    Buy and set out candles, but be careful of the fire-risk! I prefer to use 'church candles' - I'm not sure what they're really called, but they're those candle-in-a-jar that you often find in the 'ethnic' section of your grocery - or floating candles. Floating candles have a built-in extinguisher in that if anyone knocks over the candle, the bowl full of water is going with them. Beware, wax is a bitch to get out of clothing, carpets and hair!

Not Really Cheap At All

    Give everyone glow sticks for raver-flavored fun. If you look online, you can usually find them at a decent price, in bulk - about $2 apiece for the five-inch sticks that last two or three hours.
    Rent or buy club lights - look at the links, below, for sources. Be careful when using club lights. You have to have proper trusses and, quite often, a mixing board. You also don't want to pull more amps than your location can provide and blow your building circuit. I recommend this route only for those troupes that have an experienced lighting-person on hand. Ask around, they tend to congregate with LARPers. Failing that, talk to your resident film-student.
    Buy or borrow glass lanterns - preferably the fully-enclosed type - again, you have to worry about that fire risk! Alternatively, battery-powered lanterns are good for games set in extreme circumstances.
    If you're at an outdoor location, get some "Tiki" torches. They're about $25 apiece, and burn for hours on a few ounces of lamp oil.
    If you're going to have any open flame at your event, have a fire extinguisher - better yet, have several - close to hand, and make sure everyone in your game knows where they are!

If your event is set at a trendy nightclub - like most Vampire LARPs I know - you want something that's subdued, overall, but still colorful. Set up colored lights and Christmas lights all over the place, and downplay the plain white light sources. If you can afford glowsticks and such, hand them out, too.

For that spooky horror event set in the abandoned hilltop mansion, you want to keep things dark and gloomy. Turn off all - or most - of the lights, and give your players flashlights and lanterns to find their way around.

For a fantasy setting, see if you can get away with turning off all electric lights and get by with candles, lanterns and torches - or use flashlights as "torches", if you want to minimize the fire risk.

A note on smoke machines. Smoke machines are a hoot. They can diffuse light - great for spooky houses with flashlights, and trendy clubs with brightly-colored bulbs here and there. But they can be a pain in the ass. First of all, you've got to make sure that running a smoke machine is okay at your location - it will be very embarrassing if you accidentally set off a smoke alarm and the sprinklers come on. Secondly, you have to make sure that none of your players have any respiratory problems. Even the 'hypo-allergenic' brand of smoke can cause problems for people with asthma. But, if you can go for it, then do so! Smoke machines can be rented from party suppliers, DJ agencies, or theatrical agencies. Or ask around, you might have a friend who already owns one - like I do. My friends buy me the coolest Christmas presents...

Sound Effects

This is a sorely neglected area of LARP ambiance - mostly because it can be very difficult to do beyond the 'boombox full of CDs' level. Here are my ideas.


    You can guess what's coming? Yes, a boombox full of CDs. Be they music, or sound effects, it will be preferable to dead silence. If you have a CD burner at home, create mix CDs of `ppropriate tunes and sounds, so you don't have to spend the entire night hovering over your stereo and switching out tunes.
    Borrow a friend's stereo - one that can fit in the back of your car. It will at least sound better than your boombox.
    If you need sound F/X, many libraries will have CDs of these things available. Also ask around your social circle, as one of your friends may already have a fine collection of "Thunderstorms" or whatever you need. If you're feeling adventurous, go out with a tape recorder and try to record your own effects. Very hand for things like ocean-side, or strange scratching noises emanating from the walls.
    If you're extraordinarily lucky, you might have a friend-of-a-friend who is a DJ. Find out if they will cut you a price break because you're such al lovely person. Better yet, work out a trade with them. He spins tunes at your event tomorrow, and you agree to help him move his house next week.


    If your local library is bereft of sound effects CDs, then you can buy them. Look at your local record store, or stage-supply store, or go online. If you can, assemble a mix-CD of the f/x you know you're going to want, so you don't have to fumble with multiple disks as the game progresses.
    If you've managed to borrow a decent stereo, see if you can scrounge up some more speakers, and a friend who's into surround sound. Rig up a decent sound system at your location. Again, it's got to be better than just a tinny boombox, and speaker wire isn't that costly.

Not Very Cheap At All

    Rent a DJ. They're expensive, but they'll do the job right, and bring a bitching sound-system with them.

If your setting is a trendy club, then all you really need is a stereo and a selection of tunes. Pick your music to match the locale. The discreet gentlemen's club is going to have classical music quietly piping through the air. The hard-core industrial joint is going to have lots of noise, all turned up to eleven. Just make sure that the music doesn't run out! Nothing is worse at a club than a sudden silence.

For the spooky locale, you want lots of sound effects. Howling wind, rumbling thunderstorms, rats skittering in the walls, that sort of thing. If you can, put your stereo and speakers in hidden locations, so the players aren't entirely sure where the noises are coming from (or when you're about to cue up something new) It can be more challenging to put together, but it's worth it to watch them jump when that thunderclap rings out!

For a fantasy locale, some folk music would be good idea for background noise. Celtic music is increasingly popular and easy to find at any music store. Also consider upbeat Mediterranean or African tunes - because, let's be honest, a lot of people are into Celtic tunes these days. You might also want some sound effects, depending upon your plot - crashing thunderstorms, collapsing trees, shrieks in the middle of the night, etc.

Set Dressing

This is the area where the costs can get away from you without your hardly noticing it. So, decide what you want, determine your budget, and then go looking for what you can afford. Once you've realized that what you want costs three times more than what you have to spend, revise your plans and act from there.

There are several ways to dress up the "set" - by altering the walls, by creating new walls - thereby breaking up a big empty space - or by adding lots of 'little touches' here and there.


    Go to yotr local home-improvement store. Buy several "drop cloths", the throwaway kind that are backed with plastic. These are light enough to hang on walls with thumbtacks or staples. Leave them blank for "plaster" walls, or decorate them with spray paint for a 'club' or 'urban' look. Tip from one who did this: do your spray painting outside, and the day before!
    Go to a craft store and buy a lot of colored butcher paper. They sell it in rolls thirty-six inches wide, usually priced by the foot and the yard. Hang it up on the walls - either solid, or alternate colors, like black and red. Combine this with a few lighting effects, and it's really funky. However, if you're trying to clad a big room, the cost quickly mounts, so figure out your yardage and the projected expense before you go to the store.

Not Really Cheap At All

    Convince your host to let you paint the walls - highly unlikely, but you can always ask!
    A twist on the 'butcher-paper' idea. If you're lucky enough to live near a cheap fabric outlet (see below for resources in the SF Bay Area) look for very, very cheap polyester fabric. If you hunt around, you can usually find 45" wide fabric for a dollar or two per yard. Buy swathes of that, and hang it on the walls. Be careful, as it will weigh more than paper.
    If you do decide to clad your walls in butcher paper, go one step further. Ask your more artistically talented players to create 'murals' to hang on the walls. If you take them down carefully at game's end, they can be re-used.
    Go to a party supply company and pick up rolls of patterned paper. You can get rolls that are eight feet wide by thirty feet long for about $50, and they have all sorts of patterns on them - from brick walls, to starry skies.

Create New Walls (Not Cheap at All)

Using your fabric or drop-cloths, some poles and stands (and possibly a sand bag or two) create some fake walls to break up a large location - indoors or out. Create stands by nailing two inch doweling onto a plywood base, or scrounge up your neighbors volley-ball net stands. At one point, I used PVC pipe set into sand-filled umbrella stands bought at the local home improvement center. Whatever works.

Set your stands up every seven feet or so, and attach your 'walls' to them with nails or staples. Take a look at the illustration, left. The walls will sag a bit, just relax and accept it. Drop cloths are better for this project, because they are usually ten feet by twenty, so you only need to use a couple side-by-side, rather than sewing lots of long, narrow bits of fabric together to create a seven foot tall 'wall'.

This is a great way to break up a big empty space into several smaller spaces. You'll be amazed at the difference in game-energy when your PCs can't all see each other immediately. If you treat your materials carefully, this set-up can be re-used many times.

Another way to create walls is to use sheet Styrofoam - such as is used for insulation and is sold in three-foot by eight-foot lengths at DIY centers - but it's not trouble-free. The problem with Styrofoam is twofold. One, you can't roll it up and put it in your back seat. It's tough to transport unless you've got a pickup truck or a big van. Secondly, it will 'bend' and sag over your players, unless you reinforce it somehow - although it won't sag as much as a fabric or paper wall will. However, the stuff is reasonably sturdy, can be painted - once it's primed - and if you go all the way and build 'joists' with PVC pipe and connections, with sandbags at the base to keep it standing upright, you've got some nigh-permanent walls for your event.

Little Touches

    Buy some cheap fabric - less than you would for wall-covering - bunch it up and hang it as 'swags' from the windows and door frames. Trust me, it's a very 'in' look right now. If you're using polyester, do NOT drape it over anything warm, like a light fixture. It will melt, give off awful fumes and possibly catch fire.
    Rearrange the furniture in your host's house, just to make it a bit different. Cover that furniture in aforementioned cheap fabric.
    If your gang is playing in a spooky locale, crank up the air conditioning - even if it's wintertime. Nothing says 'spooky' like a cold, dark room!
    Black out your windows with black butcher paper to ease Suspension of Disbelief when you're forced to run a Vampire game during the daytime - or you're trying to establish that the characters are all alone in the empty woods...
    Get some crepe party streamers and put them all over the place - or use only black streamers and be gothic and strange...
    If it's close to Halloween, buy up a ton of glow-in-the-dark products. String, scotch tape, paint, hairspray. The stuff is fabulous and there are many uses for it. For a fun clue in your haunted house, paint strange sigils on your plain-paper walls. They won't be visible until the storm knocks out the power and the lights go out... Put glow in the dark stars - painted or stickums - onto your butcher paper walls, the furniture, even other players, if they'll hold still long enough. Use the tape to mark any protruding edges of your furniture, to ensure a minimum of player ouchies when the lights go down.



    Take down the art that's on the walls, if any.
    Hang up posters - yours, or ones borrowed from the players - that fit the game's mood.
    A cheap 'bohemian' wallpaper effect - take pages from old newsapers and tape them up onto the walls, floor to ceiling. Old, yellow newspaper looks particularly funky. Good for the decrepit mansion, or lair of the deeply nutso Vampire.

For a gala atmosphere, clad your walls in butcher paper - either completely or partially - then take it one step further. Tape up split-open garbage bags underneath your 'wallpaper', give your players gold, silver and black markers and encourage them to write on the walls. This was a big hit at a 'nightclub' owned by my Malkavian ch`racter. Get bunches of helium balloons, too - cheap and fun. However, I don't recommend those 'mini-tanks' you can buy at the store, as the balloons they supply aren't very good at keeping the helium in, unless they are treated with that secret polymer that all balloon suppliers have. I've provided a link for the stuff, below.

For the spooky haunted house, go with plain drop cloth taped on the walls. The drab color suggests old plasters. Stain the paper here and there with strong tea - and let it dry! - before hanging it up. For the magician's sanctum, put stars on the ceiling - or starry-patterned paper.

For a sumptuous location, use fabric swags on the windows and doors, cover up your furniture with fabric - or even borrowed slipcovers. Clad the walls in butcher paper and stencil on some pretty floral pattern near the ceiling - or all over if you have the time! Make sure your paint doesn't soak all the way through your paper! Use brick-patterned paper for that industrial/80s-comedy-club feel.

For a fantasy game, see if you can splurge on some that printed paper I mentioned above. It's available in a 'stone block' pattern that's perfect for the bad guy's castle!

Props This is where I always blow my budget. I just fall in love with all the cool prop-shaped things I can bring into a game. Again, make a budget before you go shopping, and then stick to it! Questions to keep in mind when making your decisions are: Will the game collapse without this? Can I re-use it? Am I just buying this for the 'cool' factor, rather than for its utility in the game? If your answers are "Yes, yes, no" then your purchase is fully justified. Otherwise, think long and hard before putting down a ton of money and time for items. An essential prop would be the ten dollars' worth of slime and glitter for the mysterious Glob that is the star of your horror game. A non-essential prop is the $100 first-edition of the Necronomicon...


    To help establish a 'gala' setting, borrow silverware, dishes, glassware, tablecloths etc, from whichever of your friends has the most taste. Remember, you break it, you bought it!
    For 'mysterious items', talk to anyone you know who dabbled in the New Age movement. They probably have a fine collection of interesting crystals and such that would make for occult props. Do not ask to borrow your pagan friend's athame because it looks "cool". Trust me on this.
    Find out who runs the prop shop at your local theater or community college drama department and become their best friend. Borrow whatever you can wheedle out of them.
    You probably have players that are of an artistic bent. Ask for their help in creating a prop, and offer them experience points as a reward, if you can't afford to pay them, or work out some sort of trade.
    Remember that your players can suspend their disbelief. Take that battered old library book from your brother's bookshelf and tell the players it's an ancient grimoire.
    You can go a long way with paper mache, a glue gun and spray paint! Just try it and see!


    Learn to love your local thrift stores. From tacky costume-jewelry that can double as the Cursed Ruby of Siam, to wineglasses for your nightclub, to stuffed toys for the Malkavian's 'come as your inner child' party, thrift stores are the first place you should go. Always go to several stores during your prop-scavenging expeditions, as you'll find something interesting at every one of them.
    Ditto for garage sales. I once scored a ninety-year old typewriter for $30 at a local garage sale, yay!
    Buy fancy plastic 'glassware', golden plates and serving platters, fancy napkins and tablecloths from a party-supplier. Also, get party accoutrements like streamers, door hangers, glittery confetti. Nothing says 'class' like matching stemware.

Not Really Cheap At All

    Buy furniture from garage sales and thrift stores - then you don't have to worry about replacing it if you accidentally spill stage blood all over it.
    Rent things like tables, folding chairs, flatware and glassware from a party supply company - look in the Yellow Pages for listings.
    Go all out and buy elements from a prom/party supply company. You can get everything from 'stone' pillars, "gas" streetlights, to giant horseshoes (how Batman!). There's a link to a good supply company, below. Not cheap, but very re-usable!

For a gala setting, do what you can to make the place look classy - nice table-settings and pretty centerpieces, tidy furniture, etc. If you can rent fixtures from a party supply company, then do so. Otherwise, just borrow or buy what you can. Matching tablecloths and nice glasses can go a long way, believe me. Also, insist that your players put away their soda pop cans and their Doritos bags. If they have to eat, tell them to put their food "into" the game. Nothing blows that exclusive nightclub look like a bag of Taco Bell on the table.

For your haunted house, buy used furniture and then beat the hell out of it before game day. If the furniture is just wood, take steel wool to it, or leave it out in the rain and sun for as long as possible. If the furniture is upholstered, take a pair of scissors (or an ill-trained cat) to it and cut it up so that it looks really ragged. Such furniture is a great place to hide clues! Get your artistic friends who have read too much HP Lovecraft to create an 'old grimoire' for your players. Never underestimate the spooky power of a hard-boiled egg that has been painted gold, and has a little blue pentagram daubed on one side.

For a fantasy setting, look for 'rustic' elements at the thrift stores or from your friends' kitchens. Wooden bowls, earthenware plates, unadorned knives and forks. Gather up all your friends who attend Renaissance Faires and ask them to loan you their gear - particularly flatware, tankards and cups. By all means, stay away from plastic flatware, paper plates and obviously polyester table coverings.


It's really up to the player to take care of their own costuming. But a good game-master will do their best to help a player put a costume together. For my advice on costuming, please read the article Costuming Tips For The Cheap And Desperate for the basics. Here, I'm just going to get into the Not Really Cheap At All aspect.

Not Really Cheap At All

    Rent costumes. Look in your phone book for theatrical costume rental. Be prepared to put down a sizable deposit, particularly if your rental house uses vintage clothing.
    Learn how to sew, and make your own costumes. It can be quite expensive, but it's worth it for the custom fit and fabric!
    Create a shared 'costume closet' - a collection of costume items that are shared between several GMs and several game troupes. Ask your players to donate bits of appropriate clothing, or troll through thrift stores, looking for things that can be added to the pile. Tape a home made label - laundry tape and a magic marker - into every item with your name and your phone number, lest the item go wandering off.


As you might have guessed, I love running live-action games, and I love trying to establish the ambiance that goes beyond the plot and characters. But keep this in mind: Your plot and characters are the most important things in your game. Don't sacrifice time you should be spending on their development to go out and buy party supplies for your "Vampire Club". Sometimes, when I'm bogged down by a thorny plot problem in my game's development, I get distracted by the 'kewl prop' pixie - which is bad news all around. A lot of what I have described is gravy - but it can be done!

Ideally, there should be several GMs in any large-scale LARP. At least one of them will be dedicated solely to ambiance - gathering and tracking props, putting together set elements, making sure the stereo and the right music will be on-scene come game-day. A specialized position such as that will stop the plot-GMs from becoming overwhelmed. If you can't spare a game-master to just ambiance, then do your best to split up aspects of the game's atmospherics between you. One GM is in charge of making props that have to be hand-crafted. The other is in charge of getting the wall-decorations and tableware together, etc.

Article Source: Johanna Mead

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