In case you couldn’t tell from my previous articles, I’m pretty big on immersion, and judge any LARP I play by how much they invest in providing me with a really cool and engrossing experience. Elitist? Maybe. Entitled? Perhaps. But one thing is is for certain. Be you player, staff, or admin, there are some simple things you can do to make sure even the most discerning of players is consistently wowed and amazed by even the most cookie cutter of encounter or module. As lingo doesn’t necessarily transcend international borders, state-side, an encounter/module is a term we use to define a targeted and specific mission a group of players, large or small, go on over the course of a LARP event. There are usually many such encounters, targeted or random, that are often used as devices through which game runners and staff drive macro and micro plot arcs. These can be as simple as players rescuing a group of peasants from an unseemly band of orcs, or as complex as a multi-encounter plot arc, finally resulting in the targeted assassination of an up and coming galactic senator. It is important to keep in mind that, as this article is not necessarily the end all, be all of LARP effects lists, I would hope to simply impart upon you, reader, that as you design your encounters in the future, you’re continually asking yourself how you can make it more immersive and what kinds of sensory elements you can add to capture the undivided attention of every player. A great tip I learned from a fellow LARP staffer was to compile a “mod tote.” These are simply plastic tubs that contain items used universally across any encounter you might run from event to event. A few items from mine:
Rolls of black plastic sheeting for artificial walls
Pop-its (for under the jumpy stones, see below)
Jumpy stones (Generic obstacle that goes well on most any encounter. Cut these out of cardboard and paint to look like rocks!)
Party poppers (for traps)
Mouse traps and fishing line (for, yes that’s right, traps)
Fake spider webs (mostly cause everyone hates to be caught in them, and they’re good for traps)
Black light and multi colored light bulbs (plastic if you can get them)
Strobe lights (careful with these guys as some folks are in fact, epileptic)
Adapters and cables to run sound
Remember that there are five senses to engage, so let’s take a look at some really easy ways to do so.
1. Music and Sound Effects – If you do nothing else, this should be your go to in order to take your encounter up about 10 notches. With your smart phone, a decent connection, and a Bluetooth speaker or small instrument amplifier, you can turn that module building into a creaky ship, set adrift alone on the high seas or a dank and dripping cave. Run some power out to a remote building on site, and crank the zombie sounds to give your players a truly terrifying survival experience. For some great tavern/seedy futuristic bar, atmosphere find a few setting-appropriate tunes to play on repeat, and watch your camp kitchen transform before your…ears. While there is plenty of material out there for purchase, an invaluable resource on which I’ve come to depend for all manner of sound effects and music is Spotify. Ask me and I’ll share my lovingly hand-crafted playlist with you, containing myriad sound effects and music for any sort of LARP genre in which you might find yourself. Or, simply search for the effect you’re after an more than likely you’ll find the exact thing you’re looking for.
2. Fog Machine – In addition to music and sound effects for ambiance, this is my other go-to for easy atmosphere. While they can be a little pricey, with the initial purchase and then subsequent orders of fog juice, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck. One of the only problems you’ll have is that all of your staff will now want to use them all the time! They don’t necessarily make sense for every encounter, though, so let me hit you with a few great places you can use them. In general, fog machines are great at doing one thing: obfuscation. LARP staff love running encounters at night. Why? Because, when the sun goes down, it becomes that much harder for players to see the ruddy camp furniture, the dilapidated basketball courts, and the moldy cots that often permeate large LARP sites. With a fog machine, we can now replicate this, and more often, even improve upon this concealment element. In addition, the presence of fog can add a mystical and otherworldly ambiance to virtually any setting in which it’s used. Lot’s of times, fog can actually be the central aesthetic element to an encounter. Fog up a small room and watch your players scramble as they attempt to locate the artifact they’ve been sent to find. Want to heighten the tension? Throw some hostile NPC’s into the mix and watch the fun begin! What could have been a simple, “fight the monsters, find the thingamajig” has now been made much more “interesting” given the addition of a large amount of obscuring mist (excuse the pun). Have a few large foggers? Run them on the field during a battle and watch a simple field battle become something completely transcendent. Run sound out there for even greater effect. If you’re willing to take things a bit farther, some fog juice companies even make extracts you can add to the fog liquid to make it take on a variety of lovely and interesting smells. How’s that for immersion?!
3. Lights – this is another no-brainer, and, like a lot of these tips, comes right out of the theatre. While you don’t need a lot to get started, it can be a smart investment on behalf of your LARP to purchase a collection of different colored bulbs and clamp lamps, including black lights. Lights, like fog, can add a lot to any given encounter. Use them in a puzzle of some sort. Give that fake fire a greater degree of realism. Use some green and purple bulbs to give that undead field battle a sickening pallor. You won’t believe the overall effect these little guys can have on any encounter. Use them in tandem with a room filled with fog to make an already mystical and magical area, even more…mystical and…magical. You can simply place a few randomly colored bulbs around a somewhat darkened encounter building to kick things up a notch. Using a bulb that oscillated between colors, I’ve changed the effect on players in the room depending on the color of the bulb at the time. This also works well to simply give your encounter spaces a surreal and strange turn. Strobe lights are great for this too. Just make sure you’ve considered any possible seizure situations from within your player base. Even set on a slow frequency, however, strobe lights can turn a simple “dark mod” into an even more terrifying endeavor as faces and hostile NPC’s appear in and out of the darkness (make sure they’re made up and gruesome, or at least wearing a mask!). Got some other ideas or examples where you you’ve lights to great creative effect? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
So while this list can go on, if you haven’t already, start with these items and I guarantee you’ll be shocked at how much they’ll add to your LARP’s modules and encounters. There was a time when I staffed for a game that didn’t really make this stuff standard, and then gradually, different staff began incorporating these elements into their encounters. Within a period of 2 – 3 events, players could not stop talking about how cool the already great encounters had become. Just like that, the game had become something completely different, something better than it was, by simply plugging in a fog machine, pressing play on a smart phone or iPod, and setting up a few lights. In a matter of minutes, encounters went from ordinary to extraordinary. What are some cool and interesting ways you’ve used special effects in your LARP?