Propping Out a LARP

Adding props to your LARP adds another dimension to player interaction and the setting. No one can deny that they feel a whole hell of a lot cooler brandishing a shiny plastic pistol at their enemies than a 3x5 card. Neither can anyone compare smuggling a foot high graven image through a room full of bloodthirsty fanatics to walking through a room with a folded wad of paper stuffed in their pocket. Props can be a powerful component in your LARP.

Props may not make or break your LARP, but they can make them much more fun and interesting. The best-propped LARP I've seen was set in a 1950's High School (a la "Grease"), and it was an eye-opener. Everywhere I turned there was a thing that I could interact with, hold or get, and it made what promised to be a mundane experience into one of the best (if strangest) LARPs I've attended. This is not to say that every thing in your LARP must have a physical item attached, but a little goes a long way to setting your scene and getting your players involved.

When to use Props

  • Always prop the Maltese Falcon. If you have a highly coveted item, you need something that your players can see and feel. Props also mitigate concerns about a player putting a "large" object in their pants pocket to smuggle it out of the room. Make sure that your prop is around the same size (and weight!) as the object and then it won't be a question as to whether they can hide it in their coat; if they can, they can.
  • Use props to represent large objects. Even if it is a cardboard tube with a label stuck on it, a prop adds a feeling of reality and makes a much better impression than "Flaming Great Sword" scrawled in tiny letters across a card taped to your back.
  • In GM Fiat systems, there can be contention about positioning, size and speed of objects "Well I would have ducked if I saw him pull a shotgun!" is a likely argument when a character is facing death. A plastic gun or piece of PVC instead of a piece of paper can clear up such arguments.
  • LARPs where the specific location of objects is important. If you need to know who has the Pearl of Power at any given time, put in a prop for it, which will reduce the amount of time people spend shuffling through their item cards. If an item is big enough to be spotted easily, so much the better.

Prop Tips

  • Write BIG! There's nothing worse than "I'm an ambulatory rotting corpse with giant gnashing teeth" written too small to read from three feet away. Large things should be visible and distinguishable to everyone.
  • Focus on mundane props last. Small regular weapons should be on the bottom of your prop list, to furnish if you get around to them. People know what a knife or TV remote look like, and how to interact with them.
  • Be sure that weapon props look fake. Your cap gun doesn't need to be bright orange, as long as its clear to whomever it gets pointed at that it is in fact a cap gun.
  • Make props that fit their function. Really nifty props are great if you can get them, but what is most important in propping is that players have something that fills the basic requirement of the object. No one wants to put on or take off a big outfit, the important thing about a space suit prop, for instance, is that it be something that can be put on or taken off.
  • Trading cards. If one character needs to give something to another character, be sure that they've got something to give them. Resources being exchanged in a LARP, be they physical or not (such as information or money) can best be represented with a physical object. For one LARP we gave each character their own set of business cards, which they could write on and exchange with other players. In Court of Tutankhamun we made board-game style trading cards that they could exchange to honor a trade agreement between two countries.
  • Steal good ideas. Look online for ideas, there are lots of pictures, designs and how-to guides for props on the internet. You can also get good ideas from other LARPs, movies, and plays.
  • Supply quick costumes. If you can't count on players to bring their own costumes (i.e. at a convention) supplying a scarf, hat or doctor bag can help. You don't need a lot to make a character look good.
  • Suit your props to your world. Even things that don't have a prop, like an ability or magic power can be put on a scroll or floppy disk.
  • Wound props. Bandages or red fabric can be used for wounds in games with combat. It is a simple way to make it clear when someone has been injured.

Props for Cheap
As I mentioned, props can run up the price tag on your LARP, but they don't have to cost too much if you play it smart.

  • Make your own props. First of all, consider making your props. If your time is free this is a good way to get exactly what you want for a lower cost.
  • Get friends to help. This is also something that your crafty friends can contribute, and usually without knowing the plot.
  • Get it online. A good compromise if you don't feel crafty enough to construct your own stuff is to plan way ahead and get it online. The biggest problem with internet ordering I've found is that you just can't do it at the last minute.
  • Know where to shop. It is also important to know where to shop. Don't get stuff at a fancy costume store that you can buy for much less at the dollar store. Forage at thrift stores and hardware stores, they are often a treasure-trove of props and the materials to make them.
  • Buy cheap. Don't spend too much on a prop. Sure, the $20 plastic sword looks cooler, but your players will be satisfied with less, and then if it gets lost or wrecked you won't be out much.
  • Use simple props. Finally, use simple props. Remember that players just want to have something in their hands, and it doesn't have to be an exact replica of what you are asking them to imagine. A Staff of Power should at least look like a big stick, because that's easy to get, but, as was done in Final Orbit, your space suit can be represented by a foam visor cap.

Setting Your Scene
A big part of props is also your setting. Usually GMs doesn't get to be too choosey about where we run the game, but there are a few key things that will help bring your setting to mind.

  • Seating and Tables. Seating and tables should always be arranged in an appropriate way. If you're in a throne room you better have a chair set aside special for the king. If you're in a scenario where there shouldn't be any seats, take them out and let the players sit on the floor when they're tired. I will remind them of where they are supposed to be.
  • Windows and lighting. You don't always have much control over these, but it wouldn't be too hard to put some paper over the windows if you're supposed to be in an underground bunker. You can also bring in lighting (like a strobe light) to give the feel you want.
  • Hang appropriate color or styles of fabric. This can change the color of a room and add elegance and style.
  • Food. Having theme-appropriate snacks will stave off hunger and add an extra tasty element or realism.
  • Pictures. Deck your walls with theme scenery. Mad scientists might have equations on the wall, while a haunted mansion might have creepy paintings.
  • Dress your GMs. GMs can wear theater black or some other agreed upon costume style. The best case is when all the GMs can dress in the fashion of the setting.
  • NPC Monsters. Having a prop for an NPC will dramatically effect how PCs react to it. It can be anything from a large black piece of fabric to an enormous paper-mache dinosaur skeleton.
  • Music. Choose thematic or genre appropriate music and set it at a low volume to keep players in the right mood. Its best if you can set it up to play by itself for a long time so you don't have to change CDs in the middle of your game.

    Prop Problems

  • No real weapons! You might think to yourself, "my friends are all mature, no one's going to get hurt if I let them have a sword that's peace tied", but if you're wrong you will seriously regret it. No matter how much you trust your players, there is no reason for them to bring real weapons to a game.
  • Props can be expensive. LARPs cost money, and even if your time is free, there is a lot of paper involved, as well as nametags, cards, envelopes, and other office supplies. If you are trying to keep the budget low, a stack of 3x5s is much cheaper than 10 cap guns.
  • Props take up space. If you and your ten best friends are carpooling up to a con, you don't necessarily have room for three big bins of junk, unless of course you don't mind holding all that crap in your lap for three hours.
  • Public LARPing. Limit props when you're doing a LARP in a public area, like a park or a college campus. This is especially the case if for weapon props, but many players will also feel reluctant to inspect the Glowing Orb of Al'Hazad with some muggles walking right past them.
  • Props can detract from storyline. Props in an inappropriate situation can stunt your players' performances and very occasionally cause you unwanted trouble. They can be distracting toys and take away from attention to the storyline.
  • Too many props. Is there such a thing as too many props? Yes! If you've given a player so many props that they can't hold them all in a pocket and one hand, reconsider (or at least give them a bag, too). I have sent out warnings in the past when players needed to make sure that they had a pouch or pocket available to them.
  • Props won't save you! Though props can enhance your LARP, they will not make your LARP good by themselves. Focus on plot and characters first, and when you have a good LARP you can prop it out.