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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 Guns for sale Germany 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 appropriate 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.

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