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January 4, 2013

Try Something New

This is going to be an eclectic post.

First, I want to share's 2012 Year in Review.  In it, they explain how D&D had its worst year since 1975, and Pathfinder isn't doing so well either, especially in traditional sales.  Yet, there is a bright side for gaming:  20 different RPGs made over $100,000 on kickstarter (technically 19 since two of them were for the Pathfinder MMO), and three RPG related kickstarters made over a million bucks.

Contingency Envelopes

Next, I feel like I need to share some practical advice for LARP GMs.  I mentioned several GM techniques in the post titled Giving Back a while ago, and I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss one of them in detail, so that other LARP GMs can use it.

I want to describe a contingency envelope.  This is a technique I learned from the LARPA crowd.  It's astonishing how simple and versatile it is.

A contingency envelope is an envelope given to a player not as an in-game prop but a piece of out of game information.  The envelope is labeled with the contingency that triggers the player to open it, for instance:

Open at 10:15pm.
Open if asked about John Dee.
Open if a GM says "Contingency A"
Open if you hear someone speak Russian
Open if you are a Malkavian  
Time-based contingencies allow GMs to create events that only a few players are aware of, without doing anything to break the flow of the action.  For instance, the envelope "Open at 10:15pm" could be part of a intrigue-filled LARP about intelligence analysts commanding field agents. The paper inside could say "You receive a text message on your secure phone from your field operative: 'WE HAVE A MOLE. COVER BLOWN. GOING DARK.'"  Meanwhile one player would get a message "Your agent texts you on your burner phone 'The anthill has been kicked.'."  All of a sudden a few players in the game would be tipped off to the presence of a mole, and the mole, who spent the whole night setting a patsy up to appear to be the real mole, is watching the chaos unfold.

"If asked" contingencies allow the GM to make player-characters into NPCs.  The envelope must contain seemingly innocuous information that even a paranoid character would not feel was important, but in the context of another player's character's plot, it is.  For instance, in an Elizabethan occult LARP, a faction of PCs may be trying to learn where John Dee is summoning angels tonight.  The contingency envelope may say "This morning, you saw John Dee's ornate carriage, with his bizarre glyph on it as usual, leaving Richmond upon Thames for the countryside.  This is not interesting or unusual, and though you remember it, it is just one of many mundane things that you observed in London today."  Several such clues could be seeded through the game.

GM announcement contingencies allow the GM to trigger subtle events or specific information to be released secretly, without a specific time.  For instance, the GM of a Vampire LARP could be running a plot where an infernalist poses as an anarch and builds a faction of malcontents who oppose the Sheriff, providing them a secure base of operations, free resources such as Transportation influence to get around the city without the Sheriff observing, etc.  Then when he is ready to topple the tower, as it were, he could pass out "Contingency A" envelopes to all of the characters with Auspex, containing the words "The character the GM is pointing at smells like brimstone."  Then the GM can point at the infernalist and quietly say "Contingency A" to a player instead of shouting out secret information to the the entire game and diverting everyone's attention.

Object contingency envelopes are meant to stay with the object.  Unlike personal ones, the players must return the contents to the envelope and keep the envelope with/on the object, so that other characters eligible to open it can do so, given the chance.

Gatekeeper envelopes are object envelopes that can only be opened by players whose characters have specific traits.  For instance, the GM could put spray painted graffiti on the wall (use roll paper or silly string) with an envelope that says "Malkavian Characters Only" inside which is the secret meaning of the graffiti, within the Malkavian Madness Network.  Or the GM could put a laptop computer in play (using an actual laptop as the prop) with "Open if you attempt to crack the password on this computer and have Computer skill of 4 or higher" on an envelope.  Inside the envelope is the password to get into the computer, if the character attempts to hack it.  You can use these envelopes for locked doors ("Open if your character is carrying lockpicks and has Larceny 2+, or no lockpicks and Larceny 5"), clues at crime scenes ("Open if your character has Search 3 or higher") stuff in foreign languages ("Open if your character speaks French").


The benefits of contingency envelopes are saving GM time and cast, and reducing GM-system access time:

  • The GM does not need to recruit cast for NPCs if he has PCs ask other PCs for information as part of an investigation scene.
  • The GM does not need to run an investigation scene himself.  He can just send the players off to do it.
  • The investigation scene does not leave the game space, and the investigators get to stay available for roleplay with the other characters.  In fact, they have to manage their time carefully, balancing their investigation with other pressing business.
  • In an Adventure style game, this forces one faction to "share" their plot -- if four PCs are on a John Dee plot, and they ask 12 other PCs about John Dee, it gives 12 other players a chance to try to get in on their plot by offering to help investigate, or asking more questions back. 
  • In an Adventure style game, the GM can use object contingencies to minimize the amount of time he spends using the system.  Instead of a note that says "Locked, see GM" on a door, the GM can leave the envelope to handle the system.  Even worse than the note, I can imagine players lining up to start a virtual space scene "Hey, GM, we want to break into the chapel."
  • In an Ellysium style game or in a game with competitive/rivalry elements, players can't just ask questions straight!  They have to work their way around to them subtly, so that the other players can't figure out what they're up to.  Imagine if some PCs want John Dee dead and others want to find him and help him.  Both are looking for him, and neither faction knows who is in what faction...
  • The GM can run multiple simultaneous investigations, causing all the players to mill about for an hour, asking each other for information.  Or he could run competing investigations (like the Elysium style example, above).  Or he can run race-against-the-clock investigations combining time contingencies or scheduled events with "if asked."

Coming Next Week: a MANIFESTO for LARP GMs!

(Holy crap!)


  1. Any idea how to work this in with the possible dearth of pockets? Dresses, skirts and some women's pants don't have pockets. Once you factor in a character sheet and any blood chits, you get a really awkward situation when you start including envelopes as well.

    1. As a player... You wouldn't carry most of the envelopes the GM is using. Most are place based. Maybe one 4x6 envelope with a slip of paper inside. Is that doable?

    2. Seen those key purse things they sell for swimming? How about something like that? Roll up envelopes and pop inside, then tuck it under your top. You could get less clunky ones that aren't plastic, like soft bags - if you make a regular habit of it, players could make their own to fit their costumes.

      Tuck into boots
      Use as a cigarette prop
      Roll up inside a hollow cane :)
      If you're anything like me, roll 'em tight and stick them into your hair band!

      A lot of historical/fantasy costumes (should) feature belt pouches, reticules, sporrans and so on, which also work. I suspect people don't wear these much, but a lot of clothing featured aprons with pockets.

      I always liked the idea of having a character sheet on a fan...

    3. I ought to get a female LARPer to guest blog about how to carry stuff around in a costume without pockets.