A Manual for City-Based Live-Action Roleplaying

version 0.3beta

Contains unnecessary underestimation of the reader's intelligence. Verification of quotations has been minimal. Written by Dare Talvitie, with assistance from Kaisa Kangas, Satu Heliö and several pioneers in urban live action roleplaying.

This manual is a work in progress, adjusted as errors or omissions are noticed. Reader input is welcome. The author can be reached at dare@iki.fi

The original Finnish version is here.

the disclaimers

I'm told that live-action games played in the middle of a city is mostly a Finnish phenomenon, and rather uncommon elsewhere. While hardly an expert on the subject, I seem to be the only one who has anything resembling an introductory manual written down.

Originally this manual was still written for the Ghost Express -game, not as a general introduction to the subject. Therefore only one way of doing some things is explained - for instance, Ghost Express used name tags, so no alternatives to them are discussed even though such are definitely possible. Also, this is a guide on how to play in a well designed city game. It is not a guide on how to design one.

The guide was written for Finnish conditions, and no research has been done to apply it internationally. The text clearly shows that the roots of Finnish live-action gaming are solidly in low-cost games for people living on a student budget.

This document assumes that all players are of legal age and responsible for their own actions. We do not condone illegal activity even if we find it amusing. Use of common sense permitted. Obey the game rules. Trust your gamemaster. Send us money.

1. the basics

When playing live-action games in an city setting, the following points must be addressed:

+ reactions of people not in the game
+ keeping in touch with the gamemasters
+ navigation
+ expenses

1.1. civilians and general safety issues

"A bunch of halfwitted players were playing the police. They located someone fitting a description they had, so they stopped him. He was in fact not a player in the game, but the police didn't realize that. While they were deciding what to do with their prisoner, he slipped from them, and went to Stockmann to buy a water pistol. He then returned to the police and shot one of them with his water pistol. The shocked police opened fire (with cardboard guns and "bang"-rules) towards this civilian. Only at this point did it occur to them that this person wasn't even in the game. When the gamemaster was notified of the event, he ruled that the cop who got squirted with the water pistol was now dead. 'If somebody is as stupid as that, he deserves to go get a new character.' "
- urban legend concerning the live-action game Helsinki FTZ 2036

When playing in a settting with a lot of people that don't participate in the game or even know that one is in progress, players must be careful to act with respect to their surroundings. Even though a hardcore immersionist shudders at the thought of any external constraints to his playing, such concessions are necessary in a city game. If this is not acceptable, then it's best you stay off the streets.

Identifying people that are actually playing is important in a city game. In many games this has been done with name tags stuck on whatever clothing you are currently wearing - you have to remember to stick them to your coat when going outside, and again to your shirt when taking off your coat. This way you will get identified as a player if necessary. Even more importantly: if somebody does not have a name tag, he is not in the game.

If we do not disturb outsiders with our games, they do not disturb us either. Usually it's not a good idea to do anything attracting a lot of attention from otsiders or involving them in the game. In no case should you do anything outrageously illegal or dangerous to civilians. We have an equal right to use the city, as long as we behave ourselves in as civilized a manner as the other people in it.

Obvious problems arise in chase or combat situations. Real-looking weapons in a city environment are a Bad Idea, and attract embarrassing but well-deserved attention from the authorities. As a gamemaster, I have no wish to ever again explain to another police officer anything about "just playing" with the realistic looking guns, and I believe other GMs feel the same. Therefore let's keep the shooters out of sight when in public. (In Ghost Express, we had this as an Important Rule: "Whatever you do, do not wave guns around in the middle of the city. We are not interested in how well it fits your character. If you must have a gunfight, use the fist [on the top of your head - the universal (?) off-game sign] and explain to the other player that you just shot him.")

When having a fistfight, the actual punching and shoving is also best left to a minimum in public. Good city games have rules system that make this possible. (Even if it's hardly a good system by any standards, the MET system fits city games nicely due to its "no touching" -style rules.)

Chases work well in the movies but badly in city games. I cannot stress enough the insanity of even considering a car chase, and even bicycle chases are best left out. By running you probably won't hurt anyone too badly. Often the abilites of the character differ from those of the player so much that it's best not to dash around, and instead handle chase scenes with the rules system and an out-of-character discussion.

As we all know, the city is a dangerous place, but most players survive it every day, and a game should not significantly lower their judgement. City games are not (or should not be, anyway) designed so that the players are required to perform dangerous physical stunts; if a player decides to do so anyway, he is fully responsible for the consequences.

1.2. keeping in contact with the gamemasters

"This is an anonymous phone call: Get me an ambulance Right Fucking Now!"
- Hannu Pajunen, on the phone with a Ghost Express gamemaster

When adventuring in the big city, a cell phone is a must. Even if your character does not have one, you still should keep your own phone with you, and be able to notice when you're called.. If your character is a sneaky little ninja, who can be revealed by the slightest sound, get a vibrating phone. It's important that a gamemaster is able to reach a wandering player at any time. Charge your battery before the game, and keep the charger with you in case you spend your two first hours on the phone.

In Ghost Express the gamemasters used separate "in-game" and "gamemastering" numbers. Calls or text messages from gamemastering numbers were not, actually, calls to the character, but information to the player. If such a method is used in the game, it's best to assign a distinctive ring tone to these numbers, and you should take any calls from them immediately. Calls from the gamemastering numbers are analogous to a gamemaster approaching you [in off-game mode] and asking for a minute.

A gamemaster can call from a gamemastering number because she wants to know your location, or to tell youthat a sniper from the church tower just capped your ass, or to inform you that the game is over and you are wanted at the debrief, et cetera.

In addition the gamemasters have the in-game numbers. Calls or messages from these are just that - in-game calls or messages to the character's phone. They can be ignored or taken as fits the character and situation.

When calling the gamemaster, it's best to remember the distinction between these numbers. If a character calls her aunt in Svartholm, the player calls the in-game number. If a plyer wants to know about a situation in the game ("I just found this ticking packagae, what does my spider sense tell me about it?") he calls the gamemastering number. Mix-ups aren't usually too harmful, but distinguishing between the numbers is a good habit to pick up. The gamemasters regard calls to gamemastering numbers as urgent requests for information, and they receive preferential treatment.

1.3. navigation

"All city games should be run in Manhattan. The city can then be the same in game as in reality, and everyone can find their way."
- Kaisa Kangas, about the most logical city in the world

In city games, the character and player frequently differ in their knowledge about their surroundings. Usually this means that a character is supposed to know the city like the back of her hand, but a player has only visited it a couple of times.

When gaming in a city, even one you know, it's often a good idea to take a map with you. A sufficiently good map usually fits on a single A4 page. You can usually print one from the Net with little effort, and it helps you out a great deal. Marking important game locations on the map is a smart move. The map need not be in-game; it works fine as just a player aid, and can therefore contain even secret information. It's usually a good idea to mark the map as "OFF-GAME" in a large font to clarify the matters to anyone who might search your pockets, and to keep your fist on your head [or otherwise clearly express that you're doing something not in-game] when consulting it.

When a city represents some other city than itself in the game, it has become something of a standard to refer to street names, neighborhoods and buildings by their off-game names. This helps keep confusion relating to navigation to a minimum.

2. deeper secrets of city games: cars, restaurants and cash

2.1. from one place to another

"I hereby declare to the world: the public transport in Turku really works."
- Dare Talvitie, after having played a character who used buses to dash around in Get Bowen! (run by Tero Määttälä)

Cities are big. It takes quite a while to get from one place to another. Fortunately many characters have cars. Unfortunately rather few of [Finnish?] live-action gamers have them. This can be a problem at times.

Usually few characters actually require that the player have a car, but almost any character can find a use for one. If a car is required or strongly recommended, the player should be notified well in advance. Also, if as a player you have access to a car, you should inform the gamemaster.

Driving around in a strange city is always an exciting experience. If your character is supposed to know the city he's driving around in, but you don't feel quite at home there, you should try to get to know it in advance. A short course from a native in the best driving school spirit would be optimal, but usually not possible. A couple of questions regarding different routes and locations usually suffice quite well... the gamemasters might be willing to tell you in advance, that you will probably need to drive around in such-and-such neighborhoods, or to get from area A to around area B.

Playing a character with a car is not recommended for drivers who have just got their licence, or to drivers who are uncertain of their abilities. Driving a car can be a chore in itself, and if you are supposed to stay in character while doing it, the results can be nasty. The quality of your game is not likely to improve if you have to keep worrying about your driving all the time.

Parking spots can be a problem for drivers. On Saturday eves the party people are out in droves, and every single spot in the centre seems to be taken by a teenager's Datsun or a suit's Beemer. Unless you possess a superhuman aptitude for finding free spaces, or have unlimited funds for parking tickets, it's probably not a good idea to take a car into the absolute centre of the city.

If it seems likely that your character is going to have to travel, you should probably look at the public transportation in the city. Many cities in Finland offer a 24 hour ticket, which allows you to use local buses or the subway as much as you like. It has been proven that public transport can take you places surprisingly fast, even though using it efficiently requires some knowledge of the city and timetables.

The bicycle has not been utilized as much as it could be, probably because it looks kind of silly for gothic vampires or hardboiled cops. If you happen to have one in the city, and it could fit your character, it can be of immense use.

If you're made of money, you could consider using taxis. They take you places fast and safely, and cabbies are used to strange customers.

2.2. playing sites

2.2.1. public places

"If you guys are going to sit here, you'd better buy something."
- A bartender at the Cosmic Comic Café, to a horde of larpers at an aftergame

Playing in the city beats playing in the wilderness at least in the amount of shelter from the elements the city provides. Indeed the characters have a virtually unlimited number of places they can use for their schemes. In some city games there are no sites reserved just for the game, and the players have to use public places for the whole game.

Most obvious of these public spots are cafés, restaurants or bars. As long as you keep buying something you can sit there plotting or negotiating with no problems. They are also excellent meeting spots - it's usually very easy to find someone in one with just a short description. The Finnish culture does not include talking to strangers, so usually you are free of hindrance from civilians even if you're by yourself. On the other hand it's best to buy some food or drinks in order not to appear a complete bum. You can pick a 'regular bar' for your character, and tell it to his friends - or the gamemasters can assign you one.

If you desire a different kind of privacy, or just don't want to spend money, parks and walkways can be used for meetings (at least when it isn't raining or infernally cold). Locating someone can be a bit more of a job, but it's easier to avoid eavesdroppers, and you can have even heated arguments without anyone demanding that you clean up your act.

Practically any kind of public space can be utilized in the game, as long as you remember to adjust your behavior. In a park you can run and shout, but a player acting wild in a mall can easily end up explaining herself to a guard. On the beach you can probably do pretty much anything and no one will care.

(We have discovered that certain neighborhoods, such as those with student housing, are very tolerant of people acting strangely, or even running around screaming with objects that look like guns. While we do not active encourage anyone to try and test if this also applies to their nearest student ghetto, we do believe that it's easier to get away with going loco if the locals are used to frat boys doing pranks.)

2.2.2. places reserved for the game

"Hold on a minute - was this in Pihlajatie as well? To hell with it, no use going there then."
- Risto Paalanen, in Isle of Saints, about an apartment that served as quite a few different locations in the game

City games often include sites that are specifically reserved for the game. Usually these are well away from the eyes of bystanders, and you can use them to play all kinds of live-action weirdness: shootouts, brawls, sacrifice to elder gods, sex, and anything else unsuitable for being played in public. These sites are normally indoors and clearly separated from the world outside by doors locked doors and other privacy-enhancing barriers, as found in any private residence. People not in the game do not appear on site.

Sometimes a game also has reserved sites that are not blocked by any doors or barriers but which should still be clear of outsiders. Usually the authorities are informed of a game in progress in such a location, so that any concerned citizens calling the police can be reassured by them. Players can either be told of these areas in advance, or they may just happen upon them in game.

It helps if the edges of these areas have some kind of markers indicating that they are reserved game areas. This way players preparing a commando raid on an abandoned building can be assured that they are indeed in the right spot and not just about to ambush a bunch of homeless people. When you are preparing to assault a spot you think is a reserved game site, but don't see any markers indicating so, you should probably check that the place is a valid target by calling the gamemastering number. It is embarrassing, and possibly financially harmful or limiting to freedom to rush in, pop-guns blazing, into a site you believe to be reserved for the game, but is actually full of outsiders.

Locations such as these might be a tad unsafe - the floor of an abandoned building can be covered with glass shards, nails could protrude from walls etc. The responsible gamemasters have of course checked that the site contains nothing incredibly hazardous, but players should still move around with caution. Anyone deciding to perform complicated acrobatics only has himself to blame should he get hurt. Use common sense and don't bruise yourself, or other players.

In case this isn't obvious: even in reserved game sites act within bounds of reason. Do not destroy property or make a mess. (Of course there are degrees to this: if the site already resembles a war zone, couple of more dents are not going to hurt, as long as you don't practically bring down the place.)

2.2.3. off-game sites

"We accidentally bashed the roommate of a player with our boffer swords. Then we told her that she must not tell the player we dropped by searching for him, as she was dead. Nobody said that player residences would be off-game."
- Dare and Kharon boast about their heroics in Highlander

Many city games do not specify a distinct off-game site. Players should probably not be banned from shopping if their character has been removed from the game. Basically, you should assume that any site not specifically reserved for the game is also an off-game area.

This is where nametags or other similar markers come in handy. If you have to go off-character, do it simply by removing your nametag. After this you can go around off-game in any public area. Of course you should not enter any site reserved for the game like this, and it's probably a good idea to avoid places that you know people are currently playing in.

2.3. the costs of city games

"Game entrance fee 120 FIM [20 EUR], cell phone bill 600 FIM [100 EUR]..."
- Jaakko Stenros, after playinng a fixer that actively communicated with other players and gamemasters, in Helsinki FTZ 2036

Before signing up for a city game it's a good idea to note that the game can easily cost the player more than just the entrance fee. In addition to the normal travel and clothing expenses you will probably spend money in ways not even possible when playing a fantasy game in the woods. Since institutions not related to the game usually do not take in-game money as payment (indeed, not even all the institutions in the game might do so) you should probably have some currency of the realm in your pocket when playing.

If the game is played without any sites specifically reserved for it, or if your character is not going to go to one, you can resign yourself to sitting in cafés for the entire game (at least during the colder seasons) and budget at least 10 euros for it - 20 would be better. Even if you have a place you can use to hang around, another character can always invite you for a meeting in a café.

Another obvious cost is the phone bill. If you play a character with a lot of contacts, you can easily amass a phone bill of 20 euros for a one-night game.

You can also find yourself spending money on gas or public transport. Remember that if you spend your game as a passenger in someone's car, she may wish you donate some gas money after the game. During games creative players have managed to spend money on pinball machines, film, hair spray, CDs, sunglasses, petty fines, parking tickets...

For Ghost Express we recommended the players reserve about 10 euros for miscellaneous expenses. Most players didn't spend nearly as much, but it was still better to be prepared than to have your character not be able to do something because the player ran out of cash.

3. sources: notable city games through the ages

The Turku Vampire (1994) - At the dawn of the present-day larping, this was a one-night walkabout played in cafés and other public locations. One of the first (if not the first) games played among civilians in Finland. Run by Mika "Magus" Laaksonen

Highlander (1995) - A weekend-long boffer killer in the spirit of the movie. Had splendid instructions for legal and illegal uses of public transport and sites suitable for swordfighting. Excellent co-ordination from pre-cell-phone days: the players had a list of places to be and times to be there if one wished something to happen. Run by Clan Raven.

Helsinki FTZ 2036 (1997) - A paranoid city game taking 30 hours. The first game to require that every player have a cell phone, and to utilize them as an efficient means of communication between the players and the gamemasters. Smooth commos enabled a fast pace for the game. Run by Panu "Ego" Alku.

Isle of Saints (2000) - A weekend-long city game that polished the techniques introduced in FTZ. It was the first game to borrow multiple apartments (from players) to be used as game sites, as well as the use of the net for communication. Even though the game did not have a single main plot, actions of one group were quickly and realistically seen to affect others. A shining example on how to create city games. Run by Juki Koskelin, Mika Loponen and Mikki Rautalahti.