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119. Road Trip larp, Part Four: Non Player Characters

This is the fourth part of the series on the Road Trip larp project. If you want to start from the first post, it is #116.

Road Trip featured 22 participants, including organisers and documentation crew. We all played characters, though two of us (Ashley and myself) drove in the offgame car, we still played characters whenever we were out of the vehicles. But we had more than 22 people playing.

Instagram characters

For the larp, we used Instagram as our primary social media platform. This worked out very well, as instagram is easy to set up, easy to use, and has no “fake filters” like facebook does. And due to the efforts of Thomas Mertz (best known for the Kin software that simulates social media for larps), we had a web page that gathered all our instagram posts.

It’s at therunawaysound.band, if you want to check it out. Lots of good stuff!

We also had Non Player Characters (NPCs) who only existed on instagram. These were played by people who weren’t directly part of the larp, but who joined in for this purpose. They created instagram profiles and used these to interact with the main participants.

Ex-lovers, concerned friends and a mad fan or two – these characters added flavour to the larp without requiring a lot of effort on behalf of those playing them. Some had massive impact, others very little. What they had in common was that they all contacted us (me, specifically) and presented a short character concept. They then looked at the written characters and chose someone to “latch on to”.

We used a similar way of handling NPCs for the advertising agency larp Panopticorp in 2013, and it worked very well. I’d definitely do that again.

NPCs at live events

The second thing we used were live “plants”. These ranged from old fans to journalists to criminals. The participants had no idea who was an NPC and who was “just” a human being with no idea that the larp was going on.

Several players said that this made them always be on their toes, and that it made them treat each encounter with a mixture of wonder and skepticism. The terminal cancer patient we met at a truck stop, who was biking across America? The journalist in St Louis? The young woman who wanted her palm read in Amarillo? They had no way of knowing who was “real” and who wasn’t.

And what did we learn from this? The Road Trip blog series follows a Ten Lessons format, so I present you with Ten Lessons Learned From Using NPCs At Road Trip

  1. Participants suspect everything. The newfound fan, who want with us to the hotel after the Amarillo gig, and who came to the desert music video shoot the next day in a three-piece suit? Most of our players thought he was a plant. He wasn’t. But he could have been!
  2. Live NPCs strengthen the fiction. We played our first gig in St Louis. I’d been lucky enough to get five NPCs to show up. Two of them played former fans of the drummer, and were there to poke at his (a bit more metal) past. It worked wonderfully, and was fun for everyone. The other three posed as newfound fans and followed us to the hotel.
  3. Digital NPCs also add depth. Two of our NPCs played out a slightly abusive relationship in front of the participants via Instagram. Another had long talks with one of the characters that influenced central decisions in the larp. Many people followed the tour online, and just the likes and comments were inspirational for us.
  4. You need to trust your NPCs. Once they had gotten the initial briefing, we basically gave them free reign. That requires trust, but in this case it paid off handsomely. We didn’t try to control them – quite the opposite – and while I knew most beforehand, I didn’t know all of them. My advice for a situation like this? Trust people.
  5. Use the suspicions to your advantage. Sometimes we had to improvise because things went haywire. But since the participants were naturally suspicious of everything and never knew what was designed and what wasn’t, we could use this to our advantage. It made them more accepting of challenges that arose along the way – because after all, how could they know that this wasn’t part of the plan all along? Sometimes it was!
  6. It made the participants more brave. At one point, I enter a bar to find our spiritual guide giving a hand reading to a lady half his age. He later told me that he was completely certain that she had been an NPC. On the other hand, it also made everyone more thoughtful – after all, this could be a real person you were talking with.
  7. If you don’t know the difference, there IS no practical difference. How many of the people we met gave us fake names and fake stories? Maybe zero. Maybe many. Did Caleb the tambourine guy talk about D&D because he knew? Or was he just as nerdy as us? Some players interacted with NPCs without ever knowing it. Some thought they did. If anything blurred reality to the max, it was our use of NPCs.
  8. Even regular people became characters in our story. Angel, who hosted us in Las Vegas, and who was interviewed (ingame) for the band’s behind-the-scenes documentary, was definitely a larger-than-life human being. And as she took a liking to Rick immediately, we got to talk a little. We had just booked a random (big) Airbnb in Vegas, but looking back, I can’t see the tale being the same without Angel and her kind-hearted hospitality and carved fruit.
  9. It’s incredibly easy to be an NPC in this setting. You can use your real clothes. If you’re lucky, you just have to go into the town you live in. You need minimum prep and can maximum impact. Hell, you could even play yourself – but with a connection to the larp somehow – and the participants would love it. While this isn’t unique to Road Trip, it was definitely true here.
  10. The mindfuck is real. Some participants had provided their own NPCs that we knew nothing about. Some people joined the experience as Instagram NPCs without telling us. We, the organisers, didn’t tell each other who we brought in. The Danish larp designer Bjarke Pedersen’s words “Everything is a designable surface” rang exceedingly true with Road Trip’s NPCs.

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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