All for One. Courtesy of Tom Garnett

The Tag System

Ian Thomas
Jul 25 · 10 min read

This is a method for generating larp characters that we’ve developed at Crooked House over a couple of decades to address issues we were having with our own events and in attending others. I go into the reasons for some of these design decisions in this article. It supports a range of different event styles — we’ve used variants of this system for All for One and Wing and a Prayer, and earlier iterations of systems that led to this in Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph and God Rest Ye Merry. This article was written for our players, so will undoubtedly need tweaking for other systems. It’s still evolving, as we make changes for new games.


Overview

The Tag System is a collaborative way to create characters for larp that is designed to:

  • Define characters, their problems, flaws, and relationships in a concise format, rather than requiring lengthy documentation to do the same job. (Lengthy documents to digest and remember can be horribly intimidating for both players and crew.)
  • Leave gaps for the player to bring their own creativity to their character, while allowing the event organisers to steer the high-level design.
  • Support briefing via in-game documents and props.
  • Support differing player interests scalably, while maintaining a consistent game setting.
  • Spotlight a player’s particular gameplay interests, so that organisers who do not know all their players can focus their plot-writing efforts appropriately.
  • Reduce the workload on the writers.

How does it work?

A character is initially defined as a one-line concept and a short collection of tags — a handful of words or short phrases that describe how they fit into the world, drawn from a tag list defined by the organisers tailored to fit the game setting and play style.

Each player will select tags from a list, and submit them as part of their booking along with the one-line character concept. They might also suggest additional tags to indicate specific character elements they wish to explore. These might be reworked or renamed by the organisers to make them more widely useful to the rest of the players, but the spirit of the new tags will be preserved.

The organisers then add more tags to the character to connect them more deeply into the game world and develop more opportunities to access plot-lines. This back-and-forth continues until a list is agreed, at which point the player highlights their key tags, which they decide are the most important aspects of their character. Once tags are agreed, the player can start fleshing out a bit more of their character’s background while the organisers start writing plot!

For example, in a 1930s murder-mystery themed game, a player might look at an initial list that includes:

Nationality (French, British, Spanish)
Virtuous
Charlatan
Linguist
Practical
Class (Upper, Lower, Middle)
Archaeologist
Journalist
Criminal
Hatred (French, German, English)

etc.

And, asked to pick 4 tags, they might pick: Nationality (French), Archaeologist, Linguist, and suggest a new tag: Old Enemy.

They would submit this along with a one-liner: “A French archaeologist famed for their skill with ancient languages, who nurses a dark secret.”

In response, the organisers might add: Nightmares, Charlatan, Hatred (Germans), and suggest a more general reworking of the tag Old Enemy to become Thirst for Revenge.

On agreement, and after the player picks their key tags, the character would end up as:

“A French archaeologist famed for their skill with ancient languages, who nurses a dark secret.”
Nationality (French) (key)
Nightmares (key)
Thirst for Revenge
Charlatan
Linguist
Archaeologist
Hatred (Germans)

So whatever else the character is, their defining aspects are that they are French and have nightmares, and the player can expect their game to revolve around those things. Perhaps they will get caught up in a French political plot. Perhaps the source of their nightmares may become horrifyingly real…

What next?

Once all the tags are agreed, the organisers will go away and create some plot. Pre-game, each player will receive a set of in-game briefing documents, tailored to their character, which will fill in some of the blanks and add depth to the tags.

For example, a letter of commission from the King, or instructions from a spymaster. In the case of the example character, they might be a newspaper report on the current political tensions in France and a doctor’s prescription for laudanum to combat nightmares. These may — or may not — be obviously related to a character’s tags, but they almost certainly open gates for them to be able to interact with a plot that affects them.

This also gives other players within the game some outwards signs of the character’s traits. They can discuss the newspaper to find out the character’s views. The laudanum could be the trigger for questions, or a viable resource to be stolen and used within the game.

From that point on, the player will flesh out their character with their personal history, and relationships.

For Players

Your one-line concept

Your one-line concept is your opportunity to introduce your character. It can be in any format you want; maybe a quotation, a fragment of their past that’s particularly important, some epithet that’s used about them. It steers the writers so they can pick appropriate supplementary tags that suit your character, and also fit your character into the game they’re designing and interlock with other characters.

Selecting tags

Select what appeals, these are the characteristics that define the character, and are likely to form the core of your game experience. This doesn’t mean they solely define you. Just because you have Hatred (Germans) doesn’t mean that you don’t also hate the English. Just it’s far less important to your character than Hatred (Germans). If it was terribly important, it’d be a tag on your sheet. “I may hate the English, but I am someone who utterly Hates the Germans!”

Suggesting tags

There might be a theme you want to focus on you don’t see in the initial list, or a specific opportunity in the setting you want to be a part of — either way, suggesting a tag is the way to let the organisers know what you’re looking for. In the example above, Old Enemy gives the organisers a useful means of making someone else’s hatred more real by offering them someone to bring that out in play. Rewritten as Thirst for Revenge, it’s a handy tag for other players who wish to develop this kind of relationship.

However, be aware that tags don’t target individual people i.e. Hatred (Dave), they target social groups (which are also tags). Your character might be defined by Hatred (Londoners), but when you come to flesh out your character, you might negotiate with Dave’s player and decide that you have a vendetta against that particular Londoner.

Your key tags

During the character creation process, you’ll highlight some of the tags as key tags. The organisers will treat those as very important to your character, and your desired experience of the game as a player. They’ll pay special attention when writing the event to make sure there are story opportunities targeting those specific tags.

For example, in the character above, you might highlight Nightmares and Nationality (French). Your character does have a Thirst for Revenge, but it’s far less important to them than their patriotism towards La Belle France or the weird horse-headed figure that chases them through their dreams.

Fleshing out the character

Your character is more than their tags. You might want to develop other relationships and skills; just remember that your character doesn’t think they’re as self-defining as your tags. These other details are foibles, quirks, minor pieces of history between particular characters — it all adds more flavour.

Character relationships

Event organisers should provide a system whereby you can view a list of every character and player under tags that are relevant to your character. This means that you can see who is in your regiment, or who else is French, and so on. It helps you to find and contact other players with shared interests and background; ideally, you can piece together common links before the game starts. It also allows you to deepen some of your relationship tags — for example, if you have Hatred (French), perhaps you can find a player with a Nationality (French) tag and you might agree to be each other’s nemeses.

Some tags aren’t searchable. For example, someone tagged Spy couldn’t search for other people with the tag Spy. In those cases, if there’s specific information you think you need to know to flesh out your character which wasn’t in your briefing, then discuss it with the organisers.

For Organisers

Initial Tags

The list of initial tags needs to be carefully thought through, as they will substantially suggest what people can do in this gameworld and the flavour of the world.

Suggested starting points are:

  • Factions and social groups e.g. Nationality (French), Nationality (German), Noble, Servant, 2nd Regiment of Foot, Catholic, New Recruit. These are useful because they let you look at fracture lines between groups to create drama.
  • Character classes e.g. Soldier, Diplomat, Wizard, Sailor, Telegraph Operator. These are useful because they tell you what roles your players want in the world and what they want their primary activities to be.
  • General relationship tags (Hatred etc.). Again, this lets you look at fracture lines. (“Everyone hates the French. That’s interesting, let’s write some plot about that.”)

A few good tests for whether a tag should exist:

  • Does it confer some sort of skill which might be useful in this particular game to achieve things? E.g. Accountant is a good tag to have in a game about the mishandling of money in the financial crisis; Survivalist is a good tag in a game about an unexpected post-apocalyptic wasteland.
  • Is anyone going to have an opinion about someone because they have this tag? E.g. “You’re French! I hate the French!” or “You’re Second Regiment — you abandoned us at Verdun!” That’s good, because it means there will be conflict, and conflict is drama.
  • Does the tag define a character’s relationship with the world? Hopeless Romantic, for example, or Plays by the Rules. These will vary depending on your setting, but a good rule here is that those tags are only useful if they will have external effects on other players. For example, in an office environment, someone who Plays by the Rules will have a different effect on their co-workers from Prankster and the writers will be able to see that they should hand out some office rules to break and enforce. (If you think about it, these could also be seen as social groups — the pranksters vs. the rules-lawyers.)
  • Is the tag entirely personal to a player i.e. is it their internal monologue? In which case, it’s not useful for gameplay.
  • Too many relationship/connection-style tags can complicate everything for you, your players, and your supporting cast. We’ve learned this the hard way!

Subtags

For some tags, we group them into top-level tags and subtags with a bit more specific information associated with them, such as:

Hatred (French, British, Upper Class)
Military Veteran (2nd Regiment, Gascon Regiment)
Owes A Favour (Jets, Sharks)
Gang Member (Jets, Sharks)

This is useful because we can see at a glance that (say) 20 of our 50 characters for a game are Gang Members, so we need to include a heavy gang component. We might lose this if we simply have a Jets tag and a Sharks tag.

Suggested Tags

If a player submits new tags, the important thing to remember is that this player wants to play an aspect of the game based on this new tag. If it doesn’t feel like a good fit for a general tag, rework it until it is; most importantly, figure out the gameplay the player wanted to get from it and try to find a way to support that. The new tag, once settled on, should be added to the tag pool for others to potentially take that same tag.

Adding Tags to a Character

When a player submits their character with its first tags, it’s up to the organisers to add more tags; the goal here is to make sure that the character has common ground with other players, that they are more tightly bound into the world through relationships — and above all, that they’ll get more game. But do read their one-line concept, because the tags should broadly fit that concept rather than take it sideways.

Writing Plots

Once all tags are submitted, your database will let you list the count of players who have picked each tag. We’ve found it useful to create a tag cloud. Key Tags are given much more weighting. It’s up to you how many tags you write plots for (and obviously good plots will target multiple tags), but good rules of thumb are:

  • Every Key Tag must be addressed.
  • Single occurrences of a non-key tag probably needn’t be addressed (they are a ‘flavour’ tag). They are outliers — if they were important they’d be key tags, or more people would have picked them.
  • It’s up to the size and scope of your game how far you go with writing plots for the tags that fall between these two.
Briefing materials for God Rest Ye Merry

Briefing Materials

Once the plots are written, you need to create briefing materials that will be sent out according to tags. It might be that all tags associated with a particular plot can be sent the same material (e.g. both French and British could be sent a newspaper article on the War) or it might be that some material is targeted at French, and some at British. You should do all you can to try and make briefing materials not targeted at a single individual (mail merge is acceptable) as otherwise your life will be hell. Take it from us, individually customised player briefs are superb, but they chew up time that you don’t have.

Tag Props

Externalising major tags with props might be a cool thing to do, depending on the game. If, for example, 10 people share the tag ‘2nd Regiment’, then a regimental badge would be appropriate.

How Many Tags For Your Game?

It all depends on the number of players you have, and how detailed you want to get. Bear in mind that the number of Key Tags chosen will define the minimum number of briefing documents that you have to create and deliver.

As a suggested start for a player base of around 25:

  • 4 tags (including suggestions) from the player.
  • 4 tags added by the organisers.
  • The player picks 2 key tags.

For around 50 people:

  • 3 tags (including suggestions) from the player.
  • 3 tags added by the organisers.
  • The player picks 2 key tags.

Thanks to Harry and Rachel Thomas

Ian Thomas

Written by

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp and books. He's the founder of the story-for-games company Talespinners: https://talespinners.co.uk

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