Here’s a random little topic about a small element of LARPs that often seems to be a given in some LARP communities/styles, but unheard of in others… Nametags! We don’t often think of them as a mechanic, likely because their use is often fairly passive in nature, their purpose often intuitive, but it is a non-diegetic means of representing something diegetic (namely, in-character knowledge that a player lacks), which describes the average LARP mechanic (though not all of them, as the term has recently come to be used to describe actions that don’t represent anything in-game and aren’t meant to interact with the diegesis).

I was first introduced to LARPing with one-shot theater style LARPs, and for years, through many LARPs, from several hour long to weekend longs, they all used nametags. Boffer LARPs (of the one shot or campaign variety) seem to mostly eschew them (particularly if it’s difficult to think of a reason for them to be diegetic) but I believe the first LARPs I played with the HRSFA crowd were the first theater LARPs I experienced that didn’t use nametags.

The biggest benefit to nametags is probably fairly obvious — characters in pre-written LARPs often should be able to identify other characters on sight, even when the players can’t. Even if a GM sends out a cast list in advance, it can be difficult to memorize who is playing all of the characters your character should be able to identify, especially if the list is long. And it’s even more challenging if you don’t know the other players outside of the LARP. Some LARPs are cast at the door, precluding committing this information to memory in advance, and some LARPs specifically conceal the list of who’s who prior to the LARP to prevent pre-gaming. (A number of weekend long theater LARPs I’ve played had this policy.)

And nametags can serve additional purposes. Lots of games have used them to encode information, whether it’s simply writing out what titles a character holds on the nametag, to including symbols or colors or fonts to indicate information (eg character pronouns, or “blue nametags indicate elves, red nametags indicate humans”) which may be public information, or only available to characters with specific knowledge or skills. (Eg A psychic character might have a secret ability to decode the string of numbers printed below the names on the nametags. Any number that ends in 5 indicates they have arachnophobia, any number that begins with 2 means they have been possessed by a ghost, etc.) Or alternatively, I’ve seen LARPs where nametags enabled people to play with the fact that characters might be identical (secret clones, or alternative timeline versions of the same person) by giving them identical nametags, even if the players look nothing alike.

It need not be limited to in-game information; lots of LARPs use symbols on nametags to indicate openness to engaging in romantic relationships between characters, or the level of touch a player is comfortable with, or whether or not the player is interested in being offered alcoholic beverages.

And in the odd setting where nametags could be diegetic, they can reinforce elements of the setting or enhance immersion. (For example, in a LARP set in a prison, players might be referred to by the numbers on their shirts, which can set the tone.) Generally, I’m of the opinion that any LARP for which one can create an in-game reason for nametags to exist (even if it’s a thinly veiled excuse) should use them and specify, if necessary, to players that they are diegetic.

Of course, they’re not a perfect solution to disconnect between the characters’ ability to identify one another on sight and the players’ inability. They require players to get up close to one another and perhaps squint at one another’s shirts, which can often result in one of those awkward, “sorry, do I know you? ‘Count Winchester’… Let me check my sheet… hm, nope never mind, my character wouldn’t have had any reason to approach you” moments. And of course they can be lost or obscured, and in situations where characters should be able to recognize one another from a distance or various angles, if they’re not immediately readable, in that moment, they aren’t helping.

Nametags also might be providing information that characters shouldn’t yet have access to. In other words, characters who have never met before perhaps shouldn’t be able to identify one another on sight, but the nametags still allow them to. If one were to set a game in a time and place where engaging in unusual etiquette is meant to be part of the experience, nametags might have the downside of discouraging players from seeking out and making proper introductions. I’ve played LARPs set in Victorian England where such etiquette is described and encouraged in the introduction materials, and I thought it was a shame it didn’t see much, if any, in practice.

I have seen some LARPs which use nametags, but rather than writing names on them, simply display number codes, and each player receives a list of numbers, which short descriptions of what they know about the person behind each code. This has the downside of causing players to spend more time consulting their sheets during game time, but it enabled characters to go by different names when in different company, and to vary what characters knew about one another on sight, from “I know this person by name very well” to “you’ve never seen this person before, but the sword they’re carrying is of foreign design.”

The mere presence of nametags, if they’re not diegetic, can be somewhat disruptive to immersion, and can detract from the aesthetics of a costume. They can also be literally damaging to a costume, if they’re of the pin type (even tiny holes can be permanents and really show on some fabrics) or of the sticky type (I have a faux leather jacket which has had a faint outline of residue that I’ve been unable to remove for years.) The pin type is particularly troublesome, as some materials (particularly ones used for costume armor, such as metal, plastic, and leather) may simply preclude anything being pinned to a player. (For players who find themselves wearing armor or other such unpinnable costuming to LARP — consider incorporating a ribbon sash into your look — it’s super easy and quick, and provides a pinnable surface should GMs provide nametag pins without obscuring much of your costume.)

There are some badges that come with holders, worn on strings hung around the neck, which are my personal preference, as they are safe for any costuming, though I find they can be the most disruptive to the aesthetics of a costume and to immersion. (This is unfortunately particularly true of the thick black badge holders at Intercon — they’re nice and convenient in lots of ways, though I do wish they had less of a presence in active game spaces.)

Smaller LARPs benefit less from nametags, as players have an easier time getting everyone’s name down early on the LARP, especially for LARPs with fewer than ten or so players. LARPs where pre-gaming is enabled or even encouraged also have less benefit, as players can take the time to learn and memorize the cast list of LARP in advance. (“Pre-gaming” meaning players connecting with one another in advance, sometimes in person, usually over the internet, to develop their characters’ relationships and histories, often while producing and increasing excitement over and upcoming LARP in themselves and one another.)

Conversely, LARPs with large player numbers derive more benefit from nametags, as it’s much harder to connect the names of a large number of characters with their appearances on the fly. Similarly, LARPs which don’t enable or even forbid pre-gaming, or are likely to have a significant number of players who don’t know one another in person from outside the LARP, derive more benefit from nametags, as do LARPs that don’t lend themselves easily to distinctive costuming, or don’t require it from players.

For such games (games with a large number of players, no pre-gaming, players who don’t know one another, and a lack of costuming) GMs who want to avoid nametags might consider introductions prior to the start of game, which can be as simple as everyone going around and saying their character’s name, and making sure people who have in-game connections get a moment to reify those connections, or as complex as a workshop with the sort of ice-breaker games designed to help strangers learn one another’s name quickly. For an in-game reinforcement of this, a LARP can open with “staging” — meaning GMs directing players to begin game in a particular area, or arrive in a particular order with particular groups of people, so that players don’t have to fumble around, trying to figure out where their family members are or who the host of the function is.

If you do decide to include nametags in your LARP, I recommend large, bold lettering in an easy to read font, whether the names are printed or handwritten. (A bit of flavor in the font choice is always nice, assuming it doesn’t reduce legibility.) Or reminding your players to take care to write legibly, if you plan to let players fill out their own blank tags.


Nametags can alert players to the fact that multiple NPCs are being played by the same GM.


About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years, in all different styles. I love trying out all different styles and genres and formats. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serving as a board member of NEIL, as LARP Coordinator for Extracon, and a member of bid com for the British convention Consequences. I was also the coordinator of Festival of the LARPs in 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I've also served as an editor for Game Wrap, NEIL's publication about the art and craft of LARP, and served on Intercon staff in various roles over the years.
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16 Responses to Nametags

  1. Philip Kelley says:

    Years ago, I came across magnetic name tag holders using rare earth magnets. They are super strong, and will hold the badge on firmly even through thick fabrics and leather, with enough oomph left to stay in place if jostled. Well worth looking for; at the time I had to buy a pack of 50 (it was for a game), maybe singletons are available now.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I love this idea of magnetic nametags (though I might worry some could damage materials like leather by creating indents or something?) I hope players all returned them at the end! I also love the idea of trying to remember, as a player, to bring my own holder/form of nametag if I’m wearing costuming I’m worried about damaging.

      • Philip Kelley says:

        I do get irritated when I forget mine. Then I have to wear the Badge of Shame about my neck (and over my outfit), or stab heavy clothing with a pin until I get it Just So.

  2. idiotsavant23 says:

    Add some pictures of examples and you have a pretty good Game Wrap article here.

    I find name tags to be an essential for theatre-style, and something I look for in any published product. Fortunately they’re easy to make if not included. In small games they’re useful as a reminder, in case you have a sudden braino. In bigger ones, they’re either there to get you through the first half-hour while you settle everyone’s new identities, or vital if the game is big enough that you have to hunt for them in a crowd. I haven’t seen them used in live-combat games, but I can see how they’d be useful.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I do understand why some boxed games might not bother, as it can add bulk to the printing process (and formatting can requiring tinkering) and for GMs, it can be super tempting to just throw a box of blank ones into your gear with a pen and have players make their own, but for the boxed games I’ve run, it can be really nice to have nametags included, with a flavorful font and formatting taken care of.

      It’s funny, in the cyberpunk boffer LARP I play where all of the PCs are working for the same project, we have ID badges our characters are required to wear. They’re not quite standard nametags, as they’re not designed to be read from any distance, and the holders are worn on limbs, so they’re not displayed front and center. But they’re diagetic and immersive — a good example of something that sets the tone (it feels that much more corporate, and they help us ID NPCs as fellow employees vs employees of other corporations.) I have definitely taken a quick peak at them during events to remind myself of PC and NPC names.So I guess that’s at least one live combat LARP example.

      Thank you for the nice comment! I thought this post was a bit… I dunno, frivolous? But I’m glad it doesn’t just seem like nonsense dashed off to fill my self-imposed post quota. 🙂

      • idiotsavant23 says:

        In-game IDs are a really cool thing to do as well, but obviously only appropriate for some genres.

        Its a really good summary of the different ways you can use badges and why they’re useful. And while it all seems obvious to someone like you who has played a huge number of games and a lot of different styles, not everyone has (and even then: you can always learn something new). So, solid practical advice.

  3. Tom Bombadil says:

    One other element of nametags is that they can be helpful to players who have not costumed. In some big weekend longs I’ve played, there are big elaborate costumes that end up letting certain characters be readily identifiable pretty early on (The Siege of Troy being one of the best examples of this). But many players end up filling drops or not having the budget to costume, and thus benefit from having some other means of being identifiable and included in a scenario.

  4. I’ll note that the slight awkwardness of my Jamais Vu opening remarks on the subject point out the issues (despite their coolness) with diagetic nametags that are also important out of game artifcats — that it might seem that you can take a diagetic nametag -off- if that’s an in-character thing to do. And, in fact, you can–in character. But if it provides an important game function (i.e., is the recognition mechanic in the game, at minimum), you really shouldn’t take off the actual nametag, so…

    This becomes even more of an issue in a game that (as Jamais Vu does) starts with some characters not yet wearing their nametags. After all, players won’t generally even think of removing name tags, even if they are diagetic, normally, but if the game points out that they’re removable…and while we expect the players to put on their nametags when they figure out whose is whose, I’ve seen that kind of assumption invalidated before (particularly when I made the mistake of including a “everyone has a piece of the puzzle you need to enter endgame” mechanic in a game (never again!)

  5. Adria K says:

    This is an interesting essay. I think you might sometimes underestimate how much your huge depth of experience informs your understanding of even these small details; you certainly exposed me to some new ideas. 🙂
    I am chronically bad with names; I have forgotten the names of people I’ve known for a decade when under the stress of trying to make introductions. I am also not a person who can do much pre-gaming; I have sometimes avoided games where I knew that a lot of pre-gaming was expected because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Suffice it to say than not only am I pathetically grateful when name tags are provided, but I would be delighted if more GMs would provide opportunities for pre-game introductions such as you described. I imagine that in some cases it just doesn’t occur to GMs that this would be helpful, or at least helpful enough that it is worth setting time aside for it.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I do wish I had talked a bit more about nametags in write-your-own-character campaigns, rather than one shots with pre-written characters (like Threshold, which uses diagetic name badges, as mentioned in another comment).

      I’m with you on pre-gaming stuff — I have tried to engage with it in the past, and found with a lot of chatter from many people online, it gets a bit overwhelming and it’s easy to tune out. The variety where it’s mostly one-on-one emails with people who have connections with in a pre-written character one-shot, it can be a lot more manageable.

  6. Ryan says:

    Hello, I just wanted to say how pleased I was to be reading this article. I give a great deal of thought to name tags in my game (I actually print out two sets, one for the player, and one for the envelope I hand them) and integrating them with various mechanics. I recently started using a particular group of symbols to convey information to the players, and found it worked fairly well. However, more importantly, I glad to see a well-written article about this sort of game element; it’s one of the reasons I’m glad I found your blog.

  7. Great post. I have a terrible memory because chronic illness is a jerk like that, but like playing politically important characters, which means people know my character name, and I forget theirs (without a name tag). I’ve come to appreciate name tags.

    I find them awkward to glance at when they hang too far below the neck. At a women in tech conference, one of the speakers encouraged attendees to shorten or tie the strings of the tag holder so that the name sat higher. It’s a decent tip for people who have boobs, but want others to remember their name.

  8. Pingback: For Auld LARP Syne 2017 | Fair Escape

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