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LARP Gameplay Matters To Communicate

Sometimes what looks like a design flaw, can be embraced by players if they knew it was coming and planned accordingly.

While players tend to get more upset, understandably, about missing out on vital logistics facts, folks can also get quite annoyed when certain gameplay expectations aren’t met. This isn’t to say these gameplay elements are problematic, in and of themselves. Different players enjoy different things and sometimes so long as players know what to expect, they can often adapt and plan accordingly. So let them know.

1. Will there be any lulls? While lulls happen in any LARP, some games will have periods that are guaranteed lulls. Maybe the NPCs will be fed at the same time as players, so meal-times and the thirty minutes before and after that will be quiet. Or maybe the entire session is set at a quieter pace than others in campaigns, so characters can focus on relationship building and self-reflection. Knowing this in advance means players can let down their guard and bring gameplay elements to keep them busy.

2. Can player events be interrupted at any time? And are those interruptions likely to take over the entire event? If the players are putting hours of preparation into the king’s wedding, only for it to be stopped after 5 minutes due to a kobold attack, they’re unlikely to be pleased. If they knew there was a good chance the wedding wouldn’t really happen (even if they don’t know for sure), they can plan accordingly and reduce their efforts or come up with a back-up plan for continuing the wedding later.

3. Can they play the character they designed? Sometimes GMs say: “Uhh … sure, it’s probably not the best, but … maybe?” Honestly you’re better off either finding a way where they can really play that character, or a variant of it, or saying no. But presuming you really want to hedge your bets and go with Maybe, give a detailed explanation of the possible issues and invite them to problem solve it. If the issues are extreme (i.e. all the plot involves hiking trails and fighting kobolds, but they wish to play a nobleman who sits in their camp) then give them firm information on how much time they will spend alone.

4. Signpost the bits that might annoy players. Maybe you have a super powerful arrogant wizard who turns out to be the bad guy. You want the players to feel helpless before her, for now, but later they’ll have the chance to turn the tables. Tell them that there will be powerful NPCs they can’t scratch for now, but that they’ll get to affect them later on. Or if that’s not the case, tell them that the game explores helplessness and that there’ll be powerful NPCs they’ll never be able to impact because the point of the game is to explore what it’s like to be a peasant surrounded by mages. This helps build trust.

5. If something is unsolvable, signpost it in-game or out. You don’t necessarily have to say that *this* puzzle is unsolvable (though you could) but you should at least let folks know that some of the puzzles in this game are unsolvable right now. This also works when the players notice some small element of the game but just don’t have the tools to chase it up because the mechanics of the game wall off further exploration right now.

6. What is inappropriate gameplay for this game? If the family dinner LARP has a character randomly decide to commit a murder, odds are the game that everyone else signed up for has been derailed. This tends to be an incredibly frustrating experience for all involved. Let folks know what the vision is so that they can all be on the same page, while leaving enough room within the vision for personal creativity. Maybe the family dinner had more, or less, conflict than you imagined and that’s fine. But maybe its best if it either does, or does not, include a murder.

7. What are nonnegotiable elements of game design and where is the flex? If you run a game in a dark space, there may be accessibility considerations due to both physical and mental health. Darkness, however, covers a multitude of FX sins. Some games simply wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t dark. If darkness is essential, and you can’t just turn on the lights, then let people know that. But if someone approaches and asks whether a muted torch could be available for those who just want to direct it at their feet to see where they’re going, consider it. Would it really impact the design if someone did that? What could it add?

8. Are you introducing plots that are counter-intuitive for your style of game? If your game has heavy theft components as part of the Player versus Player framework, and you introduce a plot that has multiple pieces, it’s best to communicate that in advance. Even if you’re vague as to the “what”, let folks know that sometimes they’ll need to share and communicate. Either that or accept that some puzzle pieces will go missing and that those who steal them *ARE* playing the game as written. Or if almost every NPC is a villain, you may need an in-world sign for those who most assuredly aren’t … or accept that every NPC might be slaughtered.

The Vital Nature of Delegation

The more nitty gritties you can delegate, the more time you can spend on managing the event itself and dealing with all the little things that can’t readily be delegated.

The first hour of game is always chaos. Everything always takes longer than you expected and you will often have a dozen or more players or volunteers stopping you every so often to ask important questions. Therefore the more nitty gritties you can delegate, the more time you can spend on managing the event itself and dealing with all the little things that can’t readily be delegated.

Many folks are willing to help if needed, and most will even be flattered you thought of them. So don’t fear asking for help!

Naturally it’s best to give them as much notice as you can so they have time to prepare and so they won’t feel pressured to do it if they don’t want to. Plus, if they do say no, you’ll need time to think up an alternative. Of course, if it was unavoidable, most people will accept a last minute request for help.

When you’re trying to find a volunteer, think about what people are good at AND the kinds of things they enjoy. Some folks love set dressing, while others are keen to give rules advice, and there’s always a contingent of folks who want to help but would prefer the straightforward jobs of tidying up or putting drinks away.

If you know any players who are good at logistics and thinking on their feet, bear them in mind in case you have a sudden need. It will happen, on occasion, and most folks will be understanding. However, if a player volunteers to help you at the last minute, you can’t assume they’ll be able or willing to do that task *every session* unless you ask them specifically to do the task long-term. Feel free to ask, of course. They may be pleased so long as they’re asked in advance. But don’t jump dump the role on them next week without asking.

If someone steps forward to volunteer their services, remember it! That’s a great sign. Think about if you could use the services they’re offering, or something similar to it. Build on others’ enthusiasm wherever possible!

Easy areas of delegation include:

  • Combat Inductions
  • Weapon Inspections
  • Sign In Desk
  • Snack or Merchandise Sales
  • Rules & Logistics Questions
  • Standard Set Dressing
  • General Set Up
  • New Player Guides
  • Parking.

Not every game needs all of these volunteers and in some games those roles might be combined into a single volunteer. But having folks to do some of these tasks, where they are necessary, will free you up to focus on more strategic decisions, questions others can’t answer, managing a sudden crisis, briefing volunteers and welcoming new players.

Having a decent amount of assistance and support will help you start on time and have more brain space available to focus on the game ahead. Plus it helps build a sense of community and provide skills to others who might be thinking of organising events for themselves in the future.

Keep Folks Informed

Players are actually a fairly agreeable lot. If they understand why things are happening the way they are, or if they can predict it, they are normally fairly accommodating. They’ll step up and help out if they can. If they trust that you are trying your best and the situation is out of your control, if a crisis develops, they’ll help out or accept a long lull.

And if it turns out the game isn’t what they enjoy, so long as they’ve enough experience to know what they enjoy, then if that’s communicated accurately beforehand they’ll most likely understand why they didn’t enjoy it without getting angry. Then they’ll either drop out beforehand or dislike the experience but acknowledge that maybe, considering they hate romantic comedies, and despise romantic roleplay, perhaps that romantic comedy LARP might not have been a good fit.

Yes, you’ll get exceptions and you’ll remember those. It’s hard not to. But *MOST* people really do take it with good grace, and most of the exceptions just grumble a bit and move on.

Therefore it’s in all of our best interests to communicate as much as we can, as best we can, without overloading the players. Some stuff will be lost in the grind, some emails unread, but even that has its saving graces as most folks will acknowledge you made a good effort to communicate and they won’t fault you for it. The anger drifts away.

So now we’ve gone over the many reasons why it’s worth it to communicate, what are some of the things folks need to know? Well, anything related to their basic needs or which goes against cultural norms.

Advice from Videogame Design that works for LARP

While LARP and tabletop games are very distinct mediums from videogames, there are certainly some elements that are shared between them. Both are interactive mediums, after all, and both (typically) have a designer who has created much of the setting background.

While LARP and tabletop games are very distinct mediums from videogames, there are certainly some elements that are shared between them. Both are interactive mediums, after all, and both (typically) have a designer who has created much of the setting background. So what are some of things we can learn from videogame design?

  1. Full freedom can be frustrating. Most players enjoy some sense of direction, whether internally or externally directed, though they equally enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs and find something to do. This isn’t to say that you need to give them a laundry list of goals but having certain objectives (even just optional ones) baked into the game whether that is exploring your feelings of loss and loneliness or battling the kobolds in the Spider Cave can help the game feel less aimless.
  2. Shared experiences are valuable. One of the downsides of having a dozen different subplots is that unless there’s some kind of overarching goal or theme to play with, it becomes quite easy to end up feeling isolated. Having some kind of core framework folks can engage with (even if it’s just waiting for the prison doors to open while exploring the horrors of confinement) can go a long way to creating a sense of belonging.
  3. Unique solutions. It’s wonderful when players come up with cool ideas for how a situation can pan out and then execute that plan. Perhaps they’ve figured out a new strategy to deal with enemies or a sideways solution to a specific puzzle.  Embrace those opportunities to allow the players the chance to utilize their creativity to succeed.  If they do something a little cheesy, maybe let them use it once before changing things up again.  I once had my players set up a kill chute using tables and flashlights which guaranteed their success.  We could have had the NPCs leave but that would be wasting a golden opportunity.  Instead we stormed them … the results went badly for us … and we just devised new tactics to use for future scenarios and let them keep the kill chute as their fallback plan.
  4. Realism to a point. While there are exceptions to every rule (this one more than most), most players only want realism if it lets them do interesting things. They especially don’t enjoy it if it makes their gameplay frustrating.  Now this doesn’t mean realism doesn’t matter — it adds context and depth, keeps things interesting and ensures that folks have a better idea of how the game works.  It just means that bending reality to suit the needs of the game (so long as you communicate it to your players) is better than slavishly following realism in most games.
  5. Let new players succeed. I don’t just mean new LARPers but anyone new to your game. Give them a taste of success.  Help draw them into the game so they have space to try a few things and see how the rules play out.  You can do this by having separate new player modules (such as all new characters arrive via a special pre-game quest they play through), by having the first hour or two of game being a bit less dangerous than the rest, or by OOC agreement such as where the characters in a political campaign just happen to be gentle with new players and provide less serious consequences for missteps (or straight up advise the players on missteps and allow them to retract it) for their first three session.
  6. The rules need to be as simple as they *can* be to meet the requirements of your game. For some games that’ll be a half page of mechanics. For others it’ll be a full rulebook or suite of rulebooks.  The question is what you’re trying to do and what is needed to accomplish that.  Every time you look at a new mechanic question what it’ll add to the game and whether it’s worth extra complexity.
  7. Use consistency to help off-set complexity. In Triway Chronicle, all green glowy things are radioactive. I’ll never put glow-in-the-dark green facepaint on an NPC — no matter how creepy it may look — without that NPC also being radioactive.  This makes things easier.  The same can be said for NPCs that are resistant to certain types of damage making a point to really react to hits from those who are using the right kinds of weapon.  That way players know what works and what doesn’t.  This may require some practice as it gives NPCs an extra thing to consider but it’s very important to give them game-critical information or else the players might flee a situation when they should fight.
  8. Side objectives have little value if players don’t understand what they have accomplished. So provide rewards to sub-goals even if it’s just extra information or an improved scenario for their NPC allies (you’d be surprised how much players love the chance to affect the unseen in-game world around them).
  9. Information can be spread around the world through a variety of methods. This can range from signs to pinned-up notes, chalk graffiti, letters, computer terminals, PA systems or telephone calls as well as the usual NPCs. The benefit of this is that it requires no cast and can still keep people busy.

LARP Session Example Time Sheet

There are very few rundowns of what happens at a LARP from a GM perspective so I thought I would provide a schedule for a very plot-heavy and semi-directed session of the Triway Chronicle.  So here it is! 

There are very few rundowns of what happens at a LARP from a GM perspective so I thought I would provide a schedule for a very plot-heavy and semi-directed session of the Triway Chronicle.  So here it is!  A LARP’s runsheet for about 20 players, 2 game masters and 5 cast members who portray NPCs.

Tactical (combat) Route (4:30 – 5:00):

  • Safe House Manager: Wallrider awaits them who can give them context on the safe house.
  • Three Robots.
  • Zeds Group A (first and last): One Group Leader and several zeds who could cut across the circular path so they could attack the PCs upfront and afterward.
  • Zed Group B (second and third): One Group Leader and several zeds who could cut across the circular path so they could attack the PCs upfront and afterward.
  • Lootable Corpses: Three non-combat players.

Surreal Horror Route (5:00 – 5:30):

  • GM Jacket: Shannon simply followed along to GM.
  • Robots: Cancelled as none of the major combat characters of this route attended.
  • Zed Circle Dancers off the path so that the PCs could stealth past them in the darkness. They were twisting and attacking the air around them.
  • Mee (an ex-PC) crying and trying to lure them off the path.
  • Zed Picnic (“eat my arm and I will tell you secrets”). They were another hallucination and all their oracle tellings would’ve been lies designed to create paranoia but the PCs were wise enough to just avoid them.
  • False Alpha and Dead Daughter: An NPC pretending to be one of the big bad monster types (Alpha) faux killed one of the PCs in front of her father. It ended quite awkwardly because we’d had to re-jig it to be a stealth mission due to a lack of combat capable characters so the players were more confused than frightened.
  • The Lurker following from behind.
  • Audio Hallucinations: One PC.

Tragic Horror Route (5:30 – 6:00)

  • Hallucination — Core Phone Call — Powerful alien AI calls them to tell them it destroyed a town due to increasing escalation.
  • Hallucination — Patty’s brother appears next to the Lurker, causing them to attempt to confront the Lurker in order to try to rescue him. Disappears when “killed.”
  • Patty develops into Griefstruck and becomes harder to manage.
  • The radioactive Lurker following from behind.
  • The Hall: Everyone arrives when they do.
  • Audio Hallucinations: Circuit, Glitch, Tobi. Each were given headphones with 14 minutes of pre-recorded voices.

Everyone Together (6:00 – 7:30)

  • PTSD Ranger arrives after Route 2
  • Defragging the Core’s memory (represented by multiple jigsaws that are each a written memory with each memory in a little box that can be unlocked through the use of a skill — there was also an audio version of each memory).
  • Checking the Four Loot Drops in the wilds to collect more gear.
  • Psi-Bomb Science (chance to start building the psi-bomb put forward by one of the other characters).
  • Smiley NPC roaming the area. “Smiley” is actually someone else’s long lost brother hiding his face behind a gas mask.
  • Beacon Turncoat
  • Memorial Wall
    • One PC found a doll left by another PC — they were adults now and didn’t realise who each other was!
    • Patty Doll with USB and video clip from her brother

7:30 FINALE

Things get crazy with the two Lurkers who drop “Griefstruck Obey!”  This causes all grieving characters to see those around them as responsible for that grief — often in quite a delusional manner.  We’d pre-briefed involved players so that they know what to listen out for (the bell) and so they could plot out their reactions.  We didn’t tell them who else was griefstruck.

In the end we started the first route at 5PM and the last route ended up at the hall closer to 7:30PM.  Thus the finale was bumped to 8:30PM.  The Harry NPC couldn’t be wandering earlier so he ended up seeking sanctuary in the safe house because he had no bullets for his gun.  It took some time but he managed to talk his way inside.

Who Has A Stake In This Plot?

No matter how grand and powerful and scary the plotline you create, everyone is going to have a different level of investment in the outcome. And that level of investment can be 0.

NEW FLASH: Not everyone does.

This can occur in any kind of roleplaying game but it’s more common in larger games like LARPs where you can have dozens, even hundreds, of people all playing alongside and against one another.  No matter how grand and powerful and scary the plotline you create, everyone is going to have a different level of investment in the outcome.  And that level of investment can be 0.

So how can you keep an eye on the investment factor?

In larger games, you’re probably going to have to do a survey or some such because it’s really hard to get an accurate read on things when you’ve barely met all the players and don’t know their character arcs.  You’ll probably have to look at each faction’s investment in the plot and work from them.  In smaller games of 30 or less you can get somewhat of a gauge by sitting down and thinking it through.

Has the person never encountered an NPC related to the plot line, have no personal ties to the plot line and is their character unlikely to be able to interact on a meaningful level with the plot line?  Probably not heaps invested then unless they, as a player, find the plot line super interesting and in that case you should probably throw them a hook so they can get involved.

Of course, even if you can tick YES to those boxes it doesn’t mean they care.  Practically everyone can remember a tabletop game when a plotline came up that they just weren’t that into.  This could be that they, as a player, just aren’t particularly hooked by it or it could be that the execution hasn’t been that great or it could just be that they need more time.

The thing about investment is that it is a slow and gentle process.  Rush it, or worse – demand it, and you’ll actually lose it.  Give them reasons to care but accept that it’s a valid response to either not care or to care for unexpected reasons (such as wanting their country to fail rather than succeed).  Or it could simply be that there are too many people involved in that plot thread already so it would be difficult to have a meaningful contribution without pulling it away from someone else.

This is why it’s important to have several plot threads, especially in larger games, so that everyone can be involved in something even if they can’t be involved in all things.

Getting the Most Out of Making Your Own Character

There are a lot of LARPs where the responsibility for creating a character falls entirely, or at least mostly, on the player.  This can be a lot of fun.  You might get a basic role (i.e. cantankerous businessman), a basic setting guide or a full rule book with skills to select.  Every LARP is different!  But there are a few general rules of thumb that’ll make your character way more interesting.

  • Leave space to introduce new elements into your character’s history.  Leave space for new character ties, plot connections and opinions.  Oftentimes you’re better off with a series of dot points, especially on the history documents you send to your Game Masters.  While you can still send your backstory as a short story, attaching dot points to that will help the GMs pick out the elements that are most important to you, and can be really helpful when they need to find a name.  Also be aware that not every Game Master has the time or inclination to read fiction, or lengthy backstories, but some will.
  • See your initial creation as a draft character.  Your character might need to change and develop over the course of the first few sessions, possibly retrospectively if it’s not disruptive, in order to better fit the game.  If it’s not core to your character, if the change wouldn’t defeat the purpose of the character, consider making it.  Maybe you really love the idea of the science puzzles or you had no idea that combat would be such a big part of the game, maybe see if you can swap a skill around or change your character’s opinion on fighting.  If they were a pacifist beforehand, and you’ve pretty heavily established that, consider talking to other players or the Game Masters on ways to convince your character to go against that so you can get engaged in the parts of the game that you find the most fun.
  • Character Ties Matter. Seriously, a game can be made twice as fun by having a single strong character tie as it gives you ready-made plot (what happens to that character matters to you) and someone who shares an interest in your character’s history. Complex relationships (not necessarily romantic ones) can pull you into different plotlines and give you plenty to do in lull periods.  Always aim for at least one, but three is deal.
  • Character Generators are an option.  So long as you modify it to suit the game, remove anything that’s too silly and flesh it out, you can get some interesting combinations of traits and inspiration from a generator.  Sometimes random rolls can inspire more complex characters or new ways of doing things.  While occasionally you have to put the Hard No on the “Cheese Lover” tag, sometimes it’s the perfect thing to add flavour to your orc barbarian.
  • Core concepts and several tag lines can help you define your character.  Sometimes it can help you roleplay another personality, or think about things to do, if you have a summary concept and a few tag words attached to them.  Things like “overly trusting, collector, wants gems rather than gold,” can all give you some inspiration on how to act and what to do in a game.
  • Where did you get them skills?  Regardless of whether the game has skill mechanics, or just relies on player skill, your character would have some skills, knowledge and training of their own.  A private investigator, police officer, journalist and worried mother would all approach a missing person’s case differently, after all, and it can help you brainstorm ways to use your character’s skills and ways to manage a situation by thinking of what YOUR character would do.  Plus it’s a good way of generating anecdotes.  Maybe your mother was a locksmith or maybe you keep forgetting your keys so you had to learn how to pick your own lock.  Both options are interesting.
  • Ask for advice.  Not every Game Master is great at providing character generation advice, but if they’re able and willing, listen to them.  Odds are if they keep angling you to have a connection to a particular town, or have a particular skill-set, there’s a need for it somewhere in the game.  Other players can also be a wellspring of advice, especially in established games where they may have more experience in knowing what works and what doesn’t.
  • Character ties.  Having ties to other people, or places if you can swing it, helps make your character feel a part of the world, encourages others to involve you on a deeper level, and can inspire events and activities in and of themselves.  There’s something to be said for being able to roleplay an engagement or a best friendship or a rival from Session One.  The trick is that folks are often shy about suggesting, or accepting, a character tie and there needs to be some negotiation to figure out exactly how it would work.  If you have a really tight character tie, you also need to think about whether the character would be playable if the other person left, and make your peace with that.  However, when it does work out it brings a depth and richness to the experience that can’t be understated.  And when it doesn’t work out, it more often just falls flat rather than causing real problems.

So there you have it.  A bunch of ways to build a character and get involved, or stay involved, in the plot with a character you create yourself.  Have fun and happy creating!