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Balancing Act III: Pacing

Pacing is a vital consideration in all genres, but especially so in horror games. Boredom, frustration and overconfidence are all the enemies of the horror genre but if you carelessly rush to avoid them you may end up with an action game with a horror aesthetic. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to run, but it can be a real fear-killer if it’s not. In any case, even heavy action games benefit from attention paid to pacing.

When we talk about pacing we’re talking about the tension spikes and relaxing troughs, the action beats and the quiet time, that make up any game. Too much of the same energy level becomes boring and frustrating. Tension can only be maintained for so long before people become inured to it but if you make them feel safe, temporarily, that buzz of anticipation builds again, letting you amp up the tension once more.

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Balancing Act II: Dealing with Dread

That sense of dread as you anticipate some horrible outcome that keeps you in suspense is a key part of horror. It’s that nervous tension that comes as you reach out to open a door, not knowing what may lay beyond…. That fear as you walk down the corridor toward the source of that strange noise…. Horror fans revel in that sense of dread, loving the anticipation of something wicked about to happen, but how does one evoke it in the first place?

1. Foreshadow with hints that something is subtly off. The room is strangely cold. The unseen floor feels kind of tacky. Something drips on their forehead and slides down their cheek. Each clue builds on the last one, creating a sense of unease and instilling the idea that something has gone terribly wrong. In a LARP or tabletop game where you’re using the five senses you could also do this with off-key music, a ringing phone in an abandoned location or flickering lights at the end of a long hallway where wet footprints lead around a corner.

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Balancing Act 1: Personal Investment

Horror is a delicate thing and it can only work if the players are willing and able to let it work. So first have a chat about the guiding principles of the game. Let them know that mobile phone distractions, out-of-character banter and chasing after the enemy to fight it headlong will kill the vibe. See if they have any ideas on how to help the horror grow.

If they’re not too sure about trying something so different, ask them to give it a session or two before making a decision and run them something designed to finish in a couple sessions. Most players are willing to try something new that their Game Master cares about, especially if they know they can always return to their favourite genre soon.

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The 10 Balancing Acts of Horror

I have always been fascinated with the horror genre. I think its the queer mix of humor in the face of adversity, the strain of watching others in jeopardy, the fright factor of scary concepts, and the grittier ker-thunk of wretched realism which takes a look at just how bad a certain something can be. Since I’ve always loved horror, I’ve always wanted to run it.

The trouble is that a horror game is bloody hard to run.

After all, a horror game is a tight rope walk between opposing concepts, some of them intrinsic to the genre and others to the format of role playing. So to help wrap my head around what to do and how to do it, I’ve written up a series of articles on how to deal with the issues of balancing the various needs of the game to bring out the most horror potential.

Please note that this series of weekly articles is focused on both LARP and tabletop games though the last article is LARP specific.

Horror Tips 1: Personal Investment

Horror Tips 2: Dealing with Dread

Horror Tips 3: Pacing

Horror Tips 4: Threatening Nature

Horror Tips 5: Playing Environment

Horror Tips 6: Props

Horror Tips 7: The Flow of Information

Horror Tips 8: Scaring the Players

Horror Tips 9: Death vs Continuity

Horror Tips 10: LARP Monsters

Session Style Guides

When advertising your game, it can be a good idea to let your prospective players know what the session will be like. Heck, in a long-term campaign it can be useful to do so for each session if you know there’s a lot of variety in session styles. Especially in a game like a LARP.

Sure, players can find ways to involve more combat or social intrigue, but there’s limits to what the setting will allow. Folks who try to chit-chat a zombie outbreak where there’s a constant onslaught of zeds will find that out pretty quickly.

There’s a lot of different ways you can do this. You could break it down with different genres (like Horror or Fantasy themes) or different styles of combat (Survival Horror vs Action). Anything you’d like to prime your players with, really.

Or you could use a set of sliders like the Mixing Desk of LARP that show the frame, and not just the style, of game with information like the degree of transparency between players being visibly represented on a series of sliders.

So have you ever advertised the style of the session / campaign using a visual representation like a mixing desk or rating scale? How’d it go? And what did you use?

LARP SPOTLIGHT: Limbo Run

Limbo Run is a session that occurred midway through the Seekers Campaign. The events are set on a post-apocalyptic alien world where humans have been struggling to survive both zed infestations (living, fast “zombies”) and mutant psykers who are each driven to destroy sentient life.

Previous to this session: The player characters make contact with a group of refugees and fugitives from a machine cult that cybernetically augments its operatives who are currently living in an old radio station in the middle of nowhere.  Their communication happens online, and unfortunately something terrible lands in the chat room, causing irreparable damage to one of the fugitive’s neural augmentations, requiring immediate medical attention.  Being one of the few groups with air transportation (tiltjets), they fly over to visit and arrive just in the nick of time.

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Tech Hates LARP

The more complicated the tech, the more it hates LARP. I have a CD player. It’s an old CD player. Other than a few scratched CDs making it repeat itself creepily and unexpectedly, it works. I also have a Bluetooth Speaker with a USB plug. Sometimes it’ll let me switch between the two USBs. It requires a little fiddling around with. It will always eventually play from at least one USB (so long as the sound formats are correct). It’s not as quick, easy and safe to use as the CD player.

However if I decide to go even higher tech and try to use it through Bluetooth, it can be as snarly at the start as using a USB, but even once you get it running it will occasionally stop even though the mobile phone controlling it sitting on top of it.

So what’s the moral of the story?

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LARP SPOTLIGHT: Dervin

In a Viking-inspired nation, five clans who have been united under the same banner meet at monthly moots to discuss the issues that arise. Right now the issues include the mysterious storms surrounding the island suddenly vanishing, allowing orcs, dwarves and another human civilisation to finally visit them, bringing their own intrigues and issues with them. The elves, an ancient race, step forward from their swamp dwellings to weigh in on the discourse with unknown reasons behind their actions. This is a political LARP but it does have some boffer combat elements where people who wish to can duel with (latex) swords.

Previous to this session: Nothing.  This is the first session.

Session Begins: The hall is set up with five tables in a U-shape surrounding a central table.  Each of the five is for a different clan and is decorated accordingly.  The orcs are brought in chains to answer for their attacks on the Boar Clan and they are sat in the corner of the room until it’s their turn to speak (though they can listen and call out during other speeches).  The elves come in as guests of the Elk Clan, the dwar as guests of the raven clan, and the other human society, the Ersellians,  as guests of the Horse Clan.

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LARP Design: The Verbs

There’s this idea in text-based adventure design that you have to figure out what verbs are available to your characters. Can they walk, run, jump, crawl, or look in cupboards? Is this a game where Shoot is more important than Talk To, or the other way around? By looking at what players can do in the game, you can find out what the game is about, and vice versa.

You can port this theory over to LARP even though technically anything that is physically possible may theoretically occur.  Sure, your regency romance LARP can theoretically involve players choosing to crawl — but is it likely, incentivised, or encouraged?  Probably not.  So you wouldn’t consider it a verb of your game.

In the average boffer LARP, you would have Walk, Run, Fight, Throw, and Shoot.  You might also have Read, Collect and Talk as there may be the odd note, chatty NPC, conversation between PCs and herbs to collect. But you might not if talking isn’t really a part of how the game works, even if it does occur.

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Build your Character to fit your play style

Generally people build characters based on something that interests them — a skill that captures their attention, a costume, a bit of history, a snippet of personality they want to explore! They think about who they will play with and what that will be like. Very rarely do players truly sit down and think about what would help them access the parts of the game that interests them.

Factions and skill mechanics help somewhat with this as joining the thuggish bravados will probably tie you into combat or getting several engineering / hacking skills will get you closer to the techie side of the game.

But aside from that, it can be hard to know what connects to where or to think about how character choices might push you away from what you’re after.  You may have joined the Diplomat’s Guild and have a full set of negotiation skills, but if you play someone always spoiling for a fight and trying to declare war, your character might not be invited to the gently-gently diplomatic soiree off in a back room.  Instead you might find yourself with frequent invites to bar room brawls and war room planning, which might be just what you’re after.  Or it might not be.

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