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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 monster article has a focus on LARP.

Horror Tips 1: Personal Investment

Horror Tips 2: Dealing with Dread

Horror Tips 3: Pacing

Horror Tips 4: Monsters (focuses on LARP)

Horror Tips 5: Playing Environment

Horror Tips 6: Threatening Nature

Horror Tips 7: The Flow of Information

Horror Tips 8: Props

Horror Tips 9: Death vs Continuity

Horror Tips 10: Scaring the Players

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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The Rule of Three

Have you ever been running a game and realised that your beloved clues have been overlooked, mislaid and forgotten? In a tabletop game you can at least draw attention to them through prolonged description or by providing them with a physical handout. But in a LARP, it’s a lot harder to guide attention (though a fancy prop will help) and even if they are seen, remembered and analysed, they may only be seen by maybe half of the players, if you’re lucky. And in an average group of twenty plus player characters, you’ll want more chances to reach people.

So consider the Rule of Three.

For every piece of vital information you put into the game, you give three possible encounters with it.  Ideally each encounter will give a slightly different spin on it, or provide slightly more (and different) information on it, so that those who manage to find all three clues don’t feel gypped.  In a tabletop game, you might choose to drop the third clue if the players well and truly have it (so they don’t feel hit over the head with it) while in a LARP you’ll just have to hope for the best.

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Self Care At Weekenders

Regardless of whether it’s your first weekender, or your twentieth, there’s bound to be some things you can do that will help you out for the long haul. Weekenders are often packed full of exciting stuff and it’s easy to neglect your basic needs in your search for more fun stuff and involvement. However your mind and body needs what it needs and if you neglect it too much, you could find yourself becoming more irritable and emotional.

NURTURING YOUR BODY

Sleep!  If you don’t get any sleep, you’ll be tired and grumpy and have an awfully hard time keeping up in fights, investigations and political scenes. Even if you handle exhaustion pretty well, if you get much less sleep than your normally should you’ll feel the pinch somewhere. Even if you don’t get much sleep, at least get a few hours. Three hours are better than none, after all.

If your game involves bunk beds, if you’re on a bottom bunk, it can sometimes help to put up a privacy screen in terms of a little sheet that you tuck under the top bunk.  Now snug in your little cave, you can sleep more cosily. Of course if you’re on the top bunk, well, you’re the king of the castle.  Take a few deep breaths and embrace it.

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Cognitive Load in Games

People’s brains can only hold so much information at any one time. This informational capacity is impacted by a low of factors including health, emotional state, hunger, stress and dehydration. Overload this, and people’s brains start to fry. Not physically, but in a confused grumpy kind of way.

Now this isn’t to say we should avoid having a high cognitive load in our games.  That would be silly.  Some people are attracted to solving puzzles and coming up with solutions or just love lore!  And some of the most popular tabletop games have entire books full of mechanics to remember (like Dungeons & Dragons).  What it does mean is to be mindful of the cognitive load requirements of your game and how they can impact on people.

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