Balancing Act IX: LARP Monsters

When running a LARP, your monster design is limited to your budget, craft skill, accessibility of online costume purchases and what behaviours are physically possible for your cast to perform. This means that you probably can’t field a legit flying creature and you certainly can’t do that stop-start “It’s here, no, it’s there,” creepy teleport thing that movie monsters do so well.

While the advice below focuses on LARPs, you can use them in your role play and descriptions of monsters in tabletop games as well.

So how do you make it work?

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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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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?

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 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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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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