24
January 2017

LARP Articles

The Methods of Mechanization – The Means of Communicating Intent and Effects in LARP – Part 2

“…and now for something completely different.”

 

Hi all! First off, thanks for all the great comments I’ve received thus far on the first post. For the most part they’ve been in line with just the kind of conversation these posts are supposed to start. In a serendipitous turn of events, it also seems that the Facebook group, LARP Haven (they’re private), has had its share of debates and discussions on many of the things I’ve discussed in the first part of this post, as well as in the first blog I wrote for larping.org. Check them out, as it is a good group, attracting fellow larpers from all over the world. I mention the LARP Haven discussion as it really set my gears in motion on the general topic of modern LARP rules development and some of the takeaways and lessons learned from those that came before. In general, it seems like there are two camps when it comes to your archetypal fantasy / sci-fi / etc… LARP. Again, I say “in general” because the discussion has to start somewhere, and this is where I’m starting it. Distill the details how you want. Your mileage may vary.

The first camp is made up of those who believe that LARP rules should encourage a gamist methodology and mentality in interacting with the game world; that is, “winning” and character optimization is the focus, even beyond actual role-playing or understanding narrative motivations. These systems usually manifest as rulebooks containing many pages, inundated with myriad vocalized effects, laundry lists of caveats and exceptions, and player character progression based on gaining access to lots of fantastic abilities and powers, rendering some players theoretically more powerful and skillful than other players and NPCs of less experience. These systems are also characteristically complicated, often favoring, not to mention preferred by, players who are able, or like to digest and process lots of esoteric rules, over those with any actual role-playing ability. Games like this are often found to be older and are the ‘first generation’ games, like NERO (which is a by-product of Alliance), Alliance, Dystopia Rising, or their many offshoots and children here in the States. Through talking to the people that play in these games, as well as experiencing them for myself over the years, I’ve been left with the notion that this approach is tenuous at best, if not ultimately damning. One thing that is common amongst all of them is a sort of “soft” understanding; that is, to exact upon, execute, and perhaps most important, play within these systems, eventually becomes untenable and unsustainable, despite players’ motivations to continue playing within the game world. Experience says we see a stark, inverse relationship between player abilities and skills garnered, and the mutual, if not unspoken, trust of the player population insofar as it concerns another player’s ability to correctly interpret and execute said rules and mechanics.  The second camp, however, adopts a more minimalist approach to rules in favor of allowing character interactions, accompanied by a small amount of rules (notice I didn’t say no rules at all), and lots of role-play to drive the game forward. Often, these systems adopt rules that encourage immersion over competing levels of player meta-power, wherein there are streamlined combat and magic systems, with few vocalized effects and mechanics, and only where presumably and absolutely necessary. Examples include many international games, like Conquest of Mythodea and Bicolline, as well as some newer, regional, North American systems, like Lands of Exile, Arcane, and Gothic: The Lion Age. Please add your name to the comments if this pertains to your game as I would love to hear about some newer perspectives in rules development. Being that these posts are about communicating effects in LARP, however, let’s explore these two camps in within this context; that is, how are effects and intent different in a “rules-heavy” system versus a “rules-lite” system?

Picking up from the last post, I had chosen two examples of what you might expect to find scattered over the first generation, rules-heavy, rule books, referring to those systems that seek to more faithfully represent the quantity of skills and abilities one might find in table top RPGs that so heavily influenced the early LARP systems. Likewise, these types of skills and mechanics are more likely to be found in a LARP setting wherein a gamist culture prevails (or has indirectly been fostered), and where characters are made to feel that all players should possess heroic levels of prowess and ability, in addition to any natural ability they may bring to the game. What we often find in these environments, however, are a number of harmful cultural and administrative scenarios that only further degrade the quality of the game on the whole, whether players and administrators are wont to admit it or not. Let’s take a look at one of these scenarios below and then examine some alternative approaches to including a prolific amount of these types of rules in your game.

dosdonts

Too Many Skills and Abilities

Many popular and long running LARPs still adhere to this rules methodology in order to do a couple of things. First, they seek to more closely resemble many MMORPG’s and table top RPGs in order to presumably, attract more would-be players to LARPing and perhaps make players more apt to try the hobby in the first place. Second, this design method seeks to use large quantities of skills and abilities in order to provide balance among player characters, often in settings where games have defined classes or some semblance of class segmentation based on abilities. Lastly, it provides for a means by which players are made to feel as though they’re progressing through the purchase of more, or different skills and abilities, as we’ve been engendered with the idea that more stuff means we’re doing better, and that we’re special compared to the next person. While this way of doing things has sufficed for decades, it can no longer be argued that this system is not ridden with flaws, and is not, in fact, inherently bad for a number of reasons, which we’ll examine below.

 

The Table Top Experience

As discussed in the first part of this blog, the first American iterations of LARP rules were derived largely from the arcane tomes of unnameable rules that were early role-playing games. And this really isn’t all that surprising, right? While it’s hard to say whether or not LARPing would exist without them, we can safely say we’ve moved past having to build rules systems based on them. Table top systems, by necessity, have to develop rules sets and execution mechanics that account for any possible action a player might want to perform for the most part, from the heroic, to the mundane.  This doesn’t have to be the case for LARP, and In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. By its nature, LARP is an immersive and physical hobby, one where players perform as many of their character’s actions as possible, and to that end, don’t require near as many rules as that of any given table top system. In fact, one could make the assertion that, beyond setting and some thematic elements, LARPs and table top systems should not have all that much in common; that is, wherein table top games have to account for any potential action a player may wish to take to maintain persistent immersion, LARPs must assume that a player can perform the action independent of a rule, that would, in fact, only serve to break the persistent immersion of the game world. It would seem that LARPs’ progenitors are now the very thing that are doing it harm; that what first brought players into the hobby is the source for much consternation, or at the very least, making it difficult for new and existing players to enjoy the game within these complicated constraints.

Role playing books

Skills as an Equalizer

As direct descendants of table top rules sets, it’s no wonder that popular, long-standing LARP rules books contain myriad heroic skills and abilities, intended to elevate the office drone to epic levels of Conan-like prowess and strength, or imbue the fry cook with the mysterious and arcane abilities of a Red Wizard. After all, this is what drew a lot of us LARPers to the hobby in the first place, right? What happens though, after you’ve been at it for a long time, is that you begin to realize that being able to pick and build a character from a laundry list of abilities, and in turn, having to learn all of the often complicated mechanics that accompany them, eventually detracts from the overall experience. Ask yourself whether or not it’s the fact that you get to swing this fake sword at people, perform an engrossing magical ritual, or discover a devious plot to assassinate a noble, that gets you immersed in the game, or is it in fact, all the rules you get to yell at people and process during a LARP event. Are you playing the game or are you playing the rules? Some would refer to this line of thinking as simply anti-gamist, however I can elaborate.

To convince you, loyal reader, that this way of doing things is actually pretty bad, let me break it down for you into what LARP rules designers think this methodology does, versus what it actually does. Again, we’re talking about the conventional, fantasy/sci-fi/insert -your-geeky-genre-here, LARP systems wherein they are structured similarly to your archetypal table top or online RPG. Pick a class. Pick some skills. Choose a background. Tally ho!   These systems often attempt to level the playing field via a system of skills and/or abilities that a player can buy with intangible points earned event to event, or are purchased, etc…. Ideally, this portfolio of skills and abilities, while allowing for character uniqueness, should also set every player on a more or less equal footing when it comes to interacting with, and functioning within the game setting. My 10th level Fighter should balance out pretty evenly with your 10th level Wizard, in terms of usefulness, power, etc… Of course, there will always be the min-maxers who just want to watch your system burn, but we’ll save them for another post. I digress. So what is this proliferation of skills and abilities actually doing to your game? Well, it’s doing a couple of things. First, it’s enabling the gamist-minded players out there to poke holes enough to make Swiss cheese out of your carefully crafted, if not abundant, rules set, on their way to total domination, often at the expense of having to create more rules or constant errata just to deal with them (this is NOT to say rules systems are perfect from the outset and SHOULDN’T have errata for all you trolls out there). As the saying goes, there is usually a name tag attached to every new rule. A mechanics/effects heavy game often encourages those who extract enjoyment from turning a LARP into a contest of intimate rules knowledge to do just that, and often at the cost of alienating new players who don’t have the tribal knowledge experienced players do. Second, these systems are directly contributing to the total deterioration of any game quality, scalability, and sustainability; that is, it becomes essentially and eventually impossible for your player base to digest and process the many mechanics that accompany these skills and abilities. That is, as characters in these types of systems progress, this progression often correlates with an increase in the number of things they can do, or likewise, an increase in frequency in how many times they can do these things. What is meant, initially, as a way for players to feel as though they’re more powerful and “winning” at the game eventually results in a diminishing rate of return. As the number of skills and things my character can do goes up, the likelihood that I or other players can process all of this goes down. Or, at the very least, the opportunity for this type of abuse increases. If someone says they can process loads of mental math along with lots of other vocalized effects calls, all in a time window of mere seconds, they’re full of it. Beyond being nigh impossible based on scientific fact, it really just makes for a pretty dull fight, too. Any semblance of actual danger or immersion is lost to the fact that you’ve got to worry about what’s going to come out of your opponent’s mouth, in addition to where they’re going to be swinging. Perhaps the worst part of skill and/or ability over-saturation is its penchant to, whether purposefully or not, encourage cheating. As it becomes nigh impossible to process all of one’s abilities, not to mention the abilities of an opponent, the odds that someone will not play exactly to the rules, whether or not they are aware of it (see cheating), greatly increases. And sadly, all this really does is just make players pissed off and frustrated, greatly diminishing trust and any perceived value in a game on the whole. Third, this method can in some cases, marginalize a player’s natural abilities. Instead of adopting rules and mechanics as needed, these systems seem to favor implementing a rule or mechanic for everything, greatly increasing overall complexity and increasing the barrier to entry for would-be and new players. For example, in many current systems it is quite popular to group abilities by different, archetypal, fantasy based classes, be they the thief or rogue, fighter, mage, etc…At this point, we’ve totally pigeonholed a player into pursuing their character in one direction and stripped away any mystery about how they might be playing said character. That is, instead of playing a character who chooses to be interested in the arcane arts and their martial use, a player now need only say, “…oh, I’m a Mage.” Pretty uninteresting versus actually having a conversation about how/why you came across your abilities or what actually motivates your character. Lastly, this method discourages players from having to use any real world RP ability in favor of simply relying on their laundry list of a character sheet in order to navigate plot and solve problems. Maybe you were young and hungry once. You didn’t have lots of neat things you could do, having to survive on skill, grit, and intuition, but then you did. You got complacent, letting all those spells and crits define you. You don’t need to seek out the treasure. The treasure comes to you, now. Sound familiar? Maybe someone you know? This sort of LARP retirement happens once characters sort of level their way to obsolescence via systems that allow for the proliferation of loads of skills and abilities.

 

Alternatives to the Norm

        So it would seem that the simple answer is to just not have so many effects and/or, right? Well, sort of. Let’s start by defining a few key terms that get tossed around a lot, but are in fact different animals. Note that these terms are within the context of LARP and not necessarily as they’re perceived and/or defined in general.

Rule – these are policies that define how a game is played and the game itself. A rule is an umbrella term that can cover everything from safety measures, to how long a specific effect lasts, to how to use an ability. A rule defines and dictates any action within the context of a game and helps the player to interact with and within the game. Examples include striking angle of a weapon or how long a count lasts before a player is considered dead.

Effect – refers to the abstraction of an action, or the execution of an action as a consequence of a rule, and is sometimes referred to as a mechanic. Effects usually are put in place to replicate real actions that might be harmful or otherwise impossible. Examples include standing still when under a “Paralyze” effect or falling down, “dead,” when being targeted with the “Death” effect. An effect is a rule whose specific intent is to replicate an action or a state of being. These are usually vocalized or communicated via some other means so as to indicate the action being performed, in addition to the resulting effect.

Ability – represents an action or meta-skill that a player is allowed to perform within the game. This can be as simple as swinging a weapon, throwing a magic spell, or getting the upper hand in a trade between powerful merchants. Abilities are usually accompanied or defined by, an effect, by which a player can manipulate, interact with, and influence the game world and other players

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about them as they seem to be the main culprit in this whole mess. Objectively, these little guys are what inject a lot of the fantasy into a fantasy LARP or other. No one can really put you to sleep with magic or hit you with a flaming sword (without it hurting a lot), so how do we replicate this cool, mystical stuff? Why, effects silly! Ok, then how do let someone know we’re doing this cool, mystical stuff to them? Why, we shout it at them of course! Ok, how do I know if your spell works on me? Wait…what? So therein lies the issue. It’s easy to understand why this train of thought makes sense and how it initially followed that this was a sensible approach to putting this stuff into your game. But bad stuff happens when too many of these are being thrown around in a combat or other sort of player interaction. Besides it sounding absolutely ridiculous and totally non-immersive, they can do a lot of harm to your game, especially in abundance. As we’ve covered this already, let’s go over some alternatives to this approach so we can keep the fantasy as seamless as possible, and not let that reality leak in. We’ll start with the assumption that we’re going to work on a rules set that will facilitate a fantasy world wherein our players can make and play characters who can do stuff you simply can’t or shouldn’t do in your day to day life, i.e. magic, murder, mayhem, etc… We then want to provide our players with all kinds of neat options and variations on how to harm other characters, steal from them, set traps, hurl magic at them, influence them to do things they’d not do otherwise, etc…Variety is the spice of life! Well this is where things get sticky. This is the point at which system efficiency breaks down and we get lots of redundancies, overlap, and complications that really muck up the works and cause confusion. With this in mind, let’s continue with our previous assumptions and goals. What do we do then, to ensure that we’re providing for sufficient fantasy elements in our game while maintaining immersion and the understanding that each abstraction placed between a player and their respective character renders them that much less engaged with the game their supposed to be experiencing? We can use the following graphics to better demonstrate this concept. This, “immersion sandwich”, while seemingly really delicious and tempting, simply becomes harder to swallow as it is continually stuffed with more and more rules and/or effects.

sandwich

Trim down your rules set by employing some of the ideas below:
1. Assume It Can Already Be Done – start by assuming a player can perform any action their character can perform. This can help to inform rules development as we will continually ask ourselves if including another layer of abstraction between player and character is absolutely necessary. Lots of rulebooks like to over regulate combat; that is, in order to make players feel like fighters with greater levels of ability, they’ll include skills to subsidize and fill in any potential gaps in real skill, or as an attempt to heighten up the fantastic, thematic elements of the setting. Assume immersion first and consider an ability a last resort. Its always feels cooler and more satisfying to do something on your own as opposed to having to rely on some character sheet entry to the same ends.

2. Avoid Redundancies – many times rule books will include multiple iterations of the same effect, yet only call it something different. We see this most notably where immobilizing and / or status effects are concerned; where players are unable to move limbs, their entire body, are sickened, or some variation thereof. Since the goal here is to streamline things, only include those effects that truly differentiate themselves. Remember that more isn’t necessarily better, and that we don’t need to have minor variations on similar effects. It can be much more immersive to simply put different “skins” on the same effect, given the context and themes of the game world. As an example and typical scenario, perhaps we have multiple “schools” or “domains” of magic. We don’t have to come up with unique effects for every single one. We can, in fact, simply include the same effects in each domain, only re-skinned, making it so that the player population, on the whole, only has to learn a small amount of calls.

3. Consider the Method of Intent – as stated above, popular practice is to vocalize the explicit effect being used. Consider other options when coming up with ways to communicate intent and action abstractions. If it’s a defense ability, perhaps it doesn’t even need to be called? I mean, we are on the honor system after all? Perhaps it could be role played as a grunt and a stagger. While there are indeed, lots of ways to produce un-vocalized environmental effects, i.e. via lights, sounds, touch elements, etc… this list will primarily pertain to the meta-interactions between players. Including lots of special offensive abilities, however, offers its own set of challenges. How do we navigate including and communicating myriad, specific offensive abilities when the intent is to include as few “calls” as possible? Let’s look at a few, typical, weapon-delivered offensive skill examples and come up with some different ways we could execute them without the use of these calls.

Piercing or Body Damage – this type of effect typically refers to a strike, magical or otherwise, that bypasses any armor worn. This type of attack can be better allocated to a weapon type. For example, consider allowing this type of damage to be delivered only by piercing weapons, such as arrows, bolts, daggers, rapiers, etc… Does this mean that everyone will now be running around with a crossbow and a few daggers? Maybe, but so what? If they want to look like Rambo running around the battlefield, let them. In this way, we can also leave calls where they belong, in the magic system. If you were to hear someone shouting, “Body,” or some such variation, you’d now know it was magically rendered.

Disarming Strike – refers to a blow that disarms an opponent of anything they might be carrying in their hands. This one is a bit more complicated, although I would simply say leave it to rule number one above. Assume this and any non-harmful, non-impossible ability/skill can be achieved through actual skill, rather than via a forced, in-game effect.

Powerful Blow – this skill essentially represents a strike that deals an amount of damage well beyond what is normal. Like example A, we can allocate this ability to certain weapon types, however in this case, they’ll be of the larger variety. Let the player who wants to schlep around a spear, halberd, or large sword all weekend get some benefit! Give their weapon extra damage. For example, if all small/medium weapons do 1 point of damage, these big guys can do 2. In this way, there’d still be no need for extemporaneous calls, as all players have to do is remember which weapons do 1 point and which do 2.

Deflect or Parry (Defensive Abilities) – this refers to the purely abstracted version of a physical maneuver meant to block or deflect, as the name entails, an oncoming blow. As this mechanic is often purely an abstraction, it’s often meant as an added layer of protection when a weapon blow or other, in fact does make contact, and the target does not want to have to let the effect of the blow resolve upon them. Whereas offensive abilities require some method to communicate their delivery, we have the small luxury, in the case of defensive abilities, to let the honor system do the work for us. Should you wish to include these abilities in your rules set, a player need simply mentally account for the used ability when used and move on. While it might seem frustrating to an opponent that none of their blows seem to be having an effect, at least there would be a common understanding that their opponent might be mentally using their defensive abilities against the successful offensive blows. Again, honor system. What’s also nice about this approach, too, is that eliminates a whole host of calls that would have otherwise detracted from the immersion of the combat, and likewise, keeps a player from having to process loads of mental math. If you’re following along, we’re only up to tracking weapon types and a defensive skill or two (we’ll discuss magic systems a bit later). Leaving these out altogether isn’t a bad idea as well, as it’ll have the effect of making your players better at either blocking the blow, or simply getting out of the way.

 

In Conclusion

 

In putting these series of posts together, I find myself noting lots of parallels between those concepts I’ve been taught in the tech world and those struggles within LARP development, most notably the concept of scaling out. In essence, it simply refers to how an existing hardware/software solution is going to manage extra workloads over time. Whether it’s simply adding more resources or writing adaptability into the software, something needs to happen in order to support this change and increase in demand. The system cannot stay stagnant. What works great now will sooner or later have to undergo some change, hopefully for the better. And I guess that’s what I’m getting at here. In my time doing this stuff, I’ve seen great games ruined by poor rules systems, inundated with obsolete and tired mechanics and unimaginative effects delivery systems. I’ve seen once enthusiastic players become disheartened and frustrated over years of dealing with this kind of stuff.  It seems that there is some great unspoken reluctance to buck the status quo. I’ve also found that the simplest systems are often those that are the easiest to scale out, and are often the most successful at doing so. We all want our hobby, and likewise our games, to grow, right? Then keep the rules barrier to entry as low as possible for those that want to give it a shot. Let players turn their attention to their kit, to reading about the world you’ve spent so much time creating, to putting the finishing touches on their character or to telling their friends all about the hobby. If I haven’t convinced you that this is the way to go, hopefully I’ve at least given you something to consider.

May 03, 2016

In case you couldn’t tell from my previous articles, I’m pretty big on immersion, and judge any LARP I play by how much they invest in providing me with a really cool and engrossing experience. Elitist? Maybe. Entitled? Perhaps. But one thing is is for certain. Be you player, staff, or admin, there are some simple things you can do to make sure even the most discerning of players is consistently wowed and amazed by even the most cookie cutter of encounter or module. As lingo doesn’t necessarily transcend international borders, state-side, an encounter/module is a term we use to define a targeted and specific mission a group of players, large or small, go on over the course of a LARP event. There are usually many such encounters, targeted or random, that are often used as devices through which game runners and staff drive macro and micro plot arcs. These can be as simple as players rescuing a group of peasants from an unseemly band of orcs, or as complex as a multi-encounter plot arc, finally resulting in the targeted assassination of an up and coming galactic senator. It is important to keep in mind that, as this article is not necessarily the end all, be all of LARP effects lists, I would hope to simply impart upon you, reader, that as you design your encounters in the future, you’re continually asking yourself how you can make it more immersive and what kinds of sensory elements you can add to capture the undivided attention of every player. A great tip I learned from a fellow LARP staffer was to compile a “mod tote.” These are simply plastic tubs that contain items used universally across any encounter you might run from event to event. A few items from mine:

Rolls of black plastic sheeting for artificial walls
Staple gun
Bluetooth speaker
Pop-its (for under the jumpy stones, see below)
Jumpy stones (Generic obstacle that goes well on most any encounter. Cut these out of cardboard and paint to look like rocks!)
Party poppers (for traps)
Mouse traps and fishing line (for, yes that’s right, traps)
Fake spider webs (mostly cause everyone hates to be caught in them, and they’re good for traps)
Black light and multi colored light bulbs (plastic if you can get them)
Strobe lights (careful with these guys as some folks are in fact, epileptic)
Power strips
Extension cords
Adapters and cables to run sound

Remember that there are five senses to engage, so let’s take a look at some really easy ways to do so.

1. Music and Sound Effects – If you do nothing else, this should be your go to in order to take your encounter up about 10 notches. With your smart phone, a decent connection, and a Bluetooth speaker or small instrument amplifier, you can turn that module building into a creaky ship, set adrift alone on the high seas or a dank and dripping cave. Run some power out to a remote building on site, and crank the zombie sounds to give your players a truly terrifying survival experience. For some great tavern/seedy futuristic bar, atmosphere find a few setting-appropriate tunes to play on repeat, and watch your camp kitchen transform before your…ears. While there is plenty of material out there for purchase, an invaluable resource on which I’ve come to depend for all manner of sound effects and music is Spotify. Ask me and I’ll share my lovingly hand-crafted playlist with you, containing myriad sound effects and music for any sort of LARP genre in which you might find yourself. Or, simply search for the effect you’re after an more than likely you’ll find the exact thing you’re looking for.

Hide this for easy sound

2. Fog Machine – In addition to music and sound effects for ambiance, this is my other go-to for easy atmosphere. While they can be a little pricey, with the initial purchase and then subsequent orders of fog juice, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck. One of the only problems you’ll have is that all of your staff will now want to use them all the time! They don’t necessarily  make sense for every encounter, though, so let me hit you with a few great places you can use them. In general, fog machines are great at doing one thing: obfuscation. LARP staff love running encounters at night. Why? Because, when the sun goes down, it becomes that much harder for players to see the ruddy camp furniture, the dilapidated basketball courts, and the moldy cots that often permeate large LARP sites. With a fog machine, we can now replicate this, and more often, even improve upon this concealment element. In addition, the presence of fog can add a mystical and otherworldly ambiance to virtually any setting in which it’s used. Lot’s of times, fog can actually be the central aesthetic element to an encounter. Fog up a small room and watch your players scramble as they attempt to locate the artifact they’ve been sent to find. Want to heighten the tension? Throw some hostile NPC’s into the mix and watch the fun begin! What could have been a simple, “fight the monsters, find the thingamajig” has now been made much more “interesting” given the addition of a large amount of obscuring mist (excuse the pun). Have a few large foggers? Run them on the field during a battle and watch a simple field battle become something completely transcendent. Run sound out there for even greater effect. If you’re willing to take things a bit farther, some fog juice companies even make extracts you can add to the fog liquid to make it take on a variety of lovely and interesting smells. How’s that for immersion?!

Fog Machine

3. Lights – this is another no-brainer, and, like a lot of these tips, comes right out of the theatre. While you don’t need a lot to get started, it can be a smart investment on behalf of your LARP to purchase a collection of different colored bulbs and clamp lamps, including black lights. Lights, like fog, can add a lot to any given encounter. Use them in a puzzle of some sort. Give that fake fire a greater degree of realism. Use some green and purple bulbs to give that undead field battle a sickening pallor. You won’t believe the overall effect these little guys can have on any encounter. Use them in tandem with a room filled with fog to make an already mystical and magical area, even more…mystical and…magical. You can simply place a few randomly colored bulbs around a somewhat darkened encounter building to kick things up a notch. Using a bulb that oscillated between colors, I’ve changed the effect on players in the room depending on the color of the bulb at the time. This also works well to simply give your encounter spaces a surreal and strange turn. Strobe lights are great for this too. Just make sure you’ve considered any possible seizure situations from within your player base. Even set on a slow frequency, however, strobe lights can turn a simple “dark mod” into an even more terrifying endeavor as faces and hostile NPC’s appear in and out of the darkness (make sure they’re made up and gruesome, or at least wearing a mask!). Got some other ideas or examples where you you’ve lights to great creative effect? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

multi-color_led_bulb_1

blacklight

So while this list can go on, if you haven’t already, start with these items and I guarantee you’ll be shocked at how much they’ll add to your LARP’s modules and encounters. There was a time when I staffed for a game that didn’t really make this stuff standard, and then gradually, different staff began incorporating these elements into their encounters. Within a period of 2 – 3 events, players could not stop talking about how cool the already great encounters had become. Just like that, the game had become something completely different, something better than it was, by simply plugging in a fog machine, pressing play on a smart phone or iPod, and setting up a few lights. In a matter of minutes, encounters went from ordinary to extraordinary. What are some cool and interesting ways you’ve used special effects in your LARP?

Apr 15, 2016

By: Luke Mahar

Immersion: a longtime buzzword for LARPs.  LARP’s advertised as highly immersive are the latest affectation LARP owners use to promote their product to players, yet without an industry standard in vernacular and measure, how are players to know just what to expect out of a LARP that’s “highly immersive,” or even mildly immersive, for that matter.  It is nothing new to employ a sort of spectrum for different elements of a LARP, be it focus on roleplay vs combat, or other. It may be worthwhile at this stage, for the community to consider adopting some system to determine the level of immersion people can expect for one pretty important reason. Without this rating system or reference, even the term, “immersive” will begin to slowly lose value and grey in meaning, as every game will, or continue to, boast about their “high” Immersion Factor. What is now an aspect of the product a player would consider when choosing a game with which to be involved will eventually become the next “all natural” or “organic.” It will become even the most humble of LARPs MO when trying to draw players, diminishing the work another game might put in to in fact be, highly immersive.  One might compare it to a business or company advertising with a customer satisfaction rating based on the ratings of their own staff. “We were ranked #1 in service by 100% of our customer service representatives!”

Although no standard rating system currently exists, for the purposes of this article I will propose various “Immersion Factor” or “IF” ratings based on various key elements of LARP games.  Immersion is inextricably linked to both how the LARP game looks and how it feels. Immersion is more than what is seen, in fact, it deals more with what a LARP player would experience as the game is played.  By no means are these suggestions the end all be all list of how to have an immersive game, however, there are some aspects which distinguish one LARP’s Immersion Factor from another that can be clearly identified and categorized.  I believe the level of immersion is what makes it easier, or harder for that matter, for a player to leave reality and fully disappear into the LARP as their character.  Many games are attempting to accomplish this, so how do we gauge whether or not one is successful in doing so?

Look and Feel

The look and feel of a LARP speaks largely to mean the devices which help develop and maintain ambiance, promote Player Character continuity, and atmospheric immersion.  Here are some simple, common sense approaches to consider that will add to a LARP’s level of gameplay and overall Immersion Factor:

1. Transforming a Room – This is a small effort that goes a long way in hiding reality. The easiest thing to do when you have large items in a room which are not in period is to simply cover them up with some plain sheets or blankets. Just having these items out of site will make a difference. You’d be surprised at how much more acceptable it is to see a lump of cloth covering something on a table in the corner instead of looking at a microwave. Sure, your mind knows it’s a microwave under there, but eventually it will become far easier to ignore and won’t pull you out of character in the middle of a sentence when you notice it. If it’s a room you spend a lot of time in, eventually your mind will just overlook it. Another great trick is to cover it with cloth and then decorate it using the object underneath to provide levels for your candles, trinkets, or treasure boxes. Dressing up what you’re hiding works wonders.

Transforming a Room

Credit: Herofest LARP

A snapshot can help in making these sorts of decisions. Just like a person may check the mirror before going out in order to see what object stands out the most and then take it off or change it. It is important to glance at a setting or character to see what things might stand out as not part of the right genre for your game setting. A great way to do this is by taking a quick picture with your phone and then looking at it to see if anything stands out or “ruins” how good that picture would be for a promo shot. In this way, you will eventually get very good at seeing what looks out of place and finding ways to cover it up or fix it. A lot of my LARP experience comes from playing in fantasy or medieval settings which have consistent items that stand out or break immersion for the game. Plastic/Styrofoam cups and drink bottles are some of the most common offenders. These items can be replaced with wooden or period appropriate containers at a relatively low cost, be they brought by players, or provided by the game for a longer term solution.

Dressing up a table

Credit: Medieval Chaos LARP

2. Props – Props are the additive source of ambiance. They are the simple details which can help a player become a character. Props can be environmental or physical.

  • Environmental Props are the sights and sounds which make up the setting for your LARP. Some examples of using environmental props would be: walking downstairs into a room or dungeon where the floor is covered in smoke or fog, hearing creepy sounds play in the distance, or drums banging away as you approach a hut deep in the woods.  Using remote locations, or locations that fit into the overall scheme of the LARP are also good examples of ways to create a highly immersive environment.
Scrolls and Currency

Credit: Meliadhor at Propnomicon

  • Physical Props are objects such as candles, fake blood, scrolls, books, webs, treasure boxes and other standard or common props used in LARPs.  If most of your props are representative of the time period then props that are not part of the environment stand out even more so.  Having excellent props within will additionally increase the Immersion Factor for the players.

Text Props

Fortunately, all props are optional. They aren’t a necessary component since they are used as an additive factor for immersion. By that I can make the assertion that it is harder for a player to perceive what might be missing from a scene versus what is definitely out of place. So, if you don’t have scrolls, books, drums, or smoke, these missing articles won’t necessarily detract from an immersive environment. However, having them certainly adds to it and helps players get more in touch with their character.  LARP games that use props effectively would have a much higher Immersion Factor than LARP games which simply rely on the players’ imagination. One of the most difficult props to control is the costuming, armor & weapons, and makeup that players bring to a LARP.  Since each player is individually responsible for these elements, quality control is in the hands of the player and can be challenging to administer without having some uncomfortable conversations.  For instance, if a bunch of players wear basic tabards, carry distinctly fake weapons, and have some brown face paint smeared on them, one might accept them all as the “trolls” who need to be defeated in order to save the kingdom.  Unfortunately, one of the “trolls” decided to wear a baseball cap backwards and stands out like a sore thumb.  Boom, Immersion Factor drops over something that is not always in your control.  In order to increase your LARP Immersion Factor rating, provide rules for what is acceptable and unacceptable.  True LARP players who are looking for the full immersion will appreciate your efforts to bring this aspect into line.

goblets

Here are some suggestions for helping players add to the overall Immersion Factor:

1. Costuming – Obviously, one of the biggest things that stands out in a fantasy setting is clothing items like sneakers, t-shirts and jeans. These are commonly worn items and some players may have difficulty accepting structure or critique regarding these items.  I understand that controlling what someone wears, especially if they’re coming to NPC for you for free is a difficult conversation! If you are having difficulty with these things, you can attempt to raise the standard a little at a time by enforcing a “no jeans” policy, and then later a “no sneakers” policy or you can simply just not allow it. At the very least, simple concealment is still a workable solution for many of these setting-inappropriate items. If at first it sticks out, keep on adding costume pieces and layers! Keep adding and eventually you will no longer notice the out of place item. Artifacts, trinkets, scarves, robes, jewelry, hoods/hats/mantles/skullcaps, tabards, armor, gloves and even wigs can all add enough to a look to essentially hide the one or two items that would normally be out of place, or at least draw your attention away from them.  For those running their own LARP, bring a trunk (in period of course) or  some collapsible clothing racks with additional pieces that can be added if your NPC’s are having a hard time bringing their own gear. Tabards are usually the first solution for covering t-shirts, but are definitely not the only option available when going for a higher level of immersion. Wrap pants are amazing! Most players will be far less likely to take a second glance at jeans under a fine pair of wrap pants.  Armor can also be used to cover up jeans and a t-shirt, however, no matter how ornate, realistic, or amazing looking, if you’re wearing it over a t-shirt and jeans, you’re still wearing it over a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. A big argument about armor and Immersion Factor is real or realistic. Here’s a simple thought which sometimes helps to assuage those who are looking for the benefit but don’t necessarily care about look: If you’re going to wear armor that doesn’t look real or you’re just wearing it for points, put it under your clothes. I have a very cheaply made suit which passes for plate or scale armor in one game that I play. In fact, so many other players have come to wear something similar that it has been dubbed “poker chip” armor because of its hard, plastic disks sewn into the fabric. It looks terrible by itself in nearly every example I have seen, and most wear it as their tabard or armor above the rest of their costuming, but as a layer under my tabard it just looks like some thick black fabric. I still get the points for it and I’m showing off my garb, not my tech-crafted armor.

Great accents to a costume!

2. Makeup – Whether yours is a game with heavy makeup requirements or little to no makeup, the trick with maintaining immersion with makeup is to be consistent! I have played many games where you see a lot of players who obviously take the extra effort to ensure their makeup and/or prosthetics are done very well, however, just as I mentioned earlier, if even one of them doesn’t take that requirement as seriously, they stand to immediately detract from immersion. This is perhaps most difficult for the Plot and NPCs running the game, as players may have to sometimes slip in and out of various roles and it takes time to apply good makeup and prosthetics. Again, the key is to cover up or distract from what can easily be seen as out of place. I’ve seen players wear headbands or skullcaps because they forgot their ear prosthetics. I’ve seen players use various things to cover what they are unable to supplement with makeup or props; partial masks to cover their face where a scar or tattoo might be missing, a veil to hide a missing beard, a hood to cover missing horns, gloves to cover bare skinned hands, a scarf or mantle to cover the back of your neck. These seemingly minor details are those which maintain the consistency of the “snapshot glances,” ensuring that nothing is out of place or spoiling or detracting from the atmosphere. Again, it is difficult for your mind to not do this naturally, so try to limit those things which trigger that response.  Increase your Immersion Factor by ensuring that players have these items available.

Credit: Senhora-Raposa

Credit: Senhora-Raposa

3. Rules – The actions, effects, calls and logistics of a game are just as vital to the atmosphere as any props or roleplay. A LARP developer known to some as the “Grandfather of LARP” in the US, Ford Ivey, is developing his latest system with the motto “play the game, not the rules.” This is a great model for improving on a game’s Immersion Factor and when looking to design a system or rule set for our own games, attempt to focus a player’s attention on playing their character or role, not the game system.  The game and its rules system needs to be transparent and seamless relative to the environment in order to achieve a high Immersion Factor.  If I have to stop game play in order to read a card that describes what something does or how I should roleplay an effect, I’ve stopped playing my character and am now playing the system. This goes for the vocalization mechanic as well. Many times we find that LARP systems are inundated and plagued by lots of vocalized effects that must be remembered and in turn, interpreted by all players. Unfortunately, keeping the rules and calls as in character and immersed as possible creates a new level of difficulty for players. This is not something a game can simply adapt and employ without a serious level of understanding and investment from the players. They have to actually know what an effect does or how they’re supposed to roleplay it. In the end, players are basically communicating their intended actions to one another using words that aren’t at all in character. This reminds me of the table top games where I tell the GM what my character does instead of just doing it. While this method for executing on actions seems logical for players who are just learning, it is anathema to the basic concepts of immersion, where everything you are doing should be as your character would do it and very little, if anything, is said out of character or out of game.

Credit: Conquest of Mythodea LARP, Olaf Winter

 4. Roleplaying – Staying in character is probably the biggest contributor to immersion as well as the most likely offender in breaking it. Even the “purest” of role players can be caught slipping out of character or breaking immersion at a moment when they forget their role or are themselves forced out of character. One of the great tricks that more players should put into practice is to actually take a moment to get in to character. This is what actors do when they hear “action.” This is why we countdown to a “Lay On” after the game has been paused for whatever reason. We don’t just start, we try to ease back into it. For some players, the whole ritual of getting dressed in their garb or putting their makeup on is what helps them get into their character. Some people seem to come by roleplaying more naturally than others, but everyone should be able to remind themselves that what they may be about to say or do doesn’t fit in the game world with which they’re currently involved. This is much easier when everyone and everything around you is promoting immersion and helping to keep you “synced” with your character. Likewise, it is the responsibility of players to help bring those who may be slipping out of “decorum” back in sync with their character and their character’s respective appropriate actions. It doesn’t mean you have to berate them or even step out of character yourself to snap someone else back into the game. Sometimes a gentle reminder using “in character lingo” can go a long way in helping a player check their own behavior. Some ways to gently remind a player could be to ask if they aren’t feeling well, or if they are speaking madness, or if they have been drinking. Other, more intrusive, ways to remind people are to do things which are obviously part of the game or in character, such as standing up abruptly and saying “I won’t be a party to this nonsense,” or threatening to cast a spell or use some ability on the person whose character is obviously not acting like themselves. I have made a fun game out of finding new ways to bring people back into game that have strayed by doing something or even correcting their words to fit the genre. In one game I play, it has become popular to refer to your vehicle as your caravan or carriage. So, when someone says, “I left my sword in my car,” and you correct them by saying, “You mean you left it in your carriage?” you are simply providing a gentle reminder that “car” is obviously not setting appropriate. One of the biggest shifts needed to create a more immersive LARP game is a departure from the “just ignore it” idea, as it represents a mindset that is perhaps the largest detractor from creating a LARP that can completely capture and pull you in. Some may feel this attention to detail may be too exacting or a bit ridiculous, but the human mind is really good at subconsciously picking up on things which seem out of place or don’t belong. It is why we notice movie errors, like an actor who forgot to take his wedding ring off during a take where he was playing the role of some single guy. It’s at that moment you’ve ceased suspension of disbelief and have instead begun considering those things which exist in reality. So, if you find yourself fully immersed in a game with a low technological setting and it’s been hours since you thought about reality, chances are you’re doing a great job reacting and responding as your character would. Then, perhaps you hear or see someone’s cell phone. The reason this is so jarring for a player who is in character and not very easy to “just ignore” is because your character doesn’t know how to react to what you’re seeing. So, you revert to your knowledge as a player and attempt to dismiss it. Either way, it was enough to throw you off your game and now you’re most likely no longer immersed in the moment.

 

“Oh there you are, Peter.”

            So, in an effort to provide some guidelines for the things which add to or detract from your game’s IF rating, I hope this has been helpful. Not everyone wants to capture this level of detail or gameplay for their LARP and there is absolutely no cookie cutter version of what you should or shouldn’t do for your own game. For me, I would hope that this IF rating idea could eventually translate into something which tells me how easy it is going to be for me to stay in character at a game as well as how important that concept is for the people running that game. Since my experiences stem mostly from those games in the fantasy and medieval genres, I would love to hear some tips and tricks from players of games with vastly different settings and rules systems on how they get into character, cover up reality and set the mood for their games.

 

“The less I have to imagine, the more I can pretend.”

~Luke R. Mahar

Owner, LARPlink, Inc.

Pick up some great props, costuming, and makeup in the shop.

Take me to the shop!
Apr 13, 2016
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As any LARPer will tell you, the best thing about joining a LARP is you get to be the hero in your own movie.

What they often fail to mention is that everyone else wants to be the hero too. No sidekicks, no servants. Unless someone is willing to play a secondary character it’s a bunch of heroes fighting to have the most epic moments.

Don’t believe it? Just stand with any group of Larpers and ask them what is the most epic thing they’ve ever done at a LARP. I Guarantee that conversation will last longer than 4 bottles of Mead. Some LARP’s account for this by providing cookie cutter role-play. You turn up with enemies already there, people who already know you and want to defeat you, or stop you achieving your goal and generally be bad guys, or provide some other kind of role-play.

However there are many European-style Larps that take things a little differently. (Such as Bicolline in Canada which you can learn more about via The Voyage North.) Instead of providing you with quests and role-play they encourage you to find your own. So whether you’re looking to play a more memorable character in your own Larp, or want to learn how to get the best Role-play experience out of a European style LARP. Here’s a simple breakdown of 5 ways you can easily increase the amount of Role-play you get in a LARP.

1) Have a code and stick to it

This is almost too easy, by simply having a very strict code that you follow, such as always accept a challenge, or always defend someone in need etc. You will always be self generating Role-play. Suddenly, whenever the correct situation arises you get the chance to “activate” your code and begin a new encounter. Naturally this works best for characters like Monks however the truth is you can adapt it for any character. Some examples would include:

  • A wizard who follows a set code to appease their elders
  • A Knight with a Vow of Poverty and Chivalry
  • An Amazon who will never allow a man to best her in combat
  • An Orphaned prince who refuses to let the code of the old lands die

The key is being strict about following your code. The more people see you follow it, the more role-play you will find. (Just don’t bore people with it in every conversation, a casual mention once in a while to people you meet should be more than enough)

2) Argue with a friend

Everyone starts a new game with their friends as.. well … friends. Which makes sense. However it also encourages you to keep to your own people. Some of my greatest Role-play experiences have come from starting a game with a close friend of mine with a huge argument in the centre of camp. All of the players gather around to get involved and break it up at which point they find the two of us stick like glue and defend each other. By having conflict within the group it enables others to get involved while still encouraging you to stick together. Suggestions for arguments could be:

  • You got us lost and now we’re here
  • I didn’t even want to join the army
  • I thought you said the rampaging goblins were a music group!
  • Magic Doesn’t exist

3) Ridiculous viewpoints

The final suggestion in the point above brings up one of my favorite ways to Role-play with a new group, and thats simply to not believe in Magic. Just being point blank ignorant to the fact it exists.This is amazing because it will encourage everybody to attempt to prove you wrong. No matter what you see however, simply justify it away as just the wind, or smoke and mirrors. Once again this is the kind of character people love to hate and if everyone else is having fun, you won’t be able to help yourself but enjoy being the character. However ridiculous viewpoints don’t have to stick to disbelief in magic. Others include:

  • Swords are dangerous
  • The gods aren’t real
  • Elves are bad luck
  • I’m allergic to Money

Just be sure to remember not to flood every conversation with your thoughts, save it for the occasional point of witty banter to encourage a fun interaction and to flesh out your character.

4) Go on a Quest

Most RPG video games nowadays are made up from a central quest wth a bunch of side quests. The side quest make up a significantly larger part of the time in the game. Your LARP experience can be exactly the same. Just treat the other players as the NPC’s who hand out quests. Simply talking to people and finding out what they’re currently trying to do is an easy way to work out what you’re going to do. You’re going to help them. By being the aiding character in their quest, you’re increasing your role-play. You could do any of the following:

  • Vow to stand by their side until you have repaid your life debt
  • Help them find a missing person
  • Help them meet someone they want to meet
  • Avenge them for a death on the battlefield

Letting another player guide you is an easy way to make friends, and to give yourself plenty of Role-play opportunities.

5) Have a weakness

This is probably the easiest way to build some role-play around your character, yet it’s the thing very few people are willing to do. After all aren’t we all perfect heroes? The truth is Even Superman has Kryptonite. Without a weakness your character is unbelievable, and this makes it hard for people to relate to them. One of the most memorable characters in the old games I used to play was a coward, who hid from every battle. People loved protecting him and being his Hero. Another character only had one arm, a HUGE disadvantage in combat, and yet never was more noble an ally appreciated in battle.

Find a disadvantage and add it to your character and not only will you find more role-play, you’ll probably find that character grows to be one of your most favorite to play.

If you’ve never played in a European style LARP before, and Love the idea of playing with 3000 people in an open world complete with over 300 purpose built medieval buildings then check out The Voyage North.

Its an experience like no other.

Click here to join The Voyage North!

Want to join a European Larp in North America?

If you have ideas for simple ways to find more role-play in your LARP games then please feel free to post them in the comments below.

Apr 01, 2016

The Methods of Mechanization – The Means of Communicating Intent and Effects in LARP – Part 1

Since my first post, I realize that I may have bitten off more than anyone should chew when trying to address the myriad cultural and administrative aspects of LARP. Going back through my original document, it was apparent that I could have easily turned the one post into potentially, many more consolidated and pointed discussions. The first of these will be a new series I’m entitling, “LARP Rules!”. Excusing the pun, this series of posts will cover the generalized, modern practices of American LARP rules systems and mechanics, and take a deep dive into their roots, where these systems are currently, how they got there, and where they’re going (or where we think they should go for that matter). In addition, I’ll be providing personal critique on some alternatives to common mechanics practices, in addition to soliciting input from some of the LARP braintrusts that I’ve come to know over the years. The intention of these articles is to foster a pseudo-academic approach to how we address the virtues and drawbacks to current LARP rules sets and how we can constructively progress when developing systems for future games that consider the current LARP climate and needs of gamers on the whole. In these sorts of debates and discussions, the go-to for many people is to say something along the lines of, “Well, there’s no right way to have fun, and don’t tell me how to have fun.” In addition to completely missing the point, this line of reasoning does little to further the debate on what makes for a rules set that encourages what I’ll refer to from now on as the LARP Core Rules Tenet. It is the following:

Meaningful, consequential role-play and immersion is the means and the end. The story is secondary and is the organic, waste byproduct of interactions between players, be it through combat, in game skills, social mechanics, or otherwise. As such, any rules system, being that which defines and dictates actions in a game, should seek to put up as low a barrier as possible to this end, it being understood that a rule designed to represent an action is not the action. This represents a departure from play, and therefore to immersion. This departure is anathema to this end and as such should be as limited in scope as possible.

Think about it for a minute. In the artistic and professional endeavors of the world, whether it’s painting, programming, music, or accounting, there exist standards and practices that have been developed and improved upon over the lifetimes of the practice. And while there may have been diverging techniques within the community you were in, eventually these techniques and principles of practice coalesced to form a foundation from which to establish the “best practices,” for the given endeavor or profession. Objective assessments of technique bring together those within a profession into one community of practice, thereby encouraging and formalizing standards by which to operate. LARP rules development and implementation should be no different. LARP is an interesting kind of endeavor in which we have a narrative form driven forward by participants within the context of a rules set meant to represent actions, be it large and complicated, or small and concise. However, this narrative is only driven forward through personal interactions, be they intra-player, or between players and game administrators. It’s usually both. The only time, as players, we think to illicit the use of a rule or mechanic, is when we wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform the action, whether out of concerns for safety, the limitations of our reality, or other. Although it can be said that the game couldn’t exist without rules, the rules aren’t necessarily what drive the plot or narrative forward. And this is the exceptional thing about LARP. The very element that defines a game, the rules in this case, are the very thing that impairs it, being the interactions between players that drive a plot. In a sense, it could be said that the relationship between a LARP and its respective rules set, while necessary, is ultimately its biggest enemy.
This concept is by no means limited those games in the fantasy, boffer genre, however, these types of games will be the focus of the proceeding discussions, as they tend to permeate the popular LARP scenes in whatever part of the world you may find yourself. While these dialogues, on part of author and reader alike, will no doubt be replete with personal views on what makes for a “good” rules set or mechanic, the intent here is to strip away these preconceived notions about what has worked in the past and reexamine rules development within the context of LARP as we know it today. After all, we have the foundation of 30+ years of experience upon which to stand and from which to make assessments. We are in a singular position of luxury here; one in which we can use the design principles of the past to inform future rules development. All the while, being able to create something totally new that caters to player experience expectation and play styles that have developed over three decades of experimentation. So let’s begin by stepping into the past to see how the early systems got off the ground.

In the beginning…

dragon_magazine3

In the days before the popular use of the Internet, sometime in the late 80’s, when the troll was something relegated to story time and Dungeons and Dragons, one of the few ways to find and talk to your niche was through its respective newsstand publication. And for the gamers of the world, this publication was Dragon Magazine. It was THE place to go if you wanted to get the latest news and updates for everything D&D, get the word out for your convention, for the coolest new game that was going to land, or if you were trying to tell others about a strange new hobby; a hobby that would come to be known as live action role playing. Somewhere in the northeastern U.S., a bunch of people from a local gaming store thought it might be a good idea to get up from the table and try this thing out for real. And it worked. Really well, as a matter of fact. Soon after they thought to publish a notice in Dragon Magazine, people started to show up by the hundreds.

dragon_magazine1

It seemed that the hive mind was on their side in this case, for lo, LARP was born. The preceding information, in so many words, comes from a great interview the guys at LARPCast did, with one of the founders of this early LARP group, Mike Ventrella. The game he and his comrades would go on to create was, in a sense, patient zero for the many mutations we see today in the fantasy LARP genre.  Given this humble beginning, it is easy to understand why the rule books for many popular games, as well as their descendants, still look the way they do. In lots of cases, these rulebooks seem to prioritize staying faithful to the complicated and overly detailed mechanics of their table-top progenitors in favor of actually doing more to facilitate an easy transition for players into a hobby they helped to create in the first place. It is this concept that is perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects of the rules discussion. In the early days it seems that the motivations were mainly centered around catering to the thematic elements of your pen and paper RPG’s of the day. So how then, do we transition from designing rules systems around these themes and forms, which are not particularly suited to replication within the context of the LARP form, to designing systems that instead, cater to the LARP form while maintaining the thematic elements of a given setting or genre? We’ll discuss this more a little later and in additional articles.

Where are we now?

Right now it seems that the hobby is in a bit of a flux. We have the large, franchise and chapter games still firmly rooted around the country, with an aging population of organizers and admin who’ve been around since the beginning, alongside newer players and organizers who’ve really not had the same amount of success in improving upon the overall hobby or “growing” it, in general. While this is backed up mostly by personal experience and observation, one need only look around the web at the different offerings to see that it’s pretty sparse in terms of overall quality and experience. We haven’t really seen the growth and improvement in player population and aesthetics experienced by the European LARP scene. It just seems a bit strange as to why this is when we’ve got the proliferation of large social and festival style gatherings like Burning Man and other such events that attract tens of thousands of people to do little else besides “hang out”, not to mention the relative increase in popularity and notoriety “geek” society has experienced over the past few years. It would stand to reason that LARP, even in its position as a fringe activity at best, would attract no small percentage of these numbers, right? Perhaps it will simply never become all that accessible and grand, and maintain its current status, somewhere between a novel pastime and niche hobby. While it has gained some traction and recognition in the media, it seems as though this attention has done little to advance the craft. Dismal musings aside, and because this series is supposed to be dedicated to rules theory and critique, let’s shift gears a bit and take a look at how this aspect of game development has perhaps affected the overall progression of LARP into what we experience today.
As was summarized in the previous section, there is little mystery with regards to the origins of the early LARP rules sets. Given the lens of time, we have the luxury of being able to look back and ask ourselves if early game development methodologies were in fact, optimal in establishing a successful LARP framework. Hindsight being 20/20, we can make the assessment that attempting to translate rules sets designed for executing tabletop gaming actions into mechanics to facilitate live role playing probably wasn’t the best approach. This isn’t meant to demean or marginalize the efforts of our LARP forefathers, but to simply give context to discussions around why we might want to look at changing LARP rules design philosophy in the first place. Put a different way, had these LARP pioneers known what it would become, would they have started where they did? While this isn’t quite a “chicken or the egg” scenario, it is easy to understand why it might have been difficult to anticipate that the hobby would eventually take on a life all of its own, of, but apart from its tabletop parents. We can now take these insights and begin to develop new ideas around how to foster and nurture this new manifestation of an old and loved hobby. And there’s really no better place to start than the rules. So with that, welcome to LARP Rules!, a series of blogs specifically geared towards addressing some of the core issues in rules development and implementation that, over the years, I, in addition to others, have found to be prohibitive to those interested in the hobby as well as those that have been around for a while. While the reasoning behind the issues will be subjective, I will seek to be as objective as possible in presenting evidence to support my claims and complaints, and I would ask that any replies to the content follow suit.

The Issue

 “10 Normal Poison Magic Damage Slay Fire Huge Kill Boom……. Get all that? No? Strange, it couldn’t have been made more clear in our 200 page rule book that you should have at least glossed over once before coming out to play. Oh, you did but you still couldn’t process all that? Well, clearly you’re the one with the problem then, as our rules system is great.

This ever happen to you? You’re out at a LARP and suddenly you’re accosted by some NPC or other, and then swept up into a dizzying maelstrom of cacophonous and unintelligible cackling, your brain frozen in a state similar to shock. Let me begin by talking about a little concept known as Hick’s Law.

hicks_chart-1In the early 1950’s, British Psychologist, W.E. Hick devised a series of 9 experiments based around the study of mental chronometry, that is, the study of “…response time in perceptual-motor tasks to infer the content, duration, and temporal sequencing of cognitive operations.” In short, it studies the brain’s reaction time to commands in an attempt to assess processing power and speed. So how does all this apply to LARP? Getting to that. The series of 9 experiments introduced different cues to subjects that were intended to illicit some corresponding reaction on part of the subject, unique to the cue. Hick found that as the number of possible, unique cues increased, reaction time in subject increased, logarithmically. It became clear that even the possibility of more choice in potential commands befuddled and confused the brain, making that much more difficult to efficiently respond to stimuli. Let’s apply this to a few randomly sampled skills from major LARP rule books from around the country and break them down into their smaller, more easily digestible components. This assessment will assume some prior insight into how LARP rules work, in general, and will not attempt to target only the most extreme cases to support my assertions.

Case Study 1:

Dystopia Rising LARP Survivor’s Guide

Avoid (MP-5)

This Skill counters Concentrated Fire, Destroy Shield, Destroy Weapon,
Disarming Shot, Scatter Shot, Sniped Shot, Knockout, and any other successful,
ranged targeted attacks. In order to use this skill, spend 5 Mind Points and
clearly say “Avoid!” This skill is ineffective against Area of Effect attacks
(such as bombs or “By My Voice” effects), as they do not target the user
individually.

So my character has this skill they can use during the game, and it’s potentially one of many. Having skimmed the book a bit prior to writing this, a few things are immediately apparent. I’m going to have to remember lots of stuff. First off, I’ll need to remember that this skill is 5 Mind Points, a skill resource system particular to this LARP, yet a common implement in skills systems in many LARPS. That is, a player can have any number of different skills, or in game actions, that cost something intangible and unique to the rules system. Some might call them points, slots, etc… On top of cross referencing the point cost with an available character point pool, i.e. how many points I’ve got left, I’ll need to also remember that I can use this skill to counter the following:

Concentrated Fire
Destroy Shield
Destroy Weapon
Disarming Shot
Scatter Shot
Sniped Shot
Knockout
Ranged Targeted Attacks

It can’t be used against Area of Effect attacks, so now I’ll need to become familiar with what those are and what to listen for to know when one has happened.

Case Study 2:

NERO LARP Rule Book, 9th Edition

Critical Slay / Parry <weapon> <hand>*

Critical Slay:

This skill enables the character to either swing a large amount of damage, or avoid a physical attack once a day for each time the skill is bought. A critical slay/parry may be bought once for every two full weapon proficiencies.  Both of these skill uses the same handedness rules and specific weapon rules as critical attack and Weapon proficiency. Anyone with multiple critical slays/parry can expend a parry while they have an active slay without expending the active slay. Does 100 damage and is called as “100 <weapon type><damage type> Slay.” For example: “100 Silver Ice Slay” A critical slay will always do full damage to a creature with a threshold or a damage cap. Before using a critical slay, the character must call out “Prepare to die!” (this is an OOG statement and can be made even while silenced). The Slay is considered used as soon as the statement is made. The Slay will be active until the blow is landed, or five minutes pass. If the blow is landed, the Slay damage can be negated by other game defenses such as phase, dodge, parry, magic armor, etc. The 5 minute time period cannot be shortened by any other   means, including having the weapon disarmed or destroyed, calling a defense, killed and then Life’d, falling unconscious, etc. When engaging new opponents you must announce “Active Slay” this is an OOG statement and can be made even when silenced. A player hit by a Slay who does not die from the Slay must announce that the Slay was successful by saying “Hit” or role-playing appropriately. This informs the fighter using the Slay that he or she must then begin calling regular damage again.

Parry:

May be used in place of a critical slay

This allows the character to call “Parry” instead of being affected by any one physical attack delivered by a NERO weapon or packet.  Parry can only be used to block physical attacks from boffer weapons, arrows, and attacks with the word “Physical” in the incant. i.e. Parry can block a weapon trap, but not an explosive trap.  It cannot be used to block spellstrike. You may not use a parry if you do not have a weapon in your hand or if your weapon is not free.  A Two Handed weapon must be held in both hands to be able to use a parry.  You may Parry a blow that strikes another character provided you are able to touch the victim of the attack with your weapon. A character using the parry skill calls out “Parry”in response to the attack being negated. If Parrying for another, a character calls out “Parry for <X>” where X is the name or race of the character you are Parrying for.

This was no mistake. This skill comes in two parts. Let’s begin by breaking down the intended function of the skills and then dissect their components. The apparent intent here is that we have two skills designed to counteract each other and give players some flexibility in regards to how they choose to expend the ability. Slay, if not apparent from its name, is a special offensive skill designed to deal out higher damage than is normal in most cases, while Parry, its defensive counterpart, is designed to counter a lot of the special offensive abilities in the game. So, not only do I have to know what Slay does, I have to know what Parry does as well. The Slay, in its execution and technical challenges, exhibits design flaws that perfectly demonstrates Hick’s Law. That is, should I use a Critical Slay attack, I not only need to announce “Prepare to Die,” I also need to make sure that I hurl up to four other abstractions at my opponent, all meant to trigger some possible response in my opponent. Beyond just doing lots of extra damage that a player must now subtract from their total hit points, I am putting the unnecessary onus on other players to make sure they acknowledge all of the additional extensions to my weapon damage call. It is pretty easy to see how quickly this could break down in lots of circumstances. And what’s worse is that this skill is actually dictating, if not at least on a small level, how I’m supposed to role-play the skill. “Prepare to Die!” I can only guess that this was something implemented in order to slow down repeated, rapid successions of Slays, as after that, I am at a loss. There’s so much going on with this skill that I’m a bit surprised it actually requires that you even use a weapon and not some further abstraction of the action. This kind of mechanic design should be avoided, in general, as it is one thing to require the user to remember all of the esoteric semantics of a given rule, but quite another to place that burden on other players. As I’ve been accused of ‘punting’ before, I’ll simply say that an easy fix to this would be to simply announce, “100” or some such contextually large number, in addition to getting rid of Parry altogether, as it does a couple of things. First, it no longer requires other players to acknowledge lots of other potential inputs beyond simply the number of damage, or health points that they must subtract from their current total. Second, it takes away the odd requirement to warn an opponent of their imminent demise or that you’ve got a slay active, which in addition to just being kind of an odd thing to make a player do, serves no real mechanical purpose. Lastly, it still effectively communicates to an opponent that they’ve been targeted with some above average amount of damage and that they’ll need to use the necessary corresponding skill(s) to counter it. To put this in perspective, if I’m in a game where damage numbers are relatively low and calls are few, vocalizing a damage call in a system wherein there rarely are vocalized executions of effects can have a profound impact and be an effective medium to communicate an extraordinary ability. Parry, on the other hand is one of those effects plaguing LARP rules systems that seek to reproduce an action people are able to safely execute themselves. Remember, the goal here is to impede immersion as little as possible, so in effect, you’re telling someone you dodged an attack that you didn’t actually dodge. Let’s save this kind of thing for the magic system, and when we absolutely need it..which we’ll cover a bit later.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series, in which we’ll address some updated and common sense approaches to this antiquated and overly complicated means of mechanization. Thanks for reading.

Mar 03, 2016