Away from the Dinner Table #5: Who The Monsters Are


As a LARPer, I often find myself having to explain my hobby to people who don't LARP. After I've gone through the basics, the first thing many people ask is, "So where do the monsters come from?" This is a much more important question than one might think.

As a LARPer, I often find myself having to explain my hobby to people who don't LARP. After I've gone through the basics, the first thing many people ask is, "So where do the monsters come from?" This is a much more important question than one might think.

In a tabletop game, the monsters (and everything else, including the weather) are played by the gamemaster. But in a LARP, this is a practical impossibility. One person cannot believably represent a gaggle of twenty kobolds. So when the GM needs for twenty kobolds to attack some PCs, he needs twenty people to play those kobolds. Where the GM gets these twenty people will greatly affect the way the LARP runs.

There are only a few ways to get NPC players in a LARP-make new players play NPCs for a 'probationary period,' get volunteers (or draft people) from the player base, and have a troupe of players who only play NPCs. All of these have their advantages and drawbacks. Let's take a look.

The first NPC source mentioned, new players, has the benefit of there always being somebody to play a NPC (assuming your LARP has a steady stream of recruits), and those NPC players will not have any preconceived notions about how your NPCs should be played. They'll be blank slates. Another nice side effect of the NPC-probation period is the new players will probably pick up some information about the game world during their NPC time. This will minimize character history rewrites. It also takes some of the burden off of the older players and the staff. They won't have to actually teach new players about how the game works, or prepare any handouts of in-game information. Word of mouth during the probationary period will take care of all that. On the other hand, all the NPCs will be played by brand new, uninitiated, untrained players. Instead of the PCs stopping the game to ask questions about the rules, the NPCs will do it. The big bad villains will be played by the folks with the least amount of practice with their weapons. And of course, after their probationary period is over, the newbies will quit playing NPCs and make up PCs-PCs whose players already know a great deal about the plots currently running. If a LARP is going to use its new players as its NPC base, it needs to spend some time bringing the newbies up to speed on the gameworld and the rules before inflicting them on the more experienced players, and it'll likewise need to figure out how to keep plot-breaking information from getting into circulation.

The second method, getting NPCs from the player base, either by request or requirement, has another set of problems attached. On the upside, you will get NPCs who have some experience with the rules and the world, and will therefore waste less game time with questions and clarifications. But on the downside, you may find yourself unable to get enough people to play your horde of kobolds whether NPCing is a requirement or not. If players really want to avoid NPC duty, they will find ways to do it. These ways range from avoiding the NPC wrangler when he comes looking for volunteers, to outright refusing to do NPC duty. (Reasons for refusal range from "I'm in the middle of a roleplaying moment-catch me later." to "I paid my twenty bucks-I'm gonna play my character.") Another worry is you may get volunteers for the wrong reasons, from "Oh, crap-Dave's looking for NPCs. My character can't stand up to a ghoul attack. I'd better go volunteer." to "Cool, Dave's looking for NPCs! I'll volunteer to be a ghoul and I can go kill Slartibartfast-he was a jerk to me last night." And then there's the problem of exactly how much privileged information to give to your part-time NPCs. If you tell them too little, the encounter will be lacking. If you tell them too much, someone might use the information when they go back to playing their PCs. Ethical questions aside, there's also the logistical problem of how to deal with NPC costumes. If the LARP supplies them, who will be responsible for laundering and otherwise maintaining them when the players are finished with their NPC duty? Who will replace broken equipment? If the LARP doesn't supply costumes, how are the PCs going to know that the thing in front of them is a Nasty Saviar rather than Berreth the Beloved Healer? The PCs will have to guess, based on the fact that Berreth never makes noises like that. But is it really a Nasty Saviar, or is it Berreth under some kind of curse? (Some LARPs use semi-disposable headbands to denote when someone is doing NPC duty, but this creates a whole new set of problems too numerous to mention here. Perhaps another column.)

The third and final NPC source, a dedicated NPC troupe, has one major disadvantage: where are you going to find someone who is willing to not play a PC for the good of the game? Such people are hard to find, I'll grant. But there are ways to make it less of a sacrifice, and the NPC troupe carries enough benefits to more than offset this drawback. A dedicated NPC troupe is always available. You don't have to hunt around for NPCs if you have a troupe. Just head on over to the green room and say, "Joe, Liz, Mike-gear up, I need some skeletons in sector five." You can tell your troupe about any plot secret you want. They are never going to play a PC, so you don't need to worry about them inappropriately using the information later. You won't have people trying to weasel their characters out of tough encounters by volunteering to NPC, nor will you have people volunteering to NPC in order to whack another PC; those options are closed. Your NPC troupe will not have a high turnover as new people finish their probation and move on to play PCs. Any costuming can and should be supplied, owned, and maintained by the NPC players. But wait-why on earth would anybody want to play only NPCs at a LARP?

Well, there are lots of reasons. Perhaps the LARP waives dues or event fees for the NPC troupe. Perhaps the LARP provides chow for the troupe. Perhaps the LARP allows individual members of the troupe to adopt a specific important NPC as their own NPC. ("I usually play trolls and skeletons, but sometimes I get to be Lord Wapdoodle of Nebbish.") And of course, there's the intangible benefit of the PCs' appreciation. ("When you guys came out of the cave all done up like Dark Elves, that was soooo cool!") Perhaps a player has been playing for a few years and now is ready to retire her (probably very powerful) PC. Her PC can become a semi-autonomous NPC who shows up rarely, and then only to further a plot or to plant a rumor. The player gets to keep the character she spent years developing (albeit in a limited form), the GM staff get a good roleplayer to be their NPCs, and the other players get to interact with this veteran roleplayer in a variety of roles.

In case it hasn't become glaringly obvious by now, I am a strong proponent of the NPC troupe. It is by far the most expedient source of NPCs for a LARP. There's less confusion over whom the player is really playing, there's no resistance when the GM staff needs a bunch of trolls, and there's nobody gaining knowledge while NPCing and using it as a PC. Furthermore, nobody is volunteering to play an NPC so they can 'get' another PC. Finally, dedicated NPCs can develop and maintain their own NPC costumes, thus minimizing questions of "What do I see?" when a troop of NPCs come out of the bushes.

If you're looking at joining a LARP, find out where their NPCs come from. If there's no NPC troupe, consider volunteering to be the first member of one. The same goes if you're already in a LARP without a troupe. NPCing is more fun than you probably think, and your fellow LARPers will definitely appreciate you for it.

Being a member of the NPC troupe is also great for people who want to play, but can't reliably attend the game. This applies in particular if the LARP waives dues for the dedicated NPCs. Being in the NPC troupe is also great if you like to make costumes. As an NPC you have a reason to make all manner of costumes.

I for one have a slight dislike for the NPC draft. It really sucks when you're part of a small, tightly knit group which is used to fighting as a unit. Your group is stapping on their armor and gathering spell packets in preperation for a quest and poof, the press gang shows up and you find yourself without a healer/wizard/rouge/other vital member.

I'm in favor of NPC troupes w/ room for volunteers. 'Cuz sometimes, you need a change of pace.

Just my two cents.

it dangerous to find yourself with rouge...
what if a party starts up?