Away from the Dinner Table #6: The Watchwords Of LARP


The watchwords of LARP should be Simplicity, Playability, Believability, Consistency, Continuity, and Consequences. I've mentioned this before. I'd like to lay out the groundwork for some future columns by taking a look at each of these terms and establishing a working definition for them.

The watchwords of LARP should be Simplicity, Playability, Believability, Consistency, Continuity, and Consequences. I've mentioned this before. I'd like to lay out the groundwork for some future columns by taking a look at each of these terms and establishing a working definition for them.

Before we begin, I would like to direct the reader's attention to the fact that the word "Realism" is no where in my list of desirable LARP qualities. Realism is not a good thing in a LARP. In fact, it is a serious Bad Thing. In a realistic sword duel, one combatant will probably die. In a realistic battle, many of the participants will almost certainly die. In a realistic dungeon crawl, the trolls--wait, there wouldn't be trolls. In a realistic vampire hunt, the hunters would never find a damn thing. Realism is exactly what we're trying to get away from when we LARP. At the same time, though, we don't want to look at something in the LARP and think, "Oh, come on!" We can look at a comic book or a movie and accept that Superman is flying. But when we see some guy running around with his arms above his head pretending to fly, we think he's cute (if he's five), or we think he looks like a goofball (if he's 20). We should be willing to suspend our disbelief. We should not be willing to suspend our intelligence.

Now, then.

Less is more. A low number of rules is a good thing. Special exceptions to rules are bad things. For example, a simple rule is when you hit someone in combat, call out the number of damage points your weapon causes. That person will mentally subtract that number from their total of hit points. When their hit point total reaches zero, they'll fall over. Needless complexity added to this rule includes stuff like damage type. Edged weapons do different damage than blunt ones. Fire does different damage than say, electricity. A silver weapon might be more effective against certain creatures. To require people to call "One Blunt" or "Two Edged" might be reasonable. But suppose a guy has a magical silvered mace that's been enchanted with a Zap spell. He hits you and calls "four blunt silver electric magic!" But you're wearing your anti-electric helm, so you don't take electrical damage. But how much of that hit was electrical, and how much was just bash? You'll have to ask the guy who just hit you, but he's in the middle of hitting you again. You'll have to call time-out and ask him. See how complex damage types can become if you let them?

If you can look at it and know what it is, it's playable. If you can hear it and know how to act, it's playable. If there is any ambiguity regarding the location, size, weight, color, or whatever of an in-game object, it is not playable. For example, Morland the Mage casts a Wall of Fire to stop the goblins from chasing him. Just then, a bunch of his buddies rush up, see the goblins standing there shaking their fists, and they charge. Right through the wall of fire that Morland didn't get a chance to tell them about, but which they would have seen if it'd been there. A spell that calls an object into existence is not playable. Another example, Janos the Druid casts an Uglify spell on Morland to get back at him for the wall of fire incident. So now Morland must pretend that he has snaggle-y teeth, skewed eyes, festering sores, greasy hair, and so forth. That's fine. But he also has to go round explaining to everyone he meets what he 'actually' looks like. A spell that changes the appearance of a person is not playable.

It's easier to explain what believability is not than what it is. For example, a kangaroo crossing a highway in Australia is perfectly believable. A kangaroo crossing a highway in Austria is pretty hard to swallow. (Maybe it escaped from the zoo?) A kangaroo on the moon is completely unbelievable. (Maybe the Apollo mission secretly brought a couple 'roos along and left them behind, with enough air and food to breed enough generations to evolve into vacuum-breathing, rock-eating kangaroos. . .) The more stuff you have to make up to explain something, the less believable it is.

The game world should behave in a reasonably predictable way. If one day goblins show up and they take an average of three hits to kill and do an average of two hits when they successfully attack, they should stay at about that power level. If one day a pack of goblins show up doing five hits per attack and taking ten hits to kill, that should be a significant plot development, not simply a response to powerful players. Likewise, if a spell or a skill allows a PC to accomplish something one day, it needs to allow the same accomplishment the next day. Do not change the rules unless there is a clear and present danger to Believability, Playability, etc. or to the game remaining fun. If you tweak the rules too often, your LARP will begin to resemble a game of Calvinball. When and if you do change the rules, be sure to explain the change to all your players and answer any questions they may have.

The game world continues on from event to event. It should not be entirely episodic. If the heroes meet Simon the Rockmonger and then go on their way, that NPC doesn't evaporate. He still exists somewhere in the game world, and it's possible for the heroes to run into Simon again at a future event. If the heroes do run into Simon again, the GMs need to do everything possible to ensure the same person plays him in the same costume. It's very confusing when a person walks up to you and says, "Hey, remember last month when you promised to give me ten gold pieces today?" But you can't remember promising anything to this person, so you blow him off. Then a couple hours later, your mates tell you, "Simon the Rockmonger was saying you're a lying, cheating no-goodnik." Now you have to go find the new Simon, and explain that if you'd known he was Simon you'd never have. . . The same applies to things like towns and castles and ruins and such. If there's an abandoned tower an hour's walk to the south today, there needs to be one there tomorrow unless there's a darn good reason for it to be elsewhere.

The heroes need to experience the backlash of their actions. This can be good or bad. If the heroes massacre a goblin camp this event, maybe some other goblins come looking for revenge next event. But at the same time, if the heroes exterminate the goblins that have been plaguing the countryside these many months, the local lord will probably have a reward of some kind for them. By no means should the heroes be able to do whatever they want with no thought for the future. If Alexandra the Scout defies the Countess's orders, she should expect all manner of inconvenience in the future, from stony-faced officials refusing to process her writs to a band of soldiers politely but insistently inviting Alexandra to the Countess's dungeons.

These watchwords could apply to any tabletop game as well as LARPs. The reason LARPers need to be reminded of them is it takes much more effort to maintain Continuity and Playability in a LARP than in a tabletop campaign. On the tabletop, the GM can simply say, "You see Simon the Rockmonger waving at you," and poof, there he is. On the LARP field, Simon needs to look like Simon every time. Likewise, if a magical effect is called into existence, a tabletop GM just draws it on the map. A LARP GM needs to physically represent that effect in such a way that a new arrival can look at it and make a good guess at what it might be.

Now, while enforcing Simplicity, Playability, Believability, Consistency, Continuity, and Consequences in the game, the Game Committee needs to keep in mind the game should be FUN, first and foremost. Consequences that do not fit the action are not much fun. It's kind of harsh to be executed for not bowing quickly enough, but it's warranted when caught trying to assassinate the King. Likewise, if you try to single-handedly slay a dozen trolls, you should probably get killed or at least captured for your serious lack of judgment. If you learn that you can waltz in and out of a trolls lair at will, the fun will diminish rapidly.

Pretty good...though about it being harsh to die for not bowing quickly enough...there ARE those campaign settings...

Still, good article.

Once again, a coincidentally timely artical slips into my vision and catches my intrest. Its nice to see someone offering advice in how to make things actually work rather than everything they've ever experinced falling apart.

Now, my own personal experince with LARP has, up to this point, completely been about numerous horror stories of GM's falling apart on scene (poor ability to improvize) to bizarre situations that topple the entire game (eight fighters against a toll and a demon - and the mage Bolt's the primary hero and cleric. To Death). As well as many, many more recounts of tales that would make you laugh and feel terrible pity for the group the individual was inflicted on mingling with (300 lb vampire princess in bikini thong and tape on wings anyone?).

However, I've come across something that most people cannot seem to be able to pull off in complete process: I've recounted the stories to my Mother. Not only does she understand them, but comes up with ways to improve on various situations. I'll likely send this article to her shortly and see if we can progress a bit more on hour own thoughts of creating a LARP scenario or three..

A note about NPC style characters though. Just a passing thought that I wonder weather or not to be feasible. Could it not be concievable to, rather than recruit people to play NPCs and keep getting them to do it, give the GM several masks to take on and be able to more freely controll any given direction of the game? Or would this destroy the atmosphere of beliveability too much?

Two Cents from the Eternal Newbie.

Well... this was a bizarre read.

A key to making a beleivable LARP lies in, as some one put it, beleivability.
The way I see it, you seem to be doing it bass ackwards, and thats whats causing the problems.

Instead of taking your favourite fantasy rpg setting and try to apply as much of it as possible to the real world (like the problematic magic spells and such), try doing it the other way around.
Start with reality and work from there. What elements of your fantasy setting are possible to apply?
You mentioned the ugly spell. Out with it. Wall of fire? Unless you guys stacked plenty of kerosene and aren't afraid to use it, out with it.
Basically, visual magic becomes a bit of a bitch in general. As does big critters like dragons and giants.

Now, concentrate on what CAN be done.
Start with magic for instance. Mind altering and mental spells work great, like "Sleep" spells and such. No flash, no bang, but your enemy is out cold (or that saucy wench over at the inn who's been rejcting you all night, but now were getting into a whole different kind of role playing ;)).

Other things. Like combat.
Keep it simple stupid.
If someone hits you with a sword in the chest, chances are youre pretty damn hurt. Keeling over is a perfectly viable option. So is dying. After all, three feet of cold steel through your kidney is definetly *not* what the doctor orders when you seek advice for a long and healthy life.
If he hits your leg? Can you keep on fighting while prone? Or kneeling? Time to learn! Otherwise, surrender might be a good idea.
Rules needent be more complex than that actually.

Well, I could go on ranting about specifics but hopefully I got my point across by now.

Keep it simple, and stick to what is possible.

To the Bebop Cow,

There's nothing wrong with the GM staff playing NPCs. I highly encourage it. But usually there aren't enough GMs to portray a dozen Kobolds, say. That's why I'm also a strong proponent of the NPC troupe, a group of players who, in exchange for lower (or waived?) dues, free food, or some other consideration, play only NPCs. GMs can easily fall in with the NPCs whenever they want to keep a closer eye on plot or gameplay.

As for Joel,

You just restated my points, albeit differently. Appearance-altering magics are not playable. The article says that. It doesn't say "do not use appearance-altering magics," and perhaps it is lacking in that level of specificity, but GameGrene readers are mostly able to make that leap for themselves.

As for combat, same thing. The column is a call for simplicity, with examples of complexity being bad. But at the same time (and this is where we differ), if Players had to fall down every time a sword hits them, that would be Realistic as opposed to Believable, and the fun would go away pretty soon. There's nothing wrong with having hit points and maybe even one or two damage types, but stacking several damage types onto the same attack challenges Playability.

As for mind-altering magics, well, they're good in that they don't require ponderous and expensive special effects, but they aren't especially fun, and they are especially easy to cheat or cheeze out of. Take a Truth spell, for example. Aside from the fact that one Truth spell can completely ruin a Trial-type scenario (Abracadabra, poof, he's guilty!) nobody likes to be forced to roleplay a certain way (you _have_ to tell the truth right now). Also, it's very easy to lie when you "have" to tell the truth, and if you were the only person there, how's anybody going to know if you were telling the truth or lying? In Game, everybody must assume you were telling the truth, because you had a Truth spell on you, but what about Out Of Game?

And then there's that saucy wench in the tavern, another reason why mind-control magics have the potential to be completely inapropriate in a LARP setting, which is supposed to be fun for _everyone_, including the saucy wench in question. I know you were kidding, Joel, but some folks might not realize what a fun-wrecking idea mind-controlling an unwilling wench is. I'm sure GamerChick has a few thoughts on this subject...:-)

Actually, Joel, this is meat for another column. Thanks!

"And then there's that saucy wench in the tavern, another reason why mind-control magics have the potential to be completely inapropriate in a LARP setting, which is supposed to be fun for _everyone_, including the saucy wench in question. I know you were kidding, Joel, but some folks might not realize what a fun-wrecking idea mind-controlling an unwilling wench is. I'm sure GamerChick has a few thoughts on this subject...:-)"

In my experience, one would have to be *very* careful about certain themes in LARP. Sadly, sexuality is one of them.

Joel, it sounds like you and thecraichead are saying the same thing.