Wombat's Path VI: The LARP Detour

I've mentioned some of my LARP playing experiences back in Part II and again in the previous post, and I think I'll dive a little deeper here, specificaly on the GM side of the house.

Hell Week was my first LARP. I had no expectations, and I had no idea what the heck was happening. I knew there were 50ish players, each with their own agenda, and I knew it was going to be a long week. I bought into the world and went with it. Maybe theater had prepared me, but the game came to life around me as I played. I knew I wanted to create that feeling in others.

So a group of us got together and started writing a sequel to Hell Week. We called it Every Now And Again. We took some of the characters and spun a different world. The secret white circle of mages had a hideout in a hollow mountain in Tibet. Characters had guilt to get over, a god to bring through to earth, and a world to save. Sprinkle in time-travelling fugitives trying to build the wave motion gun and time cops trying to keep the timeline in existence, and we managed to push the game over the top.

Mistake #1: We kept it a week-long game. We could have run the same game in a weekend, and the plots would have unfolded much faster. Players had no motivation to do things today when they could get more people together tomorrow.

Mistake #2: Overpowered characters. Yes, we gave the time police an aerosol can of Plane-B-Gone to use if the timeline got too corrupted. See also the afore-mentioned wave motion gun. Police carrying enough explosives to take down a mountain. Things got a little crazy, but the players did well in not abusing these obvious game-changers.

Mistake #3: GM Preconceptions. There were a few scenes we really wanted to see when we wrote the game. A few came true, but we eventually rose above our expectations and gave the players more power to change the world as the game went on.

Mistake #4: Retconning and GM Communication: Half the players were involved in a massive muckle that the GMs botched slightly by giving different rulings on different sides of the conflict. We had to turn back time to a previous round and re-run it. Not a proud moment, but an informative one. Once spoken, rulings are very hard to change.

Most people had fun, or at least they didn't burden the GMs with their complaints. Or maybe it was the sleep deprivation blotting out all memories of unhappy feedback. We pulled it off. Half the GMs and a few players wrote the next game in the series, called It Was Better In Real Life.

Sometimes called the Hell Game, it was set in hell. Lucifer set up the bureaucracy of Hell with all its devils and all its intrigues. He was being visited by the Nameless One, the head demon, and his contingent of demons. I played B'Naagh, the biggest demon there was. He couldn't find two neurons to smash together, but boy could he destroy things real good. He was a whole heap of fun. I was more of an NPC - more set dressing minion than story motivation player, but that's an underappreciated role in many things.

And after the first run, I got talked into being a GM for the re-run at Arisia. We expanded to 65 players. We polished the rules. We balanced stats and re-wrote bits that didn't work. We worked out the cosmology and where all the players fit in. We kept the One Door in Hell and figured out something that would make it special for players who like to tinker. We went to the con with the idea of setting up in the afternoon and printing out all the character stat cards for the evening start.

The printer broke.

We handed out character packets, but since nobody had stat cards we declared that there would be no combat on the first night. This bothered some people, but almost everyone dove in to role-playing and intrigues. It was glorious to behold. Players in character taking risks because there would be no combat that day.

The printer breaking turned a decent experience into something really memorable. Granted, many players would have liked to have stats since some of the game revolved around the arena fights, but I think the players decided to have fun and lo, it was fun.

LARP Lessons

LARP focuses more on player vs. player plots. LARP runs differently than tabletop games do by design. In a tabletop game, the GM plays the world and the players struggle together. In LARP you set up factions of PCs to compete against each other and come to some sort of resolution or accord if possible. The PCs work together on some things and come to loggerheads on others. And never underestimate the real-life history between players that will bleed into the game.

LARP tends to be hands-off for the GMs. With so many players, it's impossible to give every player a solid dose of GM attention, so the players have implicit carte blanche to decide what happens between their characters. The combat system (or conflict resolution system) only comes into play when the players can't come to an agreement on their own. We go back to the pure form of pretending to be cops and robbers and arguing out what should happen next, only without quite so much whining and with a system to fall back on if we really can't make it work on our own.

LARP requires heavy design-time effort. If you don't plot out the game and give your characters motivation, you will not have a LARP. You will have a social event in costume. Without the organizations and intrigues that get built into the start of a game, it falls flat and the players either wander off in boredom or decide to take charge of the game and steer the game very far afield from the initial conditions. DO not improvise your LARP or you will regret it, with very few exceptions.

How can we incorporate these lessons into tabletop games?

Let the players drive the story. Nothing new here, but it bears repeating with all the push for player empowerment I've heard lately. I've heard this idea spread like an epiphany in the past few months, but LARP has been pushing this idea since the beginning. Trust your players to make things. Trust them to change your world in significant ways. Let them try whatever they want and sort out the consequences afterward.

Let the players debate each other. If you've set up character-driven plots, characters will naturally argue their case with each other. This deepens the characters and lets the players get more involved with the story. Player investment is the holy grail of tabletop gaming. If the players aren't interested, you're running the shell of a game. LARP focuses on character immersion - you are your character to the bone during the game. Letting your tabletop group debate decisions in character strengthens the player/character connection and will give everyone at the table a greater affinity for your game.

Yes, this can go too far and your players could start mudslinging or breaking the party apart. I've found it helps to have an NPC at the table or at least waiting in the wings to talk frustrated characters back from the ledge. People are people, real or fictional. People just want to be heard and to influence their world. PCs have it better than most since they are designed to change the world from the start of every game. Let them be heard and get the character frustrations out on the table for all to work on.

Design once, implement anywhere. I'll be expanding this idea when I get back to Schrodinger's Gun GMing. GMs put a great deal of effort into adventures and settings and maps and plot hooks. The players don't know what's around the next corner until they get there and take a look. So what's to stop you from filing off the serial numbers and modifying the circumstances around your adventure for use in unexpected places?

As GMs we do this the other way all the time in modifying off-the-shelf adventures to fit our campaigns. We rename NPCs and have them become recurring characters. We change affiliations and have someone be part of an existing group in our world. We change monsters since bugbears don't exist in our world we plug in gnolls. We add treasure and give them another section of the Rod of Seven Parts. What's to stop us from retooling the adventure to fit the situation?

Consider a tomb. It's a hole in the ground with a corpse in it. Perhaps some monsters have moved in and maybe a few coins have accrued. You can use this anywhere and it'll fit in just fine. Need a quick side quest to get the Maguffin of Plot Motion? Run the tomb. Returning remains to their rightful place to settle a ghost? Run the tomb. Bored and exploring local legends? Run the tomb.

It fits anywhere, and it'll save you the trouble of creating a different hole in the ground for every side quest. GMs have been very green since the beginning. Reduce the amount of prep since players will go their own way regardless of your desires. Reuse what you've already created in different settings. Recycle already-run adventures and mine the results for future NPCs and plot lines.

I've gone a bit far afield here. Hopefully there's something here you can take and use in your own game. Feel free to follow up in the comments if you've used some of these ideas or if you can't imagine how they would fit into your game. I'm always up for a good discussion.

Thanks for reading!

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