Mile High combat NPC design for LARP

There’s some important goals when designing combat NPCs for LARP.  There are times when these goals conflict with each other.  I’m first gonna address them individually, and then use these goals as design constraints for a “rules-neutral” NPC design guideline.

goal #1:  The role should be fun for the NPC to play.

I’m making the assumption that your NPCs have passed up on the player-killer attitude.  I can speak to what I like as a combat NPC, and it really boils down to three things:

  1. I want a good amount of screen time.
  2. I want to be viewed as a threat by the players.
  3. I want to have something to role-play during the fight.

I can miss out on #2 or #3 in some cases, but I’m pretty much a stickler for #1.  Getting to fight for only a few seconds just sucks, and it’s the rule that I’ll emphasize in the design.

goal #2:  The role should be fun for the PC to fight.

I like feeling like a bad-ass when I’m a player, so I like shutting down NPCs with big damage and hard CC.  There’s a conflict there, namely that my pleasure as a player is at the expense of somebody else’s pleasure as an NPC.  

The emphasis I’ll make here is communication with the PCs.  The more the players know about an NPC, the more agency they feel they have.  They feel good about using the right tactic to combat a creature, and the trick is to give them that information as elegantly as possible.

goal #3:  The role should be easy to write-up (or communicate verbally).

Depending on your production set-up, your roles might not have write-ups.  In some cases, you might need to stat the roles on the fly just before the fight.  My emphasis will be to make that job easier for you to stat, but also have concepts that are easy to implement for any experience level of NPC.

Rules-Neutral NPC design guideline

There are three types of NPCs:  Crunchies, Goons and Named.  

Crunchies (aka goblins, minions)
classic examples – zombies, goblins, imps, wolves
toughness – can take 1-2 hits
damage – as low as possible and still damage players (depending on your rules)
weapons/shield – Crunchies can only use one weapon, and it has to be one-handed.  No shield, no ranged/thrown
specials – Crunchies ALWAYS have respawn.  In special cases they get a special attack or defense (perhaps zombies are immune to necrotics and poisons, depending on your world)

role-play restrictions – almost always they some combination of poor tactics (zombies) or limited combat behavior (wolves)
the key:  The key here is the respawn.  This gives the NPCs playing a crunchy enough screen time if you give them a lot of respawn.  See my previous blog entry on the mechanic as well, since that handles the issue of communicating to the players the numbers of the re-spawn creature.

Goons (aka orcs, bandits, standards)
classic examples – orcs, bandits, soldiers, raiders, ghouls
toughness – 3-4 hits
damage – varies, depending on their role (see below).  This can be very high or very low.
weapons/shield – any, and they should have both hands occupied whenever possible
specials – Goons always have a gimmick that supports their role.  See below.
role-play restrictions – These are present, but less so then for minions.  Goons are statted at the point where they need to fight reasonably smart to get any kind of screen time (i.e. they die pretty quickly when faced with two PC enemies)
the key:  The key here is all goons have a role and a gimmick to support that goal.  The classic example of this is ghouls with paralysis.  A good ghoul role would be something that can’t really stand toe-to-toe with the pc with plate, sword and board.  However, they are a threat because they can paralyze somebody and eat them if left alone.  
Other examples would be archers and spell-casters.  For melee oriented goons, their gimmick should be something that gives them more screen-time (i.e. keeps them from becoming a foam pinata in the first few seconds of combat).  

  • a guy with a greatsword that swings a huge number a few times.  He should hit the ground and call his number, or purposely miss on his first attack.  That communicates to the players “ooh, don’t get near that guy, he’ll fuck you up”.  
  • a shield guy that has some pushes/knockdowns (whatever your system has) so they can buy screen time (or anybody with pushes/knockdowns really)
  • a backstabber that is forced to skirmish to use her gimmick, staying away from the melee guys that will hose her
  • a regenerating creature that can back off and heal up
  • a creature with high resistance/immunity to non-magical — careful with this one, as it can be VERY deadly to a melee PC, so it’s damage/offense should be very low, and played by an NPC that wants people to have a good time

Named (aka EBG, BBG, solos, bosses)
classic examples – lich, wizard, orc chief, vampire
toughness – 10-15+ hits (depending on the system and playerbase) this may also include a healing mechanic
damage – high
weapons/shield – any, and they should have both hands occupied whenever possible
specials – lots, but keep it simple.  It’s better to have a lot of uses of a few powers instead of a lot of varied powers.  The specials should be AOE or group effects if you game allows it.  This is a guy meant for the whole group to fight, so have him fight the whole group back.  This can be a very low amount of damage, but hitting everybody induces a serious pucker factor.
role-play restrictions – These should be present, and story-based.  The lich will have goals, and perhaps special enemies amongst the PCs he has fought before.
the key:  There’s a few keys here.

  • NEVER have an NPC fight the player base alone if the NPC is going to be outnumbered more than 4-to-1.  In general, that means that a chunk of the players will not be engaged at any time, and unable to contribute to the fight.  They also won’t be threatened by the Named in these instances either.  The named should have minions rather than goons, or a mix of both.  The minions act as a meat shield, delaying the inevitable nerf pinata on the named NPC.
  • A Named NPC must be actually “named”.  What this really boils down to is that the players need to know about the NPC before they meet him.  Technically the NPC can be nameless.  For example, earlier in the game, it should be revealed that a mummy in the crypt killed a whole gang of graverobbers last year.  Even though the mummy is nameless, this information needs to be imparted.  When the mummy emerges, the players will know “this is a mean monster” without any assistance.
  • Always intro the entrance of the Named in a manner appropriate for your game.  If your game has “time stops” or “holds’ for such a thing, do it.  Make it clear to everybody that “boss man” has entered the field.  In the heat of a battle, you don’t want any players to miss the pucker effect of this.  It’s unfun and anticlimactic to run into a boss in the middle of a huge fight, and have no idea they are the boss because he’s just another NPC in a zombie costume, but he has a crown that is hard to see in the dark.  If that mummy king smashes down a wall and gives a soliloquy, you know he’s there.
  • Commonly, there should be a gimmick to a Named as well.  There is more of an MMO raid encounter going on with this gimmick.*
    • Stop the ritual the Named is performing.
    • Hit the Named’s phylactery(ies) instead of the Named
    • Get somebody to complete a ritual while we fight the Named

*All of these can go horribly south if they aren’t spelled out to the PCs.  Playing a guessing game isn’t something players can do easily in the middle of a fight, and there is a huge amount of enjoyment (and content) created by players when you spell out a complex and dangerous task, and give them the opportunity to plan to defeat it.  


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