Archive for the tag “Game Design”

Forced Character Retirement in LARP

Forced character retirement is the normative in Socal larps.  For those unfamiliar, there’s two parts to this concept:

  1. You may not have a character over X points.
  2. When you reach X points, you get a retirement story arc that makes your character go bye-bye.

I come from a non-retirement larp tradition myself, with characters being “eternal”, so I have some insight into the contrast.

Retirement is marketed that it accomplishes two goals.

  1. Forced retirement mitigates the power disparity between old-timers and newbies.
  2. Forced retirement makes sure that the story screen time doesn’t center around the old-timers.

Both of these marketing bylines are lies.


In the first case, smoothing the power disparity is not accomplished, at least not here in the 5+ LARPs resident in Socal.  Characters that are half-way to retirement are absurdly more powerful than starting characters, both vertically and horizontally.   As a result, content that isn’t silo’d (i.e. most of the content) is a cakewalk for the folks past the halfway point.  The resulting “mishmash” of content is error-corrected on the backend, by making death nearly painless.    Even worse, forced retirement systems often give insane “retirement benefits” to characters, giving access to powers unattainable on the first playthrough.

In the second case, every LARP will always have cliques, and the Socal LARPs are no exception.  Forced character retirement has no real effect on this.  Storytellers will cater to their friends, giving them more content, regardless of their character’s power level.  People make their post-retirement characters often even more connected to existing characters that are their friends.  We’re all baboons, we’re just baboons that dress up like elves and wack each other with foam-sticks.

Nevertheless, I believe character retirement does accomplish non-marketed goals that have immense value.

The “meme” of a Character Arc 


The benefit of forced retirement is the introduction of the concept of a character arc early to people.  The game I came from resultingly had no concept of character arc, and players needed to discover it on organically.  Many never discovered it, defining their characters, but defining them without the meta-agency to say “this is where the character is going”.    Forced character retirement should be marketed as “forced character arc”, since this is the real benefit of the mechanic.

But Scotty, should forced retirement or forced character arc really exist?

No, but there should be a point cap, and there should be a voluntary option to retire when you want to start a new story.  Perhaps, depending on logistics, alt characters could co-exist with capped characters.  However, if somebody wants to play their character another five years at the point cap, let them.

I make this point, because I believe that the value of LARP to a lot of people is that it is a place where they can feel powerful.  I believe that many nerds go through life feeling powerless in so many places.  They feel powerless to find a good job, a lover, a boyfriend, friends that aren’t shits, etc.  However, folks can come to LARP and feel an amazing amount of agency and power.

Making people feel powerful in a LARP shouldn’t be “turned off” without good reason.  I don’t believe there are good reasons (see above), ergo, it should not be turned off.











6 Scene Beat Sheet for extended LARP mods (Scene #6 and Overview)

goal(s): wrap up details, foreshadow further events
element(s):  roleplay, paperwork

Resolve the Conflict
In this last scene, we clean up any niggling details.

  • Your Mr. Johnson hands out the promised rewards.
  • Mysteries that were unresolved get clarified.
  • The players divvy up loot.

The key to making this scene work is having an NPC present, nominally your Mr. Johnson.  This can be logically difficult (why is the helpless diseased villager who hired us in the middle of the Forest of Death?”).  This can also have a production cost (i.e. the villager is needed in Scene 1 as well, and in a multi-team format, might be problematic).

The other tool here for “tying up everything” is a scroll or letter.  This puts something physical in your player’s hands, which is always welcome.  You can combine a letter with the “hand-wave” travel back to civilization, and resolve all your loose-ends.

Allude to a conflict in the future.  If you villain escaped, give your players a hint about the villain.  Where or how did the villain escape?  What is the villain’s next step?  This kind of information will get your players champing at the bit for the next episode.

RECAP of the 6-Scene Beat Sheet

Scene 0 Introduce the Conflict
Scene 1 Warm-Up Bandits
Scene 2 Complicate that Shit
Scene 3 Ambush them in the Dick
Scene 4 Jack of All Trades
Scene 5 Final Fight with EBG
Scene 6 Resolution

6 Scene Beat Sheet for extended LARP mods (Scene #2)

Scene 2 – Complicate That Shit

goal(s): establish the villain, up the stakes horizontally severely
element(s):  role-play, puzzle, physical challenge

This is a non-combat encounter, and it’s goal is to up the stakes horizontally.  The best way to describe this is to give you the typical scene early in a novel or movie.

The hero has what appears to be a simple problem.  

“This mayor hired me to check out that graveyard where scary sounds are being heard from.”

The hero appears to solve the problem.

“I arrived at the graveyard, and sword-punched a bunch of zombies in the head.  Problem solved!”

The hero breaks something along the way, or discovers that the problem is way more complicated than previously supposed.

“All of the zombies went down easily. We could clearly see their eerie green soul juice float away towards that creepy tower up the hill.”


Overlap with Scene #1

This scene can use the same site as scene #1, it just occurs sequentially afterwards.  In the above example, the fight with the zombies is scene #1.  Scene #2 would be something mysterious about the zombies (strange tattoos, glowing gems, , possessive spirits, scroll fragments) for the players to interact with.  It can be obvious the PCs screwed up and made things worse, or left ambiguous for them to argue over.

Introduce the Villain

If there is not a singular villain (the EBG) established yet, now is the time.   The existence of “evil bad guy” is a ring in the nose of PCs they will rarely ignore.  Putting a name to the “face” is just that important.  It’s hard to hate something you cannot name, or a nebulous organization.

example: the Necromancer Evilbadgai possesses the fallen zombie corpses from a distance, and warns that players of their certain doom if they try to disrupt his plan.  The players have to wack-a-mole (err.. zombie) to shut him up, perhaps with other players arguing with them to stop chopping up the zombies because they want to talk to Evilbadgai.

Make this Scene Have Flesh

You will want this scene to take up screen time.  I’ll say this over and over, but treking everybody out into the woods (after hours of driving, costume prep, etc.) for a grand total of 20 minutes of content is not cool.  The same goes for having a scene where only one PC interacts, and the rest play swap the but thumb.  Yes, those other larps you play in do it all the time.  Slavery isn’t cool either, and everybody used to do it.  


The best way to increase screen time is to adhere to Rule #2 from the first post of this series (i.e. make sure every PC is involved).

Whatever your non-combat macguffin is here, make it involve the efforts and interactions of as many PCs as possible.  The resulting complication and coordination will become a content creation machine.

example:  Evilbadgai is able to speak with the dead relatives and ancestors of the PCs.  He has seen them coming for days from his interrogations of the spirits of the dead.  As a result, he is prepared, and will torment and vex them with the status of their loved ones (or enemies) in the afterlife.

Transition to Scene #3

As always, you must have a clean transition to Scene #3.  You very likely need Scene #3 to be in a different site than Scene #2.

sidetopic:  communication channels

Whenever you increase the stakes, you are performing an information transfer from you to the PCs.   You’ll want to figure out how to best do this transfer.  You can just drop a “forsooth, you hear drums in the distance.  It sounds like the ritual has begun.”  In some cases, that’s the right thing™.  How you convey the stakes is just as important as what the stakes are.  

  • Forsooth from the Storyteller (or an ST-enabled NPC)
  • Lore from a NPC
  • a written document

Each of these information channels has strengths and weaknesses, which I’ll wax about here.

Forsooth from the Storyteller
The Storyteller does an info dump.

pros cons
cheapest production cost Usually too fast, so it isn’t content
highest consistency
you guarantee that the PCs get the info
Usually boring, as it is an info dump
Breaks the “show don’t tell” rule

Lore from a NPC
An NPC does an info dump, or is available to be questioned.  The typical here is either the Mr. Johnson, or a captive NPC.

pros cons
This is slow, so it’s content. Medium production cost – you must prepare the script and info for the NPC
 Best role-playing interaction. Worst consistency
The NPC could be killed, the PCs could not ask, the NPC can screw up the important points of information, the PCs can miss it easily
 Can act as your non-combat macguffin itself, rather than the result of the macguffin  Requires a reliable NPC

Written document
You have a written document to be recovered by the PCs.  This is a scroll on an NPC, or a book on a table.

Almost as consistent as a Storyteller Forsooth.
It can be missed if the PCs don’t search the appropriate location.
 This has the highest production cost
 This is take-away content, to be referred to later by the PCs.
Ergo, the ST doesn’t need to repeat themselves.
 Best method for complex information
 Best method for foreshadowing
(i.e. the most likely to be remembered by the PCs)

6 Scene Beat Sheet for extended LARP mods (Scene 0)

I’ve been working on a 12 scene beat sheet for line-course LARP games.  As part of the process, I decided I wanted to have a 6 scene version, since that is likely to be a lot more appropriate for 99% of the LARPs out there, and I’ll likely use it as well.

For a quick reference, this is a very meta outline for a mod, describing what happens in each scene in broad strokes.  It provides a skeleton, and it’s the detail that adds the meat to it.

There’s a few rules I’m adhering to here.

Rule #1 — Any scene must be a full scene.  It must include one (or more) of the following:

  • Provide a place for PC development
    • confront or challenge a PC’s goal/belief
    • introduce new world canon related to a PC
  • Establish or increase the stakes
    • horizontally increase the stakes with complexity
    • vertically increase the stakes with severity
    • z-axis increase the stakes by involving more PC, or making it more personal to a PC
  • Playground elements (i.e. simple fun)
    • There’s something “live-action” related to the encounter, which is something for everybody to interact with physically.  This is commonly a combat, but can be physical challenge/puzzle.  These elements are like sugary foods, they are great in moderation, but you need something in-between them to cleanse the palate.

Rule #2 — Always try to involve the entire subset of players with every scene

I can best describe this rule by the classic violations of the rule.

  • The role-playing scene with a single NPC, which will probably be dominated by just a few PCs.
  • The puzzle scene that can only be interacted with by a single player at a time.

Without further ado, here’s the first “beat”, Scene #0.

Scene (0) – Pre-Game Conflict Intro

goal(s):  introduce the conflict, identify the characters involved.
element(s):  role-play, exposition


This doesn’t necessarily need to be a scene.  This is the introduction of the conflict.  Ideally this is pre-game with email based “lore” about the conflict, and identifying the players that will be involved.

However, without pre-game lore, this becomes an additional scene by necessity.   In the common parlance of a world course game, this is the hook scene.

In the context of hook scene, this is usually the single NPC that comes to the camp, has a problem and asks for help with that problem.  This does accomplish the minimal goals, but it breaks both rules #1 and #2.

All too often, the NPC is somebody the players have never met, and the conflict is something the players don’t care about.  The players play along, since it’s the content, and they want the content.  However, kicking it up into a full scene takes just a simple detail.  Simply include something from one character’s background.

There is a simple twist to really kick it up a notch, and it has several side benefits.  It does require a kick-ass NPC that can adlib.

(1)  The conflict of the mod should relate directly to a PC.  The low-hanging fruit here is to have the bad guys be the bad guys for a certain PC.

(2)  The “Mr. Johnson” NPC enters the camp, and starts talking to people.  The NPC does NOT approach to the target PC.  When he talks to people, Mr. Johnson may or may not discuss the conflict.  Just as importantly, the Mr. Johnson asks about the PC he is talking to, and relationships the PC has with others.    Let them infodump a bit, as everybody loves to talk about their character.

(3)  Eventually, the conflict leaks back the the “PC that cares”.  If not, the Mr. Johnson can prempt the action by approaching that PC.  It’s there that the “hire offer” comes.  At this point, the Mr. Johnson has hopefully talked to a small subset of players.  Assuming you are not targeting the mod for the entire playerbase, this can be conveniently is about the number of players you intend for the mod, as well as the power level of PCs.

(4)  The Mr. Johnson should not immediately say “ok, let’s go”.  Instead, they should be trepidatious about the motives, virtues and/or skills of the PCs.  Mr. Johnson should do an in-game version of the Circle.   Ask each character how they know each other.  It’s possible (if your game culture allows it) that the Mr. Johnson could take an ST role here and tell folks OOC that it is appropriate to make up something new here.

(5)  The Mr. Johnson, now appeased that the players are virtuous and/or skilled enough to tackle the conflict, presents the offer.  This is a great place to confront a PC’s goals and beliefs.  Are they in it for the gold, the glory, or the good?

(6)  Conveniently, this process takes 15-30 min, which gives time to set up the rest of the mod.  It’s also a pretty good chunk of content all on it’s own.


Whatever your conflict is, it’s important that it’s small to start with.  Not every adventure is about saving the universe from certain doom.  If your conflict starts at the top, it has nowhere to go but down.

I read this recently

I immediately pocketed it in a folder for “there’s so much LARP commentary here”.  I ended up play Dead of Winter at a party this weekend, and some of what he was talking about finally grokked.

ROLL-MOVE or MOVE-ROLL when it comes to LARP

Most tabletop games (i.e. the root of most LARP design) are Move-Then-Roll systems.  You declare “I attack the orc” then roll to see if that attack was awesome or failboat.

LARP doesn’t have the space for a die roll.  However, I’ll posit that it’s the opposite, and it is effectively a Roll-Then-Move system in feel.  In a LARP, you have so many choices, but you almost always half the information on what is possible.  You know that you can swing that nerf-sword.  Often you have a pretty good idea if that attack will connect.  That’s the half you have.  You are almost always missing the other half, which is what the effect of that sword attack will really be.  The information flow isn’t there until you hit the guy enough for them to drop.

I think that’s a very important observation, the lack of information on “the other guy”.  Any measures that can fill in that gap are a Good Thing™.


Again, this was interesting in the context that dice don’t create the illusion, but the GM.  In most cases for my table-top GMing, I scare the players with meta-knowledge.  The fact that I as a GM detailed something makes them pay attention.  If it appears dangerous, they notice.  It isn’t the information itself, but how it is delivered.

In a LARP context, most people are scared by the meta knowledge.  In this case, folks will very often pay attention to the NPCs in a combat.  If an NPC has a custom costume, they know effort went into that guy, and he’s probably a problem.  If the NPC is played by a notorious stick jock, and it’s the final battle, that guy isn’t going to be a pushover stats-wise.

There’s some LARPs out there that convey this information overtly with armbands.  I think this is great, and it’s great for story.  Yes, the immersionists will claim that a “red/pink/+52 headband doesn’t scare me.”  I get that.  However, they need to realize that it’s LARP.  They need to add the details in their imagination that that isn’t a goblin, it’s a huge giant with a 10′ club.

GNS Theory for LARP – part 4 – Realist

My previous posts have talked about the segmentation of LARP players, and placing their desires into neat little boxes based on the venerable GNS theory for RPGs.

I think that light-combat LARP needs to add R to the GNS. R is for Realist. LARP isn’t like other games (either table-top (TT) or CRPG). A TT game that is heavy Narrative is great.  Gamist players will either move away from it, pull it in gamist directions, or take it over. A computer game can be low narrative (Diablo) or high narrative (Mass Effect) and still have heavy gamist elements.  In other words, in other gaming mediums, it is easy to pick a corner of the GNS triangle and still be awesome.

Light-combat LARP cannot adjust to do this, because it needs a large group of people to work.  That’s the Realist part of the story. You can’t have those amazing Gamist or Narrativist moments without a large enough player-base to support it.

Because you need a large group there will always be members of the group that are coming in with different desires. Some of those desires are Gamist and some are Narrativist. A lot of people want the Social aspects of LARP, which doesn’t fit in a neat box. A lot of people want the combat, which can overlap with Gamist, but really can be it’s own thing of physical enjoyment. A lot of people differentiate their Narrativist desires. Some want to emphasize their internal narratives, some want to build small stories with just their RL friends, and others want to be at the center of all the plots they can wrangle for themselves.

As a result, I think everybody, players, plot and NPCs should be a Realist.  More importantly, they should proselytize the Realist attitude. The attitude shift should be “I recognize your desire to have X as valid, and will try to accommodate you. Help a bro out and give me Y when you can.” No more of powergamers looking at “rp’ers” as lesser creatures, and vice-versa. I believe that it’s this credo that can act as a coherent social contract of light-combat LARPers.

“The only wrong way to LARP is when your enjoyment is at the expense of the enjoyment of others.”

GNS Theory for LARP – part 3 – Simulationist

The core goal of simulationist play is for the game to feel “real”.  Understandably, very few LARPers in light-combat games view themselves as simulationist.  It’s a much more common view in the medium-combat games (Amt/Bel/Dag), and those games address the simulationist view more directly systemically.  Nevertheless, there is a simulationist satisfaction provided by the verisimilitude of LARP in contrast to table-top and CRPGs.  The senses of accomplishment and immersion are one of the core strengths of all kinds LARP.  Much like Gamist and Narrativist, every LARPer wants a bit of simulation in their game, and most will claim they want immersion when they express that.

Immersion is Collective Illusion
Immersion is usually defined as “there’s no shit pulling me out of character.” Most immersion snobs (and you know them) have this correct. It’s hard to be immersed with OOC talk and elements of the modern world in plain sight. However, the snobs only have part of the answer. True immersion happens when everybody buys into the illusion, drinks the Kool-Aid, and loses themselves. It’s a collective effort, and worth making OOC efforts to get people into character. I’ll write more about that in a future post.

If it can be done safely and cheaply, it should be done “live-action” rather than with a call or tag.

The failure to abide by this edict is the biggest pain point I have with LARPs, or the decisions made by LARP designers.  I think they are missing the value of simulation in so many cases.  The power of an actual phys. rep. instead of a tag is underestimated.  The satisfaction of overcoming a physical or fighting challenge is miniscule if you simply use a verbal instead.  My best war stories involve “and I ran across the field and did X”.  This is primarily why I don’t have a great appeal for “nordic” style larps, and posit that they aren’t very “live-action” as they are missing the “action”.  LARP is strongest when it has live-action and role-playing.  There’s plenty of other venues that do those activities alone, and do them better.

Have enough verisimilitude to not broach credibility, and not much more

Now, the other aspects simulation can vary within the rules of each LARP.  Medium and Heavy combat LARPs are definitely very Simulationist.  The light-combat LARPs I prefer tend to be minimally Simulationist.  Light-combat LARP needs just enough verisimilitude to not broach credibility, and often they do not want more than that.  In order to accomplish the narrative and gamist goals of light-combat LARP, the simulation needs to decline.  We want a guy that can throw fireballs, and those fireballs don’t light clothes on fire, but they do kill orcs.  We want a gal that can get hit with a spear in the chest twenty times and still keep fighting. We want the blows to be light, the weapons to be light, and the combats to last a long time.  These are non-purist Simulationist desires.

The Simulation is decided by rules, not Plot

The amount of simulation, by necessity, is decided on a holistic scale by the rules design, not by the plot/storytellers.  Yes, plot can breach the underlying logic of the world, but in general, they do not, and the simulation level stays static.  This is an important observation, since it means that as storyteller, you have only two levers to play with on the macro scale, the gamist and narrativist features of your game.

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