Badass Larp Talk #12: Five Rules for Staff Members
Hey everyone! It’s been almost a month since my last update, so apologies for the extended absence – the end of the semester caught me a little off guard, and then a succession of larp weekends and events kept me busy. (I know, I know, what terrible problems to have, right?) So, without further ado, I present a by-request edition of BLT – specifically, answers to the question: “What advice would you give to larp staff members to make their games better?”
1 – Learn the Entertainment Ratio
Wait, math at a larp? And not in combat? It’s true, folks. One of the best lessons I ever took away from the first boffer larp I played was something my friend Matt called the “entertainment ratio.” It’s pretty simple, really – for any scene you set up, how many non-player characters (NPCs) are being used to entertain a particular number of player characters (PCs)? That’s your entertainment ratio. So if you send out one NPC as an impassioned artist who winds up entertaining twelve PCs with their performance, that’s a 1:12 entertainment ratio – a very good one in most games. On the other hand, if you use twelve NPCs to set up a special module for three PCs, that’s a 12:3 ratio (or 4:1 if you like reducing things correctly). Chances are that’s a really intense, immersive experience for those three PCs, no question, but it might not be the best investment of your staff members if it means 40 other PCs are sitting around bored while waiting for staff members to answer their questions, portray crucial NPCs or otherwise make an appearance in the game.
It’s the economics of staff management, really. If you know that you’re investing heavily in one scene, you have to make sure you’re still putting out enough entertainment to keep everyone else satisfied, or at least make sure the game isn’t stalling out. Most of the best staff members I’ve ever seen grasped this intuitively, or at least learned to do so after a while, and made sure that their ratios always added up to the most fun for the largest number of players whenever possible. But if you’re new and it’s not second nature, I highly recommend that you at least consider the entertainment ratio as you’re sending out plot to the players. Don’t agonize over every little number – “oh no, those two NPCs were supposed to entertain 11 people, but they only got 9!” – but try to make sure that you have a sense that your staff is being utilized wisely.
Oh, and for the record, when your PCs are entertaining each other, which no NPCs required? (Popular examples of this are martial tournaments, talent showcases, heated internal political debates, etc.) Congratulations! Entertainment ratio = infinite! My advice at that point is to take a breather, get your staff ready for when it’s over, and enjoy the show your players are putting on for each other!
2 – Don’t Interrupt Living Story Moments
Remember when you were in school, and a class discussion totally (and often unexpectedly) took on a life of its own? Everyone got really into it for its own sake, because they were actually interested and had real things to say about the topic. If you had a good teacher, what did they do? Sit back and moderate the discussion, but otherwise let it go on a while. And what did a bad teacher do? Shut it down, leaving everyone feeling frustrated.
Those moments happen in larp too – I call them “living story” moments, because they’re those times when the story really seems to take on a life of its own – and if you see them happening, whenever possible try to leave them the hell alone. Unless it is vital for the plot, or the players put themselves in a position where they knew they could be interrupted easily – like holding their tender wedding at an unholy portal that frequently overflows with ravenous monsters, which is really just begging to have it crashed by demons – just steer your NPCs around those moments and find other PCs to entertain. Interrupting that sort of roleplaying is the larp equivalent of butting in on a serious private conversation, and that doesn’t usually end well for anyone.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that players having a tender moment should have some kind of magic anti-plot forcefield. (Those moments can be hard to spot, for one, and some players might get the wrong idea and start trying to abuse the practice if it became widely known.) I’m just saying that, assuming the plot and/or characters they’re bringing in area able to be ignored, or at least can interact with other players in the area, you should avoid interrupting scenes already in progress whenever possible, especially if it looks like the players are really engaged and roleplaying intensely. Generally you can tell when you’re approaching this sort of scene as opposed to PCs just hanging around and talking – if the PCs aren’t too engaged, they’ll usually leap at a chance to talk to NPCs and see what’s going on, but if they’re really invested in the moment they’ll barely acknowledge the NPCs and stay focused on what’s at hand.
It’s a fine line and you’ll make mistakes now and then. That’s fine. But the important thing about it is remembering that when story is happening – even and perhaps especially when it’s something the players have generated on their own – try to give it some room to breathe. You don’t have to let it go on and on – most games take place in dangerous worlds where those moments of respite are all too brief – but don’t stomp on it too quickly or what you’re really doing is telling the players that your story is more important than their roleplaying investment, and that’s a bad message to put out there regardless.
3 – Don’t Try to Play Their Characters For Them
One of the biggest traps I see new staff members fall into is the desire to play their players’ characters as if they were own – sending that PC plot that essentially makes them become what the staff member wants them to be. At a Vampire game I played years back, one of the Storytellers decided that a friend of mine should become the Sheriff of the city, which would’ve been great if my friend had shared the notion. But she didn’t, and so every time the Storyteller tried to push her in that direction she pushed back the other way. It became a weird tug of war, because the Storyteller got it in his head that this was what her character “should be”, when really that power is and always should be the player’s.
It sounds really obvious, but sadly a lot of staff members can get a little caught up in their ability to create situations that challenge PCs and try to use them to change PCs instead, taking away beloved aspects of a character or adding unwanted elements to a character. Don’t get me wrong – characters can and will change in response to stories, and games where they can remain the same in perpetuity will eventually have major problems with stagnation. But an important concept to remember is that only the player owns a PC. They are the ultimate arbiter of what that character is about, and failing to remember that is a recipe for frustration and disaster.
Now, I’m not saying that players have veto power over every possible change – if their character wanders into an ambush and gets killed, they can’t simply say “Nope!” and pretend it didn’t happen. Handling fallout from decisions is an important part of any character. But there’s a big difference between enforcing the setting realistically and actively trying to mold a character into something you want them to be. The former is being a good staff member and helping maintain a consistent shared universe; the latter is intrusive and unwanted. If I made a character based around his beautiful singing voice, you may think it’s cool to take his voice away, and it might be very dramatic to deal with for a while. But if you do it permanently, and not as the result of actions I chose to take but because you think it would be cool to see what happens next, step back and think about what you really did. Characters can be injured, broken down, put upon and otherwise harried within an inch of their lives, without necessarily changing the core of what makes them them. So before you try to change a character’s fundamental nature, think about what you’re asking of that player. At the very least, if you have an idea that you think would be amazing for a character in a game you’re running, ask the player first. Yes, it might ruin the “surprise” – but it’s a lot better than changing someone’s character and finding out that they no longer want to play that person as a result.
4 – Let Them Win (When They Earn It)
This is another one that trips up a lot of otherwise well-meaning staff members. They load up a Super Badass Villain with plenty of ways to kick some PC butt, surround them with minions eager to do some damage and send them out to cause havoc. Except that instead of an epic battle, a clever PC manages to slip behind enemy lines and take out your supervillain with a single well-placed shot. Or perhaps the PCs approach them diplomatically and explain a perfectly reasonable alternative to bloodshed that you hadn’t anticipated. You had a huge battle scheduled for this session … now what?
The short answer is, anything that lets the PCs keep their victory. One of the things that will make me bail at a game faster than anything else is when the staff can’t admit defeat, but I’ve seen it all too often in my career. A PC figures out a clever and perfectly legitimate way to defeat a villain or solve a problem, only to have the NPCs and other staff members bull right over their actions just so they can have the fight or showdown they were imagining all along. It’s a situation a lot of us know only too well – some NPCs show up looking for a fight, the PCs patiently explain why it doesn’t make any sense to fight, and then NPCs attack anyway “because that’s what they were told to do.” It really strains the shared illusion that is larp, and it teaches players a bad lesson about the value of cleverness and skill. Sometimes the players will hit you in ways you never saw coming, unraveling all of your plans in a moment. Let them. You can always regroup while they’re celebrating their victory and think of something else to put forward.
By the same token, don’t hand them a win when it should be a loss. Sometimes staff members see players getting frustrated or discouraged because events aren’t going their way, so they hand the players an easy win: a badass villain suddenly trips and falls on his sword; powerful allies swoop in out of nowhere to save the day; the solution to a vexing riddle is whispered into a character’s ear by his dead grandmother’s ghost. (Yes, I’ve seen all of these things.) The problem with this approach is two-fold, the first part being that it diminishes the value of all their other victories if you just hand them one they didn’t earn. And yes, the players can tell when you do it, especially if it starts becoming a habit. The second is that some players actually don’t mind losing – quite enjoy it, really – when it’s a fair loss. There’s a lot of great dramatic potential in failure and loss, and when you sweep that away for a cheap win, they don’t get either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, they just get a bland … OK-ness that isn’t good for much of anything.
5 – Talk to Your Players
Honestly, you’d be amazed at how many staff members forget this little step. Larp is a collaborative art form, staff and players working together to tell amazing stories about fantastic characters. (In many games players and staff are one in the same, with players rotating staff duties from event to event or story to story.) Talk to each other. This doesn’t mean the game should vote on every decision – “Hey, show of hands, who wants to be horribly butchered by witch hunters next game? Really? Nobody?” – or that staff should freely share important secrets with players, the kind that will ruin their fun and spoil crucial game mysteries. No, what it means is that you should have some form of dialogue between staff and players, so that you know what’s working, what isn’t, what people want more of and what they want to avoid. You won’t be able to make everyone happy all of the time, but you can find ways to make the game better for everyone if you tear down some of the artificial distance between staff and players and put them more directly in touch with each other.
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!