BIG DAMN DISCLAIMER
This a post about game mechanics that are common to many larps around the country (if not the world). I am not saying that any game with these mechanics is terrible, and I not calling someone a bad game designer for putting them in their game. For one thing, I’d be condemning about 95-99% of the boffer larps and boffer larp designers out there, since most of them use at least one of these systems, and that’s not my intention or my assessment. I’ve been a boffer player for 14 years, designed and run my own boffer game, and helped write rules for a few others here and there, including systems that used some of these very rules. I love boffer larp. No, think of this more as a call to examine some of the practices that I think the genre may have outgrown, or at least may need to re-assess regarding the cost:benefit ratio surrounding their implementation.
If it helps, think of it like D&D community assessing the utility of THAC0 when the time came to transition to D&D 3.0 and onward. While it’s not the worst system by any means, the designers took a look at the system and said “Are we using this because it’s the best, or just because it’s the rule we’ve always had and it does well enough?” Though it met with some resistance, including a surprisingly sentimental amount from folks like me who grew up with that system, ultimately the attack system re-design resulted in what I think many players agree is a stronger system overall. Even the diehards who stuck with AD&D and the THAC0 system had a chance to compare it to some new ways of thinking and decide if they wanted to improve anything while still keeping what they were used to using. It was a win all around.
Just to recap: I am not saying your favorite game sucks. I am not calling anyone a bad game designer. I am saying that maybe it’s time to take a look at some of these mechanics and see if they’re still necessary, at least in their current forms. Your answer can certainly be “No thanks, what we have works for us!” and a cheerful wave, and that’s fine! If your game is working and everyone’s having fun, then great, by all means keep on doing what you’re doing. Having fun, after all, is the ultimate goal of any game. Just wanted to make that clear.
That said, let’s have some fun taking apart some rules, everyone.
#5 – The Card Check
The Theory: Keeps players honest.
The Problems: Needlessly breaks immersion, does little to prevent abuse.
There are lots of little variations on this practice – some games use rings of tearaway strips, others have plastic chips players must carry, some use multiple character sheets, and so on – but the basic idea is the same: At certain intervals, the game staff will come along and check your character card or what have you, do some math and make sure that you’re not cheating (using skills you don’t have, overspending for those you do, etc.). It’s also not uncommon for games with these systems to require players to write down things like skill use, resource point expenditures, and so on during play, so if say a crafter is forging a magic sword then he must take a moment or two during the process to write out what he’s doing on his character card. A good player will do this as unobtrusively as possible, but even so, the fact remains that according to the system it needs to be done.
Like most things on this list, it’s not necessarily a bad practice in theory, or when it comes to rare or permanent changes to a character – religious baptism, joining a secret society, forging a powerful item, taking a death in a limited death system, etc. – but when it’s required for more commonplace activities it simply becomes a needless hassle as people break character to sit down and do math after exciting scenes. (Or you make defacto cheaters out of the players who don’t bother or remember to do so.) The great thing about larp, and especially boffer larp, is that the action is supposed to unfold in real time as much as possible. Copying down expenditures on a card is pretty much the exact opposite of that, as it breaks the momentum of the moment and forcibly reminds players that they’re playing in a game.
The other main argument for this practice is to prevent cheating, but honestly, it’s extremely rare that it catches anyone on its own. Like it or not, larp is pretty much entirely an honor system. There are too many players spread across too much territory to watch everyone. If someone wants to lie about what they can do or how often they can do it, they won’t be caught by checking their card math; if they’ll lie about using a skill, why would they be any more honest about their record-keeping? No, serious cheaters will be caught when a marshal watches them break the rules and calls them out directly, usually after other players or NPCs report their suspicions to staff. And you know what? You don’t need a card call system to catch people that way.
Suggestions: Don’t worry about minor expenditures and commonplace actions, but develop a system for recording and monitoring skills and powers that create items, alter characters in a permanent way or otherwise have a lasting impact on the game or significantly affect the game’s economy. Requiring players to report to a central location – typically the NPC staging area, or somewhere nearby – with any required resource cards or other materials is a good way to do so with crafting skills, as it lets staff verify that the proper procedures were followed for important skills and that no one is making items without the necessary resources. Ditto recording significant game events like baptisms, deaths, marriages, etc. But the “everyday” stuff like combat skills, basic healing, and so on? It’s not worth the interruption in play to make people record them. Rely on alert marshals and players to bring possible cheaters to the attention of the staff and leave the little things on the honor system.
#4 – Narration
The Theory: Adds colorful details to the world that are not easily simulated with props/makeup/set dressing
The Problems: Breaks up the game, strains the imagination of an already taxed player base, can lead to problems if people enter the scene after missing the initial description
Let me be clear that I don’t think a little narration now and again is such a bad thing. We are playing a game that relies on the power of imagination, after all, and I certainly don’t mind using mine. I’ve looked at a single wooden wall and been asked to imagine it as simply the front gate of a whole castle; I’ve watched a friend’s apartment become the literal Underworld with nothing more than some candles and dripping water sound effects; I’ve had a hook turn to my group and tell us that the network of candles and Christmas lights on the ground ahead represents a maze with walls of shifting light. Not to mention that I can look at my friend Frank with brown facepaint and tied on horns and see a minotaur instead, or mentally edit out the feet of the NPCs operating the large Chinese dragon-style monster and instead focus on the fact that the mouth part is actively trying to devour me. It’s all part of the game.
Here’s the thing, though. If you look back at those examples there, all of them have one thing in common: in each case the staff combined narration with the power of even just some basic setting preparation, so that the narration at least had some sort of foundation for my mind to work with instead of just declaring something existed by narrative fiat. I wasn’t just told “there’s a castle there” – the NPCs actually built a single wall with a gate so that we had something to focus on, and that single wall still makes it a lot easier to imagine the rest of the castle than conjuring it entirely in our minds. The hook didn’t just declare “OK, you guys are in a maze now”, but actually laid out a maze on the ground in lights, forcing us to navigate it while solving puzzles and battling monsters. My friend Frank could’ve just narrated “I actually look like a minotaur”, but instead he put on makeup and added some props to help create the image our imaginations could finish in full minotaur form. The key is creating as much suggestion as possible with props, makeup, costuming, set pieces, and so on, so that the narration is simply adding to what the players see in front of them, not conjuring something out of nothing when it can possibly be avoided.
This may seem an odd bone to pick, but it stems from the fact that boffer games are supposed to run in real time as much as possible, which makes WYSIWYG a crucial standard to keep the game running smoothly. If I see an orcish tent encampment in the woods and plan a raid accordingly, it’s more than a little bit of a pain in the neck to have a timeout called as soon as we come crashing out of the trees “because this is actually a castle and you can only enter through the gate, which is those two traffic cones there” and be forced to into a do-over. (And yes, that sort of thing has happened.) Likewise, if an NPC walks up to me, throws up an out of game sign and says “Oh, by the way, I look exactly like your character’s old friend who betrayed him”, it’s anticlimactic to say the least. We’ve lost all the fun of me recognizing them from across the room and reacting accordingly, whether it’s cursing their name and pulling a sword, running and hiding, or whatever else I might want to do in response. Instead he’s right in front of me and now I have to adjust my reactions accordingly, when I might have never let him near me if I knew it at a glance.
Bottom line: The less you can trust your eyes to at least give you the basic story at a boffer game, the less immersive it will be, and the more prone to frustrating mistakes and missteps based on players missing crucial narration. (Nothing like walking in a few minutes late and quipping at an NPC dressed in basic blacks, only to be told “Um, that’s actually a fire giant” and spending the next few minutes arguing about whether or not you can take back what you said because you didn’t know what the NPC was supposed to be. Good times.) And that’s just not ideal from a game point of view.
Suggestions: Like I said, a little bit of narration isn’t so bad from time to time, but it’s best when it’s paired with some real elements that help maintain the reality it’s creating. Players are amazingly adaptable and will work with most any setup you give them, but you’re doing both sides a favor if you use setting elements to reinforce your narration. I remember a great fantasy adventure that started with the hook bringing our adventuring group to a little cabin in the woods, turning and telling us: “OK guys, this building is a cave, and the black tarps are the cave walls, so you can’t attack through them or cross under them, and for story purposes it gets hotter and hotter as you go in. Any questions?” Sure enough, the inside of the cabin was set up like a tunnel system, complete with low tunnels set up under tables that we had to crawl through, and it was a blast. A little basic narration combined with some great setup turned into something truly memorable.
#3 – Prestige Classes
The Theory: A special reward system for dedicated, long-term players.
The Problems: A favoritism minefield and an escalating unbalancing factor in large games.
This is one of those hot button topics that can easily tear apart long term games, or at least lead to a lot of bitterness and burnout in the veteran player base, and yet it’s a very common phenomenon at many different games. As usual, at base it’s not a terrible idea – rewarding dedicated long-term players by allowing them access to special “prestige classes” that bestow powerful, high-end capabilities on their character. The actual term for these special roles varies, naturally, but the basic concept is the same – after accumulating a large amount of experience and/or play time, as well as completing certain in-game tasks, a character is granted a new set of powers or given access to a skill list not available to other characters outside of this new prestige class.
The problem here is two-fold: frequency and favoritism. Frequency is simply how often these special rewards are approved – in order to retain their special impact, many games grant these rewards sparingly, elevating a handful of players a year, perhaps a dozen at most. Which can work in smaller games, where that might represent a significant chunk of the player base, but as the size of the game increases it may cause problems. Bestowing prestige classes on 6 players every year in a 60 person game is probably fine, but in a game of 300 players there are going to be a lot of unhappy players at the same level of XP/time invested grumbling about not being picked. Which brings up the favoritism problem – whether it’s just sour grapes or actually might have some basis in truth (intentionally or not), accusations of favoritism are a serious concern for games that use the prestige class system. This is especially true when you consider that many prestige classes have exceptionally powerful or useful abilities, which can make even veteran players feel frustrated if they feel they are being continually passed over for this reward while also watching rivals or enemies acquire these capabilities.
Suggestions: If you decide to use a prestige class system of some kind, transparency is your friend. Even if it’s surrounded by multiple levels of in-game secrecy, as far as the players are concerned it should be clear when a character becomes eligible, how they can apply for one of these classes, and what if any selection restrictions are in place (as well as whether re-submissions are allowed if they don’t get picked up the first time). That may sound a bit mechanical, but the more the system relies on “personal judgement” by staff, the more you’re opening the process up to accusations of favoritism and encouraging bitterness and unhealthy competition among the player base as people gossip about why one player got their special reward while others got snubbed, and so on.
#2 – Big Numbers
The Theory: Large numbers make things epic!
The Problems: Large numbers are a pain to track during play and often make new players feel pointless compared to veterans.
A lot of boffer games are addicted to big numbers, with players tossing around damage totals in the hundreds and facing down enemies with thousands of hit points. Big numbers sound impressive in theory, but really, from a live action point of view, they’re rarely anything but a totally avoidable disaster in practice. Sure, it sounds awesome to swing for 150 damage, especially if you started out swinging for 3 back at your first game. I’m sure it does make you feel a little bit epic. Cool! But let’s think about it for a second – when numbers start rising, is the challenge of the game actually becoming greater, or simply the associated math?
Let’s say we’re both badass veteran warriors at our respective games, but you’re in a high math system and I’m in a low math system; you swing for 50 damage each hit, and I swing for 1. In your game, a nasty troll has 1250 hit points; in my game, it has 25. Both of us will need to land 25 hits on that enemy to put it down. (Let’s leave spells, skills, and special attacks out of it for the moment.) So far it sounds the same, right? Except at my game, a new player also swings for 1 damage. So it’s 25 swings for him too. But at your game, a new player swinging 3’s will take 417 swings to put down that bad guy, or in other words, he won’t, at least not without developing a wicked case of tennis elbow in the process.
In order to combat this problem, many games adopt a “scaling” practice where they openly divide the player base for battles and adventures based on character level or the equivalent, so that new players don’t fight things they can’t kill and veterans don’t get bored obliterating nuisance threats. In other words, in a scaling system you might not be able to go on anything designated an “Epic Adventure” unless you’re level 15 or higher, that kind of thing. Which is all well and good when you can easily divide players, such as when you have hooks taking a pre-determined number of players on a structured adventure in a designated area, but it can be very difficult to preserve the concept in sprawling melees, night ambushes and other more freeform situations. And it’s not much fun to be the new players who stumble across the Unkillable Lich Minions and are carved down without even the slightest hope of winning. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that every enemy should be a cake walk for new players as well as veterans, and I know full well that many larpers will stubbornly insist on fighting when they probably should run. But there’s a big difference between “probably a good idea to flee” and “there is absolutely no hope at all” and I know which one sounds more fun and dramatic in the end.
Now, I’ve also heard this practice defended with logic along the following lines: “Well, a 1st level D&D character can’t expect to fight a 15 Hit Die dragon and win – why should it be any different in larp?” And I suppose that’s true if that’s the model you want to follow, but in response, let me answer with another question – is a math-heavy tabletop gaming model designed for a small group of friends necessarily the best basis for a real time live combat game with dozens or hundreds of players? I know fantasy boffer games started up with the general idea that it would be like playing D&D in the woods, but it’s been more than 20 years now. Boffer gaming is its own form, with two decades of innovation to make it so. We can imitate tabletop standards if we want to, but we certainly don’t have to do so anymore.
Suggestions: Obviously, this is a difficult thing to “fix” in an existing game without overhauling the entire system, so if the game already uses large numbers and adventure scaling, it might be more of a question of just understanding the problems the come with that kind of system and trying to minimize them. Make sure the new players feel valued, spend equal time and effort designing content for the different levels of players, find other ways to make things challenging than simply adding more numbers to them.
#1 – Calling Damage Every Swing
The Theory: It helps keep combat math straight.
The Problems: It kills combat roleplay, makes large battles extremely confusing, and renders ranged effects difficult to downright useless to land successfully.
This is the absolute number one thing that I find frustrating about fighting in boffer games. Anything larger than a small skirmish invariably becomes an escalating shouting match as everyone tries to make sure their target can hear them clearly, creating a battlefield din that can make it difficult to tell which numbers are directed at which target. Not to mention the difficulty people have in adding up the numbers coming at them – it’s hard enough to add 35+11+7+7+14+25 in a hurry, let alone while you’re also shouting your own numbers back. Which leads to a lot of boffer combatants essentially giving up on doing the math and just taking their best guess at when they should fall down – and if pragmatism means more or less everyone does that, what’s the point of calling damage supposed to be, again?
Another casualty of constant damage calling is ranged combat (including spellcasting and similar mechanics) – I’ve watched spellcasters of power great and terrible throw packets into these cacophonous rugby scrums and scream themselves hoarse trying to be heard by their targets, even giving up in frustration at times. Bow and crossbow users sometimes do a bit better, especially in systems that use padded arrows instead of packets – it’s a lot harder to miss being hit with an arrow than it is being hit with a tiny bean bag – but as someone who plays a game that uses nerf guns to simulate real ones, I know well the frustration of landing a perfect shot only to realize after four tries that my target can’t hear my damage because they’re heavily engaged with three people in melee and all four of them are yelling numbers of their own. Nobody’s cheating – they’re not ignoring my shots on purpose or anything – it’s just that with all the loud math in the air, my target literally cannot hear me over the din. And if I have to run up close to make my skills known, I tend to lose a lot of the basic point of being an archer/gunslinger/spellcaster, namely that I’m supposed to be able to destroy rude strangers from a distance as opposed to getting right up in their faces.
To be fair, a lot of my frustration with this problem comes from the fact that I started out playing in one of the very few boffer games that didn’t use damage calls every swing. It had a very simple system – a one-handed weapon did 1 damage, a two-handed weapon did 2 damage. If you couldn’t tell what hit you – say you were struck from behind and couldn’t turn around to see what did it – you assumed the higher number. If you used a special skill to increase this amount, you called that extra damage, and if your weapon had a magical quality, you called it once or twice the first couple of times you attacked a target, just to see if it had a special effect (or was totally ineffective), but otherwise you didn’t need to call anything while you were fighting. And you know what the best part of that system was?
We could fight and roleplay simultaneously.
Instead of having to pause our combat damage calls in order to say something to our companions – yell for help, a rallying cry, pray to the gods, insults for our enemies, whatever – we could swing our weapons and talk at the same time. It made for a very dramatic combat environment, where we could continue our character roleplaying and interaction the entire time. Now, I know from experience it’s certainly possible to intersperse roleplaying and combat in systems that require constant damage calls, so I’m not saying such systems eliminate combat roleplaying, but they certainly don’t encourage it to the same degree as a system which has few if any damage calls. When you take out the constant math calls, you not only encourage combat roleplaying but also make it far more likely that spells, ranged attacks and special abilities are properly noted, since those are the only rules calls that will be made during the average fight. It’s a win all around.
Suggestions: Like big numbers, this system is hard to remove from a game without completely overhauling the combat system, but there are some work-arounds that different games have used in the past, and not just the very simple “number of hands = damage inflicted” mechanic I discussed previously. Some games color-code weapons, for instance, so that if you’re hit by a blue weapon you take 1 damage, a green weapon does 5 damage, a red one does 10, etc. At night or in other situations where it might not be obvious, you simply call the color a few times as you swing – “Red! Red! Red!” – until your opponent knows what you’re swinging. This system does rely on learning a color code, requires a handful of standard weapon damage settings to correspond to those colors (typically increments of 1, 3 or 5), can be limited by the practical availability of properly colored duct tape or fabric sheathes to mark weapons, and can be quite noisy at night when colors are hard to see, but it remains a potential alternative. Other games use hit location systems, where weapons don’t inflict damage numbers, they simply render body parts useless after a certain number of hits to that location (potentially modified by armor on that location). This too can have some problems, as it can encourage extremely rapid striking and is often quite brutal compared to other games, but it does eliminate a lot of damage call mechanics a game might dislike.
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!