Archive for June, 2009

Tracking

The ability to track one’s foes is a common fantasy trope, and a very useful skill for an adventurer. This type of challenge is useful when the PCs must pursue an NPC, forge their way back to civilization after beign lost in the wilderness, locate a hideout, lair, or den, or blaze a new trail through dangerous territory. In reality, tracking through the woods can be very difficult. It takes training, patience, and time. To simulate this, we will create a trail through the woods which perceptive players will be able to navigate.

Note: Tracking challenges should never be used in player versus player conflicts. When following another player, you will have to track them fairly, without assistance from staff members.

Creating a Trail

Drag a heavy log through the woods, leaving a wake of disturbed leaves and crunched twigs. To adjust the level of difficulty, vary the size of the log or the speed that you’re dragging it.

Alternatively, you can leave tough-to-spot objects as trail blazes. Easy ones include bits of fabric tied to branches at eye level or markings on a tree. More difficult blazes might be on the ground, such as colored stones or dropped spell packets. The difficulty can also be varied by spacing out the clues, forcing players to move slowly through the woods as they look for the next blaze.

Some challenges might require players to find a certain number of blazes. For example, to keep on his trail, the party must find at least 10 of the 20 spell book pages dropped by the necromancer as he escaped.

Just like in real life, it’s extremely difficult to track someone after sunset!

Assisting a Tracker

Once a tracker has spotted the beginnings of a trail, she can point it out to her party so they can help too. People shouldn’t have to ignore clues that they can actually see! It’s much easier for large groups to spot a trail though – so increase the difficulty if the tracker has a whole party of helpers.

If you are running a tracking challenge in which only certain players should be able to follow the trail, use a subtle blaze and only let those players know what it is. For example, some races have an excellent sense of smell. They can find trails that others can’t. You can clue them in that a yellow leaf thumbtacked to a tree represents a scent trail, but forbid them from telling anyone what the marker looks like. (This isn’t a foolproof method however – other players might be able to figure out what blaze their companion is looking for.)

At Trail’s End

If the destination at the end of the trail is highly visible (such as a cabin or group of NPCs), it won’t be hard for players to find it through luck alone. Instead, have them searching for something smaller which represents their success.

For example, when tracking a person, you may not be looking for the person himself, but a clue about their destination. You might find a road sign which points to the Silverlake Road. When the tracker locates this sign, it indicates she discovered where her quarry was headed. She can then return to the marshal and say “I’m pursuing him down Silverlake Road.” This triggers the module where the tracker and her party close the distance and catch the escaping criminal.

Or when looking for a monster’s lair, you might find certain marks on the ground or trees which indicate you’re close to the heart of its territory.

If the tracking challenge had a time limit, the party may discover their quarry is already too far away, or that the monster has already returned to its lair.

Finding a Safe Route

Tracking Challenges can also be used to simulate forging a trail through dangerous territory. This is a variant of the tracking module, where players are actually looking for the lack of blazes. You mark “dangerous territory” by putting “anti-blazes” in the woods to represent the territory of hostile wildlife. This could be shredded clothing, bloody rags, or bones.

Players must chart a route through the dangerous territory by tying cloth blazes to branches. None of these blazes may be within line-of-sight of an anti-blaze. At the end of the adventure the tracker will have to walk an NPC through the trail who will verify that it is safe.

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Lone Wolves

Certain players, often called “Lone Wolves” do not join teams or parties. There are many possible reasons. To name a few–

  • playing a loner character
  • being new to the game and not knowing anyone yet
  • no teams are recruiting
  • feeling shy or antisocial
  • don’t know how to get involved
  • “does not play well with others”

Lone Wolves are different than “Social Butterflies”, who move between groups and know tons of people at a game. Lone Wolves are difficult to involve because they don’t get included when a group goes somewhere. They hang out at the sidelines, rarely experiencing the spotlight.

LARPs are social games. And they’re more fun when everybody is involved and interacting. It’s not necessary for everyone to be friends – in fact, the atmosphere is more dynamic if there also are rivalries and tensions between the players. But Lone Wolves miss out on this by not being as socially invested. This gives them fewer opportunities to get involved – a self perpetuating cycle that often ends with the player simply not coming back.

So how can you get a Lone Wolf invested and engaged? Here are a few ways…

  • Extend him an invitation to a guild or other public group
  • Give him control of an important resource like a map, password, NPC contact, or special information about a plot line. This should be something that other players will return to so they must regularly seek out the Lone Wolf’s company.
  • Cast members (recurring NPCs) could converse with him to learn more about his character concept, motivation, and background. They can then introduce him to similar characters and suggest cooperation.
  • Give him a task, quest, or mission which involves learning information from other players. This forces him to seek out and meet others.

Keep in mind that ultimately, it’s not the LARP Director’s job to play babysitter. The players of a LARP are largely responsible for its society, and micromanaging their relationships is generally outside of the scope of plot. If you feel you are forcing a situation, it was probably not meant to be. Then again, many great friendships are unlikely pairs.

Lone Wolves may enjoy the isolated role they’re playing, but often they’re just people who need a little encouragement to get involved. Use your best judgment about how much of a hand they need.

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Two days later… whew!

I don’t know what came over me in the last few days. Since I set up this blog, I have been an unstoppable writing machine. I wrote something like 11,000 words in a 24 hour period. What the hell is my problem?

I’d been meaning to get a lot of these thoughts on paper for years.  After I made my first post here, the seal had been broken. It’s a lot like like staying up all night at a LARP by drinking a gallon of coffee. The next morning you wake up early and flood the world with an unceasing torrent of urine.

A lot of these thoughts  emerged from observing how LARPs are run in different parts of the country. I’ve sampled many styles of games – I know that there’s no correct way to run something as big and subjective as a LARP. But few people get a formal introduction to running a game – they sign up to staff, and shortly thereafter, they find themselves plunged into the deep end.

Running a LARP takes more responsibility than running a tabletop. A LARP director is one part Dungeon Master and one part Event Coordinator. If those two jobs weren’t complex enough, they also have to handle public relations, money, and forum moderation. (It’s not an easy job, but it’s very rewarding!)

So to  get people up to speed, particularly people who are new at this, I want to expand this series of articles to create a somewhat comprehensive guide about running not just NERO, but live-combat fantasy LARPs in general.

Eventually, my goal is to compile these rants into a single document which I will make available for new staff members. As such, expect these posts to change over time as modify them and get feedback. (Please post feedback!)

What topics do you feel we should cover? When you started staffing, was there anything you needed to know? What sort of stuff should all LARP staff members be aware of?

I will gladly publish articles submitted for for Nerology so long as they are submitted under a Creative Commons License. I will gladly credit you! But because I may need to edit the submission, and may want to eventually sell this book, I reccommend this license. (all you have to do is mention it in your post)

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Addressing Cheating

People cheat at LARPs. Usually they’re not even aware of it – in the heat of combat, players often forget whether they had a spell shield up, or how many hit points they have. Sometimes players get hit a bunch of times and just estimate how much damage was done. It’s easy to overcast spells if you have a lot memorized. Isolated incidents like these don’t hurt the game that much.

The word “cheating” may be a bit strong for this kind of unintentional error. We think of a cheater as someone who is willfully breaking the rules. When addresing these kinds of problems, be calm, don’t get in the player’s face, and don’t make a big deal in front of others. Doing so is unprofessional and rude. Take the player aside and let them know what happened – for all you know, it might have been an accident. Assume positive intent! You’ve let them know that you’re watching. They should now be aware of the problem and adjust their behavior. After the issue has been addressed, shut up about it.

Avoid escalating the discussion into an argument. Keep your cool – you might be wrong too. Hey, it’s possible that the player was casting all those extra spells from scrolls and you just didn’t see it. You don’t want to come off as an authoritarian jerk. Yelling at people will repel players from your game and make you seem like a high school gym teacher. Resist the power trip!

When cheating starts to get out of hand, it is time to try a different approach. All players are concerned with their reputation. The social stigma of cheating is often much worse than any discipline levied by a LARP staff. In a friendly way, let the player know that others have been gossiping. “I just want you to know – people are starting to talk about you like you’re the guy who does’t take his hits.” You’re not accusing him of anything, you’re just letting him know what the rumors are.

More often than not, this will correct the behavior in question without entering the bitter cycle of accusation, defense, debate, and escalation.

If you need to address cheating in a more straight-forward way, do it calmly and diplomatically. Establish a consensus with other staff members to reduce the risk of the conflict becoming personal.

If a cheater has been warned and continues to cheat, you could remove them from the fight by taking away their skills for an hour.

Sending monsters to target cheaters does not address the problem. It is levying an in-game punishment for an out-of-game behavior.

Banning or kicking out a player should be saved as a last resort. These methods and should only be used if that player’s presence is causing others to leave or avoid the game. Measures like these are heavy-handed and usually unnecessary.

When addressing cheating, keep in mind the goal – to ensure fair play and an enjoyable game for everybody.

Make sure that the player in question knows that they are wanted at the game. Often, after being accused of cheating, the player will feel that the staff is out to get them, and will never return. Your goal isn’t to remove cheaters from the game, but to bring them back to fair play with everybody else.

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Maintaining an In-Game Atmosphere

At an immersive LARP, one of the goals is to keep everyone’s head inside the game. An immersed player treats our imaginary world as she would the real world. Threats, friendships, social caste, money,  character concepts… these things become very real when everybody else treats them as real too, even if they’re based on a fiction.

You can tell a player is immersed when she has a real emotional reaction to fictional events. At a LARP you can experience the thrill of battle, the sorrow of losing a companion, fear of death, anger at being betrayed, pride in one’s kingdom, and it all goes away at the end of the weekend like a midsummer night’s dream.

Immersion is not something that you can declare or enforce. It occurs inside a players’ head, something that arises naturally from engagement with the fiction. Immersion is challenged by anything which reminds you that this is a game. The in-game atmosphere is a collaborative effort, requiring participation from all players and NPCs.

Here are some tips to keep the game as immersive as possible.

  • Keep in-character all the time. If you must talk about the real world, use in-game language to describe it. For example, if you have to refer to your car, call it a “caravan”.  We are not at an “event” we are at a “gathering”. You do not “have” first aid, you know it.
  • If someone begins talking about the real-world or using out-of-game language, discourage it through in-game means. React as if you’re offended or are being lied to. Treat the person as insane. Out-of-game talk is considered highly vulgar by people in the game world. Make a point that people shouldn’t be talking like that, but don’t draw too much attention to it!
  • When explaining how a module, spell, or effect works, explain it in-game using in-game language. Don’t say “The swinging blades do 10 damage” – instead say “The swinging blades are as dangerous as a lightning bolt.” (which everyone knows deals 10 damage)
  • The phrase “Let me clarify…” indicates to players that the next thing you’re going to say is a truthful description of how the game works. For example, the players may be escorting an NPC they don’t trust. He says, “Let me clarify – the blue thing on the ground up ahead is a wither stone. If you touch it, that limb will be withered.” The players may suspect they’re being led into an ambush, but they understand he is accurately describing what happens if they touch the stone. This removes the need for a marshal to break game to describe it.
  • Often, people ask questions out-of-game which they could have asked in-game. For example, sometimes you’ll see a player put their weapon on their head to ask where the bathroom is. They could, of course, be asking as their character. Respond in-character anyway.
  • NPC acting gives players cues for how to react to things. If an NPC treats something as a big threat, players will too. Set the tone of the game (anxiety, relaxation, anxiousness, etc) through the cast members.
  • Keep everyone and everything in costume! Make sure people’s street clothes are covered. Throw a sheet over that map of the USA in the tavern. Have people pour their cans of soda into cups. When you look around, you should see the game world, not the real world (as much as possible).
  • Holds and other game-stopping events should take place as little as possible. Holds should never be called to clarify how an effect works or what spells were thrown. If you need clarification, seek it quietly without interrupting those not involved. Keep holds short so players can get back into the action.

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Module: Choose Your Own Dungeon Crawl

This is a module format for running dungeons which are too large to be explored in one delve.  This is a basic, skeletal writeup which should be easy to flesh out and adapt for your game. If you don’t like reading module writeups, stop here!

Read the rest of this entry »

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Using Status Effects

Carrier attacks and status effects can be used to complicate a battle and increase a monster’s threat level. But be careful not to overuse them.

When NPCs are armed with carrier attacks and status-effect abilities, it drains certain player resources. Be careful not to overtax specific resources by sending out too many of the same status effects. Be aware of which skills the players are using up to resolve the damage they’ve taken.

For example, charm, sleep, and fear effects are all cured by Awaken spells. If you’ve been sending out willow-the-wisps with charm spells and creatures with sleep carriers all day, think twice before sending out more creatures with fear carriers.

Carrier attacks become very frustrating when you’re hit by them too often, or when you must simply endure the effect because a cure isn’t available. If nobody’s willing to unparalyze you, you might up spending 10 minutes as a statue every time someone hits you. That’s not a very fun way to spend a fight.

As a rule of thumb, no more than a third of the monsters in a group should have take-out carrier attacks. Those monsters with carrier attacks should do lower damage than the other monsters, making armor and protective spells useful defenses.

When using monsters that deliver status effects, set up tactics they will use to maximize the effect. For example, giant spiders which web their opponents might be paired up with archers who pelt helpless targets with arrows. A PC that is diseased and feared is only walking away from the fight and is therefore very vulnerable to rogues. Disarm + fear is a nasty combo as well, as it sends an unarmed character running across the battlefield.

Be especially reserved in using spell strikes and massive damage, as there are few ways for players to avoid these attacks. Being targeted by them is frustrating because the monster doesn’t need to land a fair hit for the attack to work.

Massive damage, a type of damage which cannot be blocked by weapons, was originally meant for traps but has been used increasingly frequently as a monster ability. In order ot deliver it with a trap, you generally need a large impressive prop to justify why you can’t block the blow.

Massive damage delivered by weapon lacks this atmosphere and therefore should be uncommon at best. When it is employed by a creature, that creature should have props, roleplay, or costume which communicates the creature’s size and strength. Maybe when they deliver a massive swing they must roleplay a slow, powerful swing, giving players time to dive out of the way.

When using massive damage, keep in mind that you’re not really fighting fairly, and this can be no fun for your opponents if you use your ability too liberally.

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