Archive for August, 2009

“Putting Fear Back Into the Game” Part II

This followup to “Putting Fear Back Into the Game” was written by Dan Burke of NERO Avendale. In this article, he shares three techniques he’s used to induce horror.

Fear’s worst enemy is jadedness. Which sounds like an indictment of the player base, but in many cases it is more a matter of escalation in place of originality. Why should someone who has fought hundreds of death knights over the years fear a death knight with a few more abilities?

Method 1 – The gruesome

At Avendale’s October 2006 event, we took the cue from the ‘zombie’ craze and used fast flesh eating infectious zombies as the weekend antagonist.

The battle began with a terrified peasant running into town. Two zombies did a pre-arranged take down on him, snarling and spraying fake blood into the air, looking at the town covered in gore and running at them intent to feast…then the rest of the zombies came out of the woods. This is unsettling. Then we just let the zombies keep respawning, it truly was a horde. They did not have incredible stats, and their special ability (to infect someone with the zombie disease on a three count, so if they went down they would become a zombie after bleed out and try to eat people) was nothing to really cause people to hide in their cabins.

But it genuinely unsettled people to see npc’s covered in blood, all mindlessly throwing themselves into the blades just to snack on them. One person fell down and was left behind, I whispered into his ear “We are eating you alive, you may want to start screaming.” When they heard their fellow player howling his way into death…that shook them.

So in the above example we have an atmospheric setup, followed by proper use of makeup/prosthetic to sell the fear. These things are going to eat you alive. Giving players gentle reminders, like “this hurts” can be a great way to help sell the moment.

Method 2 – The Unknown

Another way to do manage fear is environmental. Its pitch black, you are in dense woods, the players have one candle with which to light their way beyond a haunted grove. As they enter it, in a white headband you blow it out.

Do nothing, just let the silence panic them, let people start talking about what to do. Then let out a long suffering moan.

Then have other NPC’s in the area begin clicking on their glowsticks underneath their ghostly shrouds (in this case gauzey material) as the battle begins.

Fear does not require much more than an ability to suspend peoples ability to process a situation: This could be due to chaos and confusion of a zombie battle, or pitch darkness in the woods where they are unable to use their primary senses to understand whats occuring, so when you feed them information their minds will often go into overdrive trying to process it.

Method 3 – The Inexplicable

Sometimes in monster camp we like to come up with crazy monsters. Not all of these are intended to be combat oriented. Sometimes one monster is specifically sent out to disturb the living buhjesus out of people.

In one case, we sent out a patchwork looking creature a-la “Frankenstein”, with an added twist: Each patch had a spirit still in place! Some awful awful nae’er do well Necromancer had sewn people together to create a living golem. The monster rampaged quite a bit, and was quite afraid of fire…until he ran into the only half orc in town and seemed quite calm.

Through roleplay people began the realize that a whole tribe of orcs had been slaughtered to sew it together. The only words it said, beyond pained moans and angry snarls was ‘help us’ to the half orc. This not only got fear, but sympathy and rage in the mix. Literature can be a great source material for the dialect of fear, in particular much of the 18th century literature, when people were turning away from mythos and clutching at science as having ‘all’ the answers. There were a lot of very right imaginations at work!

So we have the gruesome, for visceral fear, the unknown, to fire up the amygdalia into overdrive, and the abomination, who is so like us, but different so we must fear it lest it strike us down.

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“Putting Fear Back Into the Game”

Often, you will hear a LARP director say he wants to “Put fear back into the game.” This is a noble motivation, but in practice, it is often used as an excuse for running a deadly encounter, a merciless wave battle, or overstatting some heinous creature. To be clear: emotional experiences like fear are exactly what LARPs are all about, but forcing players to engage in losing encounters generally makes for unfun gameplay.

If you ever find yourself writing an encounter in which the only outcome is the players fleeing, carefully evaluate what potential experiences you are creating. You may think that forcing the players to hide inside protective circles, or flee too the woods entirely, will become an exciting encounter. It will probably only be fun for a few of them. Others will feel frustrated that you gave them a challenge with no chance of success. What you are essentially telling them is that the “winning” strategy is to not participate; when the stakes are high, it’s better to fold than to lose. Their perception may be that you merely “overscaled” the encounter, basically a technical error. Not fear!

Here are a few ways you can create fear in your players without relying on disproportionate mortal danger:

  • Isolation – when the players can hang out in a large group, they have access to lots of healing and other resources. There is little threat unless you stray from the pack. Being outnumbered is also scary, which is unlikely to happen when everybody’s clumped up. Pack spikes and objective points are two common methods for discouraging clumping. A pack spike is a powerful monsters which only attacks if players stand in a group larger than six. To avoid the creature, they will have to divide into smaller parties. An objective point is a goal or task that forces groups of players to go off alone. Someone may need an escort through the dangerous woods, or a magic candle may need to stay lit for a period of time. The players find themselves hanging out away from the safety of their friends.
  • ForeshadowingUse colored lights, sound effects, a certain music, or a special effect to set the mood before an event happens. A hidden boom box or speakers can subtly broadcast a monster’s hunting noise (such as the chh-chh-chh noise that a giant insect might make) before an attack. If you turn on red flood lights before a combat encounter, players will eventually be conditioned to expect danger whenever they’re in red lights. Before a werewolf shows up, injured NPCs will run into town, terrified, “It’s coming!”  Then, they hear the wolf’s howl…
  • Suspense – let the anticipation of an event build up. Especially an event which may threaten the player’s safety. Likewise, time limits have a way of working players into a frenzy as the clock ticks down.
  • Atmosphere – foster an environment which is in-game and immersive. The more they think about the rules or how the game works (as opposed to how the game world works), the less connected they are to the experience you’re crafting. Hearing a description of something scary does not induce horror either. All too often, we’re supposed to be scared because we know that a great crashing sound heralds the arrival of Zorkon the Conqueror… and then some dude in sweat pants, glasses, and sneakers lumbers forth. Use costume, makeup, and special effects so that players have to use as little imagination as possible.
  • Confederates – (aka Redshirts) send out some cowardly NPCs who the players must protect. By reacting to the situation at hand without being corny or silly, NPCs can set the mood. (“setting an emotional precedent”)
  • Don’t overdo it – Too much stress and anxiety can leave the players drained and frustrated, or desensitize them to the effect you’re trying to create. Give them breaks and safe points to get their bearings. To experience danger, you must first feel safe. In some ways, fear comes from this contrast between danger and safety.

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Game Planning Using Concept and Resource Maps

A Concept Map is a diagram of the relationship between various ideas. It is often used for brainstorming, but can be adapted to describe the various factors in play at a LARP.

A concept map is a great way conceptualize a diverse and complicated game. Begin by diagraming what already exists. Write each players name inside a bubble, then try grouping them in different ways. Try arranging them by team, general character concept, motivation, or experience level. In doing this, certain avenues will emerge which should suggest certain types of plot. For example if you find you have a lot of characters connected to a “Protector of Nature” concept, you might create a druid NPC who will give them relevant tasks during the weekend.

Use this technique to diagram out your plot, too. Pick a few words which describe the event’s theme, and then write plotlines which connect those ideas. By connecting the plot diagram to the player diagram, you’ll be able to project what might happen during an event.

One model of LARP plot involves utilizing resources. In this style, plot provides important resources to specific players. Some challenges will require players to search the network to draw on those resources. For example, let’s say a team is looking for information about a certain  ancient undead. The healer’s guild has a tome which contains this information – the team will have to figure out where to find that book and then talk to the characters who control access to it. When you gave the book to the healer’s guild, you also warned them that there are dire consequences if the information falls into the wrong hands. Now there is a potential social challenge for the players who seek out this tome.

A Draw Point is a person, place, or thing which provides a concrete resource to one or more players.  Examples include a druid who will choose up to three nature-oriented characters and mark them as “pure”, a mountain top where a rare type of plant grows, or a badge which represents the good will of a foreign kingdom. There might be a challenge involved in getting this resource.

Generally, draw points should provide something tangible which corresponds somehow to the resource.  Even if the resource is intangible, like a relationship with an NPC, those who have access to it should have some physical token to represent their access.  Maybe the NPC gives a certain piece of jewelry to his trusted associates, or puts his mark on those he’s initiated. If the draw point is a location, maybe you need a special map to access it.

A Demand Point is a person, place, or thing which requires players to utilize certain resources to complete a challenge.  Using the examples above, demand points could include an NPC who will only speak with the “pure”, a disease that can be cured by that rare plant, or an embassy that you can only access if you wear that kingdom’s badge.

Plot_DiagramOn your concept map, your plot will emerge from the relationship between draw points and demand points.

You can encourage cooperation, competition, and creativity by writing demand points which can be satisfied by different possible draw points. For example, maybe the demand point is an elder whose village is plagued by thieves and bandits. He offers to name the new tavern after whoever helps the most. There might be a number of available resources that can be used to solve this challenge – one character might have access to a cache of weapons they can donate to the locals. Another character might be friends with a weapon trainer who will help raise a militia. Another might have access to a small tribe of orcs who will act as town guards. A member of the thieves guild might be able to influence the bandits by pulling strings within the guild.

Another way of complicating matters is to create demand points which, when completed, cancel out other demand points. For example, there might be two NPCs, each one a diplomat from a rival faction. Each diplomat has certain criteria for alliance. Allying with one will cause the other to become an enemy. The first player to complete a diplomat’s challenge will shape the direction of the plot.

Mapping out these points, along with the players or concepts which are most likely to interact with them, will reveal certain angles which need more attention. If you seem to have a lot of plot which lends itself well to one team, resource, character concept, or problem solving style, be sure to write some challenges for the people who aren’t included.

Update your concept map as the weekend goes on, noting which characters have access to which resources. This will allow you to make it easier to keep everybody involved, and help everybody participate in the plot in a concrete, meaningful way.

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How to Foster an In-Game Community

The players of a LARP are a unique kind of society. In addition to their out of game friendships, they belong to a complex in-game network. This community of characters is often known as the “town”. Many people play significant roles within the society. Being socially acknowledged as a blacksmith, healer, sherrif, or outlaw can be very rewarding. As an added bonus, the sense of being a “town” seems more real as these roles become prominent. The LARP directors can encourage the development of this network by making it a part of the game.

Relationships – Characters form relationships whenever they interact. Whether their interactions are cooperative or competative, their relationships are intensified by undergoing stress together. You can encourage interesting relationships by providing a variety of challenges which will cause the players to cooperate or compete in different ways.

Build Roles though Roleplay – Give players the opportunity to demonstrate their role in a meaningful way. If a character is cartographer, create scenarios where other players must rely on her maps. If someone plays a tavern keeper, give him rumors and news he can share while other characters sip drinks in the tavern. In short – make people’s character concepts a part of the setting by weaving them into the game.

Traditions and Holidays – In ongoing LARP campaigns, customs and rituals create a rich sense of local flavor. They’re also a great way to let players experience your setting.

Local slang, a certain way of greeting each other, or a particular style of costume are things which make a place feel like home. Create a list of customs and make sure the NPCs are familliar with them. Ultimately, whether the players adapt them into the society is up to them. If an idea doesn’t seem to take, don’t push it too hard.

Holidays also lend to the community’s versimillitude. A holiday should have an activity that everybody can participate in, something that they come to expect every year. Feasts, anniversaries, spring hunts, and other celebrations should be incorporated into the weekend schedule.

Encourage Talents and Crafts – LARPing is an interesting hobby, and LARPers tend to have other interesting hobbies. Encourage people to bring their talents and crafts to the game. Give them opportunities to showcase their dancing, leatherworking, storytelling, and musical talents (to name a few).

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What is LARP Plot?

When a player leaves an event, he or she will have a linear story to tell about their experiences. But do not be deceived – when writing LARP plot, the narrative is hardly linear. Think of an event’s plot as a series of events which players will experience subjectively. Players have unique reactions and perceptions of in-game events. Largely, their character concepts dictate the lens through which they see the world. When you run a LARP for 100 people, you create 100 unique worlds.

The main way in which LARPs trump tabletop RPGs is that they involve realistic experiences. You get to experience the game world through your character’s eyes, but your body comes along for the ride. Our game is meant to be tangible, visceral, fundamentally immersive. It’s real enough to touch. It is a series of events which you participate in, rather than just merely describe verbally.

It’s important to keep this in mind when writing plot. Will the players be doing something exciting? Scary? Dangerous? Intriguing? As a director, it’s your job to craft fun and memorable experiences for all the players. Everything else is secondary to that.

Ultimately the “fun experience” is the only measuring stick for plot. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you’re focused on designing specific challenges. You might challenge your players with a lengthy translation cypher – but do you really think it’s fun to spend three hours translating one character at a time? You may have written a long and detailed history for your game, but if this does not manifest on stage in a memorable or meaningful way, it is wasted. Unwinnable battles and unsolvable puzzles are frustrating, not fun.

One good technique is to imagine a fun LARP experience, and then design a scenario which leads up to it. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine players talking about the event after the fact – what sort of things are they glowing about?

It’s also important to spread out the fun. Make sure you’re not focusing on fun for any one group, race, class, level range, or play style. It’s your responsibility to entertain everybody at the game, not just the characters who you visualize as the protagonists of your plot.

When writing scenarios and challenges, keep in mind that many people will have their own personal take on it. It’s best to build scenarios which encourage this diversity. In your game, the good guys might be defenders of a city, and the bad guys are hostile raiders who threaten the local order.  But where does this leave characters who play wild elves, which may not identify with either side? Instead of having every scenario represent victory for one side or the other, create multiple possible outcomes which cater to various character concepts. Basically, you want to give that wild elf’s goals a place within your story too. In doing so, you help create the experience of being a wild elf in a way that the player will remember for years to come.

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