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.
- Foreshadowing – Use 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.