Archive for category LARP Theory

Depth vs Complexity

When attempting to streamline NERO for ease of access, we often hear feedback suggesting that players want the game to be more complex. And I think what they’re talking about is actually depth.

A good game has depth, not complexity.  What’s the difference?

Complex rules require a lot of memorization, mental math, and have tons of difficult exceptions. A complex game has a sharp learning curve, which is a barrier to entry.

Depth, on the other hand, involves the presence of meaningful choices. A deep game has interesting tactics and strategy, and a lot of material to explore.

You can have a deep game without it being overly complex. For example, the board games Go and Othello have very few rules, but extremely deep gameplay. A deep-but-not-complex game provides a lot of style choices and presents a curve of mastery, but is not overwhelming to learn or play.

I agree that we need more depth in NERO, but we also need to take steps to reduce complexity. Every edition of NERO has added complexity — at this point we need to scale it back to remain competitive.

Math difficulty (for those of you counting hits)  is not a factor in depth, only complexity.



The Threefold Model

The Threefold Model, also known as GNS Theory, describes some of the core elements which motivate people to play RPGs. The theory says that there are three basic components of an RPG:  Game, Narrative, and Simulation. People play RPGs for different reasons – some people like the thrill of problem solving, some begin a part of an ongoing story, others like experiencing the game world from their character’s point of view. A good game includes something for all three camps and is therefore enjoyable no matter what your creative agenda might be. In reality, nobody belongs to one specific camp, everybody probably likes a mix of all three elements.


(or “challenge”) – Gamist RPG design emphasizes the “gamey” parts of the RPG experience. Gamists like the sensation of winning, or being effective. They like risks, rewards, and overcoming challenges. Many gamists thrive on teamwork, cooperation, and competition.

American RPGs put a large emphasis on gamism. Good gamist design emphasizes things like strategy and tactics and rewards players for planning in advance. Combat is the most obvious way to scratch the gamist itch, but gamists tend to like any situation which they can “win”. A popular bromide suggests that RPGs are “not about winning or losing,” but for many people this is simply untrue – victory is one of the most tangible ways to reward participation.


(or “story”) – Narrativist RPG design is all about the story. You can think of story in two ways: it’s the game’s “plot”, and it’s also the player’s experience of their character’s personal narrative. If you want to look at the game from a narrativist point of view, take a look at the characters in the story in terms of their motivations. Drama takes place when their motivations come into mutual conflict. Character change and develop over time based on how they address these tests of their motivation. A good narrative plotline tests the character’s motivation at increasing levels of intensity over time.

Narrativists often describe their games in terms of the underlying emotional themes. If you can understand why the characters in your game do what they do, you can plug them into just about anything.

One tip for writing a narratively strong game is to make sure each “scene” has a role in the greater story. People want to feel like they’re participating in something like a living novel. For this to take place, both the characters and setting must develop over time. One mistake that many plot writers make is focusing the plot on returning things to the status quo. ie – the kingdom is peaceful, then monsters show up. The adventurers slay the monsters and things return to to normal. This isn’t a good story because nothing in it has changed. Slaying the monsters should change the heroes and/or the kingdom they’re saving.


(or “immersion”) – Simulationist RPG design focuses on the player’s internal experience of the game world. In an immersive game, you can get lost in your character’s head space; the world you’re in feels real. There are two components of this: things should work like they do in the real world, and the game environment should look real.

It’s important that the RPG world functions like the real world. Sure, our games feature fantastic elements like magic and monsters, but the people in the story are still people. When somebody dies, others will mourn. When the kingdom is at war, the NPCs will reference it in their dialogue and behavior. Actions have consequences, and the villains are real people with real motivations, not nefarious caricatures designed to “do evil”.

The simulationist attitude is extremely important for larpwrights. Your players should be able to look around and see the game world with as few distractions as possible. NPCs should be in proper costume and makeup. Things which are clearly from the “real world”, such as computers or soda machines, should be removed from sight. RPGs require imagination, but we should strive to make them require as little imagination as possible.

Three of the primary offenders to an immersive game are people who are out-of-game, holds and other breaches in the game’s atmosphere, and narration. The players have been instructed to ignore people who are out-of-game, such as game marshals. But they do still see the guy, and this reminds them that they’re in a game. Like stage hands, marshals and observers should remain out of sight and out of mind. Like holds, they momentarily interrupt the player’s experience of the world.  Marshals should avoid narrating what’s happening, instead they should strive to create that experience.

Laprwrights should also be careful to focus on experiences they can actually create. All your NPCs are humans, and this suggests that their roles should be more or less humanoid.  Merely narrating “You see a giant snake” does not create the experience of fighting a giant snake. If you want to give the players the experience of fighting a giant, put your NPCs on stilts. Effects like flying, burrowing, and invisibility should be avoided because these are experiences we cannot actually create, they require too much suspension of disbelief.  They draw your player’s attention towards an imaginary image of the world which contrasts with the experience they’re really having.


The RPG experience isn’t just about the game. I argue that there is a fourth component, Social reasons for playing. LARP groups are a form of community which has its own pull and reward mechanisms. Essentially, a lot of people go to LARPs to meet new people and hang out with their friends. As a director, you can encourage this by creating opportunities for your players to hang out between games (ie, fighter practices, workshops, parties, monthly movie nights, etc), and by fighting the community’s cliquey or exclusive tendencies. The directors should be warm and welcoming, always working to keep people included and plugged in.

Putting It All Together

Each part of the threefold model is a lens through which  you can view your game. To create a game with broad appeal, examine each scene and plotline though all three lenses.

For example, a combat encounter should have three components:

  1. Tactics and Strategy. The players should have an edge if they are organized, or think about how to approach it. It should be challenging, but fair.
  2. Role in the story. When somebody asks the characters “What did you do last night?” they should be able to say something more than “we killed some orcs”. The encounter should be part of a narrative, like, “The lich king sent orcs into our village and we stopped them from poisoning the well.”
  3. Atmosphere. The NPCs should look and act like monsters. It’s not enough to put a guy in black makeup and have him say “You see a spider” to people that encounter him — he should really look like a spider. The NPCs should be act appropriately, chanting or threatening or running away as somebody in the game universe would really act.


“But Is It Fun?”

“Is this going to be fun?” is the most important litmus test for anything you run at a LARP.

Your plot, encounter, or NPC may be pretty epic and cool in your head, but it’s possible that you are ignoring how players will experience it.

Keep in mind that players come to the game with a spectrum of motivations. Some love story, some love overcoming challenges, some love treasure, some just love being in their character’s headspace. As such, your content needs to include rewards for numerous play styles.

For example, you may be writing an encounter in which the players finally meet the NPC they’ve been looking for, and he imparts a wealth of knowledge onto them. In the script, you’ve blocked out two hours for roleplay with this NPC.

In practice, a few of the players will want to interact with the NPC, and the rest will probably hang out  and wait for something more their speed. Is this two hour long dialogue going to be any fun for them? But if wandering monsters attack the area while the dialogue is going on, you’ve introduced a tactical element to the encounter which will entertain those seeking more visceral rewards.

If your encounter isn’t fun, it doesn’t matter that your plot is engaging, the monsters are well costumed, or that the rewards are glorious. The players will react with boredom or frustration.

Too much of any one thing is not fun.  A weekend packed with mindless battles can be as boring as a weekend with no battles at all. Being kidnapped, stricken by disease, or trapped somewhere can rapidly become monotonous. If your script includes the words “the players do X for Y hours”, go back to the drawing board.

LARP is both a form of gaming and theater. As such, it’s about experiencing something (as opposed to hearing a narration about it). Focus your efforts on making the players’ experience as fun, memorable, and interesting as possible. The best way to do this is to hold each plotline under a magnifying glass to see how fun its parts are.


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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Emergent Plot

The “plot” of an event is much more than the story run by the directors and supporting cast. There are stories that emerge from character personalities playing off one another. You cannot write these stories, by their nature they emerge spontaneously from gameplay. You can, however, write scenarios which reward cooperation, competition, creativity, ingenuity, and initiative. This is the  perfect backdrop for players to showcase their character concepts.

Here is one method to encourage emergent plot: create a resource that players will compete over to accomplish their goals.

Eyes on the Prize

Allow the players to choose their own goals. They should have a number of options. Participation in the plotline gives them clear steps they can take towards accomplishing those goals.

The Macguffin

The plot should involve a resource that many people could use to accomplish their goals. This could be an item of power, access to a learned sage, command of a military force, the favor of a foreign ambassador, or ownership of a famous shield. Maybe if they succeed at the challenge, the players may choose their reward, negotiating it with an NPC. In any case, everybody wants it!


Players will be competing along a common axis. If they are competing over a scarce resource, working towards one goal may prevent other players from achieving their goals. This creates inter-player tension, strengthening the importance of in-game friendships and rivalries.


  • A local lord is concerned with the goblin population feeding on his crops. He has offered a reward for whoever brings him the most goblin ears. The champion goblin slayer will be given a forge or laboratory of his choice.
  • There is a shrine in the woods which is a focal point for the balance between order and chaos. When meditating there, you can sacrifice an elemental component or an elemental gemstone (a treasure that can be found throughout the adventure weekend) to slightly shift the balance. This changes the power level of certain creatures over the weekend and influences the behaviors of certain NPCs.
  • A number of merchants come to town, each one representing a different cause or faction. Some are friends and some are rivals. They are taking donations for their cause, and specifically looking for certain items owned by other merchants, which can be bought and sold by players. Whichever faction has made the most money by the end of the weekend will become more powerful within the season plot. Factions may promise boons and favors in reward for help with their collections.