Back in 2009 I wrote a Warhammer LARP (aka freeform, although it had a few simple rules) for GenCon Oz called Sunset Claws. You can download a zipfile with all the documents to run it yourself here. Participants continue to rave about it as the best LARP they have ever done, and I’ve run it twice since and there is demand to run it again at another local con. Recently word reached my ear that it has been translated into French and run at the Croisades d’Unnor convention in Lille, France. All of this has prompted me to start work on a sequel, and as I have done so I’ve tried to pinpoint the reasons I think the last one was so successful.
1. Give Everyone Something To Do
Socializing isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you’ve just stumbled in from a four hours session of Warmachine and don’t know anyone around you. Yet LARPs thrive on socializing as much as possible. You have to grease those wheels. Costumes help add to the mood as does setting but people socialize easiest when they have something to do. Drinking and eating are two simple examples. I had a game of Pass the Pigs going on (in setting) as well. It was a small thing, but it helped. I also had one character make a speech, so everyone had to gather and listen. Thinking of good things for this example is hard, though, so if you have any ideas or examples of your own, put them in the comments!
2. Give Everyone Something to Talk About
Again, socializing is hard to do, and one easy way to break the ice is to give people things to talk about. That’s what the things to do are of course there for, but barring them, everyone should have big things on their mind. It’s not just another party, or even the highlight of the season, the room should be abuzz with the tempora and the mores going on outside. In Sunset Claws we had the annual pig tossing competition, a serial killer amongst the tavern guests, a masked vigilante causing chaos and a gigantic undead army massed outside the city waiting to kill everyone at dawn. Oh, and the hostess was someone everyone liked to gossip about, because her place was like Ric’s Bar in Casablanca, and word was she had the escape route from the army. Nobody had trouble finding a topic of conversation.
3. Give Everyone Shared Goals
LARPs depend a lot on secrecy which inevitably means a narrow focus. You know what you’re doing but you have no idea what anyone else is, and you miss out on a lot of the story as a result. Yes you can imagine the Scarlett Pimpernell is up to something and some are charged to stop him but it doesn’t effect you that much. In Sunset Claws, with the army outside and the serial killer being hunted down, everyone had an idea of what most people at the tavern that night was after, and almost everyone was involved in those things. In the sequel, a battle has just finished and everyone wants history to remember that they were the one who won it. This makes the game feel like a race, and everyone’s working for the finish line. It engages them with each other and with the over-arching plot. It also makes it easier to find allies because everyone needs one and is on the same page. And you can’t do anything without allies, which brings us too:
4. Give Everyone A Sense of Who Might Be Their Allies and Who Might Be Their Enemies
Everyone knows characters need lots of goals to achieve to keep them busy but too many LARPs devolve into desperately trying to figure out whom, if anyone, might even know what your side is, let alone be on it. Eventually you randomly trust someone and hope it involves only a moderate amount of betrayal. You can’t outright tell people who is on their side or it gets dull (indeed, nobody should be entirely on anyone’s side!) but you should give everyone a road map. Here are people you know you can trust (or so the GM has told you, anyway), here are people you know are likely to be set against you, here are people, based on your best information, that will be able or predisposed to help. A lot of LARPs give people goals with no idea how to complete those goals. Players, I think, like a mud map of how to get there.
5. Give Everyone A Reason To Talk To Everyone, and an Understanding of How They Would Talk To Them
Our LARPs are often filled with people who would naturally group together and some they would exclude, but that makes for terrible game play and it ignores the reality. LARPs start with everyone just standing around and it is literally completely random which PC you will be standing next to. Sometimes you may have a superior or an ally to go and seek out but that player might have arrived late or still be talking to his buddy or any of a million things. Staring at you right now is a guy is a stranger. You need to find something to talk about. You’ve got the tempora and the mores for small talk, and the shared goals. He might be a potential ally. He might be an enemy. He might be neither. But whichever one he is, your character sheet needs to tell you who he is and what you think of him, and how he might be remotely connected to your plans, in even the slightest way. Maybe you have a common bond or a shared enemy. Maybe you hate/respect/fear/love/are easily seduced by people of their class/profession/race/gender. A good character sheet will tell you. Nobody should be uninteresting to you.
6. Give Everything Character
One thing players keep complimenting me on is how their character sheet gave them their character’s eyes. As I said in number five, the sheet should tell you enough information about who you are and how you see others so you know how to react to everyone. All of that information should be coloured with character. Sometimes you want to talk directly to the reader, out of character, when you want to give them directions on how to play something or what kind of role they play in the narrative, but wherever possible, you want to avoid that and speak in their character’s voice. You want to tell them what they think is true as if it is true, because of course they believe it. Your choice of language and style provides them the goggles through which they see the universe and that not only helps them keep and stay in character it helps you write interesting interactions. You don’t say “Your relationship with your husband is failing so you are having an affair”, you say “Your husband ignores you and you’re worth more than that, so you are seeking a new lover, one you deserve.”. And on the husband’s sheet, you write “You love your wife more than anything but can’t find the words to tell her, but deep down, you know she knows – or you really hope she does.” Both players got the same kind of information (the marriage is in trouble) and they have a shared value at stake…but both of them operate in completely different universes with completely different truths.
That for me is the heart of LARPs and indeed non live-action scenario design, or at least, how I do it. Everyone shares goals and stakes, but everyone sees those shared things completely differently. That’s where the friction comes from.