Inventing Disaster: Five Ways that Good GMs Can Ruin a LARP

It's easy to think that all LARP writing errors are caused by poor GM communication or lack of preparation. However, even dutiful, like-minded GMs can unintentionally create a live-action disaster. Truth be told, I have committed every one of these errors at one time or another. All of these fun-crushing problems can arise out of what would otherwise be a really good idea, anyone interested in writing LARPs should take heed.

The five calamities described below primarily apply to single day events. Many of them could also wreck a single session of a long term LARP (like a Vampire Chronicle) but in a single day LARP, you only have one session - screw it up and your LARP will live in infamy.

Easter Orbs

Definition: A mobile object desired by most or all characters which is difficult or impossible to share.

Example: The name of this LARP disaster derives from a fantasy live-action I helped run many years ago in which the rather thin plot revolved around a small handful of brightly colored orbs of power which were scattered about the LARP environment. Fighting other PCs for the orbs quickly became the primary activity in the LARP. Fortunately, that LARP was a long term game and the GMs were able to create a new plot line to prevent the game from being a never-ending series of orb-jackings. Single session games cannot recover from the Easter Orb blight.

How it Happens: The cinema term for an important item that the characters want is "McGuffin" - and it is an extremely common plot device. It is very easy to write a bunch of characters who all want a McGuffin -- it furnishes tension, provides strong goals and to top it off you get an excuse to put a cool prop in your LARP. But taken too far, a McGuffin becomes an Easter Orb.

Mitigation: One way to fix this problem is to make the item too big to hide or too heavy to move (although take care not to create a Box, see below). If you catch the problem early enough, you can simply limit the number of characters who want the item and create other plots. Another approach is to make the item desirable on terms that are negotiable (i.e. each character only needs it for a short time or there are other valuable items to trade for any particular key item). Finally, you could give the item a downside that would make people hesitate to take it.

Magic Castle

Definition: A planned event occurring part-way through the game which renders irrelevant the prior actions of all or most characters.

Example: The name for this LARP disaster comes from a game where the characters were all VIPs who came to a remote castle to talk politics only to have the castle translate to an entirely different location part way through the game. The vast majority of players felt that they had wasted several hours taking actions that were now irrelevant.

How it Happens: Typically the GMs will have in mind a surprise plot twist intended to shock the players and spur their characters into bolder action. Sometimes, even though the surprise twist doesn't invalidate the characters earlier efforts it may seem like their efforts were wasted anyway. In this latter case, a planned event that is not intended to be a Magic Castle may be interpreted as one anyway.

Mitigation: The best way to mitigate the Magic Castle is to make sure the surprise twist enhances or modifies character goals rather than blocking them. You can also get around this problem by having the planned event happen early in the game before any real effort has been expended on the "false" goals. However, it is vital that the characters be provided with new goals either verbally or in writing. With any major planned event, it is important that characters still have meaningful goals to strive for after the event occurs and that the players be aware of these goals.

Leaky Bottle

Definition: When players or items are able to leave the play area and become totally inaccessible to other players.

Example: Verisim GMs often refer to the environment that a LARP is set in as the "bottle" in which the story and action is contained. Thus, a Leaky Bottle is when parts of the LARP are able to escape. In a LARP set in a hotel, players may decide to have their characters hide items in their rooms. If the GMs have not explicitly set aside a playing space for the rooms, then items hidden there effectively drop out of reality. Other players don't know to search the rooms because the rooms don't physically exist. Another Leaky Bottle condition occurs when characters can leave the immediate setting during play. You quickly have people who despite being a few feet away from each other are "actually" miles apart. This can sharply diminish immersion.

How it Happens: Often the Leaky Bottle emerges because obvious features of the chosen LARP environment (in the above case, hotel rooms) have not been fully considered by the GMs. It can also occur when the characters have influences with NPCs outside the play area and "leave" to interact with them. Often (as in the hotel case) players will take reasonable actions, which the GMs agree to without recognizing that it places the goals of other characters permanently out of reach.

Mitigation: If you're running a long term LARP, you can confine out of LARP actions to e-mail between sessions, but if you're running a one-shot greater care is required. Most importantly, the players need to be fully aware of the LARP boundaries. If characters can put items in hotel rooms, the players need to know that so that said hotel rooms can be searched by other characters. Better yet, define your environment such that what you see is what you get. If a character wants to hide something, then require them to actually hide it. If characters need to communicate with NPCs beyond the LARP area, provide a means for them to do so without leaving. In many LARPs, especially horror LARPs, it is best to simply prevent exit of any kind.

The Box

Definition: A stationary object or location that all or most characters wish to affect in mutually exclusive ways.

Example: In a cyberpunk LARP that I ran, set entirely in a virtual world, there was a location where many characters wished to upload specialized programs. Control over that location became crucial to victory for most of the characters and there ended up being a series of mass combats where characters struggled to log each other out of the virtual environment.

How it Happens: The Box nearly always arises when a major plot concept or environmental element of a LARP is allowed to become the sole focus of conflict in the LARP. Competing over a Box does furnish solid character goals and creates plenty of tension. Sometimes a Box is a place created to anchor the setting as part of establishing a tight "bottle" (see Leaky Bottle) which then becomes a focal point of conflict. The Box can be hard to spot because it easily resembles a larger version of many viable plot elements.

Mitigation: One way to open up a Box is to design it so that anyone can access it at any time. You can also stagger access to the Box, so that only one faction at a time has an opportunity to complete its goals. Another solution is to allow the effects of the characters' rituals, programs, spells, etc. that are placed in the Box get blended into some kind of mixed victory. You can also simply limit the number of characters interested in any one Box-like situation.

The History Book

Definition: A LARP that has too much background material that must be understood at the beginning of the game.

Example: The same fantasy LARP that coined the Magic Castle also had a very complicated setting with many names to remember and a complex past history that was supposed to spur character action. However, it was simply too difficult for the players to learn all the relevant information before the game was well underway. This caused the players to either a) constantly ask GMs for clarification or b) ignore the background and take actions entirely at whim.

How it Happens: Many GMs find that a detailed world is fun to create and helps them build up the plot. In many cases, a History Book can result simply because the process of fleshing out all of the characters added up to a massive amount of backstory. Finally, a setting that is highly unusual (i.e. one which defies standard genre conventions) will often be incomprehensible without creating detailed background material.

Mitigation: One of the simplest ways to control a History Book once you've already created one is to cut the information the players need to know down to its barest essentials. Don't tell them every battle in the Great Dragon War, just tell them the basics. If they want details, they can ask a GM. A complex world can also be made more accessible by drawing parallels to well known genres or historical events. Emphasis, however, is on the words well known. If you explain a complex concept with an obscure reference, you double the confusion rather than alleviating it. Most importantly, you need to explain background material that motivates the character or provides the character with a goal. Everything else is just color and can be left for the GMs to know. A good rule of thumb is that the time it takes for the GMs to go over the setting and the players to read their character packets should not exceed one-eighth of the total LARP duration.