LARP Design: Effects on Buildings 4

This is the story of how, a couple of weeks ago, I had an idea eight years too late for the problem it solves. There’s a lot of development history to go into this, though, so bear with me and I’ll get to it – or you can skip straight to the Contractor Work header below.

Locks and Traps

First off, if you’re not well familiar with boffer LARPing but you’re curious enough to read this whole post: locks and traps have been a notable niche of gameplay for decades. Not in every campaign, and certainly not at every event, but it’s been there. After all, boffer LARPing is strongly informed by D&D and its lock-picking, trap-disarming thieves, and even more so the early years of LARPing. I can’t speak to how NERO’s rules for locks and traps came to be, except to say that PCs could buy skills to make their own locks and traps.

That’s where the trouble starts, in a sense. There’s just not enough demand to keep a locksmith and/or trapmaker in business, among PCs. I expect that NERO took steps to solve this; I don’t know exactly what they might have been, because Shattered Isles didn’t adopt them and my friends haven’t been telling me about them for years. What I have heard is that PCs placed increasingly ludicrous and Grimtooth-like traps to protect their stuff. Things blow up real good. (The NPC-side applications of locks and traps, and systems of opening locks and disarming traps, are a whole different post, and one that I should write someday.)

Shattered Isles and King’s Gate had separate lockpicking, locksmithing, trap-disabling, and trapmaking skills. Lockpicking and trap-disabling were tolerably common within the playerbase – archetype-defining skills for rogues, in a classless system. A tiny number of characters ever bought locksmithing, and probably a mid-single-digit number of people ever bought any significant number of levels of it. The same goes for trapsmithing, but perhaps even more so. King’s Gate eventually folded these skills into Artificing.

For the non-LARPers reading this, let me clarify that we’re talking about crafting skills that allow players to make one or more items each event, with more levels of the skill granting Production Points. A simple item might be 1-3 Production Points, while 10 PP is generally as complicated as items have any way to get (because of how the rules work). You receive a paper tag that describes the game-mechanical effects of whatever you’ve made – in this case a lock or a trap. The rules around locks and traps explain what you have to use to physically represent those items.

Setting a lock in place on a door generally required the locksmithing skill. Setting a trap in place any more complicated than a noisemaker trap required the trapmaking skill. Once a lock is in place, you need either a key or lockpicking to do anything about it (as you’d expect). Once a trap is in place, you need to either know how to avoid it (stepping carefully over the tripwire, for example) or be able to disable it. You could, in theory, have a trapmaker install a trap in a chest you almost never need to get into, and just get their help on the rare occasions that you do – but this is not something players cared to do.

Cabin Fever

The games I’m talking about run on state parks. The state parks available in the American South range from a two-person “cook’s cabin” up to the mess hall (don’t put locks on the mess hall, you dink) or the barracks-style buildings of Indian Springs that hold, uh, 40+ people each. Some of these buildings – especially Indian Springs – also have internal doors that are more places you could put a lock. I assume I don’t need to explain the problems with locking a door that 40+ people need to go through every night? I mean, I didn’t have to explain it to your mom. (Editor’s Note: Cut this joke later.)

Most cabins on most sites hold 4-6 people and have 1-2 exterior doors. (The windows that DO open are still not really accessible for entry into a building, for safety reasons if nothing else.) A single site has a low end of 7 player-housing buildings (Indian Springs) up to, uh, 40ish buildings (AH Stephens), typically clustered into housing units. Many sites have one larger lodge building per unit; these buildings become significant social hubs, especially because of their greater seating capacity. They usually get some kind of in-play name as a result – anything from the Wagon Wheel to the Almshouse or the 4th Gate Bar.

It is reasonably common practice, especially among more veteran LARPers who have had time in their lives to accumulate props, to decorate their cabins in various ways. This is all the more common in lodges, and often expected as a condition of those players getting assigned to the lodge. If it has never occurred to you that a ton of OOC work goes into player housing, both on the staff side and on the player side, then… lucky you. Also, send a handwritten thank-you letter to whoever handles that for your campaign(s).

At the start of each event, each occupied cabin gets a sheet of paper called cabin notes. This is where the players list any unusual character features, out-of-character considerations that affect waking them up in the middle of the night, and defenses placed upon the cabin such as locks and traps.

Why is all of this security even a thing? Two reasons: PCs, and NPCs. On the PC side, NERO has a fair amount of PvP, so robbing another team’s cabin is a thing that could happen. Locks and traps are a way to stop that. There was little, if any, cabin-raiding PvP in SI or KG – just not a part of the playerbase’s interests. As far as I know, anyway.

More importantly, there are NPC cabin raids – where a group of bad guys shows up to kill you and/or take your stuff. Doors are generally treated as indestructible in games, for the simple reason that the considerations around destroying doors get maddeningly burdensome, so locking and trapping doors is relevant. (There are also door bars, for holding a door shut; these are very common entry-level Locksmithing/Security items.)

Cabin-raiding was a major threat in early SI, but tapered off sharply in later SI, the whole of KG, and all later CI/Ro3 games. There are a lot of reasons for this, but “we’re all getting too old for this” is a big one. DtD had a small number of significant cabin raids, including one PvP cabin raid that left an item behind rather than stealing anything. My point is, a decreasing use of cabin raids reduces demand for locks. Door bars remain in high demand, because fleeing into your cabin with monsters in hot pursuit hasn’t dropped off at all.

The Problem

Locks are durable goods. I think they might have required yearly maintenance, but I’m not sure. Lock buyers might very well want more than one key, but not tons of keys. Maybe up to one per person staying in the cabin. Players might also have chests or other containers that they want to lock in-play, as security against in-play theft. This is absolutely not a treatise on container rules, which still cause me to skeet blood from my eyes all these years later. Just… every once in awhile there’s additional demand for a lock to go on a chest, but that’s not terribly common.

Traps may be one-shot or resettable devices, but it’s incredibly rare for anyone who isn’t at least skilled in disabling traps to have any use for them at all. Defending your cabin with one or more traps just isn’t that compelling if you can’t disarm the trap yourself.

Artificing or Tinkering

A solution I’ve seen in several games is to merge locksmithing and trapmaking, and expand them into Tinkering or Artificing. This craft skill lets the player make additional gadgets, sometimes including combat-useful things like pistols, rockets (a packet-delivered attack imagined as something like a Roman candle), and so on. I have no problem with this solution to the problem I’m describing here, as long as it fits a game’s aesthetic. It doesn’t work for every game, and it’s especially difficult if you’re making this change mid-campaign. It’s common to see tinkered items that only a tinkerer can use, as a way to contain the aesthetic and power-balance change that it makes in a campaign.

Dust to Dust’s Answers

We were well aware of these issues as we went into Dust to Dust. First off, we bundled locksmithing and trapmaking into the Security skill. It was a form of smithing, which means that buying levels of Security qualifies you to buy levels of Forge Magic that you can use to do magical things with locks and traps. We also set things up so that buying levels of Security also gave you Disable Security – saving the player a total of 36 XP (somewhere around half a year of events) in process of buying Security.

Forge Magic is a player-accessible form of temporary gear enchantment. It’s built on the principle that the best use of in-play money in a boffer LARP is to feel more awesome than usual for a limited time. When your 3 events or 6 events run out, you spend money again and the game economy rolls on.

We had a few players go deep on Security smithing, and they let us know that the gameplay still wasn’t satisfying. We hadn’t solved for the fact that demand for locks and traps is low, so we introduced other rogue-friendly things that they could make, both mundane devices and magical stuff. I think that helped, but I also think we rolled it out a little too slowly. It’s another of those things that I’d do differently, if I had it to do over again. I’m not saying it was a disaster. The items we introduced were cool, and we did keep working hard to develop new ideas in this space. Ultimately, when I say “a problem from eight years ago,” this is the question I’m talking about.

We also had a skill called Inscription that offered, among other things, a unique form of home defense called Warding Glyphs. A Warding Glyph notes a creature type and an effect, such as “trolls” and “Fire Lance”; if a creature matching that type goes through the door, they receive the effect. A mid-level Security Forge Magic formula allowed a second Glyph to be posted on a door.

We steadily introduced new spells and craftable items for players, over the course of the campaign, based on weird new ideas we had. One of those new introductions was the concept of Slumbering Glyphs. These Glyphs were posted on doors just like Warding Glyphs, were produced by Inscription, and took up a slot on the door. Creatures that spent at least four consecutive hours inside the building (which was our rules-side approach to “that’s where you’re sleeping,” but you could totally get the benefit by just… visiting for a long time) got the beneficial effect described on the Glyph. The players used the ones that came into play, but didn’t go deep on researching new ones. (In fairness, time is limited and ideas for projects are infinite. More possible paths were dropped than explored.)

Contractor Work

I was talking to some friends the other day about LARP economies and that sense of prestige as something the players can buy to pull money out of economy. Cabins came up as a way to communicate prestige, and I realized that we’ve come to the point in games where “how hard is it to get inside” is the least interesting thing about a player-housing cabin. Players mostly don’t face that challenge, and we’re not testing it on the NPC side often enough to make it meaningful.

This led to an idea for a few different advancement paths for player housing, all of them handled through Security smithing and Forge Magic. The conceit is that, within the fiction, the Security smith is already modifying door frames, pulling up floorboards, strengthening supports, and adding secret panels to things. From there, it’s a small step to becoming a contractor, modifying the building through structural or magical means to improve it in some way. For the Forge Magic parts of this, I imagine the mages studying sacred geometry or etching tiny runes into the rafters.

I had four classes of building in mind, though I haven’t worked out exactly which benefits each might offer.

  • Barracks buildings house warriors and grant fighter-friendly benefits.
  • Sanctums house spellcasters, creating a reservoir of magical energy that they can draw on.
  • Workshops are for crafters. You probably gain a pool of benefits for items, such as extra Mending of broken objects and extra Resist against Destruction effects to put on them.
  • Establishments are places of hospitality: taverns, hospitals, almshouses, maybe even a noble’s home-away-from-home if they receive enough guests. It’s possible that I’d wind up filing libraries under this category as well.

For Barracks and Sanctums, the people who live there receive the benefit. For Workshops and Establishments, the people living there decide how to distribute the benefits, and they generate more benefits than the number of people living there. One of the main advancements offered to Establishments is probably an increased number of benefits per day, so that each customer who comes in and buys something gets the benefit.

Figuring out what kinds of benefits feel right here is tough. I think that you’d want to keep the benefits modest even at the top end of the progression, just because this seems like it should be about subtle rather than overt magical influences. This is the hard step of the design work, in my mind, and one I get to skip for this post because I don’t have to implement it in a game.

As examples:

  • Barracks can be improved to grant +5 minutes of bleedout time, some number of Triggered Stabilize effects, 1 Strength or Missile Dodge per day, etc.
  • Sanctums can be improved to create a reservoir of 3 mana or 1 Fatigue per spellcaster (decided at the time you take it out of the reservoir), 1 Reduce against the Realms (most common flavors of magic), etc.
  • Workshops can be improved to grant each crafter staying there 1 extra Mend per day, +2 extra Production Points per production period, 1 Resist against Fire or Resist against Acid per day, etc.
  • Establishments can be improved to allow the proprietor to grant people, uh, Reduce against Poison, Shield against Disease, 1 Ignore Wound that lasts until the next time they reset Wounding Blows, etc.

I’d probably write the formulas to have 1-event and 6-event costs – the 1-event costs are for those times when the in-game location is somewhere else for a single event. Within the fiction and mechanics, your modifications on the building are part of that building in that in-game location. (If the person in charge of player housing moves the whole team from, say, Unit 3 to Unit 2, just because Housing Tetris demands it, I think the Plot Committee can handwave that.)

I’d probably also write in scaling costs for the number of beds in the building.

It’s tempting to get into some nitty-gritty of requiring specific cabin decorations based on building category. I’m resisting that impulse, though – people who want to decorate will do a good job regardless, and people who don’t are not going to start liking the extra work of cabin decoration just because the game effect requires it. Instead, I’d include suggestions on the formula, and hope that that inspired people who might otherwise be on the fence about committing to the work of cabin décor.

That’s as much as I’ve figured out about this idea. I think that players would have gotten way into it if we had offered this during the campaign, and I think the game’s dedicated Security smiths would have loved adding “architect” to their character fantasy. If you’re running a game now, maybe you’ll want to explore these ideas, or maybe this is all wrong for you but it sparks a better idea. If so, I’d love to hear about it!

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4 thoughts on “LARP Design: Effects on Buildings

  • Adam Miller

    I could see a lot of the benefits of Binding Contracts paralleling into the Building Enchantments, and have some method of when the person starts to gain those benefits.

    I definitely feel like playing the Security game is a difficult one. I’m not sure what the rate that players need to use their character’s skills to be happy with the purchase, but with the nature of traps and locks, it is really difficult to have enough content out there for all the rogue type characters to use their skills as often as say Magic or Combat stuff. It’s also difficult time requirement to put that content out. Traps take longer to set than disarm…usually.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      I 100% agree that supporting lock-and-traps rogues, and locksmiths/trapmakers, is super demanding on a game staff. I don’t know all the answers, but it does have a lot in common with entertaining the fighters when there’s no fight in the offing. Same problem, but worse in many ways.

  • Garrick Andrus

    Love this idea. I like how it might also subtly draw appropriate NPCs to appropriate lodges.

    I also like how it would support a “Bran the Builder” character concept.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      I’m so glad you like it!

      I was thinking about you and the Iron Teeth/Awa’Sahim team as I wrote it. Your group’s blend of pure mages, rogue/mages, fighter/mages, cultists, and pure fighters intersects awkwardly with my approach here, so I’d want to either explore Establishments for broad-spectrum teams, or support “multiclass” buildings, if I were ever going to be responsible for implementing this. =)