LARP Design: Wandering Monsters and Active Locations 2


In a boffer LARP campaign, it does a lot of good for the wandering-monster gameplay experience if the players have a steady supply of reasons to move around the game site in small groups. That is, it both improves the experience of being a wandering monster (and yes, people playing monsters get to have fun too), and it improves the PC-side experience of encountering them. I’m going to take a few paragraphs to break down the logic here, so if you’re already totally on board with this point, feel free to skip down to the Martel’s Table section below.

Wandering Monsters in Boffer LARPs

“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” ― Raymond Chandler

If you’re a total outsider to the concept of a boffer LARP (a live-action roleplaying game with padded-weapon combat) in a semi-open-world format (as opposed to a strict all-action-is-modules format, known in some communities non-pejoratively as a “line game”), there’s a lot to explain – but feel free to ask for more unpacking in the comments. A lot of what I’m going to say here is in the gray area where best practices are debatable; I think there are viable arguments for minimizing the use of wandering monsters, for instance. I do want to get into the nuts and bolts of that, but we’ll see if it fits in this post.

If you’re familiar with D&D and other fantasy tabletop games, you probably understand what a wandering monster is: it’s an encounter that occurs in some kind of randomized way, and isn’t a crucial piece of advancing the plot. It may reveal something minor about the plot, but as much as anything, it’s there to sustain tension over time in a hostile environment. The same is essentially true for their boffer-LARP usage, but instead of randomly appearing to threaten a team of 3-7 characters in the course of a journey, they’re randomly appearing to threaten a town of 20-200 characters in the course of a weekend. For obvious and non-obvious reasons, that changes everything.

To manage this, a group of the game-runners maintain an out-of-game space that’s usually called a Monster Town, Monster Palace, or the like. This is the place where most of the game’s props and costumes are stored, for use by people responsible for playing the wandering monsters. (As in D&D, a hostile human, or one just looking to take your stuff, can fall into the category of “monster” for these purposes.) The Monster Town manager(s) wait until they have a few people ready to go, come up with what they’re going into play as, give them the stats and motivations for whatever they’re playing, and send them to go do that thing.

These wandering monsters are expected to go into the in-game areas of the site, having entered the “town” with some kind of goal, and provide entertainment. Some wandering monsters aren’t there to fight – in the same way that D&D’s random-encounter tables are sometimes chatty or interested in trade or whatever, boffer LARPs have expanded way beyond “if it moves, kill it.” There’s still a good amount of player interest in having a steady supply of action interludes, even in my increasingly geriatric gaming circles.

Now, if you have 3-5 warm bodies to entertain 17-195 PCs, um, it just about doesn’t matter what stats you give them, a combat encounter isn’t going to last real long. (Or: the things you can do with stats to make that last are largely inadvisable.) Given an absence of other motivations, there’s a strong tendency for players to gather at the campsite’s mess hall (“tavern”), or at one of the larger player-housing buildings. If the wandering monsters can’t find anyone to engage as they move around the game site other than walking right up to the door of the tavern, you’ll have a steady sequence of all of the players ganging up on a tiny handful of monsters, which is not a great experience for either side.

What you want, then, is for the players to spread themselves out so that the monsters can encounter a more reasonable number of players, have a fight, and win or lose before the rest of the playerbase comes rumbling through to decide the matter. In principle, having player housing spread all over site (as is normal for state parks) helps with this; in practice, how often do you really need to walk back to your cabin?

There are two main things I’ll suggest for handling this, one of which is the thing that got me started writing this post in the first place. First, player-run social locations are great centers of a lot of different kinds of action, and add a lot of character to the game. This is so not the post for best practices on that. Second, to whatever extent you can, give players places they can go whenever they want to look at something interesting. I’m going to talk about what we did in the Dust to Dust campaign for this, what I wish we had done, and some other possibilities.

There are more reasons than just improving the wandering-monster experience to do something like this. Players always feeling like they can go look at something interesting is a huge good in its own right – if they’re just not engaging with the things going on right now that they know about, they can go look at something interesting. It’s also a big, concrete piece of context to start connecting other ideas to – you’re building a foundation for understanding the whole setting.

Martel’s Table

For the Dust to Dust campaign, we talked about how to give players something interesting to look at that would only do something when a particular NPC was present, so we didn’t have to keep a staff member present at all times. It would still be interesting to look at and provide a lot of setting clues without the NPC.

What we created was Martel’s Table. It is three concentric circles, with a tree of twisted black metal in the center. The outer ring represents the five Realms of Energy (Light, Fire, Storm, Shadow, Ice), each divided into five aspects. The inner ring represents the five Forms of Matter (Aether, Flesh, Fluid, Earth, and Dust), each divided into three aspects. Six painted wooden discs hang from the branches of the black tree, representing the five Houses of the Nether and Martel himself. All of this is expressed with pictographs and color-coding – that is, Fire’s tiles are red, and carry the symbol for Fire and that tile’s aspect.

Further, tiny tokens adorned the tiles. Never more than two on any one tile; maybe a third of the tiles in all had a token.

There was also another prop in the room that held Martel’s true name. Arranging it in different ways when you opened the cosmic portal in that room took you to different places, but we didn’t handle this as reliably or explain it as clearly as we really ought to have done. That’s my fault.

It was intended for Martel’s Table to be intricate and just a lot to take in, the first time you see it. We have a whole campaign to get players used to this thing – there need to be a lot of questions to ask. Learning the meanings of all the glyphs on the Table gave players plenty of short research projects to work on. They also learned early on that there was a series of nine rituals that wizards could use to manipulate the tiles in various ways.

  1. Place a token on a Realm tile (doing so granted a small free magical benefit)
  2. Temporarily switch the position of one Realm tile with another (useful for opening the cosmic doorway to elsewhere)
  3. Permanently switch the position of one Realm tile with another (this would have changed some game rules; the PCs were warned not to try it, and didn’t)
  4. Place a token on a Form tile (doing so granted a modest free magical benefit)
  5. Temporarily switch the position of one Form tile with another
  6. Permanently switch the position of one Form tile with another
  7. Place a token in the branches of the tree (never attempted; it’s just as well)
  8. Temporarily change the position of a token in the branches (likewise)
  9. Permanently change the position or presence of a token in the branches (likewise)

As I hope is clear from this, there was a lot going on. The players engaged with this content pretty heavily. Not everyone placed a token; some players expected long-term dire consequences from pursuing free power. As it happens that was not where we were going with this – the Table had tons of power, and placing a token let you receive “runoff” power. On a meta level, it was a pure reward for engaging with the content.

Postmortem

There are a number of things I wish we had done a little differently with Martel’s Table, but I didn’t come up with the idea until a few months after the end of the campaign, as is typical.

First off, I wish I had handled the secondary prop – the one with Martel’s true name – more cogently. I really just needed to write down precise setup instructions for every event, so that I wasn’t trying to remember anything at all during the panicked pre-game setup routine. For that matter, it also would have let me delegate the work better. If this sounds painfully obvious to you, well, it sounds that way to me too. Now.

Second, I wish the players had had one more recurring reason to go interact with the prop, and one that didn’t require a staff member to be present, at least not after the first couple of times. What I came up with much too late was to use either the table or another prop as the leaderboard (so to speak) for an in-character game. We had a whole variety of in-character games, from wizard dueling (a form of fairy chess that… had its own different design problems I wish I could go back and fix) to dominoes themselves (sure, it’s our spellcasting mechanic, but you can also play games with them) and so on.

We should have either picked a game with no barrier to entry, or lowered the barriers to entry for wizard dueling, so that players could go over to Martel’s Table, see where their token was on the Tablle and who they needed to go challenge, and kept one or more sets of game pieces constantly available there. Various leaderboard positions could grant minor powers, as an inducement to climb the ladder, but you could have non-exclusive ranks (that is, multiple people can be in this spot simultaneously) so that the competition isn’t maximally cutthroat. Obviously, there would need to be more design work that went into that, but I think giving players more incentive to go by the Table and entertain each other with our in-character games could have been fun.

Obviously, no one card game or board game or anything else is going to be for everyone, which is why the benefits should be minor and stay minor. I don’t want someone who decides they just hate sitting down for a game on-site to feel cut out of the main fun. Anyway, keeping players moving around site and planning interactions with other players, while requiring minimal staff-side maintenance, pays a lot of different dividends.

Active Locations

Dust to Dust was, of course, far from the first game to recognize and try to address the problem of players holing up in one location and waiting for storylines to come to them. I’m going to run through some of the solutions I’ve seen in other games. All of these games had their instances of monsters attacking the main tavern and getting butchered – every game contains multitudes, because they’re systems that humans engage with.

In Shattered Isles, spellcasters had to go to specific locations, called Dorums, to cast their protective spells. The sorcerous Dorum was usually the most accessible, which was its own problem (sorcery being illegal at the start of play), while the alchemical Dorums were perfectly legal to use but also scattered hither and yon (gettin’ yer FitBit steps in, ten years before FitBit). Many of SI’s most common monsters were lurkers – the type who picked a good ambush location and waited. Because they could – the players had to move around the site to play the game. I haven’t talked to the game-runners enough about why they made each decision in this structure, but they are blisteringly clever game-runners and probably knew exactly what they were doing.

Wildlands South had the Tower of the Heart (first arc) and the Sorrow Forge (second), where you went to spend build with the in-character logistics marshal, craft stuff, and so on. The Tower of the Heart in particular had a big, elaborate prop covered with encrypted text.

The Wildlands campaign also has banshees as a major undefeatable threat – they’re individual creatures that have untouchable stats and kill with every attack, but they only become aggressive under a defined and well-advertised set of circumstances. They only come out at night, unless you try to take too many people on a module. They only attack if they can see more than seven other creatures in their field of vision at once, or if they’re deliberately provoked. The idea is that players want to spread out field battles rather than forming a single, fairly static shield wall, move around the game site in groups of no more than seven, and avoid clustering at any one location.

King’s Gate had lot of different answers for its various game locations, but in general there was the player-run casino, the eponymous Gate, and usually a few other interesting things to see and player-run locations to visit. Think of it as a pub crawl without alcohol but with more intermittent stabbing (in fairness, I don’t know your pub crawl routines) and clandestine meetings, and you’re getting the idea.

Calamity goes particularly deep on player-run locations, because they do fill so much of their game site. The main saloon (same tavern building as we’ve been using for 25+ years) is an incredibly elaborate production in this game, with some players pouring an unbelievable amount of work into making an immersive environment, but there’s also a second player-run watering hole, a library, and so on.

Many games have introduced systems to try to get players to (re-)explore the game site at each event, drawing them on by harvesting things or finding tracking tags (that is, “there’s something to track here that represents a one-encounter adventure”) or the like. I think harvesting systems are not a great investment of a staff member’s time or a props budget, because someone has to deploy them and remember where they deployed every single prop for cleanup, but in general a very small number of players (as few as one) get most or all of what’s put out to harvest, by being early risers on a Saturday morning.

For one Dust to Dust event, we used a mechanic that I wish we could have generalized to more in-game locations. We set up four small altars at distant parts of the site, each of which accepted offerings in exchange for buffs. The things that they “wanted” as offerings were mostly things you’d gather from monster loot, which had the effect of putting players more on their front foot in looking for wandering monsters to encounter.

Conclusion

My point is just to talk about Martel’s Table, what worked with it, and ideas I had way too late. The rest of this post just accreted around that, in the way that such things do. I think games can benefit immensely from thinking about how to make their smaller and more random encounters more enjoyable for the PC and NPC sides of the encounter. The NPCs are there to entertain the players, but they shouldn’t have a miserable experience of feeling like they don’t present any threat at all.

There are also valid boffer-LARP models that don’t involve wandering monsters, but that’s a hugely different approach to writing and implementation. By all means experiment with the form – but this post is for games that do have something akin to wandering monsters (even more story-intensive ones).

Even games without wandering monsters, or that constrain wandering monsters to nighttime, can benefit greatly by introducing one or more locations where the players can go to look at something interesting with plot significance to unravel. The more they can engage with it without a staff member present, the better; a CYOA-style book (if you do X, take the effect in Entry 72) can be a good self-marshaling alternative, if you’re in a sufficiently high-trust community.


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2 thoughts on “LARP Design: Wandering Monsters and Active Locations

  • T Maurer

    Great article!

    Having “interesting things to go look at” is definitely a great idea for LARPs

    One correction, when you say:
    “Place a token in the branches of the tree (never attempted; it’s just as well)”

    I am pretty sure I did actually put a token on the tree in my attempts to affect/counter nether, but it was late in the game and I’m not sure much came of it to be memorable. It was there for a time and then I think we removed it to infuse a magic item.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      You are quite right! That totally slipped my mind.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Coming up with good Interesting Stuff to Look At *is* an enormous amount of work – or maybe I should say that coming up with things that are manageable for construction, setup, and teardown, and sturdy enough to survive multiple years of use, takes a lot of thought. I’m all about hearing what other games have done.