Treasured Patreon backer Ryan McCorkle asked for a guide to writing modules for boffer LARPs. Since I freely acknowledge that there are others out there who can do better at this than I can, I hope the comments section will become a useful resource in its own right.
For readers who don’t have any background in boffer LARPing, a module or adventure takes a group of players – as few as one, and technically up to all of the players in some unusual circumstances – away from the main game area. Usually you’re talking about 4-8 players, but there are valid reasons to choose any number. It’s an opportunity to give the players involved a bit more spotlight, make sure they can engage with whatever’s going on, and so on. It also means that any challenges they face have to be solved with a smaller set of abilities than “the whole playerbase,” so it’s about increased stakes and challenge to each participant.
As a result of that, all resources used to stage the module (NPCs, production and pre-production time, physical space, one or more staff members) are entertaining a much smaller number of players. That’s the tradeoff. If you can think of a way to stage content in-town, do that instead. I know of games that set temporary moratoriums on all module content, forcing themselves to rework all content so that it could be run in-town. That’s an excellent creative limit, if counter to the premise of this whole post.
A Single Satisfying Encounter
One of the best ways to make sure a module is interesting and satisfying is to look at its minimal form, then build up from there. I have been on perfectly satisfying modules that were nothing but a walk across site to have a single conversation, with no fight, in-game skill use, or treasure at any stage. It’s still a module. Because all of the creative energy around that module went into characterization, stakes, and conflict, they’re often phenomenal. Even better, they’re almost guaranteed to advance the story in a meaningful way.
The other minimal form is a farmer whose cows have gone missing. The PCs go into the (cave or other mission area), walk across a balance beam or jump across jumpystones because the Floor Is Lava, fight some bandits, and take the cows back to the farmer. It’s cliched, it has nothing to do with the story… and it’s still pretty fun. There’s still a lot of potential for good interaction – gathering the module party, talking to the farmer, negotiating the physical challenge, using combat skills, maybe negotiating the physical challenge a second time with the added difficulty of loot, prisoners, and/or cattle, and so on. What this doesn’t do is advance a story. In all seriousness, if the farmer, the cows, or the bandits represent meaningful story, the cliché becomes a good module as long as each part of it is executed with at least modest proficiency. (This is not hard; don’t listen to your impostor syndrome here, or ever.)
I’m going to say that again for the people in back: good characterization and functional story beat good gameplay. It’s okay if you disagree with me; I can guess some of the people who will disagree. Don’t get it twisted: a contained story is still a story. Non-recurring characters can still offer good characterization. If the players aren’t having an easy time finding or engaging with other stories, or if they just need a palate cleanser from the doom & gloom of Main Plot, a small story with a beginning, middle, and end may be just right.
Good gameplay elevates good characterization and story, of course, and people can find fun in even in unexpected things. You can tune the challenge of a jumpystone sequence so perfectly that it provides extraordinary fun for the whole player group. (Fighting very-low-stat monsters on jumpystones, while the monsters are allowed to move freely, is a classic shortcut to a fun, brutally challenging fight that the ranged characters will love even more.)
Okay, moving on from theory.
A Normal Module
Three encounters is about average for a module. More or fewer are both fine, as I’ve said, but narratively we like threes. In general, you don’t want to use the same type of encounter twice in a row, and if you do have the same type of encounter twice in a row, the second one needs a much more inventive twist. The reason for this is that two encounters of the same type (combat, conversation, physical challenge, puzzle, trap, other) blur together and feel like one or one-and-a-half encounters if they’re consecutive. Combat especially, because we’re used to thinking of multiple waves or rezzes as an element of a single combat.
Why does this matter? Shifting gears between encounter types requires more work from the staffer and NPCs – they have to either reset the encounter area with the next thing, or move to a new encounter area, they have to handle the next briefing, and so on. On the other hand, having multiple discrete experiences is a bit of mental trickery to make it feel like more content than a smaller number of longer encounters.
Kainenchen points out that as long as the mood, goals, and person playing the role changes, you can have any number of social interactions in a row. Three social interactions that all do different things is a perfectly good module! For instance:
- Talk to the hostile jailer, to get permission to speak to the prisoner
- Talk to the prisoner, so that they can surreptitiously pass on information to you
- Talk to the warden, so that you can lie about what you learned from the prisoner
My suggestion for a beginning game-runner, then, is to start with the last encounter and make it as satisfying as possible. Think about ways to make PCs care about the outcome of the encounter. If the last encounter is someone they already know, great! You’re halfway there. If it’s someone/something they’re meeting for the first time, you’ve got a bit more work to do.
Next, write two more encounters that come before that. If you think your final encounter could work on its own and your players are already emotionally invested, these can just be obstacles. If not, these encounters are your chance to get the PCs to feel something about the final encounter they’re about to see.
- Are they tracking down a bad guy? Make the first two encounters reveal bad stuff that they did.
- Are they tracking down a good person? Rachel Phimphivong and I ran a well-received module where the PCs used Tracking to find a good person, and I (as an NPC) was talking about that character as we went. The PCs kept engaging me in conversation to learn how my NPC saw her, and because that NPC was an utter trashbag, they knew how to feel about her by the time we got to the final encounter.
- Are they approaching an anomalous event? The first two encounters raise questions (chiefly “whaaaaat?”) and provide clues. The emotion you’re providing is a positive form of confusion.
A Long Module
This is more advanced material, but if you have the resources to do it, a longer and more involved module can be the centerpiece of those players’ whole event, and something of a legendary experience within the game. Let me emphasize again the toll that is probably getting paid in staff and NPC resources. Those players are also getting a disproportionate amount of spotlight time, so make sure you think about that and recognize it for what it is.
Traps modules are one of the classic forms here. They work a lot like the escape rooms that have become a Thing in the last few years, but hardcore traps modules go way back in LARPing – not least of which is because they’re Gygaxian dungeon-crawling crossed with Indiana Jones. The fundamental format is that the players need to explore a building. The inside of the building has a bunch of different interesting things to see. The door(s) and every means of getting to the interesting things are blocked off by traps, so trap work (uh, not the music, though that would be a hell of a module too) is about moving from point to point. Traps and puzzles stretch out the time that players take to work through the content, sometimes exponentially.
That’s also the downside. If you include traps or puzzles in a module you’re running and you have something on your schedule in the next few hours, you done fucked up.
Ultimately, modules running more than 2 hours are outside of the scope of this post, and unlikely to be useful for Ryan’s purposes thanks to the limitations of the game sites Altera Awakens uses. There is a right time and place for this kind of content, and it tends to be (within the span of Southern boffer LARPing) Indian Springs, because those barracks can be such wonderful module locations if you have eight hours to set them up.
I keep talking about resources; let’s go deeper. Learning to be realistic about the time, space, warm bodies, props (including weapons and packets), costuming, and any other special resources your module needs is one of the most important skills. The second is like unto it: get almost as good of an experience with half of the resources you originally wanted. One of the worst things that can happen to a game as a whole is a staff member who needs every NPC in Monstertown for a three-hour module to entertain five PCs (in any playerbase of six or more).
That’s why I suggest starting your module-writing with the final encounter, and thinking about the whole story in its minimalist form. If the game can spare you more resources, great! You have extra content ready to go, or extra warm bodies to challenge the PCs with.
Keep this in mind: the PCs who go on the module will be much more cool with multiple rezzes of 2 NPCs (when you really wanted 5) than the PCs who didn’t go on the module will be about an hour of no content in the rest of the game.
The time you (with or without assistance) need to set up the module is also a real cost, especially if your game has limited module-running real estate, as is the case at Booker T. The space you decide you need for the module is a huge cost and scheduling pressure, so anything you can write so that it could be run outdoors is objectively better off. Traps modules are especially brutal for this – setting a traps module in under an hour is difficult, and I know of hardcore traps modules that have taken 8+ hours to set up and another 8 to run. That module building was occupied for 16 hours of a 36-hour event, for content intended to entertain 6-8 PCs. That’s not a dealbreaker – just a hard choice that games make.
If you’re having resource-efficiency problems, one solution is to turn it into a repeater module. For any of the uninitiated reading this, a repeater module does what it says on the tin: the staff member and NPCs run the adventure more than once for a different roster of PCs. Maybe they make small changes to the module, tweaking the puzzle or the composition of a fight. The point is, your setup and briefing time for the NPCs pays off double, triple, or better.
Because they’re a broader part of a shared event experience, repeater modules are a popular Saturday-daytime element for filling out a schedule and the weekend’s main plot. One classic narrative conceit, used in Wildlands South and other games, is that each module goes into the same general area of ruins, and finds one piece of the Widget of the Month that the PCs need for that weekend’s field battle.
If you have some spare resources – and a repeater module that glues the weekend together justifies more resources! – you can look at adding more twists to each module run as the day goes on. By the third run, the PCs going on the module may have heard from earlier teams what to expect, so subverting those expectations is good form. Drastically subverting those expectations is more work, but so worth it. (Though it’s also okay to invent a reason that PC teams can’t tell each other what they saw until the end of the event.)
Come up with some reason the same PC team can’t go twice in a row. PCs accept any old reason in the world, if they’re not totally new to the idea of repeater modules or dead-set on being jerks to the staff members. Just have one. Altera Awakens uses a toxic dust that gets kicked up when we go into the ruins, for example.
This is going to be a bit more scattershot.
- Keep track of which skills haven’t gotten a lot
of use lately. Some skills have no use at all outside of marshaled or module
- In Altera Awakens, all Core Skills, Trade Skills, and Combat Traits are good to build a module’s mechanics around. Magic gets tons and tons of love and has an enormous variety of solutions to problems, so you can’t go wrong with centering other skills as part of a module. This goes double for Healing, and for individual Crafts. Get Logistics to compile a list of PCs with specific Craft skills for you.
- Engage the senses as much as good taste allows. There are a huge variety of options on the internet for adding a soundscape to your module – whether that’s the drip-dripping of water in a cave, the screaming of the damned, or whatever you need. Your phone’s speaker probably isn’t up to the task, but a halfway decent speaker that can project enough sound for one module pavilion should be affordable – by the game, if not by you as an individual creator.
and touch are good when possible, but the bounds of good taste are definitely A
Thing here. Attaching an in-game meaning to different incenses is cool, but a
significant number of players have allergies or sensitivity to smoke. Essential
oils may also be an option. Tread carefully around sensory issues in general.
- For the sense of touch, you have both the textures of phys-reps and your typical elementary-school House of Horror! stuff: peeled grapes for eyes, cold wet noodles for intestines, that kind of thing.
- One of the best outcomes of a module is for the PCs to rush back to town and have interactions about whatever happened on the module. That one module winds up engaging more players than just the ones who went on it. (But make sure that it’s more than boasting about the cool thing they just did, because that risks a vicious cycle of envy. OOC envy is one of the most destructive forces in LARPing.)
- Target. The. Wallflowers. Players who are already central to the action are hooked into enough things that they stay involved in the action. Bring in the new folks and everyone who has been on the outside looking in.
character histories and exploit them ruthlessly. That doesn’t mean you should
murder every named character in a backstory! What a waste that would be. Bring
those backstory characters to life with motivations and interconnections. This
is a phenomenal way to get PCs to feel conflicting ways about things, which
- Tying this into a previous point, one great way to shake things up in a repeater module is to have one social or combat encounter in the module where you can slot in a character from someone’s background. It’s the same module as the other five runs, but this time Arden’s cousin’s wife is the enemy warlock! He will glower. So hard!
- If you’re going to use humor or comic relief, it absolutely must be funny for in-world reasons. Okay, yes, this is veering outside of module-writing advice, but I believe in this one deeply. Do not be the one who undermines a game’s tone.
- Plan ahead for when the PCs fail, and try to make failure an interesting outcome. Don’t ever write a situation where the story can’t go forward somehow if the PCs fail. Players can often sense such things. Knowing that the game won’t let you fail erases the sense of stakes.
- Think seriously about accessibility for people with physical limitations. There are players who can’t do jumpystones or other physical challenges safely – give them a way to participate and not get locked out of module content. As a playerbase ages, the portion of players who can’t do physical things only increases.
- Similarly, if you know someone has dyslexia, dyscalculia, or any other sensory, cognitive, or learning issues, write content that targets what they can do. This is obvious once you hear it, but easy to overlook.
player’s physical, mental, or emotional comfort is always more important than
your module or storyline. It always needs to be okay, on an OOC level, for a
player to walk away from content, and IC repercussions for this should be
minimal to none.
- If you’re running an intense emotional scene, check in afterward with the players involved. Aftercare is an important and almost entirely neglected area of safety, at least in most LARPs I’ve ever played.
- Time pressure is a great tool to have in your toolbox. If you want to make someone fail a dead simple puzzle, attach a timer. If you want to crank up the tension of any kind of module, write in some kind of time limit, such as “you can only be in the ruins for 30 minutes” or “you have 45 seconds to get in the building, kill everything that moves, and get out” (a recurring module structure in early-mid Eclipse Arc 1).
- Modules with contained stories are a great chance to explore little details of the setting. Is there a cool thing in one culture packet that you’d like to teach other players about, or reward players from that culture for knowing? A module is a great chance, because the one PC who knows that detail doesn’t have to try to tell all of the other players, just the 3-7 other team members.
- Don’t ever cast one person as two different talking NPCs in the same module. It pulls people out of the scene. Switching from marshal to speaking role, or from unimportant combat crunchy to speaking role, is not the same thing and is basically fine.
- Think about how you’re justifying the limited number of people in a module party, if your setting doesn’t have a built-in justification. Think about adding a timer for the PCs gathering the party, so that they don’t dither for 45 minutes.
I hope this is a useful collection of theory, fundamentals, and tips for new module-writers and game-runners. If you have questions about any of this, please ask. For the giants on whose shoulders I have stood, thank you, and also I reiterate my invitation to comment.
Many of the ideas in this article I first learned from Trace Moriarty, in the extraordinary Wildlands South adventure-writing guide. Though that document is phrased for Wildlands usage, many of its lessons for good LARP-running and module writing have proven timeless.