Oh, wow, I haven’t written about LARP design since December, how about that! Anyway, even before that when I talked about active locations in boffer LARPs, I knew I wanted to talk about how to design good wandering monsters for LARPs. Creature narrative, costuming, powers, and deployment are major elements that I plan to cover. (If your game doesn’t have wandering monsters and you’ve planned around that, that’s fine, but this post won’t have anything for you.)
The uniting principle across all elements is simplicity. Wandering monster roles are going to get assigned to every kind of volunteer, which means they need to be easy for volunteers with low levels of lore knowledge, rules knowledge, and game-site knowledge, as well as volunteers who are in a hurry and can’t dig a unique piece of costuming out of the Monstertown bins. So keep it simple! When you think you’ve stripped it down far enough, practice delivering the briefing for this creature. Time yourself, then assume you have to deliver it at least twice because three of your volunteers had to run to the bathroom, and one more time because it’s late and everyone’s tired. I belabor this point because I care.
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s start with some highlights of the functions wandering monsters serve at the game level. I’m going to touch on the importance of some of these in later sections.
- Minor to moderate tension/release loop
- Source of treasure
- A chance for players to use skills
- Resource attrition (not true for all games, but common enough)
- Ambient characterization and tone support
The creature’s narrative is the combination of what it does in the lore and what it does as a narrative beat in a player’s experience of the game. To take the latter point first, you want to avoid moral quandaries with wandering monsters. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of good places in LARPing for fights with a moral quandary. Wandering monsters aren’t it, because you want to be able to send out a lot of these creatures, and a fraught moral conversation quickly becomes a tedious broken record. Your players absolutely will become desensitized to it, and default toward their worst-timeline decision. Typically, that’s “kill them all and let Plot sort them out.”
Much like the whole role needs to be uncomplicated, then, the decision that it is okay to fight these NPCs and kill them is important to the flow of gameplay. You also don’t want a 10-20 minute scene of locking them up in a stockade after every wave spawns – repetition and tedium aren’t the emotional beats one wants.
Now, using sentient enemies as no-guilt kills has some complications. You’ve got, in essence, three options.
- Sentient, but not natural or biological creatures. Demons, fey, undead, elementals, and constructs fall into this category. You probably want this to be your main category, unless you’re running an aggressively low-fantasy setting.
- Irredeemably evil. You can’t use an actual swastika (ever, for any reason), but people who are willing Nazi-adjacent ideologues, such as demon cultists? Yeah, your players can stab the shit out of them with no guilt. You can shade this down to “not evil, but mortal foes for political reasons” in a war storyline.
- Bandits. People whose express goal is taking the PCs’ stuff are going on the chopping block without hesitation. I dunno, it’s a convention of the genre as much as anything.
My point here is “they’re evil because they’re orcs” was the status quo for a long, long time, and we’re not doing that anymore. We’re all trying to be better. (If you played SI or KG and you’re feeling weird about gurtal/grim or grumpkins, keep in mind that canonically, they weren’t remotely natural creatures, and the PCs didn’t go after tribes that didn’t come for them first.)
Non-sentient creatures are fine too. I’ve fought plenty of wolves and wolf-adjacent creatures in my life, and in a setting without an endangered species list, that’s going to be okay for some players and less so for others. If you have too many people who have problems fighting wolves, try velociraptors. Sure, call them razorclaws or drakes or whatever, I don’t really care. Just bigass murder lizards/proto-avians.
Undead, elementals, constructs, insects, and any animal you can plausibly present can work. Even herbivores might have so much magical corruption or whatever that they turn hostile. In general, players go along with this, but you’ll want to get a sense for whether your audience has seen it all before so you can go for a little more nuance.
Nuance, though? Make sure that burden doesn’t rest on the individual wandering-monster characters. It’s possible that you’ll need reasons that the characters are uncommunicative of anything beyond their personal motives. Lore goes in the mouths of volunteers who have more time to sit still for a briefing.
Some whole LARPs have gotten a decade or more out of nothing but a variety of different single-color tabards, worn over basic blacks. If that’s your budget, well, go with single-color tabards and pour your creative energy elsewhere. Developing stronger costuming on a shoestring budget is possible, but a bit outside the scope of this post. One tip, though: painting up a dozen plastic masks per creature type is dirt cheap.
If you have a budget, or someone who can make more involved masks, the first really strong move is anything that alters the wearer’s silhouette. The players’ first impressions of the creatures are mostly going to be at a distance, maybe at night. That moment of signaling is something we don’t talk about enough, but it’s incredibly important to send the message you mean to send so that your players make informed choices. (Not that you won’t deliberately hide information sometimes too – the point is to act with intent.)
Makeup is also an option. You’re going to have a roughly equal number of volunteers who can’t wear greasepaint as those who can’t wear masks comfortably (latex allergies are common, after all). Having multiple solutions to your problems is the way to go. Makeup takes a little longer than handing out masks and it runs in the summer when your players are sweating their asses off (okay fine, some games are not set in the American South, from what I hear). On the other hand your players are also going to wear masks up on their foreheads a lot of the time, which does spoil the look; also, a lot of your players wear glasses, and makeup is much better for them.
Okay, stats. You want at least two stat blocks here, one for melee and one for packet-chucking, unless they’re all a melee/packet mix (it can work). Think really hard before building encounter groups that are melee-only or packet-only. As much as possible, plan for players with accessibility concerns.
There’s nowhere in your game less suited to intricate mechanics or new taglines than wandering monsters. I can’t emphasize this enough. Unfamiliar taglines or mechanics are an extra demand on the volunteer and create more friction between the volunteer and the players; all the worse for first-time volunteers. (Your players and volunteers should do all they can to avoid friction, but it’s a combat situation and we are all flawed creatures.)
A few more pointers.
- No long taglines, even if they’re standard for your system. Dust to Dust’s “Spellstrike Aether Mental Befuddle” proved to be a bit rocky. (This applies to all monster design, not just wandering monsters.)
- Really no spell incantations. Memorizing an incantation and using it while badly outnumbered… just no.
- It’s not automatically necessary that all monsters are built on an advancement or power structure similar to the PCs. That said, characters of PC races should probably have a very good reason if they’re not mechanically similar to PCs.
- If your game site supports the use of lurker monsters – dark but otherwise foot-safe paths that PCs need to traverse regularly – then you’ll want to plan some of those too. Booker T is a hard no for that; Harrison Bay can handle lurkers but it’s not great; AH Stephens and Hard Labor Creek are where it’s at for ambush-setting. (These are TN and GA State Parks.)
- Good lurker design is its own thing, as are stealth and perception mechanics (No one, including me, has yet found the secret formula to make stealth vs. perception feel great).
- If you’re not comfortable altering stats on the fly, or your MT Manager isn’t reliably on the same page with you on intended threat level (this is not a shot at any specific game, just an imagined situation), go ahead and build low, medium, and high-power stat blocks. Your main usage here is accounting for availability of volunteers – when you have 10 people show up for a shift, you can and should low-ball the stats.
I’m emphasizing things to avoid a lot more than innovative techniques. My feeling on this changes regularly, but right now I think simplicity protects your game’s flow. At times, innovation is overrated, compared to keeping things moving smoothly. That said, once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can start testing the edges of the guidelines I’m offering with a bit more complexity, as long as you have a few slightly-more-experienced volunteers. This could just be later in that volunteer’s first event, if they’re getting the hang of things and feeling good.
For example, while recognizing that threshold mechanics are A Problem, maybe you want to explore a locational threshold or a locational immunity – the LARP version of “the creature has a weak point.” Recognize that the volunteer is going to be saying “threshold” or “no effect” to some number of PC attacks, and that’s going to generate friction. What you’ve got to do is demonstrate or explain the creature concept to the players, and judge how well the information is reaching everyone. (information penetration is a whole different topic.)
Your system definitely already has mechanics for mitigating damage and/or other effects – it’s pretty likely that those are some of the most important mechanics in your combat engine. There are a lot of pitfalls here, and I’d love to say I’ve got it all worked out…
- Soft counters feel better, on the player side, than hard counters. A soft counter is something that reduces damage, while a hard counter negates it completely. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use hard counters, but make sure you appreciate their effect on play.
- Above the hard counter is the absorb effect – not only was your attack ineffective, it made the monster stronger. Use these with extreme caution.
- Toughness/hit point inflation is a whole other problem. Try not to go nuts with this, but it’s hard especially as player damage output increases or as your volunteers are more severely outnumbered by an expected player group.
- If your system draws a hard line between armor and hit points, try to do something with that. Armor props are often expensive or bulky, and narratively incorrect for many types of monsters, but if it’s an option, armor adds a lot to a look and presents mitigation that the PCs can instantly understand.
- If your game has armor-piercing effects, your PCs probably don’t get to use them often. They’ll appreciate any opportunity.
- The same goes for hand-held shields and shield-piercing effects.
This may seem like an odd category, and in some ways it’s a very different skill than the core of creature design. That said, while designing the creature, think hard about how you’re going to use it. You can do so much to set a creature apart in the players’ minds if you come up with an unusual deployment technique. Maybe you have a creature that always shows up in groups of exactly 4, and instead of spreading out and engaging PCs in four separate 1v1 fights, they stay in a tight knot and fight more tactically, defending their packet-chucker. Even with down-the-line identical stats, that encounter might feel completely different. (But the moment the volunteers go into play, it’s all emergent content and you’re just setting a wish loose in the world.)
Try to be more creative in deployment than “okay, go charge valiantly at the PCs who are hanging out at the tavern.” This is soul-crushingly difficult on some state parks.
Deployment is the key to lurker monsters, as I touched on earlier. Even getting the volunteers into position deserves some extra thought, so that PCs aren’t watching them move across site. Some of the scariest “wandering monsters” I’ve ever seen were lurkers that changed their location each time they took down another PC or group of PCs, making them much harder to track down and overwhelm.
The creative keys here are consistency and drawing on the creative energy of the volunteers themselves. It’s true across all topics that you should value your volunteers as collaborators, but the other categories require more pre-game work that the volunteers won’t be around for. Talk about the character’s/creature’s goals, what would make them break and run, that kind of deal.
In that vein, you can say that costuming is the first observable step of communicating a creature’s narrative, deployment the second, and powers the third, at least from the PCs’ perspective. What does it look like way over there, how does it behave as we get closer to it (or vice versa), and what does it do once we’re within packet distance?
I hope this discussion has been interesting, amusing, or inspiring. Any individual element of this post could be unfolded into its own 2,000-word post, digging into use cases and war stories of better and worse design choices. If that’s the kind of thing you want to see, let me know?