LARP Design: Five Field Battle Models 2

It’s been a long time since I’ve talked LARP design. Quarantine has of course put games on hold for the last year, though as vaccines roll out, we might be stirring again from that long slumber. Anyway, in this post I’m talking about field battle models and implementation guidance for your climactic action on a Saturday night. If your game doesn’t have field battles or any other climactic action on a Saturday night, that’s fine too, but this article won’t be useful to you.

There are a lot more than five field battle models. I expect to come back for at least a Part Two, at some point.

1. The Baseline

Let’s get this one out of the way. Your most basic type of field battle is two sides clashing. Assuming your game has shields and melee weapons – and it would be quite a thing to see a fantasy LARP not have those, while many sf LARPs skip shields – you’re probably looking at two lines of combatants closing with each other and fighting it out. The NPC side probably uses a lot of respawns, because fielding enough NPCs to make for a good shield-wall fight is not possible for most games most of the time.

  • Much as the PCs are going to have a mix of melee and ranged capabilities – casters or ranged-weapon wielders, whatever – the NPCs need to have some ranged support to go with their shield-wall.
    • This means keeping full buckets of packets and other ammunition near wherever the casters are respawning. It’s probably in the keeping of a staff member. This might be the staff member directing the field battle and telling NPCs when to respawn and when to stop respawning.
  • There are two most-obvious ways to decide when this kind of field battle stops, from the behind-the-curtain view. Either the staff members decide in advance how many respawns of each creature they’re going to have (that is, a total number of antagonist creatures for the whole battle), and the battle ends when they’re exhausted; or the staff has a general sense of how much pressure they’ve put on the PCs, and they keep pushing to the point that they think the PCs have had a good time and the right about of tension, after which the fight ends.
    • I’m not here to debate the merits of these. They’re both valid. I know someone’s getting spun up right now to tell me why one of them is an abomination before the Lord. Let’s skip it instead.

Because it is the baseline, everything else is kind of defined by how it isn’t this. This model can carry you a long, long way, just by varying up where on your game site you set the fight, what you do with creature stats, the stakes of the battle, and all of the intangibles of PC and NPC behavior that can turn a fight from an easy win into a bloodbath.

2. Three-Sided Fight

A three-sided fight has the PC side, the main NPC side, and a spoiler NPC side. For reasons of keeping your needed number of volunteers under control, the spoiler side is probably 1-3 powerful, non-respawning characters, while most of your available volunteers are the main antagonist force. That said, I think “main > spoiler” and “spoiler > main” are both interesting stories.

I’m getting jargony, aren’t I.

  • First version: You’ve pitted the PCs against a neighboring kingdom. The main antagonists are the expeditionary force of soldiers. The spoiler side is a vampire who here for a free meal. The vamp mostly keeps to the shadows and grabs whoever seems convenient. NPCs really ham it up when they get taken – overall you WANT them to get spotted, after all. For bonus cool points, you have body doubles ready to go, which a staff member leaves wherever the vampire was draining folks.
  • Second version: The PCs have been hunting a great beast for a long time, and you’re finally ready to let them fight that hugely powerful enemy. It’s statted to be a fairly plausible single-person field battle – just carnage morning, noon, and night. The complicating factor is that there’s another group of monster-hunters interested in claiming that bounty, and they show up at the same moment that the PCs do. You’re now in a race to see who can kill the creature and keep its head.
  • The spoiler side probably needs some overwhelming stats and a good way to hit and run. The goal is to make sure the PCs can’t easily narrow this down to a two-sided fight. Once it becomes a two-sided fight, you want to wrap things up reasonably quickly in most cases.

The version of this one that I’ve run uses Wildlands banshees as the spoiler force. I think I’ve talked about banshees before, but just in case, here’s the deal. Banshees deliver obscene amounts of damage with their claws, and worse damage with their packets. They can be killed only with great difficulty, they rez immediately, and when they come back they’re probably going to come after the one who killed them. The only thing that makes this okay is that they won’t attack in the first place unless they see more than seven people at a time – so PCs and NPCs alike have an incentive to spread the fight out and not have one big burly brawl. They’re a mechanic to control fight flow, with a bunch of good story bolted on.

3. The Split Field Battle

This is more of a meta-mechanic that tends toward a certain field battle structure, but can be used in a bunch of different ways. The idea here is to solve the “NPCs are always outnumbered” problem – if your game has enough volunteers (as Wildlands South did back in the day) you won’t use this.

You split the player base into two groups, usually through an in-play explanation of “Alpha Team is going after this enemy, Bravo Team is going after that one.” Assuming Alpha Team PCs first, Bravo Team removes their costuming and gets ready to NPC. When Alpha Team’s field battle ends, you switch sides – Alpha Team NPCing and Bravo Team PCing.

  • This is popular with gamerunners for reasons that should be obvious – they can pose a much greater threat without leaning on endless respawns.
  • It’s moderately unpopular among players – after all, they go straight from one fight to another, and this structure asks a lot more out of them than the conventional approach. It’s also additional time spent NPCing, on top of any existing staff-augmentation obligations. Keep in mind that some portion of your players may have physical limitations that require accommodation during their NPC turn.
    • You’ve got to solve for that any other time, just don’t forget about it during this non-standard NPCing situation.
  • With close-to-equal numbers, you can probably lowball the NPC stats compared to what you’d have to do in other circumstances.
  • Do what you can, as gamerunners, to protect the PCs from ruining their own fun by creating unbalanced parties, especially if there are unexpected last-minute complications. Shattered Isles was using a split field battle as a way to run a one-day event, but then a bunch of people on one side of that fight didn’t show. When the PCs didn’t rebalance their teams, one side obviously had it too easy, while the other side got wiped out and got saved by NPCs.
  • You can also try unbalanced teams where one side isn’t a field battle – maybe Bravo Team is solving the weekend’s B-plot on an adventure, and you want a bazillion NPCs for that but not as combatants, or maybe one side’s field battle is using another structure so that they actually can take on a disproportionate number of enemies. I don’t know your life.

Popular with PCs or not, there are things you’ll want to stage and just can’t do any other way. You can rewrite and choose something other than the thing you most wanted, of course, but… this is a useful tool to have in your back pocket.

4. Defend/Disrupt the Ritual

This is another fairly basic model of field battle, used by almost every game at some point or other. The idea here is that one side has people performing some magical ritual (or working on some piece of technology, whatever – it just needs to be something that requires concentration), and the other wants to stop them before the critical moment of completion. There are some fiddly rules around what the threshold for disruption is (one caster wounded, one caster knocked unconscious, all casters knocked unconscious, whatever), and you can take it as read that rituals performed by NPCs will be more forgiving for them than those performed by PCs.

One of the other key factors is that some number of characters that would otherwise be part of the fight are tied up in concentration. This works in the gamerunners’ favor for “defend the ritual” (because the PCs are doing the casting and the defending) and against them for “disrupt the ritual” (because they have additional NPCs who aren’t actively engaged).

  • The absolute most important thing about this field battle type is writing things so that success and failure can both be resolved cleanly without more than a brief hold. Success and failure both need to lead to interesting gameplay, assuming you aren’t staking your whole campaign on “failure is game over.”
    • You should be doing this for all of your field battles. An interesting, exciting result following a major loss is good to have planned and ready to deploy. One of the best things you can do for your campaign is to let the PCs fail and show that while things are worse overall, life goes on and things are still interesting – this helps them believe in all of the stakes you set in conflicts thereafter.
  • Rituals in the middle of field battles are their own set of safety concerns. If your action is taking place at night, you’re already in the habit of solving for lighting and safe footing, but this does complicate the problem by creating a space right in the middle of the fight that people defending that area must not retreat through.
  • As a follow-on to that point, you can have the ritual take place inside a building while the rest of the fight takes place outside it, but be aware that you are setting up your field battle to hinge, at some point, on a door fight. Door fights suck; adding more people and higher stakes to a door fight is the opposite of helpful.

PC failure here likely means either a shift to a standard field battle with the odds more stacked against the PCs than they otherwise would have been, or a fighting retreat. Maybe the NPCs were performing a ritual to make their leader nigh-invulnerable (so now you have a field battle + a serious boss fight), or maybe the PCs now need to take ritual components or technological devices back from the enemy who is trying to escape with them.

5. Gather Materials

This is, in a way, an inversion of Defend the Ritual. The PCs are working to complete some kind of goal; in DtD this was often smithing something on the Sacrificial Forge in Tontura. Something that can be gathered from the body of an enemy creature is part of completing that goal – magical energy or cyborg parts or pieces of a key or… Anyway, the thrust of it is that some enemies drop Widgets when they’re killed, which the PCs need to gather and carry back to a location in the midst of the fight. Gathering enough of the Widgets typically causes the fight to change phases, possibly moving into a Defend the Ritual mode.

The core dynamic here is movement. Target creatures don’t necessarily approach the shield wall to get slaughtered, and once the PC has the Widget, they or a different PC are stepping out of the fight for a moment to deliver it to the goal location. Ideally, they have to move far enough that they’re avoiding other enemy combatants or getting escorted by more PCs (that is, removing more PCs from going on the offense).

  • This probably goes without saying, but for something that happens at night, glowing Widgets are the best Widgets, for all the same reasons that important items glow or sparkle in video games. If this is immersion-breaking for your player community and your narrative, then okay, but you are borrowing trouble. People drop things in grassy fields at night, possibly derailing the whole deal.
  • The bits that are getting collected could be the pieces of a puzzle, which adds a great puzzle-under-time-pressure element to the challenge. The concentration needed to solve a puzzle is essentially the same as that needed for any ritual, if in a more emergent way.
  • Your game site is the only practical upper limit to how much this can be decentralized. There are safety and accessibility considerations to making PCs walk or run all over site at night, but larger areas of engagement do some interesting things here, starting with making sure there’s not a well-organized shield wall, just a bunch of roving hit squads.
  • This model – widely-spread or not – puts a lot more of a burden on the staff member who is managing the battle. They need to distribute Widgets to control the pacing of the fight, to make sure that a satisfying amount of action occurs before success is numerically possible. You probably want to distribute a few more Widgets than you’ve set as the goal number, just in case a few do get lost in the dark or whatever.
  • There may not be a definite point at which the PCs have failed in this, until they simply don’t have enough resources to keep going after more Widget-holding creatures. A time limit is a common way to introduce a definite failure point, or having enemies steadily attempting to break or steal the accumulating pile of Widgets.
  • This model is, comparatively speaking, very efficient on staff and volunteer resources. PCs also tend to like it because its stakes are often centered on advancing their goals.

Every once in a long while, you see the reverse of this, where PCs start the battle holding the Widgets and the NPCs are hunting them down to collect them. This is super hard to do well if you haven’t narrowed the area of the engagement; whatever you do, don’t let PCs hide the Widgets in their cabins or bury them or whatever. Make up a reason that they need the Widgets on their persons and readily visible.

Next time, I’ll talk about:

6. Long-Distance Escort
7. Point to Point (Spiders the Size of Houses)
8. Take the Town
9. Kraken Up
10. Don’t Stand in Fire

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2 thoughts on “LARP Design: Five Field Battle Models

  • John Nunn

    Glowing Widgets are Awesome Widgets.

    Looking forward to Part 3: Combinations and Permutations. #5 and #8 can be particularly chocolate-and-peanut-buttery, though #3 & #4 can also be interesting, and #2 mixes in will with most, and #4 and #6 can be exhausting.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Yep, I agree with all of those – #6 is definitely Not For All Game Sites, but Indian Springs and Hard Labor can really do it justice. Doing it as a big processional thing from unit to unit at AHS would be intense but interesting.

      There’s a better-than-even chance that the Recombinations post will be Part 4, just because I’m betting I can get to 15 on field battle models without repeating myself excessively, but that’s a problem for Future Brandes. That poor bastard has to figure out how to talk about Wild Hunt events from WLS, for example – a great use case for Climactic Action on a Saturday Night that isn’t a field battle qua field battle.

      Thanks for reading!