LARP Design: Five More Field Battle Models

Back in January, I wrote about five common field battle designs, and it sparked an interesting couple of days of conversation among my LARPing community. This time out, I’m talking about five much less common (but still highly reusable) models.

Image by Christian Körtke from Pixabay

6. Long-Distance Escort

If you also play video games, and especially MMOs, I probably don’t need to tell you that escort quests are Some Bullshit. The good news is, you get rid of like 95% of the aggravation of MMO escort quests by using humans that participate on their own. I’m probably forgetting about a ton of other implementations here, but the two that are coming to mind for me both come from Eclipse, on the Indian Springs site.

  • The key concept here is pre-defining a fairly long route on your site. You could require multiple laps of a shorter route, ideally with some plot contrivance.
  • The thing the PCs are guarding needs to be safely mobile. Eclipse used a sort of palanquin with “wheels” as a cart that PCs were moving in one case, and had NPCs playing weird science-fantasy beasts that we were herding in the other. The one with the herded beasts was more of a module than a field battle, admittedly, but just ramping up the scale of opposition to meet the full playerbase would have done the trick (if also making the story a little shakier).
  • You’ve got to have clear signaling to your combat NPCs about where they need to go after each attack. They need to be able to find the marshal who is determining when to rez very easily, and that marshal is moving – likely in the dark. On the plus side, as long as the NPCs can find the trail and know which direction to go on it, the marshal can probably grab them before they get too far.
  • You’re likely to need significant portable light sources, since these trails are not inherently built for nighttime use (but this series of posts centers on Climactic Action on a Saturday Night). There are safe options here – paper lanterns have a classy look, it’s possible to get portable pole-mounted LEDs, I dunno what else.
  • The obvious benefit here is that maintaining a disciplined shield-wall while moving, and while having to defend a moving object, is vastly harder than defending a fixed position. Cover conditions are regularly changing as well, for your ranged attackers and skirmisher types.
  • PCs trying to scout ahead too far can ruin the fun here, because you probably can’t provide entertaining combat pressure for them as well as the escord guards.

One of the things that makes this appealing is that you can make such good use of the dark for hiding and jump scares. It would be awesome to see a game stage the reverse of this, where a badly outmatched group of PCs had to harry an escort (maybe an Imperial palanquin in actuality) over a distance, but you’ll need to put some work into justifying stick-and-move tactics if your players aren’t already accustomed to retreating. Each time one of them falls, they may be risking bleedout or capture, so that’s a hard sell.

7. Point to Point (Spiders the Size of Houses)

This model comes from something we did in Dust to Dust, inspired by the Spider-Council from Fallen London. Presenting fights against much larger than human-size creatures is a challenge in LARPing, and something I’ve seen handled in a number of different ways; this one was ours. This consisted of two main parts.

First, we decorated two sides of a lodge building with black tarp, to which we had attached, I dunno, hundreds? of water balloons. These were massive walls of spider eyes. Players couldn’t walk right up to it (we demarcated the “danger line”), so it was there for archers to take unlimited potshots at, burning it down while the rest of the PCs did the other stuff. (I’ve forgotten a few of the details here, which I’m sure Kainenchen will remind me of.)

Second, other buildings in that area had objectives the PCs needed to go complete – specifically, stuff they had to go smash. We set up a speaker at each one playing discordant music to help them find those objects. The unit was dark and it was raining buckets, which wound up really amplifying the tone of gloom and squalor. Spiders were spawning all over the area, so that PCs also had to defend the archers’ backs and fend off harrying attacks as they picked their way to the objective locations.

  • Key elements here include one central goal that takes up a lot of PC energy and several wider-spread goals that take up much less PC energy. As usual, dividing the PCs is about breaking up the defensive line.
  • You probably can’t special-order the rain, and in general you shouldn’t special-order the lighting situation we had to work with – it was not the very safest and we were lucky not to have bad accidents.
  • That said, you can take steps to break up sight lines. If the lighting had been better, we could have recaptured a good bit of the feeling of (in-play) danger and confusion by stringing up another tarp wall or two, or just locating the objectives inside buildings. (Not specifically an option for us in that case, but it was in other field battles.)
  • The “enormous number of spider-eyes” thing is one of many times that we built in explicit gameplay support for our archers. Nighttime play is super tough on archers for safety reasons. Lletting our archers shine was important throughout the campaign—every playstyle deserves some spotlight; some are just falling-down-easy to spotlight.
  • Quick tip: start early in developing your “you can’t walk here safely” visual language. Whether that’s tarp or something else, establish it early, maybe in your rulebook, that something means “you either can’t step here, or if you do something bad will happen, see a marshal.” Trust me, you will never regret having this in your back pocket.
    • I could do another series just on magnificent uses of jumpystones I’ve seen over the years, and ways I’d still like us to innovate in that.

Again, the core of this isn’t the wall of spider-eyes. You can run this as just a location-based Gather Materials fight, and that’s completely legit. What I’m describing here is a good bit more intensive on prep and staff resources than a pure Gather Materials structure, because you need a staffer at each objective to recognize that someone has Done The Thing and you can shut off the music now. We could have immensely cranked up the difficulty by requiring more involved processes at each objective – I’ve forgotten the details there.

I did just recall (sorry, it’s been nine years) that this was the conclusion to a whole storyline where spiders had been ambushing people and, if the spiders won the fight, stealing their voices. In retrospect I think we could have made something incredibly cool out of asking each player whose voice had been taken to record a minute or so of spoken or sung audio, which we would have played on a loop, but I also know that some players would have been uncomfortable with that.

8. Take the Town

My experience with this one goes back to late in the first Shattered Isles campaign. Their second implementation is one that no game I’ve played or run has ever seriously tried to surpass – Shattered Isles used this not as a Climactic Action on a Saturday Night, but as the structure for their whole event, and threw more production value at it than most games reasonably can. That’s what being a campaign arc closer gets you. DtD worked incredibly hard for our Petra’s Hearth take-the-town setup, but a number of elements outside of our control undermined the implementation.

Anyway, the idea here is that you bring all of the PCs together to one area, give them a reason to chill there for awhile, then turn them loose on the whole game-site. While they were waiting, you’ve spread combat NPCs, traps, interesting things to find, and so on. This can be the kind of thing you run on a Friday night instead of Saturday, all the better if your staffers can be on-site several hours (in SI’s case, 24 hours) early. The PCs have to secure each building in the play area (some units may still be out-of-play), and monsters are continually respawning and setting up ambushes for groups moving into new areas.

  • The downside of this format might as well come first. It is an unholy amount of work, and there are challenging tradeoffs whether you run it Friday night or Saturday night. Deploying NPCs is pretty trivial; adding décor to make familiar locations unfamiliar takes logistical work; adding traps and puzzles and props to slow people down and make it eat up more player energy than the plot energy it cost (frankly a pretty good metric, about like keeping small children entertained) is worthwhile but scales up the prep time drastically.
  • The upside of this format is that it reinvigorates a whole game area with a sense of exploration, unfamiliarity, and danger that is so hard to hang onto in the normal rhythms of gameplay. Because there is so much exploration, it can also be a chance to distribute a ton of new text props or other clues. You can also frame a bunch of smaller semi-scripted scenes around that area – maybe you guide the PCs toward splitting up their forces to send people to each unit on-site, so that each group is getting a somewhat more contained, pseudo-module experience.
  • You need a high-trust situation with your combat NPCs here – they need a lot of freedom to choose when they rez, how often they rez, and so on. For some games this means appointing one member of each group to handle that. In my gaming community, you could choose basically anyone and expect a good result.
  • Develop good self-marshaling tech, and you can go a lot bigger with this: puzzles, traps, weird stuff to inspect, all of that wants a marshal if you don’t have a clear way for PCs to know what is required of them. Good systems for self-marshaling are another whole thing, but a taped-up piece of paper (maybe protected in plastic) that you open in case of (event) or (correct combination of info-gathering skills/spells) is easy and clear.
  • The prestige here comes from good set design, when you can tell a whole story with 1 or fewer NPCs and good set dressing and props. The more layers of detail you build in for PCs to investigate with strictly practical skills, the better this gets. This is a skill with infinite re-use, as well, but I think of it here because that Shattered Isles Arc 1 closer was one of the first times I saw it done to such a degree.
  • I should probably work with the DtD staffers to write a full retrospective on all the things we did for the Petra’s Hearth Take-the-Town sequence, because anything I say about it here is going to leave so much out.
  • Lastly, this one of the places where LARPing starts taking area-access lessons from Metroidvanias. Think about levers, keys, and so on to unlock areas, and all of the excitement you could wring out of surprises there.

This is a good example of how this whole series is about Climactic Action rather than Field Battles per se. You can still come together to stab in groups (happy belated Ides of March, Romans!) without ever touching the core issues of field battle pacing and conclusion. Your only serious field-battle-like concern is packet and loot refreshes for the monsters. (Yes, the combat NPCs should drop loot in this model.)

Created by Garrick Andrus

9. Kraken Up

Eclipse has run several creature-feature field battles – the hydra is another standout, but I am not the person to teach you how to build a fucking hydra. Anyway, for some fairly contrived story reasons we had to get into an airboat (the AH Stephens Unit 3 pavilion) and get the propellors (box fans) up and running again, using some Ikea-style instructions. Once we got going, there were basically two phases, which cycled back and forth: fighting off the kraken’s tentacles (the combat NPCs) and maintaining the propellors. There might have been a third thing that I’m forgetting. I do hope Garrick and anyone else responsible for developing this “field battle” will speak up about details I’ve missed.

  • Right off the bat, part of what makes this work is that danger could easily come from three sides, and I think we had to protect the propellors especially.
  • In a lot of ways, then, this is a thick layer of makeup and story work on top of a Baseline model, or maybe Defend the Ritual. It’s useful as an example in that context.
  • Exploring the fact that each tentacle is part of the same creature could offer new wrinkles – maybe you need to apply some number of stacks of a paralytic or deadly poison, poisoning each tentacle once before damaging it enough that it withdraws. A vat of blade poison in the middle of the boat could create a chaotic back-and-forth. (Uh, just spitballing here, this idea would need more development.)
  • The propellor-repair phases are also there to give the PCs some time to recover – which means the monsters can go a lot harder in the combat phases.
  • There could have been a whole mechanic for the hull taking damage, creating holes where the tentacles could spawn an we couldn’t walk anymore. This is another place where having a visual designation for “you can’t safely walk here” is incredibly useful.

I’m pretty sure I’ve played some variation on this fight in a dozen different video games over the years. You should absolutely take as much inspiration as you can from video games! They’ve been solving the need for highly varied action scenes longer, with bigger budgets, and in greater release numbers than LARPs for decades. Steal everything not nailed down.

10. Don’t Stand in Fire

This one is pretty involved to implement, because you’ve got to do a lot of work with defining a fairly small space where the PCs can safely stand, then altering that space during the battle. Easy in video games (but please, video games, remember colorblindness accessibility), somewhat less convenient in tabletop, very challenging in LARPs.

Anyway, the setup was a large oval where all of the PCs could stand, with one additional part sort of jutting out. Twenty or so feet away was another rectangular space. The boss was standing on the rectangular platform, but stepped off of it occasionally. He didn’t want to subject himself to spell or arrow fire from the PCs, though. (Uh, as played by me, in this case.) Anyway, at the end of the jutting-out portion of the PCs’ area, a portal occasionally opened that would take six of them to the boss’s platform, where they got to put some hurt on him. This meant that a lot of people got their shot at fighting the boss, over the course of the fight, without the boss just getting swarmed.

The PC platform had two basic stages: monsters (spawning just beyond the edge of the platform) and dust walls. The monsters had a good bit of confining magic (Pin Foot, that kind of thing) along with damaging effects. The dust walls were… I think big (like 3 ft x 4 ft or so) foam rectangles. A couple of NPCs carrying them would start at one end of the PC area and slowly walk toward the other end, stopping at about halfway. If one of these dust walls hit you, I think it was something horrible like a Suffocate effect. This meant the players needed to hurry to the other end of the platform, and they needed to cleanse those confining effects (which they had plenty of magic to handle at this point in the campaign). The walls deliberately moved slowly enough that PCs who couldn’t run (for in-game or out-of-game reasons) could stay ahead of them, but definitely needed to stay alert.

  • Lot of moving parts here. There are a lot of minor safety concerns, such as asking all of your players (for us this was probably 50-60 people in this fight) to move together while something dangerous and unstoppable is moving toward them. Injured or confined characters face particular safety hazards, so don’t get too aggressive on the pressure from the walls.
  • Include handling for falling off the platforms. I think we had PCs take some damage?
  • Teaching PCs how this fight works and what’s at stake is fairly intuitive, but you’ll never be sorry to have done some additional signposting. Mechanics like this shouldn’t feel like puzzles, because puzzles in high-stakes situations are asking for tempers to flare.
  • Constrained space, necessary for the dust walls to work, made the boss’s platform necessary. Eclipse also did some incredible things with platform fights – there was one that was a low-G environment, where we got to “throw” each other or rocket-leap between platforms.
  • And of course figure out your mechanics for what ends each group’s attack on the boss. I’ve forgotten exactly how we handled it, but probably I kicked them all back to the PC platform when they fell?
  • All of this is a bit harder to explain in realistic story terms, so we established some “reality is shaky in this scene” kind of stuff to handwave that.

This is one of the most experimental models of the things I’m covering here, but in future posts, I’ll get into some of the weird and wonderful recombinations and other interesting things you can do. I would love to hear about fight structures you’ve seen or used that have expanded our art in creative new directions.

This whole series owes deep debts of gratitude to the many, many creators who I’ve worked with, as well as the ones who laid the foundation we built on. I can’t know all of their names or who on each game was responsible for what. I barely remember who on Dust to Dust was responsible for any given thing – though Stands in Fire was responsible for most of our innovative field battles.

Next Time:

11. Wild Hunt
12. Carnival/Goblin Market
13. Creature Feature (Hail Hydra)
14-15. TBD

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