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LARP Design: Combat Encounters

Today I thought I might say a few words about the design of combat encounters in LARPs, and some rules elements to treat with greatest care during rules design so that creating enjoyable encounters in years to come is as easy as possible. Chalk this up to a lot of lessons hard-learned over the years. I'm mostly be discussing the games I've personally played and run, so the terminology and specific examples come from CI/Ro3 rules or NERO Wildlands South. If you're coming from other games and need clarification on these terms, the Comment field is your friend.

In boffer LARPs, it's common to see PCs of widely divergent power levels. The health of the game relies on both challenging the long-term players and making sure the low-powered characters feel that they can contribute, especially in the climactic scenes where everyone should feel fully engaged. Some new players enjoy the fear and drama of huddling behind the powerhouse PCs, and the powerhouse PCs almost certainly enjoy showboating, but let's not kid ourselves, that's a non-solution and a recipe for stagnation.

Not all powerhouse characters are equally combat-focused, either: dedicated scholars, entertainers, and so on often have limited combat capabilities. Such characters are mostly in the same boat as low-powered characters, except that they have consciously chosen to focus their efforts on other aspects of gameplay. (Let's set aside for a moment the complicated issue of boffer LARPing for people with physical limitations - an entirely valid topic, but outside the scope of this post.) Assuming that they didn't make these choices in an uninformed way, it's tempting to say that they should just derive their enjoyment from other parts of the game; for some of them this will be enough. The much superior approach, however, is to look for ways to engage those players in creative and exciting ways, such as giving them an unusual way to interact with the environment of the fight.

The "absolute" case, if you will, of challenging all players equally is an encounter with no rules interaction whatsoever, or one in which PCs cannot use any of their abilities. This might appeal to the new players, and might even be worth trying as a one-off situation, but undermining the usefulness of the abilities players spent all that time earning is mostly a very bad idea. After all, the old-guard players who bought up non-combat abilities still enjoy the full benefit of their powers, since they apply outside the span of that encounter. The general rule here is that if your plan involves invalidating a player's ability, think really, really hard about why you're doing that, make absolutely sure it's the right thing to do in that situation, and try to devise a few alternatives. Your first alternative should always be to make some other power or power set more-than-normally effective instead of shutting the other one down.

The Exception to the Above

Once you really, seriously know what you're doing, in game design as in all pursuits, you can start breaking the rules. The problem is that a lot of people - sometimes including me, and I'm awesome - think they have a situation where an exception to the above is called for, but they haven't thought it through well enough. The right time for an exception is the puzzle encounter, where you want to stop the players from resolving it as a head-on battle. The most common pitfall is failure to sufficiently telegraph what you're doing, both the invalidation of the ability and the alternate path that you want the players to pursue. The frustration of "my abilities don't work" and the tension of "we're getting beaten up" do not combine into "we're having a good time," in my experience. Creating good puzzle encounters deserves a post of its own - maybe I'll get around to writing that one someday.

The Shield-Wall

In boffer LARPs, it's the most natural thing in the world for PCs to form shield-walls (or, in Eclipse, a shield-less combat line), backed up by ranged attackers. Twenty years of boffer combat has brought us back to the Romans and the Saxons. From there, the course of the battle follows a parallel close enough to be recognizable: ranged weapons on both sides attempt to goad the enemy into charging the shield-wall. This eventually succeeds, and there are a few moments of close combat before one side or the other starts to crumble. Once that happens, numerical superiority exerts itself (almost always on the PCs' side), and all that remains is cleanup, and possibly surrounding and annihilating the boss.

It's not that this isn't fun. See the aforementioned 20+ years! It's just that it doesn't hold a whole lot of variation, leading again to stagnation. Plot's goal, then, is to induce players to do just about anything else and break up that shield-wall, just as any tactician's goal is to throw the enemy's plan into chaos. (Plot and PCs aren't enemies, but providing an exciting combat challenge requires some time spent thinking about how the enemies should maximize their effectiveness.) One variant that doesn't see enough use is PCs assaulting a location where the NPCs have set up a shield-wall - just putting the shoe on the other foot can be enough to really rack up the casualties, as the Death of Earl Tregar battle in King's Gate showed.

The most common way of breaking up a shield-wall is to require the players to defend multiple locations on the field at once - more than their combat line can encompass. Ideally, there's also something interesting that players have to do at each location. Two mini-shield-walls is often enough chaos to get the job done, but three or four is ideal. If the PCs' goals also involve moving a group from node to node, even better; a shield-wall in motion is a great test of cohesion. In all seriousness, you could run this battle structure for your Saturday night battle every event of the campaign, and as long as you had new story elements, bad guys, and so on, it would probably not get stagnant. The inherent chaos of players managing multiple groups is a kind of emergent challenge.

One recent example from Dust to Dust was the Spider Battle: the PCs started at the top of a hill, where we had transformed a large building into a giant mass of spiders. The archers had to shoot the "eyes" (water balloons) attached to the tarp. During this time, the rest of the PCs had to defend the archers from spiders and go to three different buildings in the area, some of them all the way down the hill. At each building, they had to defend the people working on destroying objects; destroying the objects required one of several different skills and a few minutes of roleplay. Chaos and confusion reigned supreme. The battle went over well, because despite absolutely miserable pouring rain and bitter cold (seriously, the weather was pretty much bullshit), we got rave reviews from the players.

Then there's the Wildlands answer. It's something I haven't seen done very often outside of Wildlands and Madrigal. (Not that I played Madrigal, but I read their website with great interest!) Banshees. In the Wildlands campaign, a banshee is the spirit of a person who died in utmost despair. They are drawn to places of life and energy so that they can destroy them. Banshees fly into rage whenever they see a certain number of people gathered together. Their stats are very simple, and immediately obvious to players; since I believe the last WLW campaign has ended with no immediate successor, I think it's safe for me to post those stats here.
Aside from their extensive story purposes, banshees control module party sizes and keep players moving during field battles, rather than allowing them to congregate into a useful combat line. Most fights thus become knots of 3-on-3 or fewer. Since the problem of challenging a shield-wall is, in essence, permanently solved in Wildlands, enemy stats can be much, much lower while retaining roughly the right level of threat. Or crushing despair, since after all it's Wildlands we're talking about here.

I'm going to move on to statting, but let me say in closing for this section that there are all kinds of different ways to break up shield-walls, including forced movement (Decree: Flee, Knockback, Repel), terrain deformation (adding large physical objects to fight around... though this does make your props drivers hate you) and restrictions on where PCs can safely stand. I am insanely excited about an upcoming battle in Eclipse, for example, that combines a multi-location-defense battle with jumpy stones.


So, look. You can challenge the players by throwing out bigger and bigger numbers and deadlier taglines. Some of the time, that is totally fine. Strike of Death, Rend Spirit, Vaporize: all of these effects have their place, particularly for generating panic as PCs suddenly realize they are in over their heads and their collective demises are extraordinarily imminent. Good times, right? Keep them rare, though. The rarer the better; every use of an instant-death tagline is less scary than the one before it. We're talking about the most basic lessons of horror storytelling here.

Plot can always raise the ante. Numbers have an extraordinary ability to keep getting bigger. Voice Effect and Arcane go together like cake and deadly neurotoxin. Plot's goal, then, should be to accomplish the greatest amount of challenge on the smallest possible "budget" of power. If you can terrify and motivate the PCs with NPCs that are one-hit kills, more power to you. If the PCs become functionally or literally immune to a monster, you have a problem. In D&D, it's fine to level out of being at all threatened by an encounter, for any number of different reasons of combat math, but in most D&D games all characters are the same level or very close in level. (In D&D, and even more so in MMOs, this may be overtly desirable, so as to emphasize the change in game content over time.) In LARPs, where Plot has had to develop the story of a monster, devise costuming for a monster, and so on, it is very much in Plot's interests to minimize (and completely eliminate, if practical) the ability of players to hit that point of functional immunity.

Now, there's a lot of my own aesthetic preferences that go into that statement. Many games deliberately grant PCs enough combat power that the top-end combat badasses should be fighting in one part of the battle, while the other PCs should be fighting or otherwise contributing to another part of the battle. I admit that I haven't played such games, but that sounds to me like a recipe for the combat badasses to mow through the little guys while the low-level characters get murdered by the big monsters, only to show up afterward and also defeat the big monsters. See also: the fear and drama of hiding behind the badass PCs isn't for everyone.

Wildlands handled this issue by flattening the power progression; in a NERO-derived campaign where a 5th to 7th level character might well be a towering badass, the monster stats can stay extraordinarily tame (as compared to core NERO, anyway). In combination with the banshees, this meant that creatures with 5 Body and dealing 1 damage per swing were sometimes viable threats. Of course, it also made a huge difference that Wildlands customarily had a generous NPC turnout, so fielding numbers of NPCs only slightly smaller than the playerbase was common.

In CI/Ro3 games, the highest Armor/Skin/Toughness totals that a PC could possibly reach become... often quite high as compared to a starting character, but as long as Threshold and other forms of immunity don't enter into the equation, that PC can and will eventually be dragged down by monsters swinging base damage. We explicitly tested this on some of the toughest and most gifted fighters in King's Gate, and while some of them could last for a little while against 4:1 odds, even those fighters fell soon enough. In another example, KG ran a field battle in which the PCs had to defend six or seven points spread across one unit of the camp. Like the zombies they were, the monsters presented a terrifying menace (and nearly won outright) despite having almost-insignificant stats.

The essential problem of the Threshold, though (and I know discussions of Threshold are a great way to start a fight, so I'll keep this brief) is its binary nature: once it's on the field, the other side has to solve for it in order to present a challenge. My initial comments on invalidating abilities apply here to "weapon  attacks dealing less than the Threshold's limit." It can be frustrating to maneuver the player or players who can breach that Threshold into position to do so. This may be a satisfying and valid challenge from the monster's side, but often it is obvious only to the NPC that the monster is a problem seeking a solution. Aggressively telegraphing the point may seem to the NPC like making it "too easy," but trust me: the players are scrambling. In KG, I was one of the few PCs with extensive access to Thresholds, and I know for certain that I ruined a lot of the NPCs' fun because I seemed so invulnerable. (Trust me, folks, I took a ton of dirt naps.) My Threshold was a kind that couldn't simply be breached, so it was even harder for the monsters to solve for the problem that I presented them.

Okay, one more thing: Eclipse has done a really solid job of telegraphing which enemies have Thresholds and which are merely tough, purely through costuming. Warbots are highly distinctive through costuming, and no observer would confuse them with robot drones. I appreciate how they've handled the complex problem of presenting mini-bosses in field battle situations.

Anyway, the summary of this point is that statting and rules design should focus on keeping monsters and all power levels of PC within a limited spread of each other. You never want a common monster to be so powerful that a starting PC just shouldn't bother (at least if working with 1-2 other characters of the same power level), and you never want a PC to be so powerful that the common monsters just shouldn't bother (likewise, when working in teams). Differences in player skill alone mean that sometimes a 1-on-1 battle is trivial, but that can't be helped. More options and more frequent use of options is a better thing for the rules to offer than more durability or bigger damage numbers, for the sake of the game's long-term health.

In future posts, I'll come back to this topic with focused analysis of one particular field battle mechanics worked so well. I take great pleasure in having so many occasions to praise my friends' work!

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