To Roll The Dice, Just One More Time

Some will win, some will lose…

Ok, now that Journey is stuck is my head…

I recently read a blog post about randomizers in LARPs. Author asked me not to post a link, here’s the gist. He picked three common randomizers used in theater style LARPs and discussed the pros and cons of each in the context of opposed actions, i.e. efforts by one player opposed by another. (As opposed to static checks, where there’s some given difficulty level for a task, and no one is actively putting in effort to stop you.) Combat is probably the most common form of opposed action.

Rocks, Paper, Scissors is a common randomizer, and I’m personally a huge fan of it. It’s simple, quick, everyone is familiar with it, and doesn’t require carrying around any additional items. (Namely, dice or cards.) These seem like relatively small advantages in the face of the disadvantage- that it might be overly simplistic, with only three possibly outcomes. Or that it it’s not actually random and can afford advantages to people who know common strategies.

My response to the first disadvantage is that it’s not terribly hard to dress up and make more complex, if the GMs so desire, while still maintaining the advantage of being quick and not requiring players to carry additional items.  (Though if it gets excessively complex, it may lose the advantages of everyone being familiar with it.)

In fact, “dressing it up” and making it more complex is one way people try to counteract the problem of people who know strategies and use observations of other players to make predictions and gain advantages.

Here’s a rather extreme and amusing example of Rock, Paper, Scissors run amuck.

And it can get worse.

I personally don’t consider the strategy aspect to be a significant problem. For one thing, I highly doubt there’s a significant number of players out there who are familiar with the strategies. A quick online search reveals plenty of online basic strategy guides, but reading through them convinces me that it’s not a problem.

For one thing, the statistical advantages they claim to offer are not that extreme. Males don’t toss out rock as their first move 100% of the time. It’s probably just a bit higher than 33%. Is that really going to skew your LARP if a few players are aware of that?  Secondly, many of them require observing your opponent for several rounds, and many systems in LARPs that use RPS have combat conclude in one round. The idea of LARPers moving around and trying to observe other players and memorize their patterns to an extent that actually offers them a significant advantage seems fairly far -fetched to me. It requires wasting time that could be spend on other ways to gain advantages in a LARP. I suppose if one character had the single goal of defeating a foe and didn’t mind following the foe around, hoping to observe enough rounds of combat to determine patterns… it just strikes me as too much of an outlying case to dismiss RPS as a mechanic altogether.

Two examples of RPS used in LARPs jump to mind: it was the mechanic used for deuling in The King’s Musketeers. They had a few twists in the system-skilled duelists could use additional hand movements for parrying. Frankly, it made combat a bit confusing for me, and I had to pause and work out in my head the results (“Wait, does parry beat scissors? Or tie it?”) but most players seemed to take to it very quickly. Additionally, what happened as a result of a win, tie, or loss, depended on the stance the combatants took. One could choose to be more aggressive and do more damage while risking taking more damange oneself (and conversely, fight defensively and have the potential to do less damage and take less damage.)

I’m not completely convinced of the value of the Parry (and other similar abilities) but I’m very much in favor of allowing players to choose between being aggressive and defensive in combat. I frequently find myself wanting to express that I’m willing to risk it all to defeat my opponent, or desperately wish I didn’t have to attack them and only want to defend myself. Having a mechanical way to reflect that is valuable to me in LARPs.

The second example that jumps to mind is the system from Stars of Al-Ashtara, and Arabian Nights LARP written by Lovers and Madmen, in which everyone had a base combat score, with a range of 1 (helpless) to 10 (world’s greatest fighter). The base combat score could be raised or lowered with various methods such as magic potions and superior weapons. Players then played RPS to represent combat, and winning granted a +2  to their base combat score. It allowed for some randomization for characters who weren’t too far apart in terms of combat skill, but prevented the bookish scholars from beating up the trained guards (without significant magical intervention.) The only downside to this was that combat scores became apparent after one round of combat, but that was at least partially negated by people using temporary abilities and one-time use potions.

Using decks of cards as a randomizer in LARPs is also fairly common. The two most common mechanics using cards is either having a base combat score and then pulling a card and adding it’s value to the base score and comparing your results to your opponents, or giving each player a specific set of cards to draw from. For example, if each player is given five cards to draw from, a powerful combatant might receive kings and queens, whereas a weaker character might receive 2s and 3s. (Both rather extreme examples to illustrate the point.)

Downsides, of course, include adding an additional bunch of cards for everyone to carry around. It might seem like a small thing, especially since people are already likely carrying around other bunches of cards for abilities and items. But I still feel as though it makes a significant difference. For one thing, the cards are often just slipped into the Big Yellow Packet, and require people who engage in combat (or whatever opposed skill they want to use) to sift around and pull out the whole deck.  Minor things like this can actually add up quickly and bog things down… leading to the dreaded Combat Bubble, a phenomenon unfortunately common in theater LARPs, where a group of players take a long time to resolve a combat that actually takes up a few seconds in in-game time. Meanwhile, other players waiting to talk to people (or get involved) stand around outside the “bubble,” waiting…

Some card-pull systems have players randomly select from their entire deck every time. But some let players select from their decks, but then cannot choose any given card again until they’ve “refreshed” their deck. In Lovers and Madmen’s Western LARP, Redemption: High Noon at the Devil’s Luck, one could refresh their hand by drinking alcohol… which carried the risk of getting drunk with its own mechanical consequences.

I particularly like this system because it allows players to decide what is most important for them to succeed at, what their character would put the most effort into, instead of randomly succeeding or failing at both important and unimportant actions.

In practice, it’s worth noting, most people were very hesitant to use their good cards when taking actions, because they were saving them for defense.

And as a side note, I find cards to frequently be chosen for their flavor value- they’re right at home in a LARP set in a salon in the Wild West. Or a poker tournament in a speakeasy in the 1930s. Or a LARP set in Wonderland. (Though if such LARPs include actual decks of cards that characters can use in-game, there’s a risk of mixing cards used for mechanics and cards that are in-game items. Even with different images on the backs of the cards.)

Rolling dice (and often adding it to a base combat score) was the third common randomizer, and like cards, requires players to carry around an extra item (this one not even comfortably fitting into envelopes.) Some LARPs have the GMs roll the dice and not show players, which has the advantage of preventing players from finding out their opponents exact score, but the downside of requiring GMs to be present for all opposed action attempts. Of course, players could roll dice and not show one another the results of the die roll, just tell one another the total (base combat score plus the die result), though that maintains the problem of players carrying around dice. And to avoid linear distribution, some LARPs give players little dice bubbles with two dice inside- though these little dice bubbles get easily lost and broken.

It’s probably just as fast and quick as the average Rocks, Paper, Scissors game, but not all that much more useful and the dice bubbles don’t fit well in pockets. (And dice without bubbles require hard surfaces to roll on. Not a problem in a room full of tables, but potentially an annoyance.)

And lastly, so long as I’m discussing mechanics, my favorite combat mechanic of all time was used in Time Travel Review Board, an extremely entertaining and amusing hoard LARP. Combat worked as follows. Players could declare combat by pointing at their chose opponent and saying, “Combat!”

Then big, beefy guards grab you and drag you out of game.

About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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