NELCO Panel: “Combat Bubbles Suck”

The second panel I attended on Saturday morning was entitled “Combat Bubbles Suck” and as I’ve mentioned, I was excited because I completely agree with the title.

I think theater LARPers tend to have a different set of priorities for LARPs than boffer LARPers, and of course this applies to combat systems. I think all LARPers like their characters’ actions to resemble their own actions as closely as possible, but LARPers also enjoy playing characters that have abilities and skills they don’t have in real life. How much we value each of these priorities at the expense of the other differs, but boffer LARPs tend to place higher priority on the former, and theater on the latter. And the more theater LARPing values the latter, the worse combat bubbles tend to be.

In fact, combat bubbles are almost non-existent in boffer LARPing, as far as I’ve seen. Arguably, when a LARPer pauses in combat, makes eye contact with an opponent and says “clarification?” (or some variation thereof), that’s arguable a very tiny combat bubble. Anyone who is aware of it will wait until the matter is clarified before continuing… but this pretty much maxes out at 2 people and I’ve never seen it take up more than a few seconds. Combat is real time, real space; very WYSIWYG (“wizzywig”- what you see is what you get.)

Theater LARPing combat, however, involves rolling dice, or playing rocks, paper, scissors. And it’s not the quickest player who goes first, so there’s some time figuring out what order everyone’s actions occur in. Resolving those actions (or determining the results) also takes some time. So things slow to a crawl, and a bubble around the combatants comes into existence while a three second battle in-character becomes a ten minute conversation for the players. People gather around it, waiting for the end so they can interact with the players again.

I recall someone telling me that his villainous character got jumped by a hero in a theater LARP, and it took a few minutes for their combat to resolve. He escaped, but by the time the combat bubble “popped,” other players had gathered around and were able to jump him. Had the combat actually taken only 3 seconds, he might have gotten away. (Possibly through the fair escape mechanic!) But because the combat bubble can’t encompass the whole LARP, those outside of it were able to position themselves to pounce. (I don’t think they were purposefully taking advantage of him being trapped in the bubble… I think it’s just one of those things that happens.)

Just one of the many problems with combat that isn’t real time.

We opened the panel of Combat Bubbles Suck with a list of goals for a good theater style system for combat. The list read as follows:

Immersion
Simplicity
Safety
Realtime
Player Mediated
Asynchronous
Scalable
Flexibility
Player-skill independent
Non-Deterministic
Genre-Appropriate
Penalty for Failure

The panelist (well… speaker? Is he still a panelist if it’s a panel of one?) tells me that the system he presented was his own best gloss of what the MIT LARPing group, the Assassins’ Guild calls “Darkwater” combat, after the LARP in which it first appeared, Pirates of Darkwater (based on a TV show of the same name).

The system involves characters having a Combat Rating- or CR- (say, between 1 and 3, inclusive) and a set of combat abilities that they can perform. Everyone’s lists include the basics (Knockout, Wound, and Assist) and may include a few more special combat abilities (Disarm, Restrain, and/or Throw).

Characters use them by declaring the action followed by their combat score “Wound 3” on another character who is within their Zone of Control- or ZoC- (generally, within arm’s length) . The player being attacked responds by either declaring Resist (if the declared attack CR is lower than their own CR) or acting out the effect. (For example, if someone successfully used Knock Out on them, they would drop to the floor and act out being unconscious.)

Assist is unique. Someone may declare Assist followed by their own combat score, and if the person attacking accepts assistance, they redeclare their attack with a new Combat Rating- theirs plus their assistant’s score.

Waylay is another unique case. If a player can sneak up behind the other and hold a hand out with a specified gesture (the devil’s horns- index and pinky extended) for 3 seconds without being noticed, they can declare “waylay” and their target automatically is knocked out.

It looks pretty good when we see how it stacks up with our list of goals.

Immersion: Not bad. While we’re not actually swinging any weapons, we’re not performing anything besides speech that our characters aren’t doing (such as rolling dice.) And there’s no reason it can’t be accompanied by a simple aggressive gesture.
Simplicity: Yes, fairly simple, though if we want to improve some other aspects, it might get more complex.
Safety: Yes, it’s safe. (Though this is the melee combat- ranged was still done with nerf guns, which I guess is slightly more dangerous? But not really.)
Real time:  Sounds a lot faster than almost any other theater LARP combat system I’ve seen, though it’s still not 100% real time. People do get a couple of seconds to voice a reaction, and there’s always the chance someone will hold it up because they’ve forgotten something or need a clarification. (Though the rules say if you don’t respond appropriately, then the attack against you simply works. Good idea in theory; in practice, I can see theater LARPers who aren’t used to being expected to memorize rules and stats still managing to hold the action up.)
Player Mediated: Yup. Don’t need a GM unless things get really confused somehow.
Asynchronous: It is asynchronous (which actually prevents it from ever being truly Real Time) because it works by having people declare actions and then declaring or acting out reactions. It’s possible for two people to announce an attack at the same time (or someone might try to Assist at the same time as someone declares Resist).
Scalable: Meaning it can be used for large groups of people. The Assist mechanic allows for this, and if there’s more than one on both sides, both sides are expected to pair off so that no combat is more than N vs. 1 (Meaning you can have as many people ganging up on one as you like, and if someone comes to assist the smaller side, the fights get broken up so that it’s multiple smaller groups of N vs. 1.)
Player-skill independent: Mostly. Your number determines your skill, not your real life skills. Though during the panel, one person did object and say the abilities that let you ambush people with a Waylay attack means that it’s not possible to play a character who is more perceptive than the player. (This is just the sort of thing that would occur to a theater player to point out, but not a boffer LARPer.) If a LARP writer wants to create a perceptive character, they might grant that character the ability to aut0-resist any Waylay attacks.
However, this doesn’t fix the issue that the person who performs Waylay attacks still has to be stealthy enough to not be noticed.
(Also, having ranged combat with nerf guns does rely somewhat on player skill to aim.)
Non-Deterministic: As it stands, this mechanic system is not non-deterministic. How the two Combat Ratings match up determines the results- there’s no random element (which is the purpose of dice in systems that have them.) Once you know someone’s score, you can tell who can and can’t beat them (unless they have a way to permanently alter a Combat Rating.) There were a couple of suggestions for fixing this, such as giving everyone two numbers and having players alternate between them, that way players can’t be sure which number their opponent will have at any given instant. It reduces simplicity, though, which allows room for error and confusion.
Genre-Appropriate: It’s very generic, and can probably be altered to fit genres (such as renaming the abilities… maybe a swashbuckling LARP would have Parry and Riposte instead of Wound and Resist?)
Penalty for Failure: This requirement is a bit hard for me to pin down- it seems to me like it’s more about the culture of the setting and how the players choose to roleplay to make sure someone who attacks someone and fails is actually recognized as a violent person and is treated accordingly. Some systems might have you spend some kind of resource to attack, so losing those would be a penalty by itself. This system affords your target the chance to attack back… with knowledge of your Combat Rating.
The last goal was Flexibility– which was actually my addition to the list during the panel. As the system stands, it’s fairly rigid in terms of what can happen during combat. It bears resemblance in structure to the Accelerant boffer combat system, in that there’s a stock number of actions and effects that can occur in combat, and relies on players to memorize them and know how to roleplay them accordingly. In your typical boffer LARP, you have similar rules across many LARPs, and people have multiple successive weekends to get it all down pat. (And after all this time, I still need help now and then.)
Theater LARPers are more used to anything being possible in combat, because when it happens, they typically pause and read the description of an ability on an ability index card during combat. This kind of thing doesn’t work if you want combat to be real time. This system asks theater LARPers to memorize rules and  be willing to have combat without stopping to figure out what’s going on, which means that added more abilities and actions and affects in combat is reducing simplicity and asking your players to memorize more. Again, more potential for mistakes and confusion.
But like Accelerant, it’s possible to expand the system for individual games. I can imagine giving a wizard character the ability to say “I cast Wound 4!” if you want to include simple magic (with 4 being some kind of magic score, instead of the standard Combat Score.)
My favorite part of this system is actually the Restrain ability. I’ve played in so many LARPs where it’s not possible to threaten someone, because the mechanics don’t recognize people being in compromising positions when combat stars. However, in this case, one player can restrain another, which allows them to get an auto attack.  So it is possible to grab someone, then make demands and threats that they can actually make good on with attacks that automatically succeed. In other LARPs, it’s usually attack or not… which removes a significant potential source for drama- ie someone holding another at knife point.
Overall, I very much like this system and would like to use it if I ever actually get around to writing a LARP of my own. I think playtesting variations on it would also be worthwhile and fun.
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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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10 Responses to NELCO Panel: “Combat Bubbles Suck”

  1. Nat Budin says:

    I’ve used Darkwater in one game (Snaf University) and I think it’s a very good system. Like all mechanics, it has places where it’s appropriate and places where it’s less so, but on the whole it’s very well thought through.

    One reason I haven’t used it in more games is because I think it encourages players to have more combat, by making it very easy to do that. More combat is usually not what I actually want in a game.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Interesting. Does this mean that making combat difficult and annoying is a method of keeping it to a minimum?

      It makes me think of a LARP once described to me, written to be the worst LARP ever. (You may have heard about this one.) Combat involved doing very complex math problems, and the answers may not have been correct… People quickly tired of combat and found other way to approach their goals.

      • Nat Budin says:

        I’m certainly not advocating frustrating players. But if you want to make combat rarer, one good way to do it is to require a GM. If you want to make combat impossible, just don’t allow it at all.

        One system we’ve used in a couple of horde games is: to declare combat, point at your opponent and shout COMBAT! Then wait for the armed guards to drag you away and beat you.

        This is actually much less of a joke than it seems to be: for one thing, it creates an easy escape valve for horde characters that have run their course. But it also lets players know the result of their combat ahead of time, which immediately satisfies a number of the design goals you mentioned above. It also turns combat into a useful role playing device rather than an uncertain game.

        • Fair Escape says:

          I would say that requiring a GM may well just frustrate players- I find that if people want combat, they’ll declare it and then just wait. (Sometimes they’ll wait for an available GM to declare it, but then they’re just mostly just following GMs around, waiting for an opportunity.)

          I remember that system from TTRB! That’s pretty much my favorite combat system ever.

    • Kevin Riggle says:

      It certainly does allow players to have more combat by making it very easy to do so. I’ll argue the flip side, which is that I think many games have less combat than they should given the characters in them because the players don’t want to deal with the mechanic.

      In the end, totally agreed that games should pick combat mechanics appropriate to the amount of combat they want to appear in game. (After alll, if the complicated combat system never gets used, why waste the paper and the player brainspace?)

  2. It certainly sounds faster than the usual alternatives, but the need for every player to remember multiple different abilities may slow things down. Chopping it down to just one number (e.g. “combat”), with defeat leading to (temporary) defeat (e.g. “go to the infirmary”) would speed things up nicely.

    (In NZ, most theatreforms run on a system dubbed “Kick arse”, which is basically paper-scissors-rock with an auto-success or tiebreaker. There’s an early version of it here. Of course, it leads to combat-bubbles, which can be a source of immense frustration near the end of some games).

    • Fair Escape says:

      Fewer options does make things easier and faster, though that might be a little too limiting for many games. I once played a western LARP where there was a single combat mechanic- rocks, paper, scissors. Ties did nothing, winners shot losers. If you weren’t willing to shoot someone, you couldn’t physically interact with them, which definitely affected game play.
      I wonder if your version would work well if you could declare any simple physical action at all, so long as the effect would be obvious. There’d be no list to memorize.

  3. Pingback: More Combat Bubbles « FairEscape

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